Then and Now

I love gardens. Perhaps I take after my father, to whom my first book, The Voice From the Garden, is dedicated, although I can hardly call myself a gardener as he was. When he wasn’t at work he always seemed to be busy in his greenhouse, tending the tomatoes and coaxing tiny seedlings into growth for planting in the flowerbeds. Although the garden we had when I was a child had a flourishing peach tree and a riotous rhubarb patch, it was too small for anything more substantial, so my father rented an allotment too. Sometimes on Saturday mornings I was allowed to help him, and I remember trudging back up the hill to our house for lunch, tired and grubby, the wheelbarrow full of potatoes or onions to feed us all for the coming week.

Alas, I didn’t inherit his memory for the names of plants, or his patience in waiting for things to grow. But these days I have so little spare time that gardening has to yield results more quickly than my father thought proper. Yet we agreed on one thing. We both liked the unusual, that touch of interest that gives a garden a wider dimension, so I was pleased when he approved an eccentricity of mine.

In our little garden beneath a Portuguese laurel and next to a large leafy fern stands an elegant, slightly curved piece, about four feet high. I tell people that it’s our Henry Moore. Sometimes they almost believe me: after all, the sculptor had his home in Hertfordshire. In fact it is a boat’s keel, which we planted on end with its base secured in concrete under the earth. It is cast iron, not bronze as a Moore might be, but it catches the light and is lovely, and fills an empty space where it might have been tempting to put a meaningless modern statue from a garden centre. Instead, the keel is connected with us and our house.

I like connections. They are hugely satisfying. We found the keel, my husband, son and I, in a salvage yard when we were on holiday in Northumberland, the county from which my mother’s family came for generations. We loved its shape and the link with our past lives (we separately have seafaring connections), and then we discovered it came from a boat made in about 1926, the year our house was built. The connection was too strong to resist.

I also like the fact that the past is always with us in the present. I love digging it up, sometimes literally from under the ground, at other times from old documents; I am taken to another world. Where possible I give my discoveries house room. A favourite piece is connected with The Voice from the Garden and sits on our sideboard. It is a coffin handle. I found it hidden amongst the thick undergrowth and fallen masonry that is part of the now crumbling Elphinstone Tower on the old Dunmore Estate at Stirling: a part that visitors to the famous “Pineapple” rarely discover. The Tower was used until the early 20th century as the burial place of Pamela’s Murray ancestors, the Earls of Dunmore. Vandalism of the Tower in the 1990s caused the coffins to be removed for safety to Blair Castle, the Murrays’ family seat, and reburied. Probably mid to late 19th century it has polished up quite well, the beautiful carving, resembling the Murray’s family crest, still visible.

The handle must have fallen off when the coffins were being moved, or perhaps it was torn off by one of the vandals. I relish being its temporary custodian, for it means a piece of the past can be remembered in the present. I wish I could have shown my father.