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Word from Wormingford

16 February 2011

Ronald Blythe comes out in support of ivy — what e’er may befall

FORGET the economy: the big question is: can I say at St Andrew’s this Sunday what I said at SS. Peter and Paul last Sunday? Would this be sloth, or a fair distribution of genius? The white cat sits in the window, grumbling at green woodpeckers devouring Waitrose chicken scraps. It really is the limit.

The day is grey and sweet. The wood is full of snowdrops. The study is piled with books. Epiphany is fading into Before Lent. There isn’t a sound except little animal-grousings.

Ivy has brought down a pond-side ash, and Richard is coming to clear it. It reminds me of Thomas Hardy’s poem “His Ivy Wife”, in which a woman clings so suffo­catingly to her husband that she brings him down.

Among the world’s serious divisions are those who are at ease with ivy on trees and those who are not. I have an ancient ash on which ivy has created or founded a kind of leaf city for countless creatures. It feeds on pond water, and generously sheds dead boughs for kindling. It has been here for ever — since 1900, say. It sings along with its birds. “That’ll fall on you one of these days.” Well. It used to be pro­nounced “ivery” in this part of England. “That ivery, that want to come down.”

Its grown-up name is Hedera helix. It is magical and sad at the same time, glossy and dark, mournful and — to me — happy enough. To quote what Geoffrey Grigson quoted from an 18th-century gardening manual, ivy goes with ruins as excellently as bacon goes with eggs, and the 20th-century policy of stripping it off them has entirely altered our sightseeing.

You will not encounter the following any more. Thomas Whatley (any relation to the archbishop?) is at Tintern Abbey in 1770: “The shapes of the windows are little altered; but some of them are quite obscured, others partially shaded, by tufts of ivy, and those which are most clear are edged with slender tendrils, and lighter foliage, wreathing about the sides and divisions; it winds round the pillars; it clings to the walls; and in one of the aisles, clusters at the top in bunches so thick and so large, as to darken the space below. . .

“Nothing is perfect; but memorials in every part still subsist; all certain but all in decay; and suggesting, at once, every idea which can occur in a seat of devotion, solitude and desolation. . . No circumstance so forcibly marks the desolation of a spot once inhabited, as the prevalence of nature over it. In ruins, an intermixture of a vigorous vegetation intimates a settled despair of their restoration.”

Put away your Pevsner; find your prayer. Soon William Wordsworth would be standing below this architectural growth.

The Duke of Hamilton used to live in Suffolk, this not so long ago. His old gamekeeper once told me that “Park Cottage” — the game­keeper’s home — “was situated close to Maids Wood. It was strongly built of brick covered with ivy. It was always the Duke’s wish to have ivy planted against any houses which he had built. Also, when planting new plantations, to have ivy put against each tree. His Grace loved ivy.”

The Duke also had a crinkle-crankle brick wall that serpentined for miles, and is a wonder still. Attitudes towards ivy have been ambivalent since classical times, says my friend Richard Mabey.

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