Richard White

explorations in place and time

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The potting shed at Heligan. An inciting moment

Some years ago I visited the Lost Gardens of Heligan with my partner and daughter.

It was a hot day. We explored, I was intent on seeing the kitchen garden and the cold frames where long ago, warmed by the heat of decomposing horse manure, the gardeners had grown pineapples. I was fascinated by the story of this garden being reclaimed from the past. Being brought, respectfully, back to life.

In my memory I find myself treading ochre gravel in a warm open space ringed with sun warmed and recently restored red brick walls. I feel the sun on my skin. I once worked in a garden and although my responsibilities were few I loved that feeling of being enclosed by the garden walls and the gentle gusts of a dissipating sea breeze.The garden was warm in the radiating heat of wall and gravel, greenhouses against the wall, still bare, in front of me a row of the famous cold frames.

I am always interested in the work done in such places, who dug the gardens, who grew the vegetables, who cut the grass  and cyt the hedges, rather than being much interested in names of plants or Lord and Lady So and So’s roses. Who shovelled the horseshit, who nurtured those cold frames to produce the pineapples. What they must have felt growing that strange thistly fruit so prized by the master. Somewhere I felt an echo of myself, not even identifiable family stories of being in service but something of that. A thought of a former lovers dad,  an old soldier and  proper estate gardener, estranged from his daughter who on his death bed told her his greatest secret. Something of the company of men in growing food, sustaining life.

Close by the walled garden we had walked into a space where once the garden boy kept the fire going and sleeping some of the night fitfully I imagined him fearing a cold grate in the morning. Here too we saw the famous Heligan graffiti, the names scratched in the plaster on the wall of the bothy. The names of the last gardeners.The next time those names appear in the history of the community are on the war memorial. I raged silently about the cruel trick that patriotism, service and loyalty played on that generation of young men. In the company of men, led, wounded, cajoled, comforted and, at some point in that distant long time ago war, killed by their fellow men.

Day time eye candy tv was part of my kaleidoscopic experience in this moment, a documentary about the Gardens, my first hearing of the story of the pineapple and the names in the plaster. More than a tv stunt, in memoriam an ice scuplture of a gardener slowly melts. My chest fills and my throat chokes even as I write this.

So into the cool calm of the potting shed, I had t leave this to last I knew how it would be. A high bench and dusty window out onto the hot reds and yellows of that enclosed garden. Part of the garden but separate from it. Racks of garden tools hanging, silent. Watering cans. Empty. Trays. And stack upon stacks of red clay flower pots. Some in concentric sizes, some lying down in rows like the legs of Flowerpot Men. All clean, intact. Ready. Trowels, rakes, hoes, sickles laid out in order. Tidy. Ready for work. I thought of the men who had gone off to war, leaving the space in order, anticipating their return. But they never did.

I remembered myself in a smaller but not dissimilar shed drinking a glass of Guinness with a slice of fruit cake. Looking out through another dusty cobwebbed window over the garden I worked on, my garden. Savouring the moment of thoughtful solitude. Dd those ld gardeners ever have time to reflect, moments of pride and sense of ownership like that, I wished they did. I wished to share it with them.

In the cool of the potting shed at Heligan I stood awash with experience, the smell of dry earth, a dark floor below the bar of the bench, dust just stirred floating in the shaft of sun light. I thought about each of those tiny red clay pots, I imagined hands filling them, caring from them, bringing life out of them. I wondered what knowledge had been lost with that generation, what stories they could tell. I tried to hear their distant voices and sounds of their work,  but could only hear the tourists and plant enthusiasts milling around outside. I tried to imagine those who might have filled that space during the working day. I stood there in silence. They never came back.

I bore witness. I was calm and thoughtful holding all that past and present in balance. A familiar voice at the half open door calls me, a loving presence beside me and somehow the wave breaks. I could have cried for a generation. The ice sculpture was made from tears of mothers, lovers and comrades and in my minds eye it weeps forever.