1st August, 2016
Always when travelling overseas there are decisions to be made about what to see and what to do and sometimes a compromise has to be reached.
Because it takes so long to get to Europe and involves considerable cost, not to mention the stamina required to get out, everyday, and see things this places pressure on the decision-making process. Time is precious. We may not be back this way again. What can I cope with never ever seeing? Then once you're on the journey it is impossible to avoid the inevitable hiccoughs and disappointments.
Today we were journeying into the English countryside and had to choose between two destinations. Would we visit the bitter windswept beach of Dungeness to view the garden set in the shingle, of found sculpture, flowers and herbs beside the black house with the yellow windowsills, of writer and film maker Derek Jarman (1942 – 1994) or would we drive to Sussex to see the house and garden of the great English garden designer Christopher Lloyd (1921 – 2006)? Fortunately my family were open to either possibility so I chose Great Dixter because I have a smooth, pale yellow stone from Derek Jarman’s garden that my writer friend Fredrika, brought back, following her visit to the special site years ago and that will have to suffice.
On the journey down, we watched the English countryside blur by— the lacy hedgerows and high trees overhead forming tunnels of green, the villages of orange brick and deep brown timber shingled rooftops, the stonewalls with green ferns growing in crevices, the elegant church spires and steeples, and a windmill. As well I googled for material about Christopher Lloyd and narrated passages from an excellent obituary in the Observer to the family in the car along with a ‘what’s app’ message from our son in Sydney. He’d had a productive day grocery shopping, washing, ‘took the rubbish out, cooked a nice meal, cleaned the kitchen.’ Gosh. And there was a photo of his dinner with all the components arranged separately on the plate – steak in one corner, mushrooms in another, mashed potato on the left, broccoli underneath, tomatoes at the top.
Nothing, absolutely nothing could have prepared me for the very great romantic beauty of Great Dixter. Its 19th century house incorporating the original 15th century dwelling was designed by Edwin Lutyens in 1910-12 and he laid out the gardens, too, that Christopher Lloyd turned into a masterpiece. It was raining, not hard, just satisfactorily so, making the air heavy with moisture and encouraging the plants to stretch and stand up tall. The sun, falling through the cloud cover, gave the effect of light projected through a mauve screen. Petals pulsated, the green growth flowed like a river round the hedges and through the gardens, the plants they seemed to swell and grow in front of us. But something was not right. With me. Walking down the path through the meadow, I felt myself drifting to the right. I fought the sensation and went on through a hole in the hedge into a garden stacked up to the sky with flowers growing in brilliant profusion, their colours juxtaposed daringly like the jewel paints in an Indian miniature — magenta, lime, lilac, gold, red, pink, orange. And then it happened. At the side of the lily pond on the path, near a spreading leafy green and pink tinted ground cover and pink, I bent down to photograph tiny frogs leaping lightly. I staggered. I stumbled. ‘Something is wrong,’ I said clutching my husband. I was fighting to stay upright and walk. My legs didn’t want to move. Holding onto to his hand I lurched towards a seat in the next garden room and sank down. The sickness had returned. ‘No’ I cried. ‘No, not at Great Dixter.’ The weakness that is in my tummy, or my head, I still haven’t figured it out, and that gives me symptoms of vertigo was upon me. My heart sank. Once it arrives nothing can stop its horrid unfolding. I sat on the seat and the rain fell on my head, plastering my hair to my skull and I was glad of it. I could die in the rain amongst the flowers. But Julian found a pill, which I swallowed quickly without water while my daughter ran to the café and bought a bottle of pear juice — it was called ‘OWLET Kent Pear Juice’ — which I quickly drank, knowing, however, that it wouldn’t stay down long.
At times like this, I really, really love my husband. I love him because he is a doctor and that helps me feel safe. I love him because he stays calm, like a rock, in these tricky situations, although today, he was rattled. I could sense the thought train, is she having a stroke? The drifting to the right and the stumbling was a new experience. Through the next two hours he stayed close, his body the pillar that I leaned on each time we moved and each time I collapsed onto a bench. I was absolutely determined not to abort the trip and spoil the day for the family. It had taken over two hours to get here and I knew we would never see such magic in a garden in such perfect conditions and never travel in this combination, just the four of us together in England, again.
So they viewed the gardens and the house and sat with me in relays. When my daughter came, she scolded me gently for being on my phone in the car — I’d noticed that she was too but didn’t mention that — ‘I know, I know,’ I replied. ‘It was a mistake.’ She stroked my head then, pulling out and fluffing the hair saying ‘Look at you. Your hair is a mess. It’s all stuck down.’
Getting from one resting post to another, with the whole garden tipping and twisting, felt impossible but thankfully Cleo had thought to get a paper cup when she purchased the Owlet juice. It instantly became the receptacle for the regurgitated pear extract that I had to discreetly tip onto Christopher Lloyd’s garden. Somehow that seemed more acceptable than vomiting directly into his garden.
Finally the family was ready and I made one final effort to move through the gardens to reach the car. On the way I snapped photos hurriedly and desperately, aware of the immense beauty that I was rushing through. The garden is vast and like a maze with tightly organised zones packed densely with plants and hedges that overflow onto the path and join together overhead in riotous and joyful yelps. Sometimes you arrive at a dead end which is what happened in the final hurtle. We became separated from Cleo and had to fight our way down a pathway, hedged on both sides, and as narrow as a birth canal to a sudden drop over which Julian leapt, leaving me stranded. In desperation I threw myself onto his shoulder and slid down his back onto the path.
The following day when we could speak of the ordeal I asked Cleo to tell me about the Edward Lutyens’ interior. Her descriptions were so good I wanted to cry. She is learning embroidery and so she recalled the colours and patterns of chair coverings, cushions and curtains in great detail. She told me about Christopher Lloyd’s vast library and his shelves and shelves of Country Life magazines for which he wrote a column, until I said, ‘Stop. I can’t bear to hear anymore.’ In the meantime she had purchased a book from the garden shop, Christopher Lloyd In My Garden: The Garden Diaries of Great Dixter (1993) and it was a good choice with some interesting thoughts on editing. Published by Frank Ronan of Bloomsbury Press, Christopher Lloyd said it’s the book he’s most proud of because Frank Ronan’s method ‘has been to reproduce exactly what I wrote’ from scratch ‘even before it passed through the subeditors’ hands. He has gone back to the original typescripts.’ When Lloyd was writing these pieces for Country Life he was writing to very tight deadlines and this gave the work immediacy but then it got edited and some of it excised. Often he didn’t round off the pieces but the editor did. In this instance Christopher Lloyd said, ‘I would rather have Frank on it, any day.’ He felt that this approach made his work more readable, more appealing and then he said,
I enjoy my gardening (and have been tremendously lucky in my opportunities) and I enjoy writing in our wonderfully expressive, albeit ambiguous English language. I find it impossible to take either myself or anyone else too seriously. Gardening, like living should be fun. It can’t be, much of the time, but we can do our best to make it so.
Christopher Lloyd, Christopher Lloyd In My Garden: The Garden Diaries of Great Dixter, editor, Frank Ronan, London, Bloomsbury, 1993:1-
Deborah thanks Rangimarie Kelly and Pikau Digtal for website design and artist Karen Jarvis for her image ‘Writers at the Devonport Library,’ (2023)