In a typically unrestful lead up to Christmas, chance comments with friends led us to embark on retro fitting of extra insulation to part of our home. Also typically, it will take us at least 3 times as long as initially hoped for, but at least I now understand a bit more about U values of building materials (which expresses the heat or energy lost through various surfaces within the home, and quantified as watts per square metre/per degree C temperature difference between the internal and external surfaces).
I’d become interested by how our home, an old stone cottage, often seems to chill down more rapidly in wet weather than cold conditions. Although no simple formula seems to exist to calculate this effect, it is at least as important as the effect of wind chill at exacerbating heat loss from buildings, in a wet climate like ours. After 8 days of dawn till night work with the insulation, we paused to visit Shropshire and celebrate Fiona’s mother’s birthday. Here Kevin with his engineering background helped me even more in my understanding of these issues.
The following morning a chance glimpse through the pages of Diana’s previous day’s newspaper (a luxury for us since a daily paper would involve a 12 mile round trip), and I spotted the obituary of Francis (Frank) Cabot aged 86. An American gardener, from an historically eminent East Coast family, he was a significant horticulturalist and philanthropist. Indeed his influence has even touched our remote part of Carmarthenshire since he was the wealthy benefactor responsible for funding the Aberglasney Restoration Trust’s work in restoring the historic ‘lost gardens’ there over the last decade.
On a slightly more personal note, he was the source of huge encouragement to me with my creative endeavours. A chance visit with a friend who wanted to view my exhibition of moths and moth art staged at Aberglasney gardens in the winter of 2008/9 coincided with what turned out to be Frank Cabot’s last trip over to the gardens for a trustees’ meeting. The previous day he’d seen the exhibition and asked to meet me that day, when, over a cup of tea, he said that he’d enjoyed my images so much he proposed shipping the exhibition off to the USA in due course. He’d even measured up for the purpose of arranging suitable packing cases.
Sadly it never came to pass, but I was hugely encouraged that what I’d done was after all a worthwhile effort, if it could make such an impact. I guess that all creativity at some point needs such appreciation for it to be sustained. Of particular interest to me in paper’s obituary was that like me he’d been fortunate and brave enough to retire early, particularly devoting himself to horticultural and gardening interests. Also, I guess that his decision to take this unconventional step at a young age was influenced by his father who had also retired even earlier at 42, selling up his share in his engineering and investment firm Stone and Webster just two months before the Wall Street Crash.
Sometimes timing really is important and such an example of superb judgement would no doubt have been a topic of conversation in the Cabot household for many years. The final fascinating synchronicity was that we looked on line for a copy of his highly praised book ‘The Greater Perfection: The story of the gardens of Quatre Vents’, which was mentioned in the obituary. Some regard this as the best book ever written about the making of a garden by its creator. Unfortunately it’s out of our price bracket for affordability, but I was intrigued to see that the front cover photo is of a Himalayan Blue Poppy which is by chance one of the signature plants in our little garden here at Gelli which we love to grow, photograph and incorporate into some of our designs. (Later addendum: we eventually managed to buy a copy of his book, which is remarkable, and also sadly no longer grow the blue poppy, since it turns out to be a very short lived perennial).
In a different vein, I wonder whether some parental influence was passed on through the genes of the Norwegian Spruce recently felled here and sawn up. A seedling tree on our bank was duly sawn down with a new, and sharp pruning saw, but frustratingly would not fit into the Christmas tree holder. No worries, on Christmas Eve, I took the same saw to the branch stumps and in a moment of careless abandon sawed through the last stump, and into my index finger. Pay back time for the demise of the parent tree! So, for now, my piano playing ability is severely limited, probably to the delight of the family who join us later today.
Apart from a brief spell of wintry showers 10 days ago, the weather is extraordinarily mild, but I write this in fear and trepidation. After my previous comments about the very dry year we have had, the weather has reverted to mean, and we’re on track for well over 200 mm of rain in December, with only 2 dry days so far. No doubt the list of unseasonal blooms in the garden at the moment will prompt another switch to typical wintry weather and we’ll end up snowed in through January. But for now the sight and smell of Daphne Bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ flowers, the first snowdrops, and the spidery blooms of Hamamelis ‘Vesna’ and ‘Robert’ are a real lift with so many grey days and such little sunshine.
The unseasonal blooms of Brunnera, Hydrangea and Deutzia are however more an indication of how confused the plant world has also been by the current year’s weather patterns.
And with all this climatic change impinging dramatically on our plant life, I read in “The Garden, January 2012” that in two years’ time there will be no UK University courses available in Botany. Although there are going to be some available in ‘Plant Sciences’ at 7 UK universities with links to other biological areas of interest, I do wonder whether this reflects urban Britain’s increasingly worrying divorce from the natural world which unfortunately we all do inhabit. By contrast I discovered from the Guardian’s 2010 University guide that there are 79 UK Universities which currently offer courses in the Nationally Vital and Economically Significant Subject of:
Media studies, communications and librarianship.
Finally, for Christmas, Fiona gave me a couple of interesting books. The first is a locally written book by Alan and Sally Leech on the history of the properties of 2 upland areas of our neighbouring county of Ceredigion (Cardiganshire). “Struggle For Survival In The Cardiganshire Hills – Story of the settlement of the mountains of Llanfair and Llanddewi”.
The point that really hit me on flicking through its carefully compiled records and images is just how many of the stone cottages where families eked out a subsistence existence during the 1800’s and early 1900’s are now steadily collapsing piles of moss-covered stones. The book also records the fact that the survivors, which includes several families who have lived and farmed these hills for generations, truly love these lands – hard though the existence sometimes is. During the winter months here, I echo their thoughts, of being privileged to inhabit and be custodians of this place. It is the relative hardships we endure at this time of the year which heighten the joys of the other seasons, living on the edge. Oh, and as a further bizarre link, the Leechs bought Tan Yr Esgair from my father several years ago, and we then discovered when we purchased our great 4×4 Skoda Octavia estate in Llandysul 3 years ago that the previous owners had also been the Leechs.
The second book which I only opened yesterday after the tumult of family visits over Christmas was subsiding a bit, was the one shown below.
I know little of Dan Pearson’s garden design work, but a local friend and garden designer rates him very highly. Again I was struck by the image on the front taken by Dan after a visit to a Japanese moss garden. Many visitors to our garden comment on how our own copse garden has a Japanese feel or influence to it. This may well be the case, but it was in fact inspired by a walk through the local Brechfa Forest, where in the dense shade beneath tall firs and larches the ground is carpeted in springy moss, thriving in the damp acid environment. We achieved the same effect, years ago, by painting the leggy grass beneath our larches with glypohosate on a single occasion, to reveal the even lower growing moss. 4 years on in the gloomy light of December, the effect is not dissimilar to the cover photo on Dan’s book.
However we have tried to introduce a little colour even at this time of the year, to dispel the uniformity of greens and brown. A final amusing anecdote on our own mossy copse came courtesy of a BBC producer who did a recce with a researcher earlier this year, prior to the possible inclusion of the garden in a new TV series. Walking ahead of me into this area of the garden and having already explained to us that she’d worked on a number of garden series for the BBC, she excitedly started asking what the wonderful green plant was that we’d used as groundcover. I looked around to see what she was tapping with her shoe. The very same. “Moss”. I can report that the garden wasn’t chosen for the series, but what was I writing earlier about the demise of botany and the rise of media?
Since this will be my last blog of 2011, I wish everyone who reads it a very Happy and Peaceful 2012.