My children grew up in Oban Road. At one end the street turned a 90o corner past the entrance to their school into Perth Road. At the other end, a T-junction with Paynton Road. Both Paynton Road and Perth Road led down onto the Battle Road. Because Paynton Road offered a direct link between the A21 and the A2100, and turning into either Perth Road or Oban Road only detoured a longer route to the same destination, the through traffic all favoured Paynton Road, leaving Oban Road in peace and serenity except at 8.45 and 3.15 when it was absolute bedlam (school entrance).
Mr Bishop lived in Paynton Road, but in the corner house, so the whole side of his property ran along Oban Road though his house fronted onto Paynton Road.
The houses in these three roads were small Victorian terraced villas with long narrow gardens at the back and tiny plots for a few flowers at the front. Our garden (this was before we got the puppies!!) was a wonderful labour of love. An access road running along the back had been closed off years ago by someone annexing a section of it for their own garden, and a wild apple tree grew in the remaining patch of no-mans-land it left at the end of our garden by the time we moved in. The apple tree blew down in the hurricane of ’87 but kept on growing, wonderful for little children to scramble there and play. We made our bonfires there too. The actual garden, about 20ft wide and 120ft long, we subdivided into four square sections. The idea was to allow our children to feel independent and adventurous while keeping them safe. The first square, nearest the house, had their toys and Wendy House and sandpit, the next a bowl shape paved with stone and bordered with flowers – I wanted it to look like a ruined palace or a pavement in Katmandu. The third section just had grass and hedges – a cool green space. Past the shed and the compost heap, under the arching ceanothus we had trained over the path, the intrepid explorer came to the strawberry patch and the pond, edged with snowberry and flowering currant and home to a multitude of frogs. The children had their Art Shed up there – a conservatory shed with a big window variously used for playing, painting and making, or just for storage at times. Then finally on to the bonfire patch and the apple tree.
A hedge surrounded the whole garden – but not an ordinary hedge. We had very little money, so we hardly ever paid for plants – only a couple of new polyanthuses to add to the collection each spring. Our hedge, all 240ft of it, was made up entirely of cuttings and plants we had been given by friends and family. It had beech, forsythia, honeysuckle, conifer, hawthorn, blackberry, lavateria, box, hibiscus, privet, wild rose – everything you could possibly imagine. Dotted about in the garden we had a tree grown from a hedging beech (so it crowned out early and didn’t get too big for its setting) in a small elevated bed encased by a curving stone wall in the Katmandu bit, two silver birches growing side by side flanked by low-growing box shrubs in the division between Katmandu and the Cool Green Space, and a plum tree.
As we worked on it over the fourteen years we lived there, it grew into the most magical, leafy paradise, dappled with shade, fragrant and soft. I loved that garden.
In the last couple of years we lived there, as the children grew out of their Wendy House and sand pit, we built a deck and what I thought of as a Tea House, under the spreading bough of the beech tree, with a door towards the main house and a door towards the Katmandu section. The doors were glazed and the roof had skylights, so the tea house caught and held the light as well as letting the breezes through and the scents of the grasses, the flowers and leaves.
It was all so beautiful.
Then, going towards Silverhill meant walking the length of Mr Bishop’s garden, and delighting in peeping over the wall. His garden was like a microcosm of Old England. He tended it lovingly but somehow managed to let it look left to be, a patch of peace. Honeysuckle ran the length of his wall, spilling over the top to perfume the whole street. Twisty, gnarled old apple trees bent their loving branches into a cool shade over the grass and bluebells, the Queen Anne’s Lace and primroses, the violets and roses that grew along the low wall (about 3ft high) that bordered the whole garden. It was a breath of heaven. In the twilight as the day came down to dusk, badgers and foxes wandered there – as they also did in our garden.
Well, Mr Bishop was very old, and when he died the house was sold to a young couple who had a family and a car. They pulled up the plants and the apple trees to build a garage on the end third of the garden and cement in play structures and a barbeque on the two thirds close to the house, leaving a patch of cut grass and some small herbaceous plants in flower borders along the edge.
I was sad to see it go. Then we moved away for me to become a school chaplain up in Kent. The family who moved into our house grubbed out the entire hedge and kept their freezer in the tea house. They tore up the Iceberg rose and the lavender from the front garden and all the little flowers, preferring shale and spiky palms.
But you start again, don’t you? You can’t help being yourself, and you always just start again.
This morning I sat outside in the garden we have planted here – the roses and the honeysuckle, the apple trees and pear trees, the cherry tree. I looked at the sage and the lavender, the ceanothus, the silver birches and the vegetable patch. I wandered down to Hebe’s wilderness area sown with wildflowers, edged with hawthorn and Bridesblossom. I looked at the scatterings of daisies and speedwell, the Creeping Jenny among the bean plants, the Self Heal and larger Plaintain, the Honesty that has established around the crab-apple tree, the borage and primroses that grow among the lush grass under the trees at the bottom of the garden near the leaf-mould heap and the bonfire.
And, taking in the cool green fragrance and the loveliness of herbs and trees, the wonder of the greening of England in the maytime, I remembered Mr Bishop and his garden that I had loved so very much, and I thought, you know it never really dies. You think you’ve lost it and you grieve, your heart breaks. But like a half-forgotten tune, a few lost notes here and there in the dawning, it starts up again.
“While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.”
“And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.”
After long thought it has occurred to us that so long as we are still human-shaped, going in and out in all the right places, and the clothes that always did fit us do fit us still – well, we probably don’t need the bathroom scales.