At this time of year, I spend quite a lot of time outside in the walled garden, usually on my own, with cold hands and cold feet, balancing precariously up a ladder, trying to reach the tallest stems of the apple trees.
Sometimes I wonder why I bother – no normal person, after all, would voluntarily spend weekend after weekend pruning 82 trees, with a pair of Felcos. Or would they? Well, they used to, like they used to lovingly trim the yew hedges each year, with hand-shears. And take huge pride in their work, I should imagine, as I do when the work’s done.
So, from my aluminium eyrie, I cast my eyes over the apple trees and the yew hedge,
and over the walls to the big trees in the woods beyond, a giant monkey puzzle
with a dinosaur-like ‘foot’ and a Giant Redwood (Sequoia) with the bark so soft you can punch it without harm to your knuckles, and many ancient yews, and am overwhelmed with a sense of the past. And I realise that I’m just a care-taker, keeping the place ticking over, until the next ‘Head Gardener’ takes over. I wonder what the gardeners who worked here in the past would say if they came back to visit? Would they be pleased or disappointed? Perhaps they never went away. Perhaps it’s their vital force that motivates me to keep the traditions going. An obligation, if you like, to look after, as best as I can, what they created nearly two centuries ago.The garden of course is no longer the productive powerhouse that it was created to be.
They didn’t have Tescos in those days and labour was cheap. I’d like to think we’ve preserved the basic structure and some of its core functions. We still grow some fruit and vegetables for the house, we still grow some flowers for cutting.
A few years ago, there was a television series called The Victorian Kitchen Garden where the BBC restored a decayed walled garden to its former splendour and charted its progress over the course of the year. They discovered one of the gardeners who used to work there as a boy, Harry Dodson, and through his eyes and experience painted a marvellous picture of how these gardens used to work. Two further series followed, The Victorian Flower Garden and The Victorian Kitchen, all three giving a rich picture of what life was like on the big Victorian estates. Sadly, the garden at Chilton Foliat has once again gone back to sleep, as there was no funding to continue to maintain it in its ‘Victorian form’ but the momentary glimpse that it afforded, interpreted by its unlikely but hugely engaging septuagenarian presenter, still remains the definitive authority.
Now, back to those trees…