WHEN I was a child in Suffolk we knew an old man, a retired miller, who still called the storm “a tempest”. “Did you hear the tempest last night?” he would ask. I did indeed, and, to a wild accompaniment of roaring trees as the wind got up and the deadwood came down, I would feel again that blissful sense of protection which an old house provides.
Would the pin tiles slide from the roof? Would the mighty chimney-stack, with its whirling cowl, still be there in the morning? How long would brick and mortar, beam and plaster, hold together in such weather? Centuries was the answer.
Long ago, the original roof had been carried over the extended dairy, and had created a “cat slide”, although I had never witnessed a cat sliding down it; mossy pillows would have made a bumpy ride. But torrential rain often sounded as if it would wash the entire place down to the river.
The lectionary surprised me as usual. Passion Sunday. Already! The Roman Catholics seem to have suppressed this recent feast. Its hymns are sublime: one of them, Samuel Crossman’s “My song is love unknown”, was written in a village near here. Unimaginable cruelties made endurable by music.
Bach’s St John Passion, 1723, and his St Matthew Passion, 1729, descend from plainsong to fill a village church. Passion from passio — suffering — and from gladness. It descends via his St John Passion, to his St Matthew Passion, and then to us. It was first set in German. These Passions are sung in the vernacular language of the Christian universe, in cathedrals and parish churches, and in Scottish chapels, and sometimes in private, when we are gardening.
In Suffolk, potatoes were set on Good Friday — “The better the day the better the deed.” I search for a dib among the garden tools. One is the handle of a broken fork, which is hiding away in a clutter of things which might come in handy.
The greenhouse had once belonged to the artist Eric Ravilious, when he lived in Sible Hedingham. During the war, he flew from Iceland, and was never seen again. Eventually, after various adventures, this greenhouse, which creates a modest design in many of his paintings, was given to John Nash, who left it to me. I tended it lovingly until it tottered, then removed the glass. Some panes of the panes can now be admired in the Garden Museum at Lambeth. It is worth a pilgrimage.
The Museum is in the redundant Lambeth parish church, where those famous Tradescants, father and son, are buried. Suffolk folk, they lie gloriously by the Thames. Once, in some battle, John Tradescant saw a rare plant, and stopped fighting to pick it. Visitors to the Garden Museum can see Miss Jekyll’s gardening boots, and my greenhouse.
The first flowers of the year are browning. Neighbours arrive to take up clumps of snowdrops for next year. William Wordsworth’s wild daffodils are bright under the greengages and big trumpet-blowing monsters in the lanes. Soon there will be celandine, the rare double-petalled variety, which flourishes at the back of the house where the cat-slide roof slopes almost to the ground. My butterbur flowers bloom before they leaf. “Are they lettuces?” the postman asks.
Thomas Gainsborough, who was young near here, married a Miss Burr, and liked to paint this plant in the foreground of his portraits — to fill up the space, they said round here.