It was all going so well, up until 1830. A lawn was something that only the very richest man could afford, involving, as it did, small armies of swains with scythes and perhaps Capability Brown with a big pointy stick. The rest of us could lie back in the waist-high meadow grass and not worry until it was time for haymaking. And then, some berk invented the lawnmower and weekends were ruined for everyone.
Lawns-that is, areas of short grass maintained around a residential… oh, for heaven’s sake, you all know what a lawn is-are a British invention. They chime with our temperament: a desire to impose order even where it’s not particularly wanted; a quasi-national anthem about a green and pleasant land; an obsession with cricket, tennis and-Lord help us-golf; a vestigial but tyrannical class-structure simmering away only just below the surface. Oh, and far too much rain. The Spanish for lawn is, by contrast, unpronounceable even by Spaniards, because they are, in their mañana-ish way, simply not as bovvered. (It’s césped. Try saying that after a few cervezas).
Thomas Jefferson, the (very rich) American president, took the idea over to America at his estate at Monticello. Americans love lawns. The Great Gatsby sent his man over to mow that of Nick, the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, because he felt that standards were slipping
So, when you eagerly seize your COUNTRY LIFE in order to drool at the property ads, spare a thought for the poor saps who have to maintain all those acres of desirable greensward. Which, in our household, is me.
Mowing the lawn, like dustbins, is one of those arenas of activity that feminism has conveniently forgotten. But, as we’re speaking in unforgivably broad generalisations, I’m a great believer in child labour. If you have access to a teenaged boy, bear in mind that they do love tractors. Ride-on mowers are a satisfying equivalent and, these days, their cutout mechanisms are pretty foolproof.
An adolescent lad will sit happily for hours, imagining himself as a slo-mo Jenson Button, while you sit back in your hammock with a Pimm’s. The scent of cut grass, at a reasonable distance, is one of the greatest pleasures that England has to offer. Oh, and one other thing. These days, we don’t bother about emptying the clippings. Apparently, it’s greener. Indelibly so.
‘Lawn striping,’ reads a typical online advice site, ‘is an excellent way to set your lawns apart from the competition and have a lawn that everyone admires.’ Hang on. The competition? You see now why I feel beleaguered? ‘If you are serious about striping, it is important to know that all lawn stripers are not created equal.’ I can’t bear it. (There then follow instructions more complicated than those for knitting a Fair Isle sweater.)
We can send probes to Pluto. We can make microchip circuits such that angels dance on pinheads. Can we manufacture a motor mower that starts reliably first time? Can we heck! Now, we understand why turf was once referred to as the sod.
The dog owner
Whose policies are time-consumingly preserved simply in order that their beloved pet has somewhere to do its business. Out with the pooper-scooper in their dressing gowns in all weathers. The trouble is that dog pee leaves huge unsightly patches of dead growth in your back garden. Or your rear urea area, as the Spanish wouldn’t attempt to say.
Or, as the Daily Mail once put it, ‘The Antichrists of gardening’. I, by contrast, have a lot of sympathy for these folk. In Notting Hill nowadays, Astroturf is practically de rigueur. Artificial grass, spurred on by the football industry, is much less scratchy than it used to be. It’s even porous, so that dogs can, er, use it.
Arabella may be but three years old, but Arabella’s Daddy is even now weeding and levelling and re-seeding from dawn until dusk, in anticipation of the marquee that will destroy, in the space of one afternoon, a quarter-century of labour.
The wildflower-meadow enthusiast
Have you sent off to Kew for your free packet of wildflower seeds? Done as The Prince of Wales and Miriam Rothschild exhorted you to? Scattered your campion and your meadowsweet as lovingly as Shakespeare’s Perdita? Sit back then and relax. Only for a bit, mind. There’ll be a nightmare of thistles and brambles with which to wrestle, really quite soon.
We can be strangely self-punitive, we Britons. We build sandcastles, knowing that the tide will come back in. We enter the Eurovision Song Contest. We spend Saturdays creating perfection and then, after Sunday lunch, play polo on bicycles on the lawn.
The A&E casualty victim
My uncle, a Cornish GP, used to delight me with the anecdote of a patient who was using an electric hover-mower while wearing sandals. His big toe flew so high up into the air that a seagull swooped and made off with it.
This, I have discovered, is the only way forward. Treat the ride-on as your me-time.
No one can talk to you above the noise of the engine. No one can criticise you for the hours you’re spending avoiding other chores. Think of it as men regard their club, their shed or their salmon beat. Don’t even curse whoever it was who left the croquet hoops out for you to deal with. Just take your time.
This article was first published in Country Life magazine, June 18 2014
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