After leaving university in 2015 I worked for eighteen months as a gardener with my father, trimming hedgerows, planting bulbs and tearing out bindweed. By far our most illustrious client was Dominic Raab, then a junior minister at the MoJ. He had the kind of lawn you want to roll around on: unnaturally healthy, a real joy to mow. He was rarely in – 2016 was a busy year – so I had little opportunity to ask the tough questions I’d spent my spare moments rehearsing.
The château at Ferney recently reopened to the public after three years of restoration and refurbishment. Except for the planes high above the lawns, flying in and out of Geneva airport, not much has changed at the château since Voltaire lived here between 1760 and his death in 1778. It’s easy to imagine him taking an afternoon stroll among the plane trees, Mont Blanc in the background, after a morning in bed dictating his voluminous correspondence to his private secretary. During his twenty years at Ferney, he wrote 6000 letters.
Sakoku, Japan’s 200-year policy of national isolation, ended in 1854. As breathless British travellers returned home, writing of their adventures, interest in Japanese-style gardens blossomed. ‘The mountains of Japan are covered with forest,’ the naturalist Isabella Bird wrote in 1876, ‘and the valleys and plains are exquisitely tilled gardens. The Empire is very rich in flowers.’ The craze was brisk. Josiah Conder’s influential book Landscape Gardening in Japan was published in 1893. Gunnersbury Park laid out its Japanese Garden in 1901. There were nurseries, such as Gauntletts of Chiddingfold, that specialised in Japanese styles, lanterns and imported plants. White City hosted the Japan-British Exhibition in 1910. Dwarf trees, bamboos and pines were shipped from Japan for the exhibition’s Garden of Peace and Garden of the Floating Isles. Over six months, eight million visitors came hoping to be transported to Japan via authentic tea houses and replica ‘peasant’ villages, which the Japanese press found embarrassing.
Weeding in the garden of my ex-council bungalow this summer, I came across a young dandelion. It poked up next to the arthritic rose planted by the previous tenant, a Greek Cypriot woman who lived here for 16 years until her death. Her son visited us when we moved in and told us about the barbecues they had in the garden and the dolmades his mother made from the vine she grew here. After she died, he cut it back, but stopped short of digging it out, unsure whether the strangers moving in would want it. We did.
Underneath the A310 in Twickenham, in the grounds of Radnor House prep school, lies the grotto of Alexander Pope. It once looked out over the Thames, but now its view takes in the walls of the sixth-form art block and an astroturf sports pitch. But the magic of what Pope called his ‘shadowy cave’ is not lost. The grotto smells of flint. Its walls are encrusted with geological curiosities. There is a piece of basalt hacked from the Giant’s Causeway and there was once a stalagmite from Wookey Hole, supposedly shot down from the roof of the cave at Pope’s request.