on to a curatorial job in a museum or gallery. I had studied art history at school, even though it was not on the curriculum, teaching myself and creating structure by giving mini-lectures to other sixth-formers on subjects such as Palladio’s villas or the paintings of the Northern Renaissance. One of the topics I pursued was a study of the street furniture (benches, litter bins, lamps and so on) of my local town of Reading. A bit weird, I know. Aged seventeen, I had no idea there was something called landscape architecture, but I could see that such ‘incidentals’ were of aesthetic importance in an environment of little architectural merit. Independent study became my modus operandi, which is probably one of the reasons why I was attracted to the subject of gardens and garden history − relatively uncharted waters in academia. I like the way the garden can encapsulate interests in architecture, literature, pictorial composition, colour theory, natural forms, spatial design, ecology, cookery and the engineering of atmosphere.
By the age of eighteen I had visited, with my family, a large number of ‘stately homes’, plus nearly all the cathedrals in England and most of the AngloSaxon churches. I see now that gardens were also an important component of these trips, especially if we were accompanied by my grandfather. He and his two brothers had been professional gardeners at estates in Norfolk and Surrey, where my great-grandfather was head gardener. They had lived in the gardener’s cottage at the end of the drive, where they received furniture, magazines and other paraphernalia from the ‘big house’. I still have some of these hand-medown heirlooms. My grandparents apparently first encountered each other on the back stairs, when Fred, the under-gardener, reportedly uttered to Lottie, the new junior housemaid, the immortal line: ‘Would you like me to carry your coalbucket?’Very Downton Abbey. A family background in domestic service means I have been comfortable writing about country houses.
ater − in a typical mid-twentieth-century demographic shift − my grandfather moved to Slough and became an electrical engineer at a power station. But gardens and vegetables remained major interests, and country ways a habit − I was told my grandad would take in a cabbage or cauliflower to work and boil it whole as his ‘packed lunch’. At family lunches the quality of the vegetables and fruit, and their specific varieties, was always a topic of conversation. From an early age I was thus accustomed to hearing gardens discussed with a certain seriousness, and seeing them appraised on visits,
you should have been here last week ii