Month: August 2014

Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field by John Lewis-Stempel



“I fell in love when I was fourteen with a flower meadow, perfectly set off by a wooden field gate beside the Wye.”

IMG_5318John Lewis-Stempel lives on a farm on the borders of England and Wales, but he is much more than simply a farmer. He has written, amongst other things, three books on the First World War, a biography of James Herriot and a guide to foraging. Here he turns his attention to a single field on his farm, watching it as it changes with the passing months.

He is interested in the history, romance and beauty of the meadow, as well as the nature within it. In January he lies down on the frosty grass to view the bumps and pockmarks that centuries of use have imposed on the land. More comfortably, he lies down again in June, “How lovely it is to lie in a field and dream. . . . Above me the skylark flutters into the haze, all the while singing a silken tent over its territory, until it is a speck in my eye.” These are not the actions or words of an everyday farmer.

Everything is given a name; the sheep include Chocolate, Sooty, Cardigan and, of course, Jumper. While checking these sheep in the evening he is quite liable to be reminded of a line of poetry that suits the moment; the October stars prompt him to hunt out Thomas Traherne, a Hereford-born metaphysical poet:

            The skies in their magnificence,

            The lively, lovely air;

            Oh how divine, how soft, how sweet, how fair!

            The stars did entertain my sense,

            And all the works of God, so bright and pure,

            So rich and great did seem,

            As if they ever must endure

            In my esteem.

This is a lyrical book, written with a sense of humour; his description of sheep shearing made me laugh out loud. He starts in the approved manner, with the sheep sitting down, leaning back against his legs. Having shorn thirty of the sheep he parks the tractor so he is hidden from view, ties the next one to a gate and finishes the job sitting down. “But I can never tell anyone about it because it is so seriously uncool.” Shearing is clearly best left to twenty-something year old New Zealanders. “My back is broken, and the exertion turned me into the portrait in Dorian Grey’s attic.”

Each month the meadow reveals a new delight, a kingfisher in January, with its mythological status as a bird of halcyon days, followed by celandines in April, turning the meadow into a field of stars. As I read the book I marked the passages I particularly liked and when I finished, I went back to read those special passages again. I found I had marked almost half the book. It seemed easiest to simply read it again, which I did, enjoying it as much as the first time, finding even more to learn and enjoy.

The word ‘meadow’ comes from the Old English mœdw, being related to māwan, ‘to mow’. It is not a natural habitat, but one moulded by the hand of man. “At its best, it is also equilibrium, artistry.” Meadows are one of the few areas where man, and his actions, has created something wonderful. In his reflections on a single meadow on a farm in England John Lewis-Stempel has also written a wonderful book, one that is an utter joy to read. Jane

 If you would like to buy this book, please buy or order it from your local bookshop, or indeed any bookshop. If people don’t use them, bookshops, like so many other things on this planet, will become extinct and, too late, we shall be sorry.


One of our Favourite Gardens: West Dean

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Apple HouseWest Dean Gardens, a few miles outside Chichester, are located at the foot of the South Downs and are one of our favourite places to visit. Part of the Edward James Foundation (think Dali and lobsters, and educational courses in everything from silversmithing to photography) they combine amazing planting, the highest standards of horticulture, interesting architecture, and regular festivals focussed on themes such as chillies or apples.

Yet a few decades ago, before the present husband and wife team of head gardeners, Jim Buckland and Sarah Wain, took over, the gardens had nearly disappeared beneath years of neglect subsequently made worse by the effects of the great storms of 1987 and 1990. The Foundation’s trustees committed resources to their revival and, by a massive effort, they have reached their present state of excellence with an immaculate restoration of the High Victorian feel and structure of what must be one of the UK’s great gardens. Eight full time gardeners are supported by a large team of volunteers and constant attention to detail ensures their pristine appearance. Despite the fundamentally quite poor soil, with a high demand for water in summer, careful mulching and composting have produced good growing conditions.

The old walled gardens are still largely used for the original purposes of growing fruit and vegetables, with a supporting backdrop of flowers alongside the dividing paths. There are superb plantings of many varieties of squashes, onions, tomatoes and almost everything you can imagine. A display of dahlias includes many old varieties, all staked and labelled in best cutting garden manner. The borders either side of the paths in the main vegetable garden are planted with trained fruit and a fine collection of predominantly hot coloured plants in reds, yellows and oranges including cannas, castor oil plants and mimulus. In the orchard area the box hedged borders are predominantly planted in blue, yellow and pink tones and the orchard itself contains numerous specimens of heritage apples and plums, often trained in elaborate shapes such as goblets as well as the more usual espaliers, stepovers and cordons.

The old walls, restored glasshouses with their vines, peaches and figs, and the delightful apple house all give particular charm to the kitchen gardens. Elsewhere a 300 foot long stone and timber pergola designed by Harold Peto in the Edwardian era is probably as good of its type as anything in the UK, an opinion that many visitors would echo for the gardens as whole. Have a look at our slide show and judge for yourself! Chris

A tunnel of trained fruit