Anyone who can speak Welsh is going to get a lot of fun from this book. Antony Woodward buys a six-acre smallholding 1200 feet up a mountain near Crickhowell in Wales where he sets about trying to fulfill his dream of creating what may be the highest garden in Britain. The smallholding is called Tair Ffynnon, which, he informs his readers, means Four Wells. Ooops. For this is where the Welsh will start to snigger.
Part of his mad project on the mountain is the creation of a pond, which involves diverting water from his four wells into this. Only he has, of course, first to locate them, which proves difficult. Very difficult. And even now an increasingly frantic Woodward may be up there in the clouds trying to locate his lost fourth well. For Tair Ffynnon does not mean Four Wells. Close, mind. Tair Ffynnon means Three Wells.
Sad really. For this is the funniest thing about a book which is in itself funny and rather nice, and neither the author nor his editors knew, or know, anything about it. To be blunt, what it means is that yet another Englishman, in his case with a partner called Vez and two children called Maya and Storm, has moved into the place of his dreams and written 70,000 words about it. It is just that in the process not only has he not bothered to find out anything about the people who were there before him, or how they managed to make a living out of these thin acres (like all such books, this is vague on economics, his own included), he has not even bothered to translate the name of his new home. It would not happen in Provence or Tuscany, but it happens in Wales, and it is the last act in an old black comedy.
When they conquered Wales the English practised ethnic cleansing, pushing the Welsh up into the poor country of hills and moorland to make way for their own people, the new colonial settlers, so the Welsh became a species you encountered at 600 feet. Now, and it is almost beyond belief, the Welsh have come down, and the English have gone up. Looking up at a line of cottages high in the mountains of the Lleyn, I asked an old Welsh farmer who lived up there. ‘The English; they need the view,’ he said, and might have been talking about a new strain of goat. It is not only the last act in an old black comedy, it is the last twitch in the English colonial experience.
Once they sought fat fields and profit, now they seek a contour where they can really be themselves, and at some point the two races must again have passed each other, the dressers and the Bible chests coming down by tractor to the fat fields and the profit, the fitted Magnet kitchens going up by van to the dreams. Fair enough. If it were not for the English there would be even more ruins on the hillside; but by taking little or no interest in the history and the people among whom they now find themselves they could just as well be living on the moon. This is how their empire staggers to its end.
You will have gathered from this rant that I set out determined to dislike the book, and I completely failed to do so. There can be no higher praise than that. Woodward writes well, and is at his best when he describes a process, a technique or a craft, which he has out to learn or in which he has played a part.
Thus he sets out to re-introduce sheep on the Three Wells. Only he brings in Welsh mountain sheep, a breed he has been warned against (‘If they get in anywhere, they destroy everything.’). But of course it is Year Zero up on his mountain, and he ignores the warnings. The next thing is that he sees a sheep, which has eaten its way steadily through the wreckage of his garden, peering in at him as he sits drinking his morning coffee. The sheep eat everything, ‘hay, straw, silage, horse and cattle feed, chicken feed, bird seed, cat food, grass cuttings’; they even eat, and are none the worse for eating, ivy, and, incredibly, yew, both of which, he reports bemusedly, he had always been told were poisonous. And they can jump.
One day a lone long-distance walker staggers in, feeling he must tell someone, anyone, what he has just seen against the sky; from his footpath he has seen sheep running at a hedge, then clearing this in a pole- vaulter’s hop. There is some fine comedy in Woodward’s war on the sheep as they get more and more smug and he, by now deranged, orders ten-foot gates, the previous owners having taken the old ones with them along with the dressers and the Bible chests.
And then there is the coming of the 20- foot-long, 20-ton railway carriage (‘The Perfect Country Room’), which it takes two tractors and a bulldozer to bring up the lane, breaking gate-posts and stone walls. And the coming of the bees. And the bottling of the honey, which leaves the kitchen a padded cell of stickiness. As I say, he makes such things readable, which is a great gift.
Structure is provided by his ambition to get his garden in the clouds into the Yellow Book, the National Gardens Scheme’s prestigious roster of gardens open to the public for charity; he succeeds in this. There is little in the way of autobiography except when grief intrudes, with his mother’s death after a riding accident. But even that is part of the old world, and, quoting Proust, he returns to his mountain, driving ‘with the usual feeling of self-satisfaction into the murk’.
I wish him well. I read his book through in one sitting, at first from malice, then for enjoyment.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 5, 2010Tags: Autobiography, Industry, Lunacy, Non-fiction, Wales