Marriage is like a tree planted to hide the oil tank: for years, it quietly enhances the view and then, before you know it, it blocks out the light in the kitchen. Reality doesn’t dawn overnight, and you never know how things are going to turn out. In the early days of my married life, I was the more sociable member of this double act, always ready to head out the door. Like an expectant mother, I kept a small bag in the cupboard, with pint-size hair dryer, travel-size shampoos, slippers. I never packed what my husband calls a flannel and I call a facecloth, although these are rarely provided in English homes. Instead, I’ve learned to live without. It beats coming home with a wet cloth in my toilet kit or, indeed, a sponge bag.
But my departure issues are not linguistic. My problem is a premature late-in-life reluctance to leave home. As soon as invitations arrive, I tell my husband that it’s not a good idea to go away when we’re still house-training the puppy/the garden is at its best/we have a houseful here the following weekend.
It’s not so much a fear of flying or fear of driving, but a yearning to stay put. But promises made so dreamily two decades ago for richer and poorer, better and worse seem to include a vow to come and go, to visit friends in far-flung corners of the world. Not that Hampshire is exactly Kathmandu, but it seems pretty exotic during the rainy season in Suffolk as we load the car with wellies, coats and umbrellas. As soon as we cross into Hampshire, we’re in English summer at its most perfect: warm sun, blue sky and gentle breezes. If you’re reluctant to budge, you forget how fascinating it is to enter other people’s lives. Victoria and Hady live in a Georgian house built in 1741, a detail lifted from a 1950 copy of Country Life, and the rooms have the comforting feeling of time stood still.
A social anthropologist might distinguish between what Victoria has brought to the house, what was her mother’s, and what combines the two. The garden is a good example of this layering of generations. In the front of the house, ancient ‘clouds’ of box and yew separate the house from the field opposite, a hill that rises like a bucolic stage set in a production for the nearby Grange Opera. On the garden side of the house, two herbaceous borders on an operatic scale march up a gentle slope that ends with a folly complete with blue door.
Victoria’s mother laid out the garden, but the daughter has built on to the structure, replanting and creating ‘mirror borders’ where each border exactly reflects the other. These horticultural twins, worthy of Platinum at Chelsea, form an aisle that leads to gates that serve as a kind of horticultural rood screen in this outdoor cathedral. In America, where couples get married in their gardens, this is where the vows would be made.
The settled feeling pulls you in like a drug. All around this corner of Hampshire are cousins, extended family and friends who go back generations. Names of people and houses, villages and gardens, weave in and out of the conversation, creating a tapestry of English life that stretches from the pages of Jane Austen to Barbara Pym. These are names literally carved in stone in nearby Winchester Cathedral, including a memorial to Victoria’s grandfather who was killed in the Battle of the Somme, leaving behind a wife and five children. A quarter of a century ago, in his poem Going, Going, Philip Larkin predicted that it wouldn’t last ‘And that will be England gone, The shadows, the meadows, the lanes’ and I too am guilty of the poet’s pessimism. But a weekend away, seeing a part of England that has resisted the concrete and crooks, renews all hope. It prunes the lower branches and light pours in.