When I wrote this, a few years back, I thought it was about the discovery of a secret garden. But this was only part of the story – it turns out that there was far more to it than that.
At the time, on my way to work, I would cycle past an enormous ramshackle old house. It was shabby, but so big I had wrongly assumed it to be a private hall of residence, some sort of student accommodation run by Bohemian types. The kind of slightly intimidating middle class folk whose lifestyle has always appealed to me – Radio 3, shouty arguments, bookishly intellectual and lots of good food and wine. Exotic. Probably a bit continental.
Often, they would leave stuff from their garden for you to help yourself to. There might be foxgloves or cowslips, or other more mysterious greenery; they were left in small piles on the pavement, or in tubs of water, with scrawled instructions on scraps of paper about dividing and acidity and the like. I tended to ignore the plants but would make merry with the windfall; greengages and plums, gorging myself on the overripe fruit. One day on a whim, I pulled over to have a look and was surprised as the occupant of the house poked her head through the hedge to say hello. She was the very woman I had imagined her to be. She might have been in her sixties, maybe even her seventies, but she had an ageless aura of good health about her. The glow that comes from being outdoors. She had a kind face, was dressed scruffily (Boho tick) with a sweater that was more holes than it was sweater, gardening gloves and a gentle Mitteleuropean accent (double Boho tick).
She asked me what I was interested in, so I said that I was actually looking for vegetables for the allotment. She told me that they tended not to leave the vegetables out, instead sharing them with their friends; I had better come in and have a look to see what they had. Smiling at this, and overcoming my shyness, I told her I was honoured to be included in that category. She laughed, told me to lock my bike up and asked if I wanted any kohlrabi seedlings. And so we walked down the path that ran past the house into one of the most magical gardens I have ever seen.
If her jumper was the sartorial manifestation of her Bohemian ways, the garden was the horticultural equivalent. At first it looked like an overgrown mess, but I soon started to pick out the order from the chaos. The lawn, more of a meadow really, only partially mown and mostly left to its own devices, was a sea of cowslips (my grandfather’s favourite and something he took great pride in – they grew wild in his garden) with the odd bluebell and orchid. There was the most wonderful and old mulberry tree, branches swooping out like candelabra; it was surrounded by a carpet of forget-me-nots. Around the edge were a series of overgrown room like areas (a bit like side chapels in a cathedral) which would have some kind of feature – a rotten tree stump, a sculpture, a piece of driftwood, an old bicycle – around which the plants were allowed to grow. Oh, but it was glorious! The sky was blue, the sun was shining, big fluffy white clouds above, and I was in a secret garden.
We ambled along as she pointed out her treasures, before reaching the vegetables. This was a big garden, and the vegetable plot alone was the size of a tennis court. Again, it was overgrown and disorganised – weeding clearly took up very little of their time, but it was glorious and alive. I felt like I had gone through the wardrobe into a pastoral Narnia. Beyond the blackcurrants and gooseberries was a greenhouse contraption – it was neither green nor glass, but a structure with some kind of material wrapped around – thicker than garden fleece, but thin enough to let in light. Inside were raised beds of a kind – they were long mounds that ran up each side of the structure – they seemed to be full of weeds, but my guide went straight to the seedlings, pushed away the interlopers and picked a massive clump of kohlrabi. “We’ll go back and wrap these up”.
And with that we marched away up the garden to the house. I didn’t see beyond the kitchen, which looked like it hadn’t been cleaned for several years, but Radio 3 was, as expected, blazing away. An old man came out and shook my hand vigorously, before grilling me, in what I took to be a German accent, as to who I was and where my allotment was, oh near Ely, eh, and how deep was the black soil there these days, and so it hasn’t all blown away then, ha! He was a geologist and was very keen to know about my plot. He was especially excited about the ancient layer of aquatic snail shells that I occasionally hit with my spade.
Looking back, it is that small act of kindness that resonates in my memory. Certainly, the garden was magical, but it was the thoughtful actions of my host that breathed life into it. Not just the gift of the seedlings, but the care taken in wrapping them up, protecting them. And the generous giving of time. Such a precious thing! The beauty of it is that this is not unusual – people are extraordinarily thoughtful; the pal who found an ancient flexidisc of birdsong in a junk shop and then carried it around for me until we bumped into each other again (I still haven’t listened to it…); the friend who shared a poem, chosen for my birthday; the colleague who rescued my office pot plants just before lockdown, and then delivered them to me twenty miles away (they are thriving, perhaps in the knowledge that they only just dodged a slow and waterless demise); the allotment neighbour who gathered up the scattered remnants of my shed, and stacked them tidily, after this spring’s hurricane. The list is almost infinite. I wrote about it recently, in the context of strangers on a train. Of course, it works both ways, and the thankfully less frequent acts of unkindness also resonate through the ages, but good or bad, these are the things we remember of people and places!
The garden thrived, wild and free, under the light touch and the love of its gentle curator. My seedlings had been wrapped and it was time for me to go. I said my goodbyes, carefully laid them flat at the top of my bag and pedalled off to work.