We weren’t particularly looking for a new house when we heard about a Victorian lodge set in an acre of garden. Our home at the time was a train carriage shuttling between Derbyshire and London; at least, that’s what it felt like. For some years we had been splitting our existence between a cottage in a country village and a flat near St Pancras and weren’t really based in either. But the children had recently arrived (Andrew was eighteen months and Isabella just new), which meant make your mind up time had too.
We went to see the lodge. It was small, cold and would need completely redecorating. The garden was more complex than we expected; three acres is easy enough if it’s flat grass but these three acres were sloping, shady and hugely varied. There was woodland, overgrown with rhododendron like the Sleeping Beauty’s thicket. Just one small spot, a tiny gap in the choking bushes, offered so much as a hint of the stunning views over the valley below. Below the garden walls were cracked, ailing fruit trees and undisciplined borders more rapacious than herbaceous – vast in height and size. There was a wrecked greenhouse and collapsed hut and a row of ruined coldframes. At the very end of the garden was a sea of mud that the lodge’s current owners grew potatoes in.
We learnt that the small and decorative house, a tiny Victorian Gothic castle with turrets and a baby curtain wall, had been the home of the gardener employed by the nearby Hall. The Hall gardens, including the kitchen one, were reputedly designed by that most celebrated of Victorian horticulturists, Joseph Paxton, moonlighting from his job as head gardener at Chatsworth, just over the hill.
The near-wilderness we were looking at, we learnt, had once been rows of neat vegetable beds, pleached fruit trees, flowers for cutting and a woodland walk lined with specimen trees and Paxton’s characteristic picturesque arrangements of rock. Few signs of any of this had remained when the owners bought the lodge in the Eighties, and they had started the enormous and painstaking task of uncovering the Victorian paths and bed patterns and restoring some of the old order and splendour. Now, selling up and moving to Dorset. they were looking for someone to take over and continue the work. I wasn’t at all sure that someone was us.
“Great, isn’t it?” said my husband, his eyes blazing with enthusiasm.
Jon had always been keen on gardening, even when all the available garden was a couple of London windowboxes. He had made the small patch behind our cottage a colourful, scented paradise. So far as he was concerned, the lodge gardens held possibilities almost as numerous as the weeds. I was less certain – until, that was, I saw the abandoned summer house in the woodland and saw its potential as a writing hut.
And so we bought it. Over the next four years – and with the help of our two fantastic gardeners - the sea of mud became an elegant kitchen garden, its neat vegetable beds framed in box and linked by graveled paths. Above it we built a finialed fruit cage containing raspberries and strawberries and next to that a line of new apple trees. The ruined cold frames were dug over and planted with peas and beans, plus pumpkins for the children’s Halloween, and covered over with new frames. The collapsed greenhouse was rebuilt carefully on site, preserving the original shape and allowing the ancient vine within to grow properly for the first time in decades.
The woodland was freed of the deadly embrace of ivy and cleared of the jostling, view-blocking bushes. We removed some sycamores to enable more sympathetic trees to flourish. The Victorian path that had once led from the Hall through an avenue including two magnificent monkey puzzles was made wide and clear once more.
As for my hut; painted up, equipped with rugs, pictures, a sofa, a turntable and even a telephone (pink!) it’s now the ultimate Room Of One’s Own, a place of privacy to work in, even if, especially in the winter, it’s also a place of extreme cold. Some days I arrive to find that the water has frozen in my flower vase and, even as summer approaches, I can still be writing with fingerless gloves on and huddled over a radiator. Yet still I prefer working in the garden to anywhere else; the view from my window, over the beautiful, mellow valley we can now actually see, is an inspiration in all weathers. And if I look up to the left I can see the great, gloomy, rusted urn I bought Jon last Christmas glowing amid the larches.
When first we came here the only rakes I had any use for were those who rode roughshod (in every sense) over my heroines. Yet now I find that a meditative half hour amassing a pile of leaves on the lawn often helps with working out my plot. And having our own personal park to walk round more than compensates for the enforced staying at home that is the lot of being parents of young children. We wander about with a glass of wine as the evening sun slopes over the valley thanking our lucky stars and planning ever more elaborate new sections of the garden. I’m not sure we’ll ever finish it; that would spoil the fun.
It’s not all sweetness and light, however. Besides the borders practically doubling in size after every rainstorm, there are the predators to deal with. My imaginings (pre-moving here) that rabbits were cute and cuddly and moles just like they are in The Wind In the Willows have confronted reality head on. Four years and many devastated lupins and lettuces later, the long-eared friend of my childhood shows his true colours as a serial plant-murderer, while we participate in slow games of mole tennis with our neighbour (the pest-controller comes, the mole moves on to ruin next door; next door calls in the pest controller and back comes Moley to devastate our greensward.)
It’s struck me more than once that bringing up our garden is a lot like bringing up our children; wild and undisciplined at first, it’s getting tamer, more civilised and infinitely more fun and, along the way, has had plenty to teach us. We’ve learnt to love our weeds (well, some of them); certain wildflowers, which would otherwise be weeds, can create a wonderful effect, and can even be marshalled. Valerian and foxgloves give great height and splashes of colour. Ladies' mantle can also work if contained, but beware its fiendish root systems.
We’ve learnt to use plants appropriate to the conditions; an olive tree will not thrive in Derbyshire (although, interestingly, there’s an ancient peach tree on the back wall). The book Right Plant, Right Place was our bible, as it should be for any gardener wishing to avoid costly failures. Nonetheless, we still waited with bated breath to see whether our expensive collection of tree ferns, planted last year, had survived the harsh, wet and prolonged winter; the joy and relief last May when the first tiny, bright-green coils of leaf showed were immense.
Finally, the unimaginable pleasures of vegetable-growing have been the source of as much delicious new material as it has delicious meals. I’m not sure which category I fall into, but it certainly did it for me.
My garden as featured in The Times Online
Our favourite local garden centres are Scotland Nurseries, Tansley (where I got our great garden urn!)
Forest Garden Centre, Matlock
Southsea Deckchairs, we recently bought a great pair of Edwardian deckchairs with fringed shades from here. We sit in them and feel like Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Chatsworth, of course. We love the annual sculpture exhibitions, the Coal Tunnel (like the Minotaur's labyrinth) and the Maze, which we have never yet solved despite a million visits. You can also buy plants here in the courtyard shop.
Hardwick Hall. This is the most heavenly place in high summer - rolling green lawns, a lush orchard and the lovely house rising from above the herbaceous borders. The best approach is over the fields from Hardwick Farm shop. There are plants available here seasonally.
Haddon Hall, a lovely old building with a romantic rose garden
Barbara Hepworth sculpture garden, St Ives, Cornwall
Trebah Gardens, Cornwall
Trengwainton Gardens, Cornwall
Inverewe Garden, Scotland
Blickling Hall Garden, Norfolk
Castle Howard gardens, North Yorkshire
Trerice garden, Cornwall
The gardens of the Villa Ephrussi Rothschild, Cap Ferrat
The Fondation Maeght sculpture garden, St Paul de Vence, South of France
The Parc Monceau, Paris
The gardens of the Chateau de Versailles
The Les Jardins de Luxembourg, Paris