Diogenes, the ancient Greek cynic, made his house and home in a tub. Men live in cities, he is reported to have said, out of fear for what lies outside. Lockdowns in Britain have seen the contrary, a flight to the country, irrespective of the dark, the cold and, on walks, cows. Two years later, the new migrants have had time to bed their country gardens in. How sure are they that their rush from the city has been worthwhile?
I have staked much of my life on it. I remember the first bank loan ever offered to me, £30,000 in June 1971 at 2 per cent over base rate, from an unbothered Mr Jackson in a branch of NatWest. I was thinking of buying a house in London, though content with the one we were renting rurally. He was happy to finance it, even on my university salary at the bottom of the ladder, with fees at a fortnight’s notice for writing on gardening for the FT and a promise of payments from publishers if I ever finished the book on Alexander the Great that I was still struggling to write. He even suggested I should buy somewhere in Notting Hill, preferably with the word Lansdowne in the address.
I left feeling rather shy and ashamed: did I really want some white stuccoed barrack with a garden that could only be reached through the house itself? Aged 25, I would stand out from contemporaries in the third-floor renting crowd. So I spent an idyllic summer among my landlady’s roses and left that white stuccoed London property to treble in value in the next two years.
What I looked at for £30,000 is now up for sale for £6mn. All I would have had to do was to repair the gutters, occasionally find others to scaffold the stucco and sit still. By doing nothing, I would have made a fortune, far more than if I had been bold and written Fifty Shades of Green. As a gardener, what have I had instead?
It is not about money, I tell myself, even, I suppose, on that stupendous scale. I appeal for support here to Thomas Traherne, born in 1636, the son of a village shoemaker near Hereford and eventually a poet and clergyman. “When I came into the country”, he wrote, probably in his thirties, “and being seated among silent trees and meads and hills, had all my time in mine own hands”, he resolved to devote himself to satiating the “burning thirst which Nature had enkindl’d” in him from his youth.
He would pursue this aim “whatever it cost”, on £10 a year, in leather clothes, on a diet of bread and water. While satiating it he would have time to himself rather than many thousands a year and the loss of his days “devoured in care and labour”.
Working from home in the country, I have learnt to qualify Traherne. My time has been devoured there too, not just in care and deadlines, but in fighting a constant battle with bindweed, badgers and bad weather. Now that early spring is so mild in most of Britain, London gardens begin the year by excelling rural ones.
Undamaged by frost, their magnolias are even finer and earlier than those I enjoyed in the Cotswolds until frost browned them last week. Londoners can grow lime-hating camellias, which have been magnificent too, but mine in the country turn yellow and have to be drugged. Their tulips are fully out, weeks before mine, and their climbing roses are showing exceptionally early buds.
So, I have sounded out opinion on country gardening, beginning with one of our top former diplomats. Of course he prefers his country garden, he tells me, because it makes him feel primeval and in touch with the real world. As his garden is on the high street of a picture postcard village, his capacity for feeling primeval is most impressive.
“Scents”, said my next respondent, a lady with a fine garden in Sussex. However, some of the finest scents I know are in city gardens, from mimosas in February, which are too tender for Sussex, to jasmine on high walls in Kensington in July. I revere that couple of swells, Fred Astaire and Judy Garland in the film Easter Parade, but would they really prefer the country “away from the city smells” if confronted with it? Not when nearby farmers are dressing their fields with pig manure.
So I asked a younger couple and they cited privacy: they like to make love on the lawn in summer, but they felt inhibited and overlooked by London neighbours in W4. They also have a dog. He is unbothered by such behaviour, and he is vastly happier with rural freedom too.
“Borrowed scenery”, said a well-read garden designer who likes the vistas that open beyond his country garden and give him a sense of receding space. He has an obvious point, but others have a way of borrowing the scenery too and putting up a hideous grain dryer, new housing or an office. Country gardens have to be retained for the long haul, but a country view does not stay constant.
I am not going to cite children, because they are seldom into gardening, though they begin by preferring open country space. Myself, I value stars in the rural night sky, cut flowers without needing visits to a florist and scope for a greater range of homegrown vegetables. I also treasure sights like the one I enjoyed last weekend, swaths of wild fritillary flowers in damp grass beside a series of interlinked ponds. Fritillaria meleagris is one of the supreme sights among wild flowers and still thrives along riversides in the Thames Valley. I would be glad to know of any wild fritillaries surviving in London.
Country gardeners have more scope for scale. Whereas city gardeners have to be artful with one of this or one of that, I can have tens, not ones, and tussle with that essential challenge, a herbaceous border. It sounds greedy, but I want those tens. I much enjoy placing them and watching them mature. I also enjoy the silence, though rotary mowing in a village on a Saturday can sound like a busy slip road on to a motorway.
What about birds? Country sparrowhawks decapitate the wood pigeons, while robins and their mutual aggression proliferate. Cock pheasants arrive in February, survivors among the game birds reared for shooting on nearby farms: they peck the crocus flowers to pieces.
Despite it all, I am not regretful and I will not relent. I love the rural challenges and the contrasts. Winters, even now, test rural gardeners’ mental endurance but then, in a week, spring begins. Hard life is followed by a rural idyll: there are never such buttercups in Brixton. In winter I battle on, looking for beauty in the bare tree-trunks and picking winter honeysuckle for a vase indoors.
On summer evenings, I sit out in the half light, contemplating in an untrained way. There is no traffic, no sirens, only silence as a dark shroud falls on all I have planted, the setting for my thoughts. I would be lost without it, just as others are lost with it. Even at £30,000, that stuccoed pile was too much of an ask.