July 2019 – June 2020 garden diary

Background

Just over a year ago, I decided to create a vegetable plot at the end of the garden. Why? Various reasons …

We were pretty sure it would help when we came to make a second attempt to sell the recently-inherited property. “Oh, I was hoping there’d be a vegetable patch”, said one viewer during our first go at finding a buyer. They’d seemed quite keen till they came upon our “jungle”. It certainly had a “wow!” factor, but in all the wrong ways – and may even have been the deal-breaker.

We’ve always grown vegetables in previous gardens and so it was also important for us, even though our stay is only meant to be temporary. But also, with Brexit at the forefront of everyone’s minds, including ours, and dire predictions of shortages of fresh vegetables after the likely ‘No Deal’ outcome, digging for victory seemed to make a lot of sense. So let’s grow our own, we thought. And then came Covid-19, which certainly reinforced our feeling that being at least partly self-sufficient for food will be a good backstop (if you’ll pardon the expression).

But was it really possible? The little parcel of land, right at the end of the garden, about 26 feet by 12 feet (c. 29 square metres), was horrendously overgrown, with an almost impenetrable tangle of ivy and brambles stretching from the thick, seven-foot high hedge and roots, sometimes the size of tree trunks, buried all across the area. The old, decrepit “summerhouse” was just about holding together, but only just.

Clearing the site

We also wanted to make a rose bed. The following photo shows the area we would use for roses, with the planned veg. patch behind it.

Our potential view of the broad expanse of agricultural land stretching into the distance was virtually invisible, because of the height of the hedge. So an early task was to cut it down. Down and back, in fact, as the hedge was quite a deep structure comprising brambles, ivy and other assorted vegetation. Having broken the back of this task initially, I turned to other jobs. But, of course, the hedge responded enthusiastically to my pruning and it wasn’t long before two-thirds of what I’d removed was replaced by new growth!

This whole exercise was peppered with trips to the local recycling centre to take the latest huge pile of cuttings. Just filling a skip would never have been the answer – a new skip would have been needed every week …

Eventually we began to see the wood for the trees … actually, maybe I should re-phrase that? A storm had brought down a partially-rotted elder; but that didn’t help matters all that much, as I had to cut it into moveable pieces in order to be able to dispose of it.

I recognise that all of this would have been much simpler had we employed a garden clearance company; but for me gardening is always about getting that sense of achievement! Having said that, we did have to employ specialist tree surgeons for some tasks elsewhere in the garden.

I wish it had been possible to dig up the deep root infestations and eradicate the brambles and rampant ivy without resorting to weedkillers. Unfortunately, I had to run up the white flag on that one. If I’d had a team of dedicated workmen prepared to dig deep enough to track and trace every last rootlet, I might one day have cleansed the site, I suppose; but, in this case, the addition of copious amounts of systemic weedkiller was really the only viable option, as far as I could see.

The rather strange-looking object in the picture below is a fence post that has been ‘strangled’ by a thick stem or stems of ivy. This may give some idea of the problems I encountered, both above and below ground, in clearing the site.

I did feel occasionally as though I was engaged in horticultural archaeology, as when, for instance, I discovered this gate in the far corner of the plot!

And so, car-boot full by car-boot full, the site clearance progressed, until we could begin thinking about next steps.

Roses

I described the selection and planting of the David Austin shrub roses we planted in a previous blog, so I won’t go over old ground (though in a way that’s exactly what we were doing – hoho), other than to say that the Gabriel Oak rose was very slow to get started – I feared for its future for a time – but it finally caught up and is looking in fine fettle nowadays. The others – Gertrude Jekyll, Emily Bronte, Queen of Sweden and Eustacia Vye – are all developing nicely.

We bought some low level wicker fence panels to demarcate the boundary between the vegetable patch and the rose bed. We covered the bare soil with a thick mulch of bark chippings to aid moisture retention and suppress weeds.

The new roses are coming along well. We’ve been feeding and watering them regularly and have given them a light prune to produce a balanced shape prior to their period of relative dormancy over the winter months. We’ll prune them harder around late March next year and feed them with rose food to encourage strong early growth.

Here’s Queen of Sweden showing her colour …

… and this is Eustacia Vye

… and here’s a beautiful bloom on Gertrude Jekyll.

The rose shown below was a very interesting find, growing in the midst of the dense tangle of brambles and ivy in what became the veg. patch. No idea what variety it is. It’s a really lovely rose, but oh my word, what a job to dig it out and transplant it into a pot! Its roots were huge and extensive, and I needed to use not just my fork and spade but ultimately my pick and handsaw too, to extricate it!

The photo below shows just a small section of its root system.

Here’s a better shot of it in bloom, now in a large pot. Just a straightforward shrub rose, by the look of it, but a welcome free addition.

Raised beds

Raised beds have become all the rage in recent years. I recall that they were first featured on TV around twenty years ago, as an aid for disabled people, perhaps in wheelchairs, facilitating ready access so that they could more easily tend crops, do weeding and see their garden produce close up. The principle has been adapted over the years, as the idea of having better-defined growing areas has really caught on. Now it seems they’re a “must have”, especially for vegetables, in most gardens.

At first I was going to make my own. But when I saw these raised bed kits at Homebase, I couldn’t resist the temptation …

In a small area like this, they do seem to make it easy to use the available space much more efficiently.

I used wire netting to cover the beds when awaiting seed germination. Passing cats walking on the soil and hungry blackbirds digging for worms can be a hazard!

Summerhouse

I don’t claim to be a dab hand at carpentry (despite the best efforts of my woodwork teacher, Mr Bradfield, at school!), but I did my best to patch up the summerhouse-cum-shed. It will probably need some more attention, including another coat of green paint, before we put the ‘For Sale’ sign up again next year; but for now I’m reasonably happy with the result.

Mistakes, compromises and problems

I would have loved to have included a greenhouse, but made the executive decision that there just wasn’t room. However, the new side window, which I glazed against the fen winds with polycarbonate, at least allows for a few shelves on which to give protection to potted-on plug plants, while they grow to a viable size.

Equally, I’d have liked to have included a “proper” compost heap, but decided to forego it and use bought compost.

The oldest of the three apple trees gave up the ghost during this period. It was a shame, because it produced the best eating apples; but for reasons I’m not sure of it had become very mis-shapen and really spoiled the view. So once it was dead I set about chopping off the top section, with the (longer-term) intention of removing more of the trunk and maybe making some kind of low-level seat.

I was determined to grow runner beans but at first couldn’t see how I could find the space. Then a brainwave … thread poles through the wiremesh fencing and grow the beans that way. It worked! (I also found space for tomato plants up against the fence).

My intention is to add gravel between all the beds, to provide protection from the mud after rain and for its aesthetic benefits; but for the time being I’ve been avoiding unnecessary trips to garden centres (guess why); so, hopefully, a job for sometime in the New Year.

I am inclined to believe those “doom-mongers” who say that there may well be shortages of fresh vegetables after Brexit, especially early next year. So I’m growing extra winter-hardy crops – parsnips and carrots in pots, winter lettuce, sprouting broccoli, leeks, celeriac and spinach, for instance. Yes, they’re all here in our little veg. plot …

Fruit bed

Being a great fan of rhubarb, I wanted to add a fruit bed. So we purchased some barley twist edging and positioned it at the end of the plot. Before the pandemic took hold, we went out and bought two rhubarb plants, as well as blackcurrants and raspberries. Unfortunately, the raspberries have failed. My guess is that we didn’t get them in the soil quickly enough, though they were given a good soak in water for a number of days prior to planting. Win some, lose some …

Strawberries we brought from our previous garden have survived well and are now sending out runners – let’s hope we’ll be able to eat lots of them while watching Wimbledon on TV next year.

We bought a couple of pear trees. I’ve positioned them against the shed and will attach them to wires in the usual way. One isn’t self-fertile, so I added a Conference pear which will work as a pollinator for both.

One year on …

So, that’s where we are now, a bit more than one year on.

Well, I’ve re-discovered my love of Swiss chard. We’ve had regular supplies of lettuce, spring onions, broad beans, courgettes and runner beans. Our Gardeners’ Delight and Golden Sunrise tomatoes are delicious. And nothing can compare with fresh cucumber, straight from our own tiny veg. patch.

And Lynn’s apple and rhubarb crumble is amazing, by the way!

 

 

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Book review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

You just know when you’re reading the work of a genius.

The first two books in Dame Hilary Mantel‘s trilogy of historical novels set in the Tudor period both won the Man Booker Prize. Wolf Hall was published in April 2009. Bring Up the Bodies followed in May 2012. The final book of the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, came out in March this year – it’s already been longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. Having been enthralled back in 2015 by the six-part BBC TV production of Wolf Hall (which incorporated Bring Up the Bodies), I decided it was about time I went back to its source material …

Wolf Hall relates the rise of Thomas Cromwell from humble beginnings as the son of a (violent) blacksmith to becoming Earl of Essex and Lord Great Chamberlain – in other words, chief adviser and ‘fixer’ to Henry VIII. It’s quite some journey. Although told in the third person, it’s rather like an autobiography, in that we see events through Cromwell’s eyes as he becomes a vehicle, conveying a multi-dimensional picture of Tudor life and society in general and that of his own and other families – notably the royals – in particular.

We quickly pick up on Mantel’s literary device whereby the unexpected “he” pronoun almost invariably refers to Cromwell. Slightly jarring at first, this turns out to enhance the “fly-on-the-wall” effect. The quality of the descriptive prose is awe-inspiring: often it’s as though Cromwell (below) was carrying a video camera in the top pocket of his mink-lined robe. The use of the present tense adds immediacy and oftentimes dramatic effect. Whilst the author utilises established historical facts as a framework for her story, as a novelist she of course makes creative use of gaps in that record (a fascinating process which she described vividly in one of her 2017 Reith Lectures).

The idea of recounting complicated history through an imagined viewpoint of an actual historical personage throws up some intriguing philosophical questions. What is a true account of a historical event? Dates and places and documents provide the historian with a degree of certainty; but the subtleties of the event’s significance in the minds – and the lived lives – of those who were actually participating in that history, at the time, can only be guessed at. And it’s that dimension that the historical novelist inhabits and into which she leads us.

“The past is so close and yet irretrievable”, said Hilary Mantel in an edition of the BBC’s Book Club programme in October 2013. As she described it, it is so close when, say, we’re able to see and touch a dog’s footprints impressed into drying bricks laid on the floor of a real house owned by an important historical character; and yet irretrievable because we can never hear the voices or read the minds of characters whose history and fate we know only too well.

So, arguably the biggest question in all of this, which Mantel posed and answered in one of her Reith Lectures, is: “… what can historical fiction bring to the table? It doesn’t need to flatter. It can challenge and discomfit. If it’s done honestly, it doesn’t say ‘Believe this’, it says ‘Consider this’. It can sit alongside the work of historians – not offering an alternative truth, or even a supplementary truth, but offering insight”.

If you don’t know too much about the bloody and turbulent history of Henry VIII’s reign, this book is a real eye-opener. Thomas Cromwell has roles at every layer of society and rubs up against all the famous names in Henry’s court, such as Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (above left) and Sir Thomas More (below right); he has his own family life, with its triumphs and tragedies, fitted in like an important sub-plot, but with great emotional sensitivity (I’ll avoid spoilers); and, as the history unfolds, his remit expands to take in the unpredictable king’s dealings with feisty English earls, corrupt and/or fanatical religious movers and shakers, potential wives and their scheming families, educational gurus, the intricate but questionable legal and diplomatic systems of Britain and Europe and, significantly, the growing influence of a nascent publishing industry. The often barbaric physical punishments meted out to offenders are described, sometimes in lurid detail; but, more to the point, Mantel forces us to think about the psychological repercussions on those navigating this dangerous landscape, and those fearing or actually facing execution. All this is set at the top of a society controlled by the massive levers of religious and regnal power.

Many of the dramatis personæ walk a tightrope between furthering their own interests and attracting the wrath or disapprobation of figures in positions of greater power, sometimes with horrifyingly fatal consequences. But of course they don’t always know what they are getting into. Mantel’s characters, including Cromwell, have human frailties. They don’t necessarily foresee the consequences of their actions and can attract big trouble merely by (for instance) uttering an unguarded remark, wearing the wrong garb, accidentally criticising the king or by being seen in the company of the wrong person. Personal relationships, motivations, hopes, fears, treachery, ambition, tenderness, God and the law … it’s all here. This is history in the making.

Having said that, Mantel underlines the truth that many people went to their deaths because they refused to deny their deeply-held religious beliefs. Whilst there was much schmoozing, posturing and politicking, religion and the promise of an afterlife held many minds in a vice-like grip, strong enough to withstand even the threat of torture or death by beheading or burning.

This is highly immersive stuff. Even though you, the reader, may know the fate of all the main characters, you still find yourself thinking, “Ah, that should help his case”, or “Oh dear, I don’t think she realises what Henry will think about that!” I must admit, I was often lulled into forgetting what we all know about the ultimate fates of people such as Anne Boleyn (left). At one point I even found myself thinking, “Oh my god, we’re going to meet Hans Holbein!”

If it sounds complex, it is. But it’s not difficult to follow, even though there are eleven Thomases, six Johns, seven Henrys, four Annes (including Anne Boleyn, of course) and four Marys! The five page, informative Cast of Characters and family trees at the front of the book are invaluable and referring to them is part of the fun. Indeed, one of the most impressive aspects of the work is the way Mantel has such a great facility in being able to keep the story moving coherently on so many planes, working with all these characters, right from the lower ranks to the upper echelons. Moves on Mantel’s dazzling 3D chessboard of international politics are made by power players from France, the Low Countries, Spain and Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon (right), not to mention Wolsey’s (and ultimately Cromwell’s) battles with the Pope and the Church of Rome.

It’s interesting that Hilary Mantel studied law. She started as an undergraduate at the LSE, before transferring to the University of Sheffield and graduating as Bachelor of Jurisprudence in 1973. The novel is shot through with references to law, legal proceedings and the tracking down and clever use of evidence. Mantel portrays Cromwell’s rise to eminence as owing everything to his level-headed ability to deal with the practicalities of the capricious Henry’s finances, with all the knotty legal problems that attached thereto. Mantel takes all these matters in her stride, most notably the legalities around the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katherine and the subsequent break with Rome (though this first element of the trilogy doesn’t quite reach to the dissolution of the monasteries).

These are very substantial books. Wolf Hall is 650 pages long; Bring Up The Bodies (which I’m reading currently) runs to 484 pages; and The Mirror and the Light is a hefty 875 pages. That’s a total of a cool 2,009 pages. For me, they represent the fusing of professorial historical scholarship with a story-telling skillset that is probably unparalleled in the modern age.

“The novelist doesn’t spoil history for others”, adds Hilary Mantel in her Reith lecture. “She doesn’t trash her sources once she’s used them. The archive remains secure. The palaces and battlefields remain as if she had never passed through. Others can visit them, taking their own sensibility. She offers a version of the past. There can be others, and there will be. The novelist owns up to invention”.

Yes, there have been many other versions – in literature, online and on TV. But I find it impossible to imagine a more readable, gripping, thorough and convincing account of this segment of the Tudor period.

It could not have been better done.

 

 

Picture credits (all public domain)

Portrait – Thomas Cromwell: Thomas Cromwell, 1532–1533, Hans Holbein the Younger
Portrait – Thomas Wolsey: Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1475-1530), Royal Minister, Archbishop of York, unknown painter
Portrait – Sir Thomas More: Sir Thomas More, Hans Holbein (1497/1498–1543)
Portrait – Anne Boleyn: Anne Boleyn, late 16th-century copy of a lost original of c.1533–1536
Portrait – Katherine of Aragon: Catherine of Aragon, artist unknown, 18th century copy of a lost original work
Portrait – Henry VIII: Henry VIII of England, after Hans Holbein (1497/1498–1543); after 1537; cropped version of the full portrait, showing the “jags” (ie cuts) in the body and sleeves of the doublet, through which “puffs” of the shirt have been pulled through.

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