The Garden at Huntercombe Manor in 1882-83.
Of Rooks, and the Close of Day— Of Fairy Garlands, Snowdrops, and Wild Ivy.
March 9.— We are rejoicing in the fulfilment of a long-felt wish, and at last we posses a rookery! There are the nests, seven of them, in the Elms, in full view of our east windows. The grand old trees have always seemed to us a most tempting position for the rooks, who themselves have thought so too. But it has taken them long to come to a decision. On many a spring morning for these eleven years past have we observed them settling upon the trees in hundreds. But after a short interval of noise and clamour, they would rise and depart. They were only coquetting a little with us, or bent on kindling delusive hopes. "Ill blows the wind that profits nobody," however; so the storm of April 29 last year, which uprooted some of our best trees, laid low also part of a neighbouring rookery. The shock seems to have decided the rooks, and to have won their confidence in our noble 300-year-old Elms. The seven nests were begun and nearly built in about as many days. How busy the rooks are! And how, with no hands and only one beak, they can make up those neat bundles of moss and dry grass, just like potatoes, that we see them carrying to line the nests with, is difficult to understand. During the rough snowy weather no work was done; but a rook or two sat all day just above the nests on the topmost twigs, swaying in the wind, as if to watch and test their security...
The day has been cold, with scattered flakes of snow falling; and now, in the grey still evening, the air is suffused with a certain splendid sobriety of colouring, if it may be so described. The turf has lost that living green it showed a month ago, for since then bitter winds have swept the garden; the Yews look dark and sombre...Nearer home, in this pale evening light, the hoary old garden walls, with here and there a ruddier tint of redder brick, or faintest blush upon them of Pyrus Japonica, join their mellow tones to the intense but quiet colour of the hour. A mass of common sweet-scented white Clematis, whose summer glory has long since melted into a softly shaded cloud of thin withered stalks, hides one pillar of the central iron gate, and half enwreathes a sculptured vase above; sere leaves of grassy wild things break the straight line of mossy, lichened coping. Timid thrushes with spotted breast, and little hedge-sparrows in sober brown, appear upon the lawn, since labour for the day is done and the garden is deserted. A tomtit, quaintly liveried, has made the square topped Yewen hedge his hunting-ground. (Yewen was the pretty old word in Spencer's time: may we not revive it?) But now a bold gay blackbird leaps up upon the stone ball that surmounts the ivied corner of the wall... This is a dull time for the cock birds all over the place. Awhile ago they had such games of an evening on the lawn! chasing each other in and out between the Yews and Box tree, and every blackbird had two hens to play hide and seek with. But now the lawful wives are sitting, and there's an end of the fun.
The garden has been cold and joyless ever since March 4. It is true that morning after morning, about sunrise, a treat for the eye has been prepared by the Crocus beds with a succession of white frosts, but it is one could well be spared... Except this pretty morning show, there is as yet but little joy. Fewer flowers than in January even, and such as are willing to bloom cast down on the ground. Primroses and the earliest Daffodils are thus laid low, conquered by overmastering cold. Violets, too, which before the frost began were almost more perfumed and of finer bloom than ever I remember, are pinched and shrunken. Snowdrops also failed, before the severe frost, destroyed untimely by excessive rain. The Snowflake (Leucojium vernum) appeared earlier than usual, and I look forward to the summer Snowflake later on. These lovely flowers came from an eyot [small island] on the Thames, where they grow wild. A fine double Snowdrop...
Few indeed are the flowers to be recorded in bloom. There is a pink tuft or two of Dog's-tooth Violet...Grape Hyacinths...dwarf Daffodil...A few polyanthuses, small blue Periwinkles, mixed with yellow primroses; Pulmonaria, seared and pinched; blue Scilla, in niggard clumps, quite unlike its usual bounteous, radiant beauty. These, with bushes of rosy Ribes, checked but ready to break into bloom, are about all we can boast. There are, indeed, the Crocuses, whose best days, however, will soon be ended. The mixed border of these, in three colours- yellow, white, and lilac- would have been perfect had our friends the field-mice, instead of choosing the lilac alone for their private consumption, shown impartiality. Their taste is certainly remarkable, for the yellow were the fattest bulbs.
Mar. 19.— After a day of rain it is wonderful how quickly Daffodils and Primroses have picked themselves up. The Grape Hyacinths have grown two inches since morning, and begun to colour in proportion, or so at least it seems; and tiny golden buds, unperceived before, burgeon all over the Kerria. Although Daffodils as yet are few, there is already a Polyanthus Narcissus unfolded, and a few Narcissus of deep orange-yellow have arisen behind the lilac winter Irises. The Apricot bloom is chiefly brown, but all will not be lost. On the Peach trees there are buds, and some expanded blooms of heavenly pink. I find a curious small deception has been practised upon me by a plant in the east border. I had often observed two patches of greenish worn-out moss there, and at last enquired of the Gardener the reason of their being permitted. He pointed out that it was not moss, but the green bare roots of a Violet, which I am well aquainted with when its disguise is thrown off. It is a pied Dog Violet from Villa Clara, Baveno. We have had it now for some years. The flower is scentless, striped white and purple, of large size, on a long stalk. But flower and leaf are yet a long way off.
The pruning and trimming of all the Ivy walls and festoons have been done. The result for the time is as ugly as it is desirable. Ivy grows so lavishly here that it has to be kept well in hand, and many whom it favours less have said they envied us our Ivy. More than once we have had to choose between some tree or a canopy of Ivy. It is like a beautiful carpet underneath a long row of Elms, where nothing else would grow; indeed, wherever there happen to be bits too overshadowed for grass or otherwise unsatisfactory, we put in Ivy; it is sure to understand, and to do what is required. My favourite sort is the wild English Ivy, and no other has a right to grow on the house. Its growth is slow and sure; it always grows to beauty, and never to over-richness. The loveliness of its younger shoots and of the deeply cut leaves might inspire either poet or painter! To either I would say, Wherever on your tree, or fence, or house-wall you find it beginning to spring, cherish it; for years it will do no harm, and if you are true to your art, and therefore know that small things are not too small for you, it will repay your love a hundredfold. Wild Ivy is best where it comes up of itself; it clings then so close and flat. A thrush sat on her nest, built on quite the outside of a Holly, two feet from the ground, while the men were at work pruning an Ivy wall- large swathes of Ivy falling close to her. She had faith in us, and never feared.
Our grove of white Arums in the greenhouse is still a fine sight- plants from four to five feet high, with enormous leaves. The spathes, however, though fine, are less so than at first, when many of them measured over eight inches across. The Maréchal Niel Rose will not give us this season anything like the six hundred great yellow roses we have had from him these last three years. He seems to be failing a little, somehow. But every morning I have a foretaste of summer in the glowing heap of beautiful roses of several kinds, brought in to me before breakfast. And with them there are Gloxinias, marvellous in their size and splendour of deep colouring. They are succeeding a lot of most curious-looking Tydæas- orange and dusky pink, profusely spotted. Both these flowers surprise one by the length of time they remain fresh when cut.
Copyright ©: 2000 Donald Perkins