My first job where I was solely responsible for a garden was for an historic house called Charleston Farmhouse, the country home of Vanessa Bell, sister to Vriginia Woolf, and various other artists and writers, members of the Bloomsbury Group. By the early 1980's the house, garden and art collection was in a terrible condition and The Charleston Trust was set-up to try and restore and preserve some of the collection. Money was raised and an ambitious restoration was begun.
The original garden was laid out in the during the 1920's under the direction of writer, critic and artist Roger Fry. His home Durbins near Guildford had a garden designed by Gertrude Jekyll and the Charleston garden's formal structure with informal plantings owed more than a nod to her. By the time the finial resident Duncan Grant Had died in 1978 it was largely neglected, grassed over with all sorts of inappropriate plants, overgrown dead and dying apple trees. Around 1987 a generous donation from Readers Digest enabled Sir Peter Sheperd to draw out a new design based on what had existed before. There was a wealth of old photographs, a multitude of paintings by the artists (In later life Vanessa Bell had written that she was seldom interested in anything beyond her own door step as subjects for Still life paintings), diaries and letters and peoples memories, in those days they were still many friends and relatives who remembered the garden in its heyday. When I had started in the mid nineties the "new" garden was starting to mature. A garden is a growing changing organism, the Trust never wanted to preserve an unchanging vignette of the past, neither would this have been possible. There was always room for refining and tweaking.
Soon after I started I discovered digging was not just confined to the garden. A wealth of archives, paintings, sketches, diaries, letters, memories and photographs could all be delved into and tapped for information. Constantly new books appeared, biographies, published letters, unseen paintings all needed scrutinising to see if any new information could be gleaned. The writer Frances Partridge occasionally visited, she was part of the Strachey, Carrington, Partridge ménage from Tidmarsh Mill and later Ham Spray. Aged 101, the last time I'd met her, she had first visited Charleston in the 1920's and her acutely sharp memory was always fully taken advantage of. "I remember Carrington planting iris just like that at Tidmarsh", such a portal into a past and vanished world.
Forever an avid reader I devoured any relevant book for information quickly developing a great curiosity for historical facts and information. Frances' diaries, especially 'A Pacifist's War' are some of my favourite literature, every year I re-read the five volumes of Virginia Woolf's diaries as an eagerly anticipated and delicious treat. After I moved on from Charleston I was head gardener at Gravetye Manor, a garden created by the great horticulturalist William Robinson; more research and discoveries to be made. Moving down to Devon 12 years ago I soon found out that the location of my cottage had been the subject of an important photographic study and an internationally important archive was created by James Ravilious whose beautiful photographs documented every day lives of people, places and scenery over 17 years. I am just 10 minutes walk from the river Torridge, where Henry Williamson set his famous book Tarka the Otter and I see otters in the stream in front of my cottage, you hear them most often at night whistling to each other and turning over rocks as they hunt for eels. In recent time there was a film made by Steven Spielberg from the book and play (with incredible puppetry) based on the book War Horse by Michael Morpurgo. Little did I realise that this quiet out of the way piece of North Devon is full of history and interest and bitten by the history bug I have developed a fever for this sort of thing.
Close-by to my cottage is a derelict mill and one day whilst taking some pictures of the decaying house and barns I noticed a rose in the remains of a garden. In fact there were two, I took cuttings of both. One was 'Paul Ricault' and the other probably 'Turner's Crimson'. The mill changed hands a few years ago and the new owner is steadily restoring it. The "garden" has been cleared away and I have offered plants back of both of these. The same distance in the other direction was Bissett Cottage, nothing remains of this dwelling except lilac, periwinkle and masses of Rosa cinnnamomea 'Plena', which was identified by members of HMF. Deep in the woods down by the river is what is left of Dye Cottage, almost completely consumed by woodland now. Last year I noticed a few tiny growths of a rose, very different from the surrounding Rosa arvensis. A small root of this planted in my garden has produced four stems 1.2metres tall which I have great expectation to see in flower. These last two cottages were abandoned around the turn of last century, both the roses have survived at least 120 years.
A week ago I purchased a book written about the history of our village, there have been several other abandoned houses in and around Dolton. Most of the cottages, mine included, are made from cob -- a mixture of straw, mud, manure and stone. It has never been a very prosperous part of the country, in the 1950's you could have purchased one of these little cottages for as little as £100. From around 1800 there was a gradual migration from rural living to people moving into towns. 100 years ago if one fell into such a state of disrepair it was uneconomical to rebuild they were just abandoned and gradually melted back into the soil from which they were created. Today it was too cold to garden so I ventured out for a brisk walk to try and find another site, Tabernacle Cottage sounded intriguing:
"This site on the Dolton -- Beaford road is situated between the side lanes to Iddlecott and to Venton. Its 1/2 acre is now occupied by scrub and a derelict corrugated iron shed + ruined caravan, but in 1842 there was a cottage here housing John Lyne with his blacksmith's business (he was doubtless a relation of the two Lynes, also smiths, at Northbrook Cottage in Dolton). Later in C19 the dwelling was used by farm labourers, but around the turn of the century was demolished; then in the mid-C20 the existing (ruined) structure was built, and was used as a slaughterhouse".
The site in a copse was easy to find, at this time of year it is covered in clumps of snowdrops, a moribund bush of Lonicera nitida and the area is also one great mat of lesser periwinkle, Vinca minor. This plant is interesting; most probably introduced by the Romans, it is doubtful that it ever reproduces sexually. So simple to propagate, every stem will send out roots from pairs of leaves where ever it touches on the soil. It is never found far from cultivation. And also there was a rose! It is growing in amongst the trees it three or four parts. One a lax looking bush, the other trying to climb with stems 3 metres long. I returned tonight and rustled pieces of both. I thought they may have been Rosa multiflora but the stipules are barely ciliated at all, the prickles are short, pale brown and slightly hooked. I will post better pictures as it starts to grow and so with great excitement I will wait until this and the Dye Cottage rose flower this year. I find this detective work utterly fascinating.