Tales from the Walled Garden #2: back to the potting shed

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This is my Aunt Evelyn in around 1927. I’m guessing she’s about four years old when this photo was taken. She’s in the walled kitchen garden at Redhurst Manor, Surrey, where her father, my grandfather, Charles Ashford, was head gardener. In Tales from the Walled Garden #1  I included an excerpt from Evelyn’s description of what she calls her father’s ‘holy of holies’, the potting shed. She spent much time there as a small child, ever under strict instructions to be good. Here’s some more of what she remembered:

The potting shed was filled with a wonderful mixture of smells of the sort you find in a ‘20s hardware store. Tarred string was the main one. Then there was the strange jungly smell of the raffia hanks hanging on the door. It suggested faraway places. There was bone meal, fish meal, sulphate of ammonia, Clays fertilizer, Fullers Earth, Hoof and Horn – everything to help bring in good crops – and all stored in wooden bins with brass bands and rivets and a wooden bushel or half-bushel measure on top.

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And now Evelyn will show you around some more of her father’s gardening domain. She’s even drawn you a map:

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Let me take you down the steps from the potting shed and into the kitchen garden. To the left there is a very long, narrow border under the high brick wall. This is where the herbs are grown for the kitchen. Either cook comes herself, or she sends the little kitchen maid to pick what is required for the day. It might be mint or parsley, chives, tender little spring onions or sprigs of fennel for the fish course – all the herbs in their season. If cook comes to the garden in summer, she also makes a quick inspection of the fruit cage to see what is ready.

With the exception of strawberries, all the soft fruit is grown in the big cage: fat red or yellow gooseberries, raspberries, luscious loganberries, all the currants – red, white, black, and later in the season the enormous cultivated blackberries. Many times I have slipped into that big cage to pick the huge fruits, especially the gooseberries, crouching down between the rows, hoping I wouldn’t be seen. These large red varieties, Prince Rupert, Wonderful  and Roaring Lion are hardly seen now, but those monsters of my childhood were a joy to eat straight from the bush. I never liked cooked gooseberries.

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Our kitchen garden soil was heavy yellow Surrey clay, and so enormous quantities of lighter stuff had to be dug in each autumn. Also a number of green manure crops were grown to be ‘turned in’ before food crops were planted. One of my father’s favourites was groundsel. This was dug into the big plot where brassicas would be planted.

In spring I would be sent out with a bucket and thick leather gloves to gather the lush green tops of nettles. This was not my favourite task. These nettles went in trenches beneath the seed potatoes because they contained a lot of iron. All sorts of natural substances were added to the soil of that garden. The only chemical preparation my father bought was Clays fertiliser and perhaps Bordeaux Mixture. Everything grew extremely well for him. Everything was tended with loving care. Season after season this was the pattern of things in the gardens of our estate.

Within the mellow brick walls the sun beat down, warming the fruit in the cage, the trained trees on the walls, and giving warmth to all life in the rich soil so that all the fruit and vegetables flourished.

On the walls were trained the top fruit: William pears, yellow plums, Victoria plums, nectarines, quinces, medlars, and some very special apples. Tucked into the angle of the south facing wall, which was the warmest spot, were a fig tree and a lovely peach. Below each wall was a deeply dug bed, and towards the potting shed there were artichokes, celery, spinach and, surprising for those days, sweet corn. My father was very good at growing sweet corn, and it was a great favourite with the Major.

Next to the big fruit cage a few rows of catch crops were grown. These included lettuce, carrots, early peas, and beetroots – anything else that had a short season. Across the grass path was the asparagus bed. This would have taken a long time to prepare and bring into production. It would have been a Sabbath Day’s job to dig the trenches north to south, two feet deep at least and filled with well rotted manure, light compost and a good sprinkling of silver sand worked in well. The raised bed should be salted as this is helpful to the plants and discourages slugs and weeds. A good bed should last twenty years.

My father grew wonderful asparagus. There was plenty for cook to prepare for the house, and the surplus was sold at the village greengrocer. I can still recall succulent dishes of this delectable vegetable, dripping with butter and served up for Sunday dinner at home.

We didn’t know how lucky we were all those years ago. So many good things to eat every day, and game from the numerous shoots that the Major held on his land. All the fruit we could eat in due season, and a good roof over our heads in the gardener’s cottage at the edge of estate.

To be continued.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

20 thoughts on “Tales from the Walled Garden #2: back to the potting shed

  1. Your Aunt Evelyn continues to amaze. She writes with wonderful fluency, detail and atmosphere. (Whose aunt is she???) I especially like the plan of the garden and the photos of the little girl she was. The asparagus has me salivating.

    1. Oh yes, she was a well seasoned writer by the time she was writing these notes. I still have her primary school essays, written when she was around thirteen in her at primary school.And those were pretty fluent too. Also some of her short stories written much later. And I have a batch of her later teen correspondence during WW2 to just about everybody she knew. Not only did she write cheering letters to a bunch of servicemen who had been billeted in Cranleigh and then sent to North Africa, but also to the younger brother, mother and father (all separate missives) of an American mustang pilot who had been posted to Surrey. This US family christened her Doodles, because she kept telling them hair-raising tales of doodlebug bombing raids.

    1. Yes, it’s sad that they do get lost, Marie. After all, it’s our history – the real history of how people lived. As ever, though, you suddenly realise all the questions you have… the if only I’d THOUGHT to ask while those who know are still around 🙂

  2. Those times and that life style comes alive in your Aunts writing. She is very gifted and describes an idyllic time. Did she ever write any books? What a pleasure for you to have those precious memories to look back on. Thank you for sharing them.

  3. I like the idea of a fruit cage; very sensible. And I agree with your aunt. Red uncooked gooseberries are the best! I didn’t know that till recently having always been served cooked gooseberries.

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