Where deer quietly graze.
It seems the hyperactive Polar Jet Stream has been responsible for the last few months excessive weather events in the northern hemisphere. This particular ‘river in the sky’ (there are others) apparently rips across the globe between the Arctic and the sub-tropical zone at the height of a trans-Atlantic plane. It can be up to 3 miles thick and between 1,000-3,000 miles long. And at this time of year it travels between 300 and 400 miles per hour. You can find out all about it at The Jet Stream.
Anyway last week the weather person promised us a break from its more obvious machinations, and said we were in for some bright, cold weather starting Monday.
And so it happened. Yesterday we woke to wall to wall blue sky, sunshine, fluffy clouds and coolly crisp air. And no rain! So to boost any signs of flagging spirits and counteract the effluent spewed daily by our mass media we set off for the wide open loveliness of Attingham Park for a big dose of fresh air and some brisk exercise.
When we arrived there we found several hundred other people had had the same idea. Hoards of mothers-and-toddlers, multitudes of dog owners with multiple canines, and a whole bunch of ‘at risk’ age-group folks like us. The several car parks were almost full to bursting.
The National Trust staff, mostly volunteers, were their usual welcoming selves, and soon all the visitors were well dispersed across the parkland. In places around the deer park, where there are several gates to deal with, I noticed that everyone we met was opening them with their elbows and in like manner holding them open for others. At which point I decided it truly was impossible to get a complete grip on how one should react to this current Covid-19 drama.
As I’m writing this I can hear the rumble of the farmer’s tractor in the field behind the house, monster arms of the spraying gear outstretched, giving the emerging crop a food boost. At the front of the house the traffic is still dashing by to Telford. Earlier I spotted Mr and Mrs vicar passing by on their daily dog walk. They stopped to chat with other walkers. The postman delivered the post. People (some exceedingly aged since that’s a significant feature of Wenlock’s demographic) have been walking by into town to do their shopping…
So yes. I was glad we went out yesterday. There was still quite a lot of flood water standing in the park, but the hawthorns and willows were bursting green. The daffodils were out. I found a crop of violets complete with butterfly. We saw a pair of ravens, making their cronk-cronking calls and doing a spot of aerial somersaulting. Jackdaws were cavorting; blue tits twittering, and the fallow deer looking frisky. And then of course we also saw the 650-year-old Repton Oak (see previous post). So much to be pleased about. Lots to be thankful for and wonder at.
copyright 2020 Tish Farrell
Today we paid our respects to this very elderly oak tree. It has been growing in Attingham Park in Shropshire since the 1370 where it is now under the care of the National Trust and fondly known as the Repton Oak since it was already a veteran in 1797 when garden designer, Humphrey Repton landscaped the parkland for the Barons Berwick.
But just think of the span of human history it has lived through. When it popped shoot and radicle from its acorn Edward III was still on the throne, and the Hundred Years War between England and France was only half done. By the time it had grown to a sturdy sapling Geoffrey Chaucer was thinking of writing The Canterbury Tales and the peasants were in revolt against the draconian levels of taxation (raised to fight the war that did not end until 1453 and was actually the 116 years war).
The oak tree is still a great presence in the landscape though sadly its innards are decaying. But this is not all bad news since it provides an important haven for the rare Lesser Stag Beetle whose larvae feed on the rotting wood at the centre of such ancient trees.
A national treasure of a tree then: arboreal emblem of stalwart resilience. We must remember to pay another visit when it’s in leaf.
We thought we’d make the most of the sunny day and popped over to Attingham Park at lunch time. Half the world had the same idea and the place was alive with happy families and happy dogs roving over the parkland. There were fallow deer to see, bluebell woods, trees burstingly green, stream banks golden with marsh marigolds, and in the walled garden’s frame-yard these very shouty tulips. My goodness but they had a lot to say for themselves.
Well, I’d never seen one of these before. There it was outside the walled garden at Attingham Park, one of Shropshire’s grandest historic houses. Closer inspection and the spotting of an information panel inside one of the half-moon ‘windows’ yielded the knowledge that it was in fact the bees knees in accommodation – a grand house commissioned specially for the Second Duke of Berwick’s bees.
The house was originally sited in the Duke’s extensive orchards to encourage the pollination of the fruit trees. Behind each opening there would have been a traditional hive or skep – an upturned, domed basket made from coils of straw. This apian ‘des res’ apparently dates from the early 1800s and is only one of two known Regency examples in the country. The great landscape designer Humphry Repton and architect John Nash were both employed at Attingham around this time, and so either one could be responsible for the design.
The hall and park are in the care of the National Trust, and it is currently one of their most visited properties – over 400,000 visitors last year and growing. Millions have been spent on the house, and the next huge project is the recreation of Lord Berwick’s pleasure grounds. Nor have the bees been forgotten. There are a quarter of a million honey bees in the Park, and the Trust has recently established a large, new apiary in the Deer Park. There is also a National Observation Hive in the orchard where you can watch the bees coming and going. Attingham honey may be going on sale soon. So a big cheer to the National Trust for championing the bee cause, this in the face of determined eradication of the species by the Big Unfriendly Pesticide Giants. We’ll all be very sorry if bees become ‘a thing of the past’.
The walled garden in winter: a restoration project in progress. You can just glimpse the orchard beyond the far wall.
Black & White Sunday: Traces of the Past Now visit Paula for her fine entry.
I hasten to say these are not my grandfather’s actual tools, but when I spotted this gardening paraphernalia in the gardeners’ bothy in the walled garden at Attingham Park yesterday, I instantly thought of Charlie Ashford. He was head gardener at Redhurst Manor in Surrey from around 1921. I have written about him in the Tales from the Walled Garden. The links are at the end.
Attingham is one of Shropshire’s grandest stately homes, once home of the Berwick family, but now in the care of the National Trust. I did have photos of the house, taken on an earlier visit, but the computer seems to have eaten them, and yesterday the walled garden was my only objective. There has been a monumental restoration project going on there since 2008, and this was our first visit. (Always the same with places on the doorstep.)
I think this is probably the hugest walled garden I have ever seen, and I truly cannot imagine why one household would need to produce quite so much food for itself even if it did include feeding all the servants. Here is one corner:
And yes, it was perverse to chose December for our first visit – a time when there is hardly anything growing. However, I was very taken with the climbing bean frames, just visible towards the back wall. Here’s a better view. I think they’re made from hazel whips. Ideal for sweet peas too.
The path around them leads to an adjoining much smaller walled garden. This is where we found the gardeners’ bothy, cold frames and glass houses, hot beds and hot walls – the kind of territory wherein my grandfather spent much of his working life:
Charlie Ashford served his apprenticeship in an establishment as grand as Attingham. The position of head gardener was akin to the role of butler within the house. The training was long and there was a strict hierarchy of under-gardeners and garden boys. Redhurst, though, was a much less grand affair – a modest country manor by comparison. You can see it in the background in the next photo – grandfather in the dahlia and delphinium bed.
And here’s a glimpse of his working life from one of the talks his daughter, my Aunt Evelyn, gave to her gardening club. She was born in the gardener’s cottage at Redhurst and spent her earliest years in the garden there. I’ve posted excerpts before, but this is a longer version:
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 probably 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 at list ‘a lick and a promise’. I can almost hear my father saying, ‘That won’t do, miss. Dirty tools make bad workmen.’
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.
There was the annual ritual of sowing seeds for vegetables, preparing the asparagus beds, pruning and shaping the fruit trees, getting the cold frames ready, going over the tennis courts to prepare them for the summer season. There would be glass to replace in the long glass-houses or hot houses. The herbaceous beds required a lot of work in autumn: overgrown plant clumps to be carefully split and replanted, all to be mulched with well rotted manure from the stable yard, or a sweeter mixture of well rotted compost and peat for plants that did not like manure.
Wages were low, and hours were very long, but there were seldom any complaints. Early in the year one man would be set the task of planting out young tomato plants in one section of the glass house. In another section another worker might be potting up seedling chrysanthemums. And so the cycle of work went on.
Dad had his own specialist greenhouse in which he grew plants for the house. Primulas were a particular speciality but he was careful to see that whichever of his men was put to work here that he was not allergic to the plants. Primulas can secrete a substance from the leaves that causes a painful and persistent rash not unlike shingles.
The kitchen garden was walled on three sides by a wall at least eight feet high. On the south side was some rustic fencing over which climbed roses, clematis and honeysuckle – all in a tumbling profusion that looked natural, but was carefully managed throughout the year.
Much of the equipment that the men used was made on the estate. There were sturdy wooden wheelbarrows made in the wood yard behind the stables. The wheels turning at a touch with never a squeak allowed. On busy grass cutting days an extra section fitted onto the top of the largest barrows so that the men could trundle the piles of cut grass away to the ‘frame yard’ to be spread on compost heaps there. Here there was also a long low open shed in which all the mowers were kept: a hand mower for paths and border edges; a small motor mower for the terraces and the little lawn areas; a large sit-on mower for the long stretches of lawn and the rough grass places; and a huge wide mower with a heavy roller, which a horse from the home farm used to pull across the beautifully kept lawn at the front of the house.
Cucumbers were also grown in the cold frames and never cheek by jowl with tomatoes in the hot house. It was a job for two men getting the frames ready early in spring. The frames were built of brick with solid wooden supports or runners to hold the strongly built wooden lights. When I was older I could just about help my father to open or shut the frames. It was important to keep the cucumbers at just the right heat and to give them sufficient ventilation. Grown like this they always tasted succulent. This was not surprising as they were grown in a deep, deep bed of well rotted stable manure mixed with peat and compost and leaves – anything to make the mixture ‘hot’.
Thinking back on the work done in those gardens everything had its use and nothing was wasted – especially time.
At the big house, it was important that gardeners should maintain a succession of lovely flowers – all year if possible, and especially those with scents. As soon as anything special bloomed, like Winter Jasmine or Viburnum fragrans, a spray or two went into the house early in the morning for madam’s breakfast tray, or the desk in the Major’s study. This was quite a ritual. Into the house we would go, but not into kitchen because that was Cook’s domain. We go around the house and in through a side door and into the Butler’s Pantry. Here Johnny the Butler ruled supreme. When we arrived with Dad’s offering for the day, the exchange would go something like this.
“What have got today then, Charlie? Do you want two silver holders or one cut glass?”
“Oh, I think two silvers, please, Johnny. I’ve got some fine sprays of Winter Jasmine.”
Then Dad would take the delicate sprays from the shallow basket that he always used and arranged them in the vases with great artistry. Thanks for such offerings reached him without fail: “Please tell Ashford that the flowers were just what madam likes. The colours matched her dress today.”
Evelyn Ashford Gibbings