No, this is not the Tish Farrell ancestral pile, although my young aunt (standing) and my grandfather do look very much at home here. They are in the garden of Redhurst Manor, Surrey, where my grandfather, Charles Ashford was head gardener during the 1920s and ‘30s. My Aunt Evelyn was born in the gardener’s cottage on the estate, so you could say, in a way, that Redhurst was their domain – at least for a time. Grandfather certainly ruled the garden and the men who worked under him. He was fastidious in his gardening discipline, and much else besides, and expected the same from others; a true Victorian then.
And given his sense of propriety, I think one can be pretty sure that this particular Ashford family gathering, with Grandmother Alice Ashford (nee Eaton) sitting so comfortably on the lawn (she’s the one in the dark frock, busily chatting) would not have been happening if the Major and his lady had been within.
When I was editing this photograph, I thought about cropping off a good deal of that velvet smooth lawn. But then I thought, no. The fine state of it was down to Grandfather and his team with the horse-drawn mower. I also know that when Evelyn was small her mother used to smack her legs for rolling down that bank and getting her Sunday silk frock all green and grassy. Not the sort of the thing the very proper young lady in the photo would be doing. She was very tall for her age, so was probably only fifteen or sixteen when captured here.
I gathered from family stories that Grandfather’s employer was an Anglo-Irish cavalry man who had been burned out of his home in Ireland during the troubles. He had another house up in Yorkshire, where he and his wife would often go.
Sometimes Grandfather accompanied them if they were going up for the shooting season. He had the reputation for being a fine shot. Even so, however you look at it, this was a most uncommon situation: a gentleman inviting his head gardener to a shooting party. My mother always said the Major’s lady was rather keen on Charles Ashford, and would invite him into her boudoir when he came to present her with the first peaches from the hot house. She would be dressed only in her silk negligee, reclining invitingly on a chaise. Mother could have made this up of course. In any case, Charles Ashford would have chosen not to notice such a state of shocking déshabillé in the presence of a member of the outdoor staff.
All the same, I do know he would take her sprigs of winter jasmine, arranged in little silver vases provided for him by Johnny the Butler, and selected specially by Grandfather from Johnny’s Butler’s Pantry. I also have a postcard sent to Grandfather in early March 1937, after he had left Redhurst and the Major moved permanently to Yorkshire. A touch of Lady Chatterly light?
“Thank you so much for the lovely violets which arrived beautifully fresh. Hope you are all well. T.B.B.”
On the reverse side is this photo of what I assume is T.B.B.’s Yorkshire home. I am touched to think of Grandfather carefully packaging up the first spring violets to send to his former employer. I imagine him wrapping the stems with damp moss, adding swathes of paper to protect the flowers and placing all in a sturdy cardboard box, then taking the parcel to Cranleigh post office.
Here are my grandparents at around the time the postcard was sent. They are in the garden of their house on Mount Road, Cranleigh. Just look at those delphiniums. They were Grandfather’s favourites, along with heleniums. At the manor he had cultivated a big herbaceous border of mixed delphiniums and heleniums, using them to create a stunning screen between the walled kitchen garden and rest of the grounds. Such a planting scheme – spires of blue soaring through the golds, reds and oranges of heleniums, surprises me somehow; it sounds very modern – very nouveau garden designerish.
The kitchen garden was walled on three sides, and about half an acre in size. This was where Grandfather had his command post, and the reason I know this is because one of the treasures inherited from Evelyn were the notes of her talks given to her local gardening club. Charles Ashford was very much a feature. As a small child she followed him around, taking in everything he did, although he expected her to work too. Here is her description of her father’s work place. It reveals much about the man:
Imagine that we are standing in the holy of holies, my father’s potting shed. It was not all that large and the space was taken up with deep shelving on three sides of the shed. There was a door into the kitchen yard and another into the garden itself. On the back of one door were three large coat hooks to take the jackets that my father needed and also his green baize apron. On the other door hung his clean alpaca jacket which was worn when he went into the house, a dust coat to be used in the fruit room and his leather pruning apron with its thick, left-handed coarse leather glove sticking out of the pocket. These garments comprised his head gardener’s uniform; there was almost a ritual about putting them on for the various tasks.
My father’s own tools were hung in neat and spotless order on hooks to the left of the garden door. He insisted on clean tools and, after every task, the men had to be sure to wash, and then rub dry on old sacking any tool that had got even the slightest bit dirty. A little spot of oil was rubbed into the spades and trowels and forks until the metal shone. Wooden handles were treated with linseed oil which was thoroughly worked in. Only then could the tools be stored away. That is why, to this day, I am still using a well worn spade and fork that belonged to my father. There have been times when, if in a hurry I have hung my spade up dirty, I have gone scurrying back to give it a ‘a lick and a promise’. I can almost hear my father saying, ‘That won’t do, miss. Dirty tools make bad workmen.’
Reading these notes, I wish I had known him. I only remember meeting him twice. After Grandmother died, he lived with my aunt down in Wiltshire, and we lived miles away in Cheshire. But this next photo suggests that my father at least made one effort to visit him.
I’m about two years old here, and I’m guessing that this was Grandfather’s eightieth birthday. I have my own distinct mental snapshot of him. Before lunch he was out in the vegetable garden in his shirt sleeves, sifting the stones from the soil in a big garden riddle. I remember being fascinated by this strange activity. My other snapshot is when he came to stay with us in Cheshire at Love Lane House. It must have been summer for I see him sitting in the sunshine outside the front door, shelling peas into a colander. I remember too, that he bought me a very beautiful little sailing yacht with a coffee coloured hull and ivory sails. I don’t think we had much luck sailing it though. But although I did not know him, and grew up mostly with my father’s tales of Grandfather’s monumental temper, I do often think of him -when I’m up at the allotment digging and weeding and seed sowing. I know he would be pleased to see me gardening, but I also know he would have some sharp words to say about my sloppy gardening habits.
copyright 2015 Tish Farrell
P.S. There will be more walled garden tales to follow