The Garden at Huntercombe Manor in 1882-83.
Of Nuns and White Owls; Yews, Thrushes, and Nutcrackers.
THE GARDEN'S STORY.It is only eleven years old, though the place itself is an old place— an old place without a history, for scarce a record remains of it anywhere that we have ever found. Its name occurs on a head stone in the parish churchyard, and on one or two monuments within the chancel of the parish church. There is brief mention of it in Evelyn's Diary. It is there described as "a very pretty seate in the forest, on a flat, with gardens exquisitely kept, tho' large, and the house, a staunch good old building." It seems George Evelyn (the author's cousin) was amongst the many who have lived here once. At that time eighty acres of wood surrounded the house, where now there lies a treeless stretch of flat cornfields. Quite near, across the road, are the ruins of an ancient nunnery. Our meadow under the high convent wall is called the Walk Meadow, because here the nuns used to walk. The great Walnut tree, which they might possibly have known, only died after we came. It was cut down for firewood, and its hollows were full of big chestnut-coloured "rat bats," very fierce and strong. At that time also white owls lived in the ruins, and used to come floating over the lawn at twilight— until the days of gun licenses, since when, they have disappeared. Dim legends surround the place, but nothing clear or certain is known or even said, and there is not a ghost anywhere. All we know is, that since taking possession, wherever a hole is dug in the garden to plant a tree, the spade is sure to strike against some old brick foundation of such firm construction that they have to use the pick to break it up. Bones of large dogs also are found all about the place whenever the ground is broken— remains of the watch dogs, or hunting dogs, of the olden time— also quaintly shaped tobacco-pipes. I know of nothing to support the tradition that monks abode here once. There were signs of an upstairs room having at some remote time been used as a chapel; a piscina in the wall and a narrow lancet window having been found and destroyed, when the house was in the builder's hands eleven years ago. Broken arches, also, and mouldings in chalk and stone, were dug up out of the foundations of some outhouses at the same time. "They say" there is an underground passage between the Abbey and the house, but we do not believe it, and we do not believe in the murder of a monk for his money, said to have been committed by a nun in the upper room now a quest-chamber. Such vague traditions are sure to hang around old walls, like mists about a damp meadow. Very distinct, however, and carved in no vague characters, are certain initials and dates still visible on the stems of the trees in the Lime avenue. For in old times—
"Fond lovers, cruel as their flame,
Cut in these trees their mistress' name."
When the trees are bare and the western sky is bright, you can see them quite plainly— large capital letters, often a pair, enclosed in a large heart and date. The dates run from 1668 on to late in 1700. Those old village lovers must have sharp pen-knives, which cut deep! They and their names have long passed away and been forgotten; but, for so much as it is traced in the living bark, these Limes have proved as good as any marble monument; much better than the long wooden "rails" which are still in fashion hereabouts. Since the place was ours this short avenue of twenty-four trees has been taken in from the public road; and now the Limes give us cool shade and fragrance and many midges in the hot summer days. I fear there is nothing more to be discovered about the past history of the House than we now already know. We must be content, and follow as we best may George Herbert's concise admonition—
"When you chance for to find
An old house to your mind,
Be good to the poor,
As God gives you store."
We have had the great pleasure of making the garden. The feature of the place was, and is, two symmetrically planted groups of magnificent Elms in the park field, in which every season we hope the rooks will build. There was everything to be done in the garden, to which these Elms form a background. We found hardly any flowers; a large square lawn laid out in beds, with unsatisfactory turf and shrubberies beyond, a long, broad terrace walk, old brick walls, with stone balls on the corners, two or three old wrought iron gates in the wrong places, dabs of kitchen garden and potato plots, stable-yard and carriage entrance occupying the whole south front, with a few pleasant trees, a young Wellingtonia, a Stone Pine, a Venetian Sumach (Rhus cotinus), and a very large red Chestnut (from seed brought from Spain in the waistcoat pocket of one of our predecessors here, fifty years ago, and said to be the first of its kind raised in England). Such was our new playground in 1871. Here we brought a skilful Gardener, possessed of common sense and uncommon good taste— can one say much more in a few words? —and aided by our own most unscientific but exceeding love for flowers and gardening, we set to work at once. These "gardens on a flat" are transformed.
There are now close-trimmed Yew hedges, some of those first planted being 8 feet 6 inches high, and nearly 3 feet through, while others are kept low and square. These are Yews cut in pyramids and buttresses against the walls, and Yews in every stage of natural growth. I love the English Yew, with its "thousand years of gloom!" (an age that ours, however, have not yet attained). The Wellingtonia, planted in 1866, has shot up to over forty feet high, and far outgrown its youthful Jack-in-the-Green look. The Stone Pine, alas! has split in two, and been propped up; and although half killed since by frost, it yet bears a yearly harvest of fine cones, chiefly collected for use as fire revivers— though the seeds ripen for sowing, or eating. The borders are filled with the dearest old-fashioned plants; the main entrance is removed to the north side; the stable-yard is removed also, and instead thereof are turf and straight walks, and a sun-dial, and a parterre for bedding-out things— the sole plot allowed here for scarlet Pelargoniums and the like. In this parterre occurs the only foliage plant we tolerate— a deep crimson velvet-leaved Coleus. The centre bed is a raised square of yellow Stonecrop and little white Harebells; with an old stone pedestal, found in a stonemason's yard, bearing a leaden inscription— "to Deborah"— surmounted by a ball, on which the white pigeons picturesquely perch. There are green walks between Yew hedges and flower borders, Beech hedges, and a long green tunnel— the Allée Verte— so named in remembrance of a bower-walk in an old family place, no longer in existence. There are nooks and corners, and a grand, well-shaded tennis-lawn, and crown of all, there is the "Fantaisie"! This is a tiny plantation in the field— I mean the Park— date 1874, connected with the garden by a turf walk, with a breadth of flowers and young evergreen trees intermixed, on either hand. Here all my most favourite flowers grow in wild profusion. The turf walk is lost, after a break of Golden Yew, in a little wood— a few paces round— just large enough for the birds to build in, and with room for half-a-dozen wild Hyacinths and a dozen Primroses under the trees; with moss, Wood Sorrel, and white and puce-coloured Periwinkles, and many a wild thing, meant to encourage the delusion of a savage wild! I am afraid I never can be quite serious about a garden; I always am inclined to find delight in fancies, and reminiscences of a child's garden, and the desire to get everything into it if I could. This "Fantaisie" was a dream of delight during the past summer— from April, when a nightingale possessed in sing the half-hidden entrance under low embowering Elm branches and Syringa—through all the fairy days and months, up to quite lately. Yes, even last week, it was fragrant with Mignonette and Ragged Jack (I mean that Alpine Pink Dianthus Plumarius), gay with yellow Zinnias and blue Salvia in rich luxuriance, with a host of smaller, less showy things— with bunches of crimson Roses, and pink La France, blooming out from a perfect mist of white and pinkish Japan Anemones, white Sweet Peas, and a few broad Sunflowers towering at the back— their great stems coruscating all over with stars of gold; and here and there clusters of purple Clematis, leaning sadly down from a faggot of brown leaves and dead wiry stalks— or turning from their weak embrace of some red-brown Cryptomeria Elegans. Even last week the borders throughout the garden looked filled and cheerful— brilliant with scarlet Lobelia and tall deep red Phloxes, and bushes of blue-leaved starry Marguerites, and the three varieties of Japan Anemone, with strange orange Tigridias and Auratum Lilies and Ladies' Pincushion (Scabious, the "Saudades" of the Portuguese language of Flowers), and every kind of late as well as summer Roses, the evening Primrose (Oenothera) making sunshine in each shady spot, with here and there the burning flame of a Tritoma; though these last have not done well this autumn.
Out near the carriage drive are Golden Rod and crimsoned patches of Azalea, and a second blow of late and self-sown Himalayan (so called) Poppies. In one narrow bit of south border one finds that pretty blue daisy (Kaulfussia Amelloides)— such an odd, pretty little thing. I remember a bed of it in the garden of my childhood, and I possess a portrait of it, done for me by my mother; and then, never met with it again till a year or two ago, when unexpectedly it looked up at me, somewhere in a remote country churchyard. I am afraid our present stock comes from that very plant. Until now, the long border of many-coloured Verbenas was rather gay, and the three east gables of the house were all aflame with Virginian Creeper. But two days of rain spoilt us entirely. The variegated Maple slipped its white garment all at once in the night, causing a melancholy gap. In the kitchen garden a bright red Rose or two remains, but along the east border the half-blown buds are rotted away. In the centre of one drenched pink bloom I saw a poor drone, drowned as he sat idly there. Small black-headed titmice are jerking about among the tallest Rose trees, insect hunting; and still tinier wrens flit here and there, bent on the same quest. Great spotted missel thrushes are now haunting the pillar Yews, beginning to taste the luscious banquet just ready for them. While thus perched amongst the sweet scarlet Yew berries and dark foliage, the thrushes always bring to one's mind a design in old tapestry.
And this reminds me of the good and abundant fruit-feast we have ourselves enjoyed this season. Strawberries and Raspberries were not much, but such Gooseberries, Apricots, and Nectarines! Peaches, plenty enough, but no flavour. Figs, enough to satisfy even our greediness,— though we have but one tree, on a west wall. Pears, especially Louise Bonne, first-rate and plenty. Apples, a small crop, but sufficient. Wood Strawberries have been ripening under the windows till within the last few days: I planted them there for the sake of the delicious smell of the leaves when decaying— a smell said to be perceptible only to the happy few. Nuts (Filberts and Kentish Cobs) were plentiful, but we were only allowed a very few dishes of them. A large number of nuthatches settled in the garden as soon as the nuts were ripe; they nipped them off, and, carrying them to the old Acacia tree, which stands conveniently near, stuck them in the rough bark and cracked them at their ease (or rather punched holes in them). The Acacia's trunk at one time quite bristled over with the empty nutshells, while the husks lay at the roots. The fun of watching these busy thieves at work more than made up for the loss of nuts. We had a great abundance of large green and yellow wall Plums, also a fair quantity of Purple. Of sweet Cherries, unless gathered rather unripe, my dear blackbirds and starlings never leave us many. But there were a good lot of Morellos; they don't care a bit for them. Whilst on the subject of fruit, let me say that never a shot is fired in the garden, unless to destroy weazels. Our "garden's sacred round" is free to every bird that flies— the delight of seeing them, and of hearing their music, compensates to the full any ravages they may indulge in. Thanks to netting without stint, and our Gardener's incomparable patience and longsuffering, I enjoy the garden and my birds in peace; and if they ever do any harm' we never know it; fruit and green Peas never fail us! . . Here is a sunny morning; and the cows are whisking their tails under the Elms, as if it were July. But indeed the last lingering trace of summer has vanished: the garden is in ruins, and already the redbreast is singing songs of triumph.
Copyright ©: 2000 Donald Perkins