Many people are familiar with the trilogy of books Beverley Nichols wrote about his Tudor Cottage; ‘Allways’ in Glatton, Huntingdonshire.
The most famous is ‘Down the Garden Path‘ followed by the other two in the trilogy: ‘A Thatched Roof‘ and ‘A Village in a Valley‘. The first is the most popular one and is mainly about Beverley discovering the joys of gardening, as a very young man. The books are beautifully illustrated with drawings by Rex Whistler.
The books are camp, and some have even called them twee, but he has a deliciously waspish sense of humour that makes you forgive the odd purple passage. He writes so lyrically about his love of flowers and he is very entertaining about the friends who come and go in the books. You don’t go to Beverley Nichols for gardening hints, unless you are a beginner too, but for his enthusiasm, wonderful descriptions and for sheer entertainment. They are just the thing for a miserable December day when you don’t feel like going outside.
I have been under the weather this last week with a vicious chest infection which has kept me by the fire. I did mean to go and see the baby seals on Horsey Beach in Norfolk and post about it for December’s Wildlife Wednesday hosted by Tina at Mygardenersays. But that will have to wait until another day. I also would have liked to join in with the End of The Month View with Helen at the Patientgardener blog, but, no chance. In fact I haven’t ventured into the garden at all, not even to see if my Galanthus ‘Three Ships’ is nearly out. I am also keen to see if Narcissus ‘Cedric Morris’ is coming along, as both these treasures are often in bloom for Christmas Day. They will have to wait. I haven’t even been keeping up with what everyone else has been blogging about this week. My sole reading has been Beverley and very good company he has proved to be.
Many of you will be familiar with the Allways books, but I wonder if you have discovered the equally delightful Merry Hall trilogy. Beverley only stayed in his Tudor cottage for ten years. There was some unpleasantness in the village, particularly when the young men who came for weekend visits propositioned the local boys. There was talk of the police being involved and of course this was at a time when homosexuality was illegal.
Merry Hall in Ashtead, Surrey was something completely different. It was a Georgian mansion with five acres. He bought it in 1946.
Beverley said: ‘One grows out of Tudor cottages. Little by little, the charm of being stunned and sent reeling to the wall, six times a day, by the low beams on the ceiling, is apt to pall; one no longer darts gaily to the bathroom for the sticking plaster, chortling with amusement at the nice Tudore bumpe on one’s forehead. Nor as season gives way to season, and as the bedroom floor sinks more sharply, tilting at an even acuter angle, does one take so much pleasure in emerging from bed, as it were, on skis, and sliding down a highly polished slope towards a lattice window...’ He goes on to say that: ‘lingering with the Tudors is merely a sign of aesthetic adolescence.‘ Well, that puts me in my place, as I am lingering in a house built in 1500, with low ceilings which regularly attack the Pianist who is very tall. He does not chortle about the bumps on the head either. If you heard him I don’t think you would call it a chortle. My lovely old oak bedroom floors are indeed ski slopes and the beds have to be on blocks to stop people from rolling out of their beds.
But I’m afraid we can’t all aspire to growing up aesthetically and buying a Georgian mansion with five bedrooms on the first floor, five on the second floor, and I believe five more in the attic. It does seem a trifle large. But as Beverley told his sceptical friend who viewed the house with him: ‘Merely because one has lots of rooms one needn’t use them’. The house was decorated throughout in the most appalling taste but Beverley fell in love with it. He ‘mentally signed the contract’ when he went into the garden and found that there were huge rows of regale lilies. Most of the book tells the tale of restoring the garden with the help of the wonderful old gardener, Oldfield, who had dedicated all his life to the kitchen garden and greenhouses and grew the most wonderful vegetables. All the ideas for improvement had to have the approval of Oldfield.
I believe much of the garden has been sold off and built on now. But it is rather nice that the housing estate is called ‘Oldfield Gardens’ after the fictitious name for Mr. Newby. The garden was surrounded by a variegated holly hedge which Beverley and his partner, Cyril got rid of by setting fire to it. This bright idea came to them after drinking champagne. I wonder if I should try it on my Viburnum tinus. All round the property there were huge elms, which from today’s perspective, now that these majestic trees have disappeared, sound wonderful. Beverley didn’t like them and they had to go. He said; ‘As soon as Constable had finished painting them they should have been rooted out of the British Isles’. Well, now they have been, Dutch Elm Disease has seen them off and they are a sad loss.
I love the description of the rockery studded with speckled concrete stones and the rank, stinking pond. He threw the concrete stones into the pond where they protruded like ‘heads of marine monsters with pebbly eyes‘. There are wonderful descriptions of tree buying and, more extravagantly, urn and dolphin buying, as his vision of a beautiful garden encompassed more and more expensive schemes. He was extremely extravagant all his life and I gather he was quite hard up in his old age and had to write rather awful little whimsical homilies for a woman’s magazine. He did adverts for cat food too which must have been a bit of a come down.
All his characters are wonderfully drawn . There is Oldfield, the gardener, Gaskin, the manservant who stayed with Beverley for the rest of his life. Cyril, is there, of course, but kept discreetly in the background. Women are always present in his books and he always describes them with humour and affection, although mostly they infuriate him too. ‘Miss Emily’ keeps popping in and as she was clearly in love with ‘Stebbings’ the previous owner she is horrified at any of the improvements on the house. The dreadful Stebbings with his dire ideas of interior decoration haunts Beverley throughout. Apparently this philistine pedalled on his pianola every morning and used Liszt to stimulate his intestines. The thought of this bothered the very musical Beverley, as much as the wallpapers like skin diseases, the wort-like extension and the truly horrible stained glass.
‘Our Rose‘ the flower arranger is another character who Beverley took great enjoyment in describing. He was a great friend of Constance Spry and an admirer of her flower arranging. I don’t know whether ‘Our Rose’ actually existed, perhaps she is Violet Stevenson, another flower arranger of the 50’s. What Beverley objected to was the terrible way she tortured her flowers and her total lack of any aesthetic sense. He always had flowers in the house and was a great enthusiast for winter flowers. Some of his ideas for flower arrangements seem rather dated but others are well worth copying.
His very erudite friend Marius wanders in now and then and is always a source of entertainment. And then there are the ever present and adored cats: ‘One’ and ‘Four’.
For a cold winter’s day of recuperation I cannot think of a nicer thing to do than to sit by the fire and read my seed catalogues, and ‘Merry Hall‘ followed by ‘Laughter on the Stairs’ which is all about the improvements inside the house as well as the garden. The wonderful Pianist made some fresh scones today and for once ‘life-inside’ seems very nice indeed. I have ordered the Bryan Connon biography ‘Beverley Nichols; A Life’, so that will be next on the list.
Tomorrow I shall go and see what everyone else has been doing whilst I had my week off blogging.