Secret garden

I had an ever-expanding play area as a child. First there was the back yard, flanked on three sides by buildings and walls and on the final by a rustic fence made by dad (everything my dad makes is rustic). The yard was a patchwork of red brick and I remember a time when my mum asked me to try to get the weeds out, that habitually came through the cracks, with a blunt butter knife. It was good for wheels though: ride-on vehicles propelled by young, strong legs; a black and white metal rocking horses that sat lonely in the yards for years after we stopped playing with it; rollerskates and tricycles.

Then, as we grew, the drive became our playarea. We ventured out through the rustic gate of the yard and on to a gravely drive which stretched alongside the back yard, the house and the front garden, and then back down towards the big shed where dad’s farm machinery was kept. The drive was flanked by a long beech hedge that in the future would have a leafy arch to the caravan we had many a happy holiday in. Ivy grew up the wall of our house, and there was also an old English rose bush whose blooms–a delicate, soft pink – had the most amazing fragrance. Towards the front end of the drive, near the front garden and at the end of the house, was a pair of large wooden gates that shut off the drive but never did, and that were perpetually open – unless we were swinging on them.

The remaining overgrown beech hedge, now a tree

At an unknown age, we ventured further out again. At the other side of the beech hedge was a secondary drive for the tractors and a paddock beyond that one day would have our much loved ponies. This secondary drive continued down past a line of sheds and dog pens on the right, and the greenhouse and fields on the left. Eventually it would lead to the fields where Dad grew vegetables, fruit and flowers. We rarely went as far as the fields in our younger years, unless we were with Dad. But this drive, compacted by the wheels of farm machinery, was great for riding a bike down.

The sheds mainly contained chickens and on the other side of these sheds, away from the drive, there were little doors which Dad would open to let them into the secret garden.

We were not allowed in the secret garden for a long time but we could peer through the knot holes in the tall gate and peer in. Enclosed on three sides by sheds and on one by a tall hedge that marked the boundary of our small holding, it seemed a wondrous place to my imaginative mind not least because we were not allowed in it alone for so long.

There were only practical reasons for this of course – Dad didn’t want us to let out the chickens – but to our young minds, this place became a space of wonder and excitement. Maybe this is why, some time later, Dad gave this space to us; the rest of our farm-playarea forgotten.

Of course, as anyone who has kept chickens will know, ‘garden’ isn’t the correct word to describe this place. The ground was compacted earth. There were few flowers, only wild ones that grew in the hedgerow, or the blossoms on the huge pear tree in the corner. In the centre of the garden was an old plum tree whose boughs would weigh down with its bounty of fruit each year. My memory fails me a little here, perhaps from lack of knowledge, but there was some sort of machinery, or huge metal tubes, I’m not sure what, but I know we used to climb on or through them, making them part of an assault course. Dad made us both a swing, my sister and I, one hanging from the bough of the pear tree, another a stand-alone swing made from telegraph poles. We would spend hours on those swings, twisting them and then releasing them so that the world would spin in dizzying excitement or simply swinging with our faces to the blue, blue sky.

These memories came to me this morning as I walked out through my garden, to the area where the chickens now roam. Over the years this property has changed a lot, not least from a small holding to a large garden, a tall line of evergreen trees blocking off what used to be the fields of my childhood and which now house an industrial estate.

Dad and I designed the garden together, and I realised this morning that its design, a series of brick paths leading to various secret gardens and archways are all steeped in the past. Each part of the design came from my happy childhood, not my imagination.

Over the past years with Dad’s declining health, the majority of the garden has overgrown and gone wild; apart from the area adjacent to my home, the extension built on the old gated drive. More recently, my sisters and I have been working hard to clear and tidy this garden, and again I realised the seat of my reluctance to remove the newly uncovered arches and pathways in preference to a large grassed space… Bland in my eyes. Although vastly different to the land of my childhood, each brick pathway and secret nook leads me back to my childhood. And as I fed the chickens this morning, begrudgingly, cursing them as I looked at the bare earth they have scratched, I understood why my sisters love them so much as I love the now uneven paths and overgrown trees. These things are our link to our happy childhoods, a path to our dad who is in hospital again, on his own path towards the end of his life.

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