Walking along the serpentine grassy path through the Secret Garden, the remaining cherry blossom has descended to become a swiftly diminishing carpet of pink and white petals under my feet as it is gradually blown away in the spring breezes.
In contrast, on other walks, there are now clouds of apple blossom, pink and white and quietly buzzing with the sounds of the many bees drawn to the sweet nectar. The songbirds perform longer and more complicated songs in the morning but I owe them a thank you at evensong too.
“Blossom by blossom the spring begins” wrote Algernon Charles Swinburn, Victorian poet and novelist. In his day, people might have been more aware of the seasons than many today. The blossom of prickly blackthorn is long gone by now but hawthorn has taken it is place with a mass of white blossom which will overwhelm any glimpse of the leaves or spiny, prickly branches.
Hawthorn in particular has ancient associations with May Day (1st May) which, in the country calendar marks the point when spring becomes summer. Hawthorn flowers traditionally adorned May Day garlands as well as the wreath of the “Green Man”. You are not supposed to bring it into the house but you can use the haws in jellies or salads, and in folklore it was where the faeries lived. In fact, the site of Westminster Abbey was once called Thorney Island after the sacred stand of thorn trees which grew there.
The east lawns beside the Castle are expansive and lead the eye serenely towards the pillared folly “Jackdaws’s Castle”. For all the beauty of the Castle’s parklands, I’m often asked why there no gardens? Part of the answer lies in the fact that there is a maze of, I hope, charming gardens, sheltered in the lea of the land to the south west, just not right by the Castle.
However, once, there were gardens next to the Castle and the grassed east lawns are quite recent. In the 19th century, an extensive mass of beds and formal walks, began near the Library windows. In the last five years, I have often spent winter afternoons removing the brambles and bringing back some of this lost garden of azaleas and specimen trees which are hidden at the far end of the lawns. Now, in early May, the blooms of yellow, red, peach and pink, orange, white and mauve shroud the shrubs leaving only a few leaves to be seen. Gloriously clashing and scented, they are in fact rare Ghent azaleas introduced from North America in 1734. The Azalea pontica or luteum (yellow and highly scented) dates to 1806 whilst other hybrids include ‘Ignea Nova’, ‘Coccinea Speciosa’ Narcissiflora and ‘Gloria Mundi’.
Another ten days though and the glory will already be fading. As Shakespeare put it:
“Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:”
All gardeners know that seasons pass which reinforces the sense of fragility and transience. It is indeed a “lease” and, at a time when we are least able to walk in, and with, nature, much of our “chatter” from our homes is about the life cycle of seasons, the spirit of nature and the pace of the earth. Whether it is a new found delight in birdsong, or an appreciation of clean air and waterways, I hope attention to lifestyle and policy can help direct us in strategies to promote such balance and peace. For every optimistic thought, there has been much sadness for us all, whether through empathy or experience and we will need resilience and pragmatism to understand what growth should mean in the future.
As we are spending so much more time in our homes at the moment, one rather sweet TV series to look at is the very English “The Darling Buds of May” set in 1958. It follows the life of the Larkin family, with David Jason starring as Pop Larkin, full of madcap innovative schemes to earn money none of which was ever recorded, let alone accounted for properly. Luckily, Cedric the tax inspector falls in love with his daughter Mariette (Catherine Zeta Jones) and thus begins a charming tale about an eccentric family. It is set in the garden of England, Kent, full of apple blossom and promise.