Enjoy the Christmas full moon

There is nothing like a garden by moonlight and, this year, we’re due a full moon on Christmas Day. It’s another world, ethereally lit, like a parallel version of the garden we experience during the conventional hours of the day.

Often, we discover the scene by chance, stepping out for a final walk with the dog. At other times, we arrive home from some evening event and do the journey in reverse, arriving at the garden gate to find the long, marvellous shadows extending far across the lawn from trees and urns on pedestals.

A few minutes’ pause will allow the peripheral vision to spot the flitting bats and we might be treated to the hollow hoot of an owl in the middle distance. These are moments to be silent and still, to listen and observe.

The imagination is a powerful tool on these occasions. Many painters and poets have shared our love of these settings over the centuries. Leeds artist Atkinson Grimshaw was famously fond of damp street scenes at the garden gate of his home, Knostrop Old Hall, in which the very absence of human activity in the greenish moonlight emphasises the comforting shelter of the tall trees.

The German polymath Goethe was consumed throughout his life by the atmospheric effect of evening light. Time and again, he silently rejoiced in the view from his garden in Weimar across the park by the little River Ilm, as the rising full moon suffused the gathering autumn mists with a soft, golden light, allowing his limitless imagination free rein.

It is in the nature of things that this experience tends to be solitary. The accompanying silence is a key part of the mystery, allowing other concerns to fall away. The fact that the scene is familiar by day only adds to its fascination after dark and the effect is almost mono-chrome, so that the most visible flowers are now the whites and yellows.

The moths are everywhere, feeding on the long trumpet flowers of the honeysuckles, which explains why garden smells so lovely on a still evening. The unseen backdrop of the garden by moonlight is the drifting scent of wallflowers, heliotrope and alyssum, all made more noticeable by the absence of competing attractions.

The moon itself is the prime object, especially in the autumn, when it appears like something in a stage production, hanging vast and apparently still in the sky, or more dramatic as dark clouds ride across it in an image from Caspar David Friedrich.

Half the pleasure of being in the garden at this stage is that, although you can see perfectly well in the lovely light, it’s impractical to do any useful gardening; for once, we are compelled simply to look and to feel, without that awkward sense that we ought to be doing something. The dog is fortunately in the same frame of mind in the cool of the evening. At this point, the garden is a foreground to the visual wonderland of the night sky.

Occasionally, the chance arises to visit a famous garden by moon-light and this is not to be missed. It’s planned that, in the autumn of 2016, some of us will have the pleasure of walking from Croome Court, in Worcestershire, through the garden to the grotto by the light of the silvery moon, which will guide us, along with the help of gleaming reflections from the lake and the Croome River. This will be our way of remembering Capability Brown in his special year on the site of his first major independent project.

One illustrious garden that’s regularly open by moonlight is that of the Alhambra at Granada, in Andalucía. It was Washington Irving, two centuries ago, who first showed us that its perfumed courtyards were the very seat of Romanticism; it can be hard to trace that spirit among the surging crowds in the heat of the day.

At night, however, the garden reopens, minimally lit and populated only by fellow devotees
of whispers, shadows and the spirit of the past. The moonbeams wash gently over the myrtle hedges, the pools and the arcades, allowing us to conjure up that special atmosphere of the Orient in Europe. The cats that flicker to and fro in the gloom are in their element. For once, all a human being has to do in a garden is simply to stand or sit and watch.

It’s a lesson to us all.