Monday 29 June 2015

A sense of place

Not a French garden but a very English one, on a midsummer evening in Kent. I was lucky enough to be invited to a gathering at Long Barn in Weald near Sevenoaks, the former home of novelist, poet and gardener Vita Sackville-West. This is where she lived from 1915 to 1930 with her husband Harold Nicolson, and laid out the garden, learning as she went along, before moving to Sissinghurst Castle to create the famous gardens there.
The house dates from the 14th century - the attached barn is a couple of centuries younger - and on a quiet evening in slanting sunshine, it is possible to feel the history in every stone and slate. The garden wraps around it, crammed with border plants, divided into lawns and hedged outdoor rooms. It is a private property, and the gardens are not open to the public except on special occasions.
This was a very special occasion, on several levels. It was organised to celebrate the amazing work of the Haller Foundation in Kenya, originally in regenerating cement quarries there, and showing what can be achieved by restoring a scarred landscape. Led by UNEP Global Laureate Dr Rene Haller and my friend Louise Piper, the foundation has pioneered a model of environmental regeneration that aims to bring economic security to poor, smallholder farmers living on inhospitable land.

The Haller Foundation offers integrated education programmes in water, farming, education, health, alternative energy and nano-enterprise. Not quick fixes, but long term, life-skills training which empower farmers and their children to lead self-sufficient and sustainable lives. And although the work done by the Haller Foundation is thousands of miles away, there are still natural connections with a garden in Kent. The garden at  Long Barn was once a dull field. Its beauty is the result of Vita Sackville-West's vision, passion and determination.

The landscape architect and lecturer Marian Boswall stood on the terrace overlooking the main lawn and spoke about Sackville-West's aristocratic, rather bohemian background: she was born at grand Knole House at Sevenoaks, the only child of Lord and Lady Sackville; the property and title could not be inherited by a female, and so went to a male cousin. She was only in her early twenties when she arrived at Long Barn with her new husband. She and Harold had an open marriage, with relationships with their friends in the Bloomsbury Group - famously, Vita's affair with Virginia Woolf.

Marian also painted a glorious picture, supported by Vita's own writing, of the practicalities and joys of finding a way to achieve the garden she had in her imagination.

As the sun began to drop behind the hill, the poet and novelist Sarah Salway reminded us that the British have always been travellers and collectors from foreign shores, especially of plants and seeds that were brought back to our small island. The plants we think of as mainstays of English "cottage gardens" are settlers from more exotic countries. Sarah read some of her poems, and I thought this one was particularly appropriate:


Down in the root ball of the ship
the plant collector is making a nest.

He counts his catch, tucks each seed
up in its own handwritten box, an ebony

cabinet ticking with paused hearts.
He dreams of growing a fresh desert

one day, of these dried moments
in the old land coming back to life.

His bones ache as he waters
the dust, while on the deck above,

sailors sleep, the wooden mast dances
again in perfect tune with the winds,

until reaching for water, it leans
too far, loses balance. White sails,

like baby gowns, christen the sea.

As a former Canterbury Laureate, Sarah Salway visited some of the most intriguing gardens of Kent with poetry in mind, and explores what she found in her book Digging up Paradise. More gardens, poetry and photographs can be found on her website The Writer in the Garden.

For more wonderful gardens, you can click on Marian Boswall's website.

And for true inspiration, to see what can be achieved from a starting point of an old cement quarry in Kenya, not only in the landscape but making a difference on the ground for the lives of people who work hard for themselves, please do visit The Haller Foundation and the Bustani Urban Garden.

1 comment:

Marcheline said...

I sent that poem to my mother, and she loved it - thanks for the wonderful post!

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