In a Green Shade: You could walk, under leafy canopy, almost all the way from Elmcote into Lincolnshire and meet not another soul

Chapter seventeen

Johnny’s dachshunds had been fed by Mrs Merrill in the servant’s hall. Now, Miss Voysey had come down to let them out into the garden. Their claws skittered on the hard surface of the scullery corridor as they followed her excitedly to the side door.

Walking alone on The Rose Walk, Miss Dorothy Moore leaned forward to appreciate the scent of the blossom of a damask rose. As she straightened again, she realised that she had become aware of a distant drone, like that of a lawn mower.

 …

˜Miss Voysey crossed the courtyard and headed toward The Theatre Lawn with her charges; but as she reached this point she stopped. Her expression clouded, then darkened. She began rounding up the dachshunds and marshalled them back along the path, shouting, as she did so: “Mrs Merrill! Mrs Merrill!”

 …

˜The long case clock at the foot of the main stair chimed lugubriously, in a minor key.

 …

˜Sunlight through the leaves of a tree played across a print of Primavera by Botticelli hung in a gilt frame on a half landing of the main stair. The flickering effect made it seem as if the figures in its garden scene were dancing.

 …

˜Aware now of a commotion, Mrs Merrill emerged from the scullery passage door and joined Miss Voysey and her mêlée of dachshunds in the courtyard. Merrill and Voysey conferred. As they did so, their faces became ever paler. Together, they succeeded in corralling the dogs back into the scullery passage. That done, Miss Voysey emerged again. She walked in haste back toward The Circle.

 …

˜A biplane, gaily painted in yellow, flew over the garden, heading south-southeast. It was low enough for you to be able to hear quite plainly that one cylinder of its engine was misfiring, but not so low that you could claim to see the pilot. When it had quite gone, you remained aware of small puffball clouds in a perfectly blue sky.

 …

˜Faint wisps of smoke, almost invisible in the sunlight, rose from the chimney of one of the cottages in Elmcote Bartrim.

 …

˜When Johnny returned to his study he found Mrs Merrill waiting for him. She looked anxious, drained. Her face was grey.

 …

˜At the very north-western corner of the gardens, where the hillside fell away toward The Spring Slope and The Lower Stream Garden, rocks had been arriving all morning. Now, head gardener Frank Adams, assisted by his head labourer, Ted Pearce, began lifting these rocks into place on a mammoth mound of earth, thus beginning the creation of what was already being referred to as The Rock Garden. “Plums in a pudding,” said Pearce. Adams, an unlit pipe in the corner of his mouth, wondered at how so many rocks could amount to so little on the ground. Pearce nodded in reply but said nothing.

 

Chapter eighteen

Quite by chance, the first aerial photograph of Elmcote (or at any rate the oldest surviving aerial shot that anyone’s yet discovered) was taken that weekend. It was taken by a flying club member, randomly, as he played with a specially-designed camera he’d acquired.

The quality of the photograph is astonishingly good. You can even see figures in the garden: and from the disposition of their shadows you can work out that it must have been taken around Noon. You can even make out that one of the figures, a woman, has a group of dogs around her.

Speculating about the individual stories of these tiny figures is fascinating; but more than anything, the photograph gives the garden a geographical context. You can see, for instance, that it’s placed at the vanishing point of a great forest; an epic swathe of rolling woodland in the heart of England that begins attenuating as it puts out an arm to the south east. Elmcote is held, delicately, in the fingers of its outstretched hand.

From high up among the clouds, you can appreciate the Shakespearean magic of such a forest. Its other-worldliness. And it was renowned then, as it had been for centuries, for the richness of its flora and its fauna: not just its several species of deer – roe, red and fallow – but also more exotic mammals, like wild cats and martens and boars; and more delicate phenomena: shrews, dormice, several unusual species of bat, adders and grass-snakes in profusion, plus a cornucopia of moths and butterflies and rare birds. It shimmered with life.

And yet, in the days before guide books and tourist trails, it was virtually unexplored – and certainly unexploited. You could walk, under leafy canopy, almost all the way from Elmcote into Lincolnshire and meet not another soul.

The photograph is also useful from another standpoint. It tends to confirm contemporary accounts suggesting that the garden at Elmcote was a garden with few overt structures. There were no follies here: no temples or pagodas or essays in eccentric outhouse architecture.

This, for some, was counter-intuitive: in later years, garden archaeologists would wonder at the amount of structure that they kept uncovering. Walls and steps and terraces and paths: strip away the greenery, they implied, and you might be left with the sort of bare bones you’d be confronted with if you’d unearthed the skeleton of a city. An archetypally great city. A Byzantium or a Troy or a Persepolis.

But no: from the air it is merely a labyrinth of hedge and tree.

All of its low walls and steps were living affairs, every nook and crevice filled with creeping and colonising plants. Even in its hey-day, Elmcote was a garden whose hard structures were, for the most part, artfully hidden.

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