9 April 2020
A gardener's journey
I journey to work each day on my bicycle. It is only a short twenty-minute ride from our home which is located in Usk, a small community town in Monmouthshire. (By the way, I'm a road cyclist, so some Lycra is worn, apologies!)
I tend to extend my journey by doing a couple of laps around the town and along the road next to the river. The last few mornings have been fresh to say the least, so I am thankful of a few layers to keep out the chill.
Notable features on my route include a prison with the most incredible Wisteria growing on the exterior walls.; a beautiful arched stone bridge which spans the picturesque river Usk; a Norman castle which overlooks the town and river meadows beyond.
I can see the castle walls from our bedroom window each morning, along with three mature magnolia trees which are currently in full flower. There is also a rather lovely topiary figure, standing sentinel on the castle wall, which has one raised arm, normally aglow in the early morning sunshine. I wake most mornings full of energy and looking forward to the day ahead. During my working career I have tended to start early, which I never minded because those early hours from sunrise onwards can be magical.
When I think back over the years, gardening and cycling have been constants throughout my life. From those early days gardening with my father on his allotment. And the many cycling adventures that I enjoyed with my friends, during long summers exploring the seven hills of Sheffield and glorious Derbyshire. Of course, these were ancient times, before the invention of road safety and intergalactic communication! We travelled without a care in the world, carrying a sandwich and a drink to keep us from starvation, no money, riding without safety helmets and free from mobile phones.
There was one job I had where I worked on a private estate located at Elstead in Surrey. At the time we were living in Cranleigh, which was a 30-mile round trip each day. I recall arriving for the interview on my bicycle. After the interview the owner offered me the job commenting that anybody prepared to cycle that distance for a job, deserved an opportunity. I worked there for just over a year before securing a job working at RHS Wisley
I have always enjoyed an intimate connection with nature, and I have taken comfort that whatever happens, life will endure and will always find a way to inspire and surprise you. During these very challenging times, gardening is a safe haven for many. I appreciate that some readers may not have access to an open space or a garden at the moment and with this in mind, I would like to share Allt y bela with you, starting with my journey to work each morning.
Please be assured that I am totally isolated throughout my journey and do not encounter any other individuals. In fact, all flora and fauna are completely oblivious to our human plight. It makes you reflect on what is truly important during our everyday comings and goings, and the fundamental changes we will experience during the months ahead.
The road to Allt y bela is a single, uneven trackway, surrounded by mixed native hedging, fields and trees. This provides a feeling of enclosure and mystery as you approach. The final section of trackway heads in an easterly direction towards the early morning sunrise.
The hedgerow is currently in flower, with delicate flowers of wild plum, and there are signs of the first shoots of life developing on hawthorn and hazel. The lightest of soft green, like a delicate mist cast from a wand. Most mornings I usually hear the call of a Kestrel on patrol looking for an early breakfast….lucky rodents.
A small stream meanders to the left of the trackway providing a reminder that water brings life. Indeed, during the last couple of weeks, the banks of the stream have been carpeted with wood anemones and celandine, long established and undisturbed. These delicate beauties blanket the margins of the stream leading out into the dappled shade and the fields beyond. If you look beyond the fields and the grazing sheep and lambs, and within the surrounding woodlands, the anemones continue, an ocean of white as far as the eye can see. The woodland canopy is still bare in late March, allowing just the right amount of sunlight to sustain the growth of the anemones, which produce this small wonder of nature.
There is something magical about these few fleeting moments of the day where I ride along in peace, whilst enjoying the sights and sounds around me. I suspect that during the day to day rush of life we do not always appreciate our sensory abilities. I try to take some time out of each day to explore my senses, by closing my eyes for a few moments and just listening to the sounds of nature. The bird song at Allt y bela is so energetic and vibrant, it washes over you like an elixir of life.
I am also making the most of the spring fragrance and blooms with some deep breathing exercises. Plants are particularly showy at this time of year, attracting insects and birds to sample their nectar. Standing in the garden you can feel the vibrance of spring all around you. Funnily enough, Arne and I were exploring the garden together recently and enjoying the fragrance of a viburnum located behind the vegetable garden. Arne commented that it reminded him of a lovely smell you encounter when you visit an old stately home, a fragrance evocative of wood wax and old England! This evoked the same sensory memory for me, having worked many years ago at Chatsworth House. I recall going into the house occasionally to assist the Head Gardener. We were always greeted by the housekeeper either polishing floors or cleaning silver! I wonder how many other sensory memories we all share, but never mention to others.
Of course, Arne and I are taking the best precautions during the working day to maintain a safe distance at all times. We are very fortunate in that we can both work independently in the garden and in the fresh air and away from others.
My brief journey to work is not all plain sailing though. I have to dodge the odd pothole, squirrel and pheasant, all seem to take great delight in either running or flying out in front of me. I swear they wait for my arrival each morning, judging by the frequency of my encounters with them.
For those that do not know, Allt y bela nestles in an isolated valley surrounded by hills, open field and trees, so the final approach is slightly undulating. On arrival, I crest a small rise and I pass through the softly corroded metal gates of the house and garden and my day of gardening begins…..
Whatever the weather, Allt y bela gleams…rendered in a vibrant shade of rusty ochre. The contrast with the landscape is striking, yet totally in harmony with the planting and structural topiary. Shadows from larger trees, backlit by the sun, cast playfully across the building, providing both depth and texture. Over recent weeks Allt y bela has come to life with elegance and grace.
The magnolias have been particularly good this year providing an abundance of flower. A frost did catch one specimen in mid-March, but we still had a good few days where the blooms were at their best. Over the period of a few days, I enjoyed observing the large downy magnolia buds bursting open, to reveal opulent flower petals. The flowers themselves look translucent with heavy dew and back lit by early morning sunlight. Observing these subtle changes is a real joy, and I would encourage us all to take time to enjoy the moments that nature shares with us.
The garden that Arne has created at Allt y bela is truly beautiful. Arne possesses a remarkable awareness regarding planting, subtle texture, colour and how these intertwine with the landscape. It is both playful and elegant.
A recognisably striking feature of the garden is the topiary. I particularly like the subtle changes in tone and texture of the Fagus (beech) that occurs through winter and into spring. Through sunshine and cloud, frost and rain, the topiary provides structure and continuity with the landscape beyond. The leaves of Fagus are a rich copper in early winter and remain abundant on the plant, very much like a winter cloak. By the time spring arrives the leaves have endured the elements and have bleached and faded to soft taupe. They are now starting to fall off the plants as though autumn has returned once again, if briefly. This is to make way for the emergence of soft green foliage which is most welcome and refreshing to behold after their winter dormancy.
The spring meadows have been in flower over the last few weeks filled with iris, crocus, narcissus, cowslips and more recently delicate tulips. Arne and I took great pleasure exploring the meadows together and counting the colonies of wild orchids that have started to emerge. Arne pointed out to me a parent orchid that had self-seeded. You could see a distinct curve of young orchids due to natural seed dispersal and growth.
A walk through the woodland and along the driveway banks reveals a wealth of growth and flowers from colonies of white and purple fritillaries, narcissus, cowslips and Cammasia.
I have been busy in the vegetable garden over the last few days constructing sweet pea and runner bean supports. I have made these out of coppiced hazel stems which I have been able to cut from two strong hazel stools located next to the stream. It's a simple structure to construct, using eight hazel stems to form a 60cm diameter circle. I use a small steel bar to create a hole, and then push each hazel stem into the soil 12cm deep. If you angle the hazel stems away from the centre, they can then be bent and tied together at the top to form a wigwam. Smaller branches of hazel twigs can then be inserted within the wigwam to provide finer twiggy support for the plants.
The weather has been particularly kind after a very wet winter. With the dry weather and warm sunshine, I have been able to plant out the sweet peas, chitted potatoes, shallots, beet, sea kale, and sow carrots, radish and broad beans. When you look out from the vegetable garden you can see the spring meadow beyond. We planted a collection of young plug plants in late autumn and these appear to be thriving.
The established cowslips on the driveway bank are particularly beautiful growing amongst moss, their soft yellow flowers greet me each morning as I come through the gate. If it were possible to be miniaturised, I would imagine a walk through those mossy cowslips and spring bulbs would be incredible. What a journey that would be…….
Wherever your journey leads over the next few weeks, please stay safe. Happier days will come, days when we can all enjoy gardening and the freedom of nature's beauty once again.
Best Wishes, Dean
Words: Dean Peckett
Photographs and films: Dean Peckett and Arne Maynard
For more spring inspiration from Allt y bela with Arne and Dean, follow Arne Maynard Garden Design on Instagram. Arne is giving a daily walking tour of a different part of the garden.