Maureen's English Garden
Gardens are a form of autobiography. ~Sydney Eddison
The country garden is a British national treasure, on par with Stephen Fry, gin and tonic, or Jaffa Cakes. In few other places can landscape architecture inspire such contentious battles as that between Lancelot 'Capability' Brown and Uvedale Price; the former is responsible for some of the most famous English gardens and country homes yet was criticized by the latter as having “grossly mistook his talent”. Yes, the battle for the garden could get quietly fierce in these parts, with this passive aggression featuring frequently on the pages of UK newspapers and the search term 'hedge disputes' returning a fascinating array of results.
I first met Maureen and Chris on our first trip to England and all of the requisite meeting-the-parents anxiety that I might have had on the way over dissipated almost instantly. Mark's mother Maureen is as gentle a soul as one could imagine, and underneath her long-time partner Chris's rough Australian exterior was an absolute softie of a guy. On our first meeting we sat in their garden and talked for hours while Mark had a post airport nap in the spare room; whether it was the wine, the company or the setting, everything came naturally and felt easy. I wandered through the garden that day and thought it was one of the most special places I had ever seen: long and narrow and bursting with leaves and flowers of every imaginable kind, it felt less like what I thought a garden was and more like wandering down a pathway towards something both hidden and familiar. It was a mystical an experience as the English Midlands will allow a person to have, and every time we visited subsequent I always fit in a wander down the garden way.
However it was only last weekend that Maureen gave us a tour of the garden and explained to us how well thought out every detail of it was, and how what seemed at first glance to be a wonderful array of wild plants was actually a carefully controlled chaos that worked in perfect harmony with itself. Even Maureen herself seemed to change when we walked down that lush column; a normally almost timid person at times, she came alive with radiant authority when she talked about the method behind it all and how each plant had a relationship with the next one. It is a truly astounding place that can only come from two people whose instinct for growing is both constant and still attuned to the particularities of each thing they grow. It is really a labour of love and it shows in every corner; nothing is neglected but it all looks effortless.
Part of the garden's charm are its dimensions: measuring 300x20 feet (91x6 meters), it's kind of like a landing strip for a very small (and very well behaved) aircraft. They've also divided it into various sections using both its natural barriers and some man made ones: a tree house and playhouse for the children is tucked into the trees about a third of the way back, and this leads to the greenhouse and plots of land that comprise Maureen's vegetable garden. This particular kind of narrow garden is actually fairly common in England and some of it dates back to feudal times, where plots of land that had previously been open fields owned by whoever was the Lord of the day were parcelled off and sold to individual farmers. Maureen and Chris's place is the result of a 1924 division of a manor house, the Newbold Grange Estate, outside of Rugby. More than just the birthplace of the game, Rugby has the kind of history that involves lots of drunken monks making lands deals and paying with sheep and probably someone who buried their favourite wheel of cheese somewhere in their own ancient garden (no really, that happens).
But I digress. Because there are things that words can do, but describing every inch of Maureen's English Garden is not one of them. Rather, we've decided to assemble some of the parts into a gallery, which will also give some more information about the way that she and Chris have put the garden's many parts in place. Walking through it together, Mark and I were both amazed at how much was there, and how much sense it all made under the surface. It made me also realize where Mark's cooking style really comes from, because he does the same sort of thing with his dishes: everything seems simple at first glance but it's only when you stop to look at all of the moving parts that you realize how much thought went in to every component, every ingredient. Looking at the two of them walking through the garden was like watching two people who've seen the same film a million times, watching it together for the very first time.