We all know the Simon and Garfunkel version of the ancient song Scarborough Fair. The madrigal song has a line: Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. That melody is in my mind, as I list off my impressions of the South England locations: Dixter, Hastings, Sissinghurst, Rye…
There are few locations in the United States that convey well the quality of being ancient. Maybe St Augustine, Florida. Maybe Missions, in the Southwest. But you do get that feeling, of the past being present, of ghosts inhabiting the space all around you, in some of these places I had the privilege of visiting this past Spring.
We drove down from London, along the great, broad Highways starting with M- to the smaller highways that start with A-, thanking our lucky stars all the way, that we had a good GPS system on the rent-a-car.
We drove past the exit for Chartwells, Winston Churchill’s sometime-residence, but regrettably, we never made it back. I have enjoyed so many movies and series based on Churchill’s life. Just yesterday, I watched the movie Churchill’s Secret, about his strokes and recovery while Prime Minister, in the nineteen-fifties.
Occasionally on the drive we would see yellow fields, which were canola.
Since we were hungry Americans, we stopped by Burger King. We each ordered a Whopper and the fries came with…mayonnaise. We had to ask especially for ketchup. Everything looked, in size, as if it belonged in a Happy Meal. If one can say such things, since saying the words Burger King and McDonald’s in the same sentence is bound to lead to mixed metaphors.
The other interesting thing about that Burger King was that one needed a pass code to access the restrooms, which were upstairs. My first foray at using the ladies room involved climbing up two flights. I arrived, to find a keypad. I went back down to the counter, obtained the pass code, and climbed the stairs again. The staff member was kind enough to tell me, that the code was written at the bottom of our receipt, as well. I made it to the top again and punched in the code he gave me. The staff member had apparently misremembered the code. I went back down again and asked my husband for the receipt. After two more flights, I was able to use the loo.
This was my rude introduction to a trip that involved a lot of walking. To make up for all the trauma I endured in the form of exercise during these three weeks of vacation, I determined to be an absolute slug for the following three weeks. And I am proud to say, I have succeeded in this endeavor, or lack thereof.
And yes, in case you were wondering, the Whopper did taste like a Whopper.
Our next stop was Dixter, where my daughter has been on scholarship as a gardener for the past nine months. I have been keeping up with her sporadically online and in voice calls, but nothing is the same as having your daughter drop by your house a few times a week to chat for hours on end. I miss that little luxury desperately! Without that during the whole of COVID, I would have been a hermit, indeed.
The turnoff leads to a very narrow road with homes on either side, and the occasional oncoming car, which you must make way for, somehow. Past that is a dirt drive back to the barn area. You park against a long, low-slung fence. As you get out, you can peer over miles and miles of rolling countryside. Perhaps that’s why they called those landowning gentry and members of Parliament “peers.”
Great Dixter has a large Tudor house (circa 500 years old) in the half-timber style. It was apparently resurrected by Christopher Lloyd’s father from a state of much neglect, sometime in the twentieth century. You can go on a tour of the public side of the house and they will tell you quite a bit about its uses, both in the modern day and in the distant past.
This is the house we slept in, on the non-public side. I can’t resist sharing a few pictures of our lovely room, just to give you an idea of our good fortune, in being invited to stay there.
But of course, we did not come only for the sleeping accommodations. Great Dixter House is surrounded by a garden that is open to the public during the warmer part of the year. The whole property is owned by a private trust. And it is stunningly beautiful.
There are narrow paths which lead you from one walled or fenced or meadow-bordered area to another, and plants springing from every bed to greet you. We were there the last five days of April. As far as I could tell, it was “peak tulip.” Tulips were everywhere. Tulips of every kind, of every size, of every state– just budding, full-bloom or just barely beginning to fade and, reluctantly, wilt. I was in tulip heaven.
You must understand, that though I live in North Florida, there is nothing Northern about the species of flower which grow here. Tulips, I am sad to say, are not among them. In fact, I recall taking my young daughter to the local hardware store, asking specifically how best to grow a tulip in this climate. We were told, unequivocally, not to bother. Tulip bulbs come to Florida to die. Much like WOKE, in a way.
Tulips are available from florists, of course, but never do I get to experience them in this kind of volume. You could interpret the word “volume” in every way you please, and it will still apply. As a description of their numbers, of their variety, of the space they fill up, even, as a description of their loudness, the stirring voice, with which they spoke to me.
To me, that’s peak tulip. But according to some of the gardeners on my daughter’s team, they might have been even better a week earlier. And better, still, if certain weather conditions had not, in some minuscule way, slightly dampened their exuberance. Anyway, it was not apparent to me, as rank amateur, with emphasis on the amato –I love–that anything was less than “peak.”
Not just the plant life is admirable, at Dixter. Hardscaping is a gardener’s storyteller. Paths lead you from one prospect to another. The Walls hide topiaries and then allow them to burst forth in front of you. A pond fills a depression and steps lead you down to its banks, where a seating area on the rim opf the pond provides welcome respite for tired feet and tech-troubled minds.
The architect Sir Edwin Luytens apparently designed the steps, built up in thin shards of slate, that arch from a doorway to a lower area in concentric quarter-circles. The silos on the hops barns provide an interesting perch, for the many birds that gather and sing all day long in their incomprehensible chorus, winningly calling Dixter home.
Coming home to this for five days was a pleasure beyond description. The work the team has to do on a daily basis, to keep such a Paradise going is incredible. We had the privilege of meeting many of them. The plantings are staged, so as to have different plants come into full bloom at different times, during the entire warm season. In this way, the gardeners guarantee that repeat visits reap different joys. My daughter sent me photos during winter, and even then, the skeletal, frosty remains of summer splendor retain a certain ghostly charm.
I hope you, too, will have an opportunity to take in this spectacular garden in the South of England.
My next bulletin will discuss our visit to another great, rival garden nearby, the tailored half-sister of wild Dixter, once home to Vita Sackville-West: Sissinghurst.
Copyright 2023 Andrea LeDew