I always begin my tours as a Garden guide at the magical Ham House with: ‘ Have any of you been here before? Good, then I can tell you just about anything and you will take my word for it.’
My passion for this regal residence has no bounds, and I suppose the Drama Queen deep within me never tires of the chance to get everyone on my tours to fall in love with her as well. This house is older than South Africa, the history and intrigue is what makes it a living place; royals beheaded, exiles and intrigue as Elizabeth Murray fought to keep her home from the rebels. Secret meetings in the wilderness and I also stress that people lived here, gave birth, married and died here, and this is the legacy that the National Trust strives to keep alive. It helps that Ham House is often used as a film location so the estate often turns into a vibrant film set.
Yesterday however, I met up with one of my oldest friends, Shannon, and our walk through the garden had little to do with facts, but an opportunity to show a South African friend a small piece of my life in London. I no longer own a garden, or a house for that matter, so I wanted her to realise that Ham House is my ‘other’ garden, a place I return to during the year, to experience the change of seasons, and just sit, mostly in the kitchen garden, besides the oldest Orangerie in England. I wonder now if I achieved my aim? Shannon is a gardener of note, her own garden featuring in the top garden magazines in South Africa and the more I tried to talk, the more she took to tripping from flower bed to flower bed, armed with her iPad to take pictures and cooing over the peonies, the lavender, the ‘love in the mist’ and other typical English plants.
There are not many borders here. No drifts of flowers, but an example of a typical 17th century garden, just the way Elizabeth would have experienced it. Back in the day, the garden and estate was an entire Universe and few of its inhabitants would have ventured from the grounds. Entire lives spent within the grounds. Plants had a purpose: Medicinal, perfume, food. The South terrace was reserved for exotic plants from all over the world, to exhibit one’s status as having travelled, or knowing those who did travel to far off locations. The Platts, square pieces of grass, revealing one’s wealth, for grass, then cut by hand, indicated the number of gardeners you had, and that meant you had money.
The more I tried to enlighten Shannon, the more she was miles ahead, taking pictures and making notes for her own garden. Not the time to be the guide, but time to share with a friend, so the tour stopped, the enjoyment of walking through the Cherry Garden, and pipping my head at a very old Dionysus, became an afternoon of two old friends, simply enjoying a beautiful walk.
Sometimes it is important to stop talking and just be. I think she realised how important this place is for me, and I realised just how much I miss my garden …
pic c/o photographers direct.