Timeless Gardens: England

IN Wiltshire there is a garden I know very well. It is deeply set in the middle of a green park that slips uphill from the Wylye’s banks toward such cumulus clouds of trees as in this county crown the hilltops. Bare, rounded hills, dew ponds, thatched walls, manybranched streams — these are the Wiltshire insignia; these, and, as Audrey says, ‘the farm as close as it may get to the great house, so that the noise of the threshing flail is always in the ears.’

In Wiltshire, too, the loveliest and best gardens are invariably valley gardens, as this one is, for on the broad, rolling downs the earth is not fertile — there is only an inch or two of soil laid over the chalk.

Like all the rest, this garden has round it a high brick wall — painted by Titian, I think — with a little green door to go in at. (Audrey, again, speaks of the little green doors of Wiltshire.)

This enclosing wall is not of even height. Capriciously, as the fruit trees nailed on it have grown, the wall has been added to, a nectarine on the northern wall having pride of place. The southernmost wall top is thatched, Wiltshire fashion, and left treeless, open to the sun and the warm south wind, the summer wind. Over it there is nothing to be seen but the blue sky and a green hill far in the distance, and, still farther off, Salisbury’s pale violet spire. Forty paces beyond the wall the Wylye, here very broad, flows unseen, but softly audible.

A Stuart coping, along which urns hold plaster pineapples, shows white against the copper beeches and bridal birches and weeping ashes that encompass the remaining walls as close as thatch. The spotted boles of the encasing trees appear at full length where, through wire-netted half circles cut in the eastern and western walls, a trout stream runs incontinently into, through, and out of the garden.

This stream is as clear as crystal. Every pebble sparkles to the surface like a jewel. It is twelve feet wide and five feet deep, and its grass-grown banks, neatly shaven, have a two-foot drop. From these green laps of earth, in springtime, a thousand daffodils lean, nodding and fluttering. In the autumn, saffron and lilac crocuses hang there. Guarding the four corners of a stone bridge that spans the limpid brook with a single arch are carved heads of great antiquity, which look Roman, and may be identical with those on the Clarendon, in Oxford. Bearded, they have the massive locks of water gods, or philosophers.

By the bridge is a bent apple tree — in April quick with blossom, in September thick with fruit — that stoops, Narcissus-wise, over the russet, rippling water. Next this is a summerhouse of cut box, the oldest and largest in England. A box gazebo is, in any case, rare.

Hedged with ribbon borders a foot high, the main pathway of the garden, passing straight across the bridge from north to south, is lined with espalier pear trees and checkered with twenty bypaths, edged with lavender or rosemary, neatly trimmed.

While through the netted arches in the spring spread primroses and kingcups, and, later, bluebells, in the garden itself grow all their domestic contemporaries and successors. Of bulbs there are chiefly tulips, hyacinths, lilies, jonquils, and fritillaries — these last adorning with equal beauty borders or woods. There are such cottage flowers as Job’s-tears, Solomon’s-seal, and Noah’s-doves, and the more scholarly ‘flowers of Jove,’ yellow moly, and Lobel’s catchfly.

In red, thready clusters, old-fashioned fuchsias hang next half-wild snapdragons, citron-tinted, and no bigger than their gypsy confrères of the lanes. Small pansies and tufted daisies — of the sort children call ‘hen and chickens’ — riot petal to petal with the gardener’s proudest achievements, with Himalayan poppies, Japanese delphiniums, harlequinading auriculas (the miner’s darling), gloxinias black as night, anchusas bright as Capri’s grotto. There are six mezereum trees, and seven varieties of violets — the Neapolitan violets, like shrewmice, hugging the walls. And here the roses are not put in quarantine. Plush musk, moss, damask, blush, cabbage, and Provençal roses, and even twi-colored York and Lancasters (got, tradition says, from grafts of the Eighth Henry’s day), rise up, jubilantly, among the annuals and perennials.

In printless traffic, butterflies gayly parade these rainbow ways. Murmurous, by their straw skeps, are the humming bees; murmurous, beyond the wall’s end, the deflected stream waters — by artifice, not by nature, repaying their tribute to the Wylye. They have sluice gates and an iron-runged weir, and many runnels flowing over sunsucked bog grasses and fescue grasses to flood, obediently, this water meadow or that. But they are all murmurous, all dulcet; and under a moted film of bloom, delicate as the bloom on grapes, even the ambered pools, where trout are tickled by adepts, secretly murmur, lulling this lovely garden to a peace so deep that Time, it seems, controls the unbridled hours, and the sunlight sleeps, and the creeping shades are stayed. Like limelight on a dancer, the changing colors of the year mark here, not the transit of Time, but the new birth and rebirth, the timeless revelations of beauty.

Outside the northern wall, between the warm brick and the stream, stand the benches on which the skeps, and the more modern glass-windowed hives, bask snugly. Here, any autumn morning, Alice the under-housemaid may come to rob a hive of honey-in-thecomb, or get a sprig of thyme, or marjoram, or a few shoots of tarragon, for Cook. Alice’s red hair proclaims her Jutish ancestry. ‘Alice is that proud,’ the kitchen says, ‘she’d starch her stockings.’

In the walled orchard next the flower garden Mr. Milliachips, the gardener, aged eighty-two, goes to choose some jargonelles, perhaps, or orange bergamots. If the cherries are over, he may find some blue perdrigons, or add to his basket, later in the season, grapes from the hothouse. Sometimes a gamekeeper carrying trout in a fern-lined osier plat will go up to the house with him, and there they may find at the kitchen door, as often as not, boys from the farm leaving eggs, or pails of warm, bubbling milk. And in the stonefloored dairy will be Nan, the dairymaid, skimming cream, or Susan, the kitchenmaid, a pretty child, her budding figure outlined sweetly as she tiptoes on a chair to get down from the black rafters a gammon of bacon. In the pantry Mr. Semity, the butler, and Mrs. June, the cook, agree after deliberation that the ham will see this breakfast through.

Mr. Semity is seventy-two. On his seventieth birthday it was, ‘No, ma’am, I prefers to stay in harness. I should not care to die away from such a good funeral.‘

On most mornings, too, under the basement’s cathedral-like arches, the housekeeper unlocks the storeroom door to get out a cheese, or Spanish quinces, or a jar of black mulberries; or, summoned to a side door, the parlormaid may take in a sheaf of blush roses, which George, the footman, always arranges on the breakfast table, ‘he having the fingers.’

Within the dining room, trespassing through three windows, sunlight streams across the white tablecloth and red Turkey carpet. Without, lapping the stone walls like a sea, the green, level turf stretches half a mile. Distantly, along the fringes of the encircling woods, spotted deer graze. In winter the flames, leaping up the marble chimney place which, like the windows, touches both elmwood floor and plastered ceiling, play on the story of Cinderella, carved there in James the First’s time — with the fattest of marble mice, the tenderest of marble pumpkins.

By custom, at the table’s end is put a black papier-mâché tray, laden with cups and saucers and gay with nacre flowers, blue peonies, and card-house bridges, where a stray phœnix lingers, or a pair of lovers — also, perhaps, astray. By custom, on the sideboard, steaming aromatic coffee, porridge, grilled trout, an omelette aux fines herbes, ham, curled bacon with mushrooms, fruits, confitures, are set forth in dishes of Georgian silver.

Then from the stairs will come high-pitched, aristocratic voices: ‘At Eton, darling, once he was the o in God.’ . . . ‘So good, dear, for gouty eczema.’ . . . By twos and threes the family will drift in.