Month: October 2014

Rumer Godden, An Episode of Sparrows


An Episode of SparrowsRumer Godden wrote this in 1946, inspired by the widow boxes on her mews house just off Eaton Square. It was published as a novel for adults, but its heroine is a ten year old girl and it is one of those books that can be enjoyed by anyone from eight to eighty. 

Like The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett it is the story of a garden tended by children, but the garden in An Episode of Sparrows lacks the idyllic walled setting of Martha’s one. The garden Lovejoy (the unfortunately-named heroine of An Episode of Sparrows) creates is on an old bomb site in London right in the middle of the grime and noise of the city. It is created using a stolen packet of cornflower seeds and later, soil taken from the nearby posh garden square. A jobbing gardener filled Rumer Godden’s real widow boxes with earth and flowers and a few days later she received a visit from two ladies who lived in Eaton Square. ‘Not a social call,’ they said. Apparently the earth in her window boxes had been stolen from their garden and Rumer Godden was told she should have bought it from the Army and Navy Stores, at ‘seven shillings and sixpence the carton’. This episode forms the basis of the story of An Episode of Sparrows. Lovejoy lives in Catford Street, backing onto the Square where there are fine houses, a gardening committee and a formidable resident in the form of Miss Angela Chesney, who is determined that the ‘street children’ or ‘sparrows’ will not invade her fine garden. 

Lovejoy’s mother is irresponsible and largely absent, her father totally so. She lodges above a restaurant run by the delightful Vincent, who dreams of serving a rich and discerning clientele, rather than the solitary Mr Manley, often his only customer. Tip Malone’s gang rules the Street, but Tip is not a bad boy and his softer side is exposed when Lovejoy bullies him into helping in her garden. She has glimpsed an Italian-style garden through a gate in Chelsea and this is what she wants to create on her bomb site. 

Lovejoy has eyes ‘as cold and grey as pebbles’, fine fair hair and a fierce demeanour. She has learnt how to survive in the Street, not stealing big things, which she knows is wrong, but by taking what she needs. A strong friendship grows between her and the thirteen year-old Tip with surprising consequences, largely brought about by Olivia, Miss Angela’s quiet, unassuming, but perceptive sister. 

It will not spoil the story to say that there is a happy ending; books like this have reliably happy endings, that is part of their charm. In the same way as the Secret Garden makes Colin and Mary happier and better people, so the pansies and cornflowers on the bomb site improve the lives of Lovejoy, Tip and Vincent. Jane.



Driving back from Devon II: Lytes Cary Manor

Lytes Cary  4It is an embarrassingly long time since I got back from Devon. In fact I have been to Scotland and back, but here is the last part of the Devon trip, a stop for lunch at Lytes Cary Manor in Somerset. 

The house itself is made of gently-coloured limestone, with mullioned windows, a jumble of gables and a chapel attached. The Lyte family lived here from the fourteenth century until their fortunes declined in the 1750s and they were forced to leave. The house has changed little since their day. 

The Elizabethan Lytes were keen botanists and herbalists, but little remains of the garden as it was then. In 1618 the orchard (which is lovely now, too) included ‘Apples, 3 skore severall sorts. Pears and Wardens, 44 sorts. Plummes, 15 divers kinds.’ The Jenners, who bought the house in 1907, laid out the garden with a series of garden rooms divided with hedges and old stone walls. In 1965 Graham Stuart Thomas designed the Main Border and since then the tenants, Jeremy and Biddy Chittenden, have updated the planting, both in the Main Border and the White Garden. 

The path to the front door is lined with twelve clipped yew bushes, ‘The Apostles’. Unfortunately, you don’t enter the garden along this path. I’m not sure why, as there is what seems to be a perfectly good set of gates, but one is funnelled in at the side. You need to walk down the path with your eyes blinkered and then turn to appreciate the entrance as it should be. This part of the garden is neat and formal, and is a complete contrast to the Main Border, which you come to through an arch (there are lots of inviting arches, either in old stone walls or neatly clipped hedges). I’ve visited the garden at many times of year and it is always awash with colour, beginning with blues and yellows and ending with shocking pink and crimson. Beyond is another contrast, the peace and quiet of the White Garden. 

Lytes Cary 2013 5The Orchard is laid out in a St. Andrew’s cross with a sundial in the centre. Along one side is a raised walk and at each corner a weeping ash is cut so that you enter through a tunnel. There are apples and pears, and also quinces, medlars and crab apples. In spring there is a carpet of daffodils underway. There are lots of little rooms within the garden – Pond, Vase, Lavender, Sunken and Cutting Gardens and a croquet lawn where you can play. In the best country house style, the whole is surrounded by parkland with sheep quietly munching the grass.and fritillaries, but I like it best in autumn, when the harvest is

In early autumn the garden is full of all the usual flowers – scabious, cosmos, dahlias and verbena, but they are beautifully combined and, on a sunny day, this is one of my favourite gardens. The café, while not exceptional, is perfectly good and sitting in the courtyard here is infinitely preferable to being squashed at a plastic table in a Little Chef. Jane