Clive Aslet

Et in arcadia ego

Et in arcadia ego
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An Artist in the Garden: A Year in a Suffolk Walled Garden

Tessa Newcomb and Jason Gathorne-Hardy

Full Circle Editions, pp. 192, £

The economy is in tatters, Europe in turmoil — but don’t worry: there is an antidote to the prevailing angst, and it’s provided by this book. It could be read simply as a close look at an undemonstrative corner of the English countryside, informed by the special understanding of a landowner, Jason Gathorne-Hardy, and an artist, Tessa Newcomb. But really it offers a philosophy. ‘Il faut cultiver notre jardin,’ said Voltaire. And that’s just what author and illustrator do here, both practically and imaginatively.  

Each of the monthly chapters opens with a paragraph of ‘garden notes’, compiled from the diaries of working gardeners. So much for the practical side. But the general effect of the book is to create a sense of arcadia, a special place of the mind into which the stressed can retreat and find another world — an England of the imagination. Much care and skill, labour and patience have been expended in nurturing the produce of this two-acre garden at Glemham House, East Suffolk, where Gathorne-Hardy grew up. Fairly pointlessly, one might think, given the ubiquity of Tesco. But the pointlessness is the point. Art, an enthusiasm for growing things and a poignant love of place — with its many dialect words for stream, that include ‘gull’ and ‘groop’ — all have been brought together in this idiosyncratic book.

Gardens in literature are often secret places, and this one is no different. It is surrounded by high brick walls, the building of which beggared the family responsible in the early 19th century. Year after year, a quantity of farmyard manure has been dug into the beds, transforming naturally poor soil into a marvel of fertility. A horse is said to have been buried next to the vine house, to give the vines something to get their roots into, and the grapes are certainly delicious; nutrients are topped up by burying any dead animal picked up around the estate in the same pit. Wherever a mole hill is found, its rich soil is collected and carted in.  

Come into this garden and you will find not only the usual peas, leeks, cabbages, apples and raspberries, but vegetables of a shape, size and colour that you’ve never seen before. They are the rare beans and gourds cultivated by Lady Cranbrook, who is Gathorne-Hardy’s mother and a renowned food campaigner.

Yet it is typical of this place that the initials ‘CC’ that are scorched into the handles of the garden tools stand not for Caroline Cranbrook but for Charlie Chandler, who worked the garden man and boy. Charlie, now dead, didn’t care for London on the single occasion he went there. But even he couldn’t escape the 20th century altogether. One of East Anglia’s many second-world-war airfields was built just outside the village, and a B17 Flying Fortress crashed into the park wall. Gathorne-Hardy still has one of its propellers.  

After the war, agricultural change rolled over the landscape, crushing the diversity which had previously existed, leaving the old, hand-crafted ways of doing things to retreat into this walled garden. And here the ancient faith has been kept alive.

The book offers recipes such as onion gruel, ‘recommended to me’, says Lady Cranbrook, ‘by Ted Cobbin, our old horseman, shepherd and one-time farm foreman’, a talisman against colds and flu. Mutton features prominently; and broad beans, we learn, have not only been found in deposits dating from the Bronze Age, but ‘the Greeks thought their hollow stalks provided the spirits of the dead with a direct route to Hades.’

Gathorne-Hardy trained as a zoologist, and the book is full of such information, though parts could also pass as poetry. With a wide-eyed innocence, Tessa Newcomb paints the garden as a magical place in which a humble rake or a shelf in an apple shed take on wondrous qualities. Ronald Blythe, author of the classic study Akenfield, contributes an introduction, and the book is published by Liz Calder, whose list at Full Circle Editions focuses on Suffolk, where she now lives. If this is localism in action, give me more of it.