I’ll lay my cards on the table: I’ve never been a great fan of the National Garden Scheme (NGS). All too often, gardens turn out to be much of a much-ness; perhaps those who decide whether a garden will be admitted or not are more concerned with numbers rather than interest, variety and so on. When several gardens open as a group on a single day, you can end up with garden fatigue – I’ve seen people drop out after visiting a third garden that, as they admit to each other with resignation, looked just like the first two. I have sneaked away without visiting every garden in a group when my fake smile muscles ran out of strength and I just couldn’t face another cup of tea. Or being startled by the garden owner suddenly jumping out in front of me, displaying eager anticipation of yet another “wow” comment.
But, let’s be honest, the people who open their gardens for the NGS are doing so for charity. They are opening up their private sanctums to public view; that public may be very forthright in their opinions of a Sissinghurst, botanical garden or any of the bigger, less personal places, but when it comes down to someone’s back garden it’s all “Ooooh”, “Aaaaah”, “Lovely” until we’re round the corner. The amount of effort that goes into preparing the garden can be phenomenal. The whole family including great aunt Agatha, nephews, nieces, distant cousins, are roped in for a month before opening, ensuring the presentation of the garden in totally unreal pristine perfection (Hint: The big places like Sissinghurst are NEVER perfect). Nature is never perfect; a little less concentration on perfection will often make a garden more appealing. We’re not talking Chelsea; we’re talking real life.
But there are some lovely hidden gems out there. Often these are the results of the efforts of a single gardener, maybe with the other half roped in a bit. It’s even better when a single gardener is also collecting the entry fees, helping with refreshments, giving directions to the loo and calming the family dog who’s getting excited about all the invaders in his territory; this prevents them from jumping out in front of you all the time (see above).
And so it was that, venturing forth regardless of the rain that wasn’t watering the plants in my greenhouse, I made my way to such a little gem, below a coal-tip a bit north of Swansea, the creation of one Paul Steer who, unsatisfied with just one blog, has two: Letters to Monty (the ramblings of a deluded man), in which he writes about his garden, life, the world, the universe and anything else that springs to mind, and The Coal-Tip Studio, about his art, for he is also a talented artist. I have one of his frescos at home.
My first recollection of Paul was of his bum. He’s a regular walking companion of Charles Hawes, the award-winning garden photographer, who has a pretty good walking blog over at Walking the Blog. Charles seems to have a penchant for photographing bums. His walking companions stride forth along the pre-determined route while he drags along behind photographing anything that takes his fancy. And because he’s bringing up the rear, any shots of those companions tend to be of their rears. If there was an award for the most photographed bottom, that of anyone going for a walk with Charles would be a contender.
So it was a surprise to discover that Paul also has a front side!
Paul calls his garden “The Coal Tip Cloister Garden”. It isn’t a large garden by any means and Paul has, if anything, emphasised it’s smallness by making a garden that feels like it’s wrapping you up, enclosing you in its protective embrace. A garden that, when you sit on a (rather damp) seat, almost forces you to relax and unwind, however you may be feeling. There’s no noise of passing traffic (though Paul mentions that his peace is sometimes disturbed by off-roaders taking advantage, illegally, of the coal tip above him). My experience was the occasional flapping of wings and burst of bird song responding to the duet between the falling raindrops and the foliage reaching out to catch them.
Paul is lucky in that the placement of his garden allows him to borrow the landscape on at least one side. Not a distant panoramic view (he told me that just past the fence was a major drop down to an abandoned mine entrance) but the dense foliage beyond the fence gives the impression of a deep shrubbery. Paul’s planting style isn’t neat and precise – he takes advantage of self seeders and of plants that appear from seed dropped by birds – but is naturalistic. This isn’t as easy to achieve as many think but if you look closely, you will soon realise that Paul has put a lot of time and effort into making things look like he hasn’t put in a lot of time and effort.
If you look carefully, you’ll also see lots of little things dotted around. Like a little pot tray containing some pill bottles (I wonder if they’re a subliminal reference to Paul’s, and his wife’s, profession – they’re both nurses). If you look into the branches of a tree you’ll find some little pieces of pottery and ceramics carefully, if precariously, placed to catch the eye. And in the photo above, the small figures against the edge of the lawn.
And there are those sculptures.
And while Paul demonstrated the operation of the clothes line to some other visitors, I looked at the row of oblongs he’s cut out of the lawn.
The neat edges are juxtaposed with the chaos within. Again, much of what’s in these rectangles has moved in of its own accord and is growing strongly. Plants will always grow away strongly when they feel at home and who better than the plants to decide where home is. Paul says he just gives them a nudge here or there and adds the odd plant.
This is an imperfect garden. There’s the greenhouse that needs replacing. The shed needs a new roof. There’s a corner of the patio which he hasn’t got round to sweeping. But the imperfection makes the garden perfect.
Sometimes, visiting a little garden is far more satisfying than getting lost in a large one.