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August 2012

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Mary Davies finds a hint of the past

It is half a century since a new wave of suburbs spread south-east of the big city, covering the fertile clayey fields and engulfing the grounds of the big houses. A few cowslips in spring on the verges are a last relic of the one-time rich pastures, while many of the mansions have gone - only their names live on in the mature estates that now occupy their gardens. But there are unexpected reminders of these past places: tall, ancient beech trees grouped on a suburban green; a pair of impressive granite gate pillars leading nowhere. And this summer I came across another intriguing reminder of the not-so-distant past. 

Weekender

Directions led to a narrow driveway between two garden hedges in a typical estate of comfortable suburban homes, an entrance easily to be passed without a second thought. But after a hundred feet or so the driveway veered to the right into a different world. It skirted the back of a low range of outbuildings, the old roof softened by moss, the rough granite of the rear wall supported by a row of buttresses. And, beyond, the building's unexpected presence was explained - a decorative iron gate led into a walled garden once part of the extensive grounds of a nineteenth-century country house.

The walled garden had an ambivalent air: the house within it was not old, but the surroundings were. The most eye-catching feature was the long, south-west-facing original wall, unusually high, cutting off cold winds coming from the direction of the sea. The wall bore faint traces of the garden's past history: a blocked-up entrance once wide enough for a vehicle, the outline of a brick-framed Gothic window in a corner next to a high arched doorway.

This old wall was the backdrop to a carefully-tended vegetable garden brimming with summer crops. The remainder of the garden was a serene space of grass edged with shrubs, a foil to a few ancient apple trees; along one side the granite wall with its brick pillars was clearly a more recent addition. Near the gate a shapely mulberry cast thick shade. The mulberry was, it seems, grown from a slip taken from a truly ancient tree, one that had grown in a city centre college garden for perhaps three hundred years before it was sacrificed to a building project.

The second star of the garden was a walnut tree set in a circle of irregular paving, the trunk leaning away from the south-westerly winds, its grey limbs bent and twisted under a light canopy of leaves. Its elegant shape dominated that part of the garden, adding to the sense of permanence in this quiet by-passed oasis.

 

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