The season of mists and the spectre of frost

November 16, 2006

At this time last year, winter came with a sudden, sharp, shock. Will we experience the same surprise this November? As with last year, the prolonged, mild autumn has been surreal, throwing plants wildly off course, with friends declaring their camellias are in flower. But last November, autumn went out with a bang on the 17th (Elizabeth I’s accession day) when winter arrived with a deadly vengeance. And it wasn’t a fleeting aberration either, but a sustained assault. Two days into it, the temperature in this part of Herefordshire sank to ?2×C all day.

I remember it with shock and panic. I returned from London to find the fountain had not been emptied and ‘put to bed’, nor any of the statuary bagged. Frost on this scale can be lethal and the fountain came top of my list, as the water in one of the two descending bowls could freeze and shatter their containers. Nothing is, however, more vulnerable than marble, which is why all the statuary in north European gardens disappears into what look like sentinel boxes. Much to my horror, I found the white marble urn in which my wife’s ashes lie was unprotected, although by the next morning the job was done.

To be fair, I don’t think that any of us had anticipated that the change would be so dramatic. There had been talk that we were about to have the worst winter for a decade or more, but I’d slightly discarded it from my thoughts as one does, along with most of what the forecasters say. But for once, they were right.

We have been doing a lot of chopping down. The result is that I’ve hardly been able to get into the Kitchen Garden on one side for the mountain of laurel, yew and tree branches from all over the place, waiting to be burnt. There’s seemingly little in the way of plant life and flower to cheer in November. Or, perhaps, I’m wrong, as Shaun has a firm belief in leaving many of the herbaceous plants as decorative carcases through the winter. This is an essay in learning to look at nature dead nature in a different way and more and more I see his point. Even though they are in shades from beige to Van Dyck brown, and often too lank and wet, the defunct spires of acanthus, eupatorium, hydrangea and rudbeckia give some vertical interest to borders which, if cut down, would reveal little more than earth and compost at this time of year.

But there’s magic to be had on the right day, one which is a combination of frost, mist, bright blue sky and sunshine. On such occasions, the garden resembles a set akin to Act Two of Giselle with the smoke machine in overdrive. There’s an extraordinary celestial incan-descence about sun trying to penetrate mist, about the haunt-ing silhouette of the trees and shrubs, and the mystery it bestows on the garden’s ornament and topiary. This is the garden as a dream sequence. In the shrouded distance, a stag reclines or, rather, floats. A pillar topped by a crown arises afar, seeming to promise an array of cloud-capped towers in attendance upon it, which I know are not there.

I wander through the topiary garden with its obelisks and nodding peacocks, recalling that most seminal of gardens, the one in the Renaissance romance, the Hpynerotomachia Poliphili, the book which contains the earliest wood engravings of fantastic topiary. Perhaps it is no coincidence that topiary owes its birth pangs to a book whose subtitle is The Strife of Love in a Dream? In this way, The Laskett’s ornament and topiary looks 10 times more exciting in winter than it ever does in the high tide of summer.

And, once again, I come back to the point that a garden is not only the sum of its design and planting, but it is equally what your mind and perception, and also that of others, read into it. A garden is quintessentially a creation of the present, but it carries within it the past. So I don’t think that I’d be too surprised if, through the mist, I discerned the silhouette of an Edwardian lady making her way through the Rose Garden, or found a lovelorn beruffed Elizabethan gallant in doublet and hose leaning against the column to great Gloriana. Remember: you impoverish a garden if you only make it a vehicle feeding the horticultural mind.

This article first appeared in COUNTRY LIFE magazine on November 16, 2006