Out near the East Coast, positioned between Hull and Scarborough, lies Burton Agnes Hall and Gardens. It’s a house in a private trust and we followed an old recommendation to pay a visit there. It’s not English Heritage, it’s not National Trust. It’s beautifully kept and there’s plenty to do for a whole day, particularly if you’re keen on gardening.
Anne and Joyce
During their lives, my Mum, Annie Penn, and Sally’s Mum, Joyce Allard, loved spending time pottering in their gardens. So it seems somehow fitting that tending our garden at home now has become a retirement activity. Not for me, alas, tapping and scribbling away indoors at my novel; but for Sally who’s developed an absorbing interest in shrubs, hedges, flowers and soils – and their arrangements, colours, hydration and upkeep. Gardening seems to be a bottomless pit of possibilities with so many variations and complications and hits, misses, false starts, surprises, successes, uprootings, feeding, fertilising, mulching, raking, digging, watering, staking, supporting, planting, replanting, pruning and dead-heading.
Gardens as metaphors
Writers through the years (poets, playwrights, novelists and journalists) have often turned to gardens and nature when trying to express essential things about humanity. The concept of growing something from seed, nurturing it, tending it in its maturity and then deciding when to put it out of its misery or start again has inbuilt metaphorical potential. A garden can be seen as:
- a country (the “garden of England”)
- a road map of setting priorities and organising time
- an emotional history
- a place to form roots, tame the wild and form patterns
- an area of your life to prune, weed and declutter
- a tangible expression of reaping what you sow
- a loving harvest of time and effort
- a place of rest and contentment
The house at Burton Agnes is a massive Elizabethan pile and inside feels lived-in and homely even with spectacular rooms like the Long Gallery and elaborate ceilings and exquisite wooden paneling. But, unusually for me (a sucker for historical houses) it was the garden that sticks in my mind: luscious, dramatic, flamboyant, classical in parts, cottage-like in parts, fuzzily colourful in parts, blazingly daring at times; nooks, crannies, secret paths, weird juxtapositions. It helped that the sun was shining. It helped that one of the characters in my trilogy, The Rhenium Wars, (Currently 110,000 words), is a gardener so I was open to be influenced.
Gentler scion and wildest stock
Sally isn’t a character. She’s real life. And she’s the gardener of my heart. In Shakespeare's The Winter’s Tale Perdita argues that she only wants to plant pure breeds of flower but Polixenes argues that sometimes when you put together two unlikely things (grafting is the gardening term!) art can improve nature. I sometimes wonder if that’s what happened in 1986 when we got married – the art of marrying improved our individual natures to form a new hybrid plant.
You see, sweet maid, we marryHappy Anniversary.
A gentler scion to the wildest stock
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race: this is an art
Which does mend nature, change it rather, but
The art itself is nature.