Writer-in-Residence - Bella D’Arcy Reed
Essex Gardens Trust has appointed a Writer-in-Residence, Bella D’ Arcy Reed to encourage people to write and record their feelings about, and their relationship with, gardens, parks, landscapes. We are working with her to create a programme in order to do this which will be rolled out over the next two years, this will give the Trust a valuable resource for its advocacy work. Bella will be writing short pieces regularly here with her own thoughts and observations (a few can be found below), so do bookmark this page!
Bella has had a career in the arts and in garden design working in and for the community. She uses a mobility scooter and is concerned about the accessibility of green spaces open to the public. She created the website accessiblegardens.org.uk now run by Mark Lane, garden designer and tv presenter and wheelchair user. Bella’s designs have won awards for her gardens, including one with Heather Appleton at RHS Hampton Court which was re-created at a charity residential home. She has written two garden history books and articles for garden magazines and now writes fiction and has won two story competitions. She was placed third in the International Historical Writers Association competition in 2018. She can be read at darcyreed.uk.
Please note the opinions expressed below are those of the writer.
Garden Writing – what is it?
Journalism: articles in garden magazines: about plants, garden design, plantspeople, critiques of shows?
Books, on plants, garden history, design, features e.g. water; ‘how to’ books about gardening and the creation of gardens. Writers such as Beth Chatto, Christopher Lloyd, Gertrude Jekyll, Vita Sackville West, Dan Pearson, Piet Oudolf etc.?
Yes, all of those, but also more reflective writing, what gardens and the landscape mean to us as individuals, how a green place, desert, mountainside, lake, seascape, both creates and brings back memories, how they affect us in an emotional spiritual way. Take this further, how the garden or landscape in not just a description, but how it creates a character, an atmosphere, develops a story.
Read Thomas Hardy and you think of a landscape, one which forms the characters, or see a country church in a field, and think of Thomas Hardy. The contemporary writer Tim Pears has just completed his ‘West Country Trilogy’ so-called because that country in within as well as without those characters, the three books breathe the land in every sentence.
We are concerned about ‘the environment’ why? Whatever happens the planet will look after itself, we are not essential to it, so why all the fuss? Because we want to be in it, we want to be part of it. It is important to us. So it is important is to write about gardens and landscape in a way that is personal, what the landscape says to us, how it is part of a character, how it is part of – or IS - the story. As Writer-in Residence I will be creating such pieces on this website. They may be life-writing i.e. how I personally relate to and been moved by gardens and landscapes. They may be stories, which would not exist without the landscape, or fictional characters in gardens.
My first offering was published in ‘Essex Belongs to Us’ in 2016 when writers were asked to express their relationship with the County.
Extract from Lanes and Roads.
‘Wash, Chigborough, Sheepcoates, Witham, Post Office, School, Bakers, Sawyers, Scraley, Church, Office, Plains, Green, Loamy Hill. There are many named ways into my village, Little Totham, some obvious, some not. Watery ways too: Penny’s Brook, Spicketts, Catchpole. The paper maps show such a tangle of white roads that even now, after twenty years, I’m not sure which one I’m on. I do know that each road is different. Different in their twistiness, their edges, their views and their vegetation.’
‘The remainder of the road has singular trees which turn into different shapes as you approach them. I look forward to rounding one particular corner to see a certain tree appear in front of me, on a bend. It unfurls as I curve round towards it. In Autumn, then Winter, it has an intricate tracery of branches, first with crumbled black leaves ever-dropping, then stark-black against a grey-white sky. In a mist, it is a tree from a Grimm fairytale, not malevolent, but not quite innocent either: waiting rather than standing. In Spring and Summer this tree is an honest, faultless virgin, gently shaped, an almost symmetrical but-not-quite mophead. Another tree, best seen coming the other way, is a sculpture of white dead branches, its raised arms gathering the blue sky or the mist around and between them as if it has something to say. When swans are on the shallow lake before you get to it, their whiteness is carried by the eye to this tree. Its clean form is unintimidating, benevolent, beautiful, raised in a magnificent focal point above the field border hedge below. If it is ever cut down, I shall cry.
The word fairy echoes again in two other roads, lanes really. ‘Fairy’ woods, where overlapping branches lace together to form a shaded, dappled archway, keeping a traveller safe from the intrusion of the fields or the heat, or from the dazzlement of the low lying, dying, Autumn sun. One leads to a triangle of grass where often there is a goat tethered. The other leads from a sometimes sheep-filled field which baas and runs towards you as you pass, to the Old Forge, and onto the top of the village.’
… ‘And there are others…lanes and roads which smell of manure a couple of days a year, where tall grasses waft, corn-on-the-cob stands stiff, where loosestrife and escaped daffodils and rape plants scatter the verges. Where common land is host to vintage cars and fetes, where horses and riders, dogs and owners, will nod and smile, or a horse and cart or tractors with trailers full of beets will slow me down. Where the sunset lights the fields, whether brown or gold or green. Where the churches are.
There are lanes and roads like this all over Essex, but these are mine.’
I was an immediate post-WWII child for whom gardening was a given, everyone did it, so Grampa was always down the allotment, Dad dug potatoes, pulled radishes while I ate raw rhubarb dipped in an eggcup full of sugar. We washed, cooked, put the remains on piles of rotting vegetables at the end of the garden called compost heaps. I was sorry for Sunday radio gardeners talking about buying ‘compost’ in bags… why didn’t they live in the country like me? And why did they plant seeds in rotting veg. anyway? We didn’t… it was years before I realised that ‘compost’ was an either/or word: out of bins or bags or : ‘com’ as in ‘combination of stuff’, e.g. with John Innes no. 3 (what happened to 1 and 2?), ‘post’ as in ‘post-living’.
I had a square yard near the mildew-grey, washed out michaelmas daisies and planted mignonette seeds (whatever happened to mignonette?) Our garden was a lawn, a large vegetable patch, and eight beech trees with a constant spread of progeny under their wings, wings which, in the wind, sounded like the sea and lulled me to sleep. And a rockery overcome by snow (arabis) once a year.
There was no gardening in Cyprus, Dad was a water engineer: just the surrounding visual glory of red hibiscus, pink oleander, purple bougainvillea, the soft-soap smell of orange blossom and the incense of cypress trees, romantic enough for any self-absorbed teenager. Nor as a London student sitting under the plane trees in the squares: hang on, I’d forgotten! I shared a top floor flat with a rooftop, Dad came up with home-made troughs for it and we grew petunias! No problem, just water every day, easy enough, they were next to the rubbish lift.
The working girl rented a flat with a garden and experienced a sudden flush of desire to plant. I bought a tray of antirrhinums in the spring of 1976 – oh yes! – the hottest year on record – great! The arduous carrying of cans of water down in the lift and out into the heat put a stop to that little caper. Nothing like failure to stop doing something…
Then, after a series of beautiful but unreliable musical frogs I kissed a prince, who had a ten by ten metre garden. A New Era started… and has not ended…
The Era of Obsession, which is sevenfold, causing lust and greed (self-explanatory), gluttony (resulting in wandering round the garden plant in hand, its arms folded, sighing), sloth (in housework), wrath (at weeds mostly, especially the three-foot one that waves at you when you’ve just sat down), envy ( and covetousness, usually at flower shows and in Other People’s Gardens), pride (and prejudice: the former in one’s own garden the latter against those tiny bedding begonias, and the overblown ones come to that…). All of which leads to spendthriftery…
And to practical considerations such as capacity – of the land which is called the garden and of the car. In the former, any lawn gets smaller, imperceptibly at first, then causing the lawn mower to be exchanged for a pair of nail scissors. I discovered my estate car could carry 72 x 2-litre pots, and a tree, its roots firmly against the back window, its leaves flapping, illegally I’m sure, across my face, And then there’s concealment, the scuttle from the car to the garage to the greenhouse from which the plants later emerge, having grown into a good size in an unheard-of shortness of time. It’s the fertilizer, I tell my prince-now-husband.
But oh, the sheer joy of planting – adult mud play. The glory of being on hands and knees! For hours at a time, into the twilight… ‘Shall I get you a torch?’
How many more plants can we get in the car without leaving the suitcases at the B&B? How many times did my husband speed up past a sign to a garden centre on the way home? Holidays abroad necessitated looting: a large pine cone sneaked from a garden ‘exclusively opened to our small group by the owner’, usually a Marchesa, or pine seeds from the Villa Borghese which never grew, or strange seeds found in the bottom of a wash bag which did, into triffids.
On moving to a new home, my car following his, we were stopped for speeding in a 30 mile limit just two streets short of our destination by a police car. The driver, having inspected my husband backed by waving fronds, gazed at the large palm seat-belted next to me, then, ‘Are you with the one in front?’ He let us off.
There is a softness in the mists over Maldon, a silence. Not the deep, hugging silence of new snow, but a silky silence which embraces the still branches, causing the dewdrops on the edge of the leaves to hang a long while before they fall, reluctantly, to give way to another which has slid down the veins. A rose, the colour of a Seville orange, is poised at the end of a stalk of still-green leaves, gently moving from side to side. Its petals are coiled into a flamenco skirt and it moves slightly from side to side, talking to me. Does it want to come inside? I shake my head, no it’s too warm for you here. It nods. Then it bounces ‒ a blue tit has landed on the branch above, turns around and flies away. ‘Go to the back garden, your food is there!’ I tell it, but it knows that, it’s one of three, and seven sparrows, who visit the feeders. I hadn’t seen any in the summer. ‘Summer Song’ the name of the rose, now like a summer sun in the green and the grey.
Early morning. A hazy, horizontal, bulk hovered in the mist. As I crept forward it showed itself to be vase shapes in browns and greens under a lintel: a balustrade. The mist altered from dark to light grey/blue as the sun made itself felt, then, my hands on the lintel, I looked over. Below me was Gertrude Jekyll in vibrant reds, blues and greens, inside bright diagonals of grass. A sudden shaft of light revealed the pergola beyond.
Accessibility: the information on the website is very poor so I got in touch. The manager has promised to ‘get it right’ asap and will tell me when this has been done. Watch this space!
It is interesting that most people I contact say they had no idea about it when I contact them. Of course you don’t until you come up against it yourself, but Managers of gardens must get thinking about access – just ask a person with wheels/visually impaired/uses a stick in the vicinity to visit, that’s all it takes… There’s a lot of work to be done on this
‘We didn’t know where you were, but we’d seen where you’d been!’ Parallel wheelmarks criss-crossing the lawns and along the grass paths betrayed my journey. But not where I stopped, under a raised pergola dripping with leaves and white roses, looking towards serrated palms, the large ‘hands’ of tetrapanax, grasses slightly stirring against orange and red cannas. Water dropped through a metallic sculpture making it glint sporadically where its drops touched the silver, changing the patterns of the sun. The drops reached the pool making a sound like soft air in leaves.
Accessibility: you can get to most parts of the garden with a little hump now and then, but not all. The plant centre is wholly accessible!
There is a satisfaction in geometric patterns, straight or curving, symmetrical. Your eye can follow them over and round, never-ending. You know they are straight, square, rectangular, circular but perspective makes them rhomboid, oval.
In perspective, pergolas become straight lines of stone or wood and vegetation which seem to be joined up. They end in a small frame perhaps containing a minute urn or tiny Venus or a door, as if in walking, you too will diminish and become small enough to sit under a primrose.
Accessibility: in the gardens, make sure your batteries are full, you need to accelerate to get over the grass. You can’t scooter/wheel down the pergola as there are steps.