were mainly flowerless and brown, with just flower heads of the grasses adding texture. Christo was waiting for us, with the old leaning porch behind him tilting precariously to the east.
My first impression of him was curious – he looked a bit like Einstein, with a neatly trimmed moustache and a shock of white hair. He was dressed in a checked flannel shirt worn ragged at the collar and cotton drill trousers muddy at the knees, with holes in his shoes (he hated buying new shoes). With rosy cheeks and searing blue eyes, and hands cupped behind his back, he seemed happy to have us there although a little uneasy in new company.
Christo took us round as a group – taking ages – stopping at almost every plant. Notebook in hand and hungry to learn, I followed each footstep, hanging on every word. The gardens, wrapped round the house, were subdivided into a series of rooms by hedges and buildings. Each compartment was a different experience, yet all fitted together like the pieces of a complex jigsaw. Pockets of meadow interrupted the scene here and there, in parts coming deep into the garden and occasionally opening the views into the landscape beyond. A large expanse of long grass dominated the south side, flowing along the famous Long Border and separated from it merely by a narrow strip of mown grass and a long path of York stone. My only previous gardening experience had been with Brighton Parks, so the full Dixter encounter came as bit of a shock – not just for me, but for the others too; many of us had never seen a garden like it. Tom Wright knew full well that this place with its style and unconventionality would test us. After a long tour with Christo, we were given free time to roam.
On our return to college we were asked to write up our visit. I can’t recall much about the report that followed – no doubt it would make fascinating reading for me today! However, what I do remember are my remarks on the meadows. Interestingly, my first impressions then can’t have been too dissimilar from those of many people now. It seemed clear to me that the long grass within the garden was out of place: it looked messy and dragged the garden down. Having since become familiar with the meadows, I realize that this impression was due partly to the time of year, and partly to a lack of awareness on my part. Late June is never a good time to see the long grass at Dixter, with much of the colour gone, unless you are predominantly interested in the grasses themselves. The common spotted orchids, ox-eye daisies, buttercups and clover have finished, and the knapweed and later bird’s-foot trefoil haven’t yet started. It’s a bit much to assume that a first-time visitor will see great beauty in seed heads, or embrace the colour brown and the shagginess of it all. And no doubt my reaction would have been different had I visited in April or May, when the meadows are alive and fresh, filled with an ever-changing tapestry of flowers, swaying in the wind and dripping with the rich beauty typically associated with the English countryside.
An atmospheric meadow scene at the front of the house, as early morning dew settles on the seed heads of fine grasses such as common bent (Agrostis tenuis) and lesser knapweed (Centaurea nigra), with added colour from the late-flowering tufted vetch (Vicia cracca) bringing sprinklings of purple and mauve among the froth of biscuit browns. All of this is framed by the dark green yew of Great Dixter’s hedges.