There is a garden near our home in France and it is one of my treasured sights. Among other such sights could be a particular wall or seascape, bush or tree, or perhaps some old railings. Whenever I see one of them, I linger and gaze, sometimes touch or even sniff. As with many of these treasures, my secret garden was discovered by chance.
In the days when cycling was an everyday affair, rather than go straight home after buying the bread or the paper, I would sometimes cycle off to explore the countryside. It was on such a day that I found the garden. I was lost, and after turning left on a whim, found myself looking across a ditch and a low hedge at this now treasured sight. I got off the bike and walked up and just stared, something I have done dozens of times since.
In front of me was a fairytale garden no bigger than a tennis court. There were irregularly-shaped lawns and beds separated either by narrow streams or winding gravel paths. The lawns, with their precise edges, were neatly mown. In the beds the flowers, bushes and trees were clustered according their colour and shape, and banked according to their height. In the middle of the garden was a pond with a bridge across it. At the top of the garden was a cottage, and at the bottom – the garden sat on a slight slope – a grassy gateway. Compared to the classical French garden built on strictly geometric principles, this was a garden where everything seemed free, almost natural.
Here was the work of an adventurous visionary – in fact, two adventurous visionaries, grey-haired sisters who had started building the garden over forty years ago in a field next to their mother’s house.
Whenever I see them in the garden I stop to say hello and to thank them for their creation. Last time I did more; I asked if I might look around. The younger sister agreed but said that we would start our tour not in the flower garden but in their kitchen garden. This second, unknown garden, which is hidden away behind house and out-of-sight of the road is surrounded by a high hedge. In it there is an orchard, a series of rectangular vegetable beds bordered by straight paths, three compost heaps of similar size but varying contents, and piles of carefully stacked logs for burning. Everything is neat, almost regimental, verging on the obsessional. Even the logs are arranged meticulously, according to their size.
As we were leaving the kitchen garden I started to ask my guide a question, prefacing it with, “’I would like to write something about your garden. I wonder if you could tell me …….?” At that point, this otherwise calm woman exploded – she wanted nothing to do with the press. Her garden was private. People coming to gawk and invade would wreck their dream. I must publish nothing – nothing! In the middle of all this, her sister, hearing the commotion, appeared from nowhere and joined in.
After five minutes, and umpteen assurances from me that I would do nothing that might allow people to identify, and so visit and photograph the garden, they both calmed down. With the storm cleared, we walked into garden number two with its contrasting wildness. Here, everything was much as I had seen it from the road although from a distance I had failed to spot the absence of weeds. Indeed this absence was almost the only thing the two gardens had in common.
Thanking them, I said my goodbyes and walked back to the car. Aside from the delights of the two gardens, the visit had given me a new insight into human nature. While the visionaries liked their garden to be admired by friends and passers-by, they feared that publicity would unleash an invasion by unscrupulous unknowns. Faced with such a dilemma, while I would welcome interest from selected journalists, the two sisters were adamant; intrusion by the press is to be avoided at all cost.
Yet, whilst these two women are obsessional, they have managed to express themselves in two, essentially opposing ways. Their regimented kitchen garden can be seen as the obvious product of the obsessional mind. The apparently wild flower garden, while created with the same painstaking approach has all the air of minds that are free.
This garden has, for years offered me a treasured sight, now, as a result of my guided tour, it has introduced two valuable insights. It would seem that with this garden, good things come in pairs.