We Made A Garden, Part 1

Here’s the first part of a post about a house Jim and I bought in the summer of 2005. It’s one of a (not very) regular series of posts about gardens and houses we’ve owned over the years. (Being so very historic, you’ll need to excuse the quality of these pre-digital photos – or don’t, if you’d rather not).

Digital image
By the spring of 2006, we’d installed two Velux windows and a sun pipe in the roof. I’d also planted the hornbeam whips and, of course, added a black bat box on the wall.

Here’s the house about six months after we moved in. It had been a cold, neglected and unloved little cottage but, after we’d been there a while, we liked to call it home. (At the time of purchase, I didn’t know that almost opposite, hidden in the lightly wooded valley below, down a long wooded driveway lay the Priory. I would become her gardener three years later).

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In winter, heating of sorts, came from unwilling-to-give-up-their-warmth night-storage heaters, open fires and a marvellous 1950s Rayburn solid fuel range.

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But in spring and summer, the house was a fine – warm – place to live and for the first time, after living in London, Bristol and Brighton, I fulfilled a life-long dream: living in the country. Unlike town life, we met and got to know all of the neighbours… and most of them, we liked.

Wrapped about the northern end of the house, facing the road, I planted a hornbeam hedge inside the garden wall – as hornbeam isn’t too picky and doesn’t mind shade. On the eastern side, lining an unmetalled lane, I switched from hornbeam to yew. The hornbeam came as whips, the yew as large pot-bound trees – bought cheaply second hand – and neither took long to establish and provide some privacy against the nosey folk. The above photo was taken in 2008, probably.

We were both new to gardening, pretty clueless actually, and I trawled charity shops and second hand bookshops, sweeping up ‘How to Garden’ books by Geoff Hamilton, Christopher Lloyd, Margery Fish and the like. I bought gardening videos from charity shops too and watched, bewildered, as very smiley people explained how easy it is to prune clematis or grow pelargoniums; how terribly simple to plan big seasonal-interest borders; how straightforward to first build and then sow and crop vegetable beds. None of this seemed particularly easy or simple to me. But then, I’d stumbled into a vast and smiley world of strange expertise and Latin names; of pH and soil types; of grafting and pruning; of annuals and perennials and biennials; of seed sowing and cuttings; and, and… stuff. Just loads and loads of new stuff.

Reader, I was a bit overwhelmed.

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So, initially, we concentrated instead on the house. Like every property we’ve bought, this cottage was to be a Project.  (Btw, there’s that cream-coloured Rayburn I just mentioned. It was difficult to master but when we understood its foibles and demanding nature, it became central to our cold, wet and muddy life. The Rayburn heated the kitchen and most of the downstairs, gave us scalding hot water, cooked most of our food and warmed our buns. One of my life’s proudest achievements was keeping it alight, non-stop, for three winter months).

Before us, an elderly lady had rented the house from an unpleasant London Company and they, having only recently bought the freehold, did little to improve her lot. It took us a while to locate the source of a curious and nasty smell in the kitchen. A smell of vomit, to be frank. She’d complained about it, apparently, to no avail but we soon discovered the source and it was easy enough to fix – had the unpleasant London Company bothered to help their elderly, sickly tenant. Water was leaking from the butler’s sink, puddling beneath the linoleum, turning sour and stinky.

Finding a cellar
Digging out clay and passing it out of the cellar window. That shirt will need a wash

One day, sink sorted, kitchen painted, Jim was weeding along the side of the house and noticed angled bricks at ground level, similar to those above all the windows. Did the house have an underground window? Neither the property details nor surveyor had mentioned that the house had a cellar. And you’d think that an unknown room, an unknown extra floor, might be the sort of thing they’d point out.

Intrigued and excited, I ran to a neighbour’s, borrowed a sledgehammer and, Thor-like, pounded a hole through the only wall, in an under-stair cupboard, which could possibly conceal a staircase. Eventually, a bit sweaty, a bit breathless, not very Thor-like, I’d made a hole big enough to peek through. By torchlight, I saw, receding into the gloom, a flight of stairs. Yeah, I did. I really did. And I probably squealed at that point. Yeah, I probably did squeal, actually.

I whacked at the hole until we could squeeze through and venture down the steps into a large brick-floored cellar – with, sure enough, a bricked-up window. No treasure chest, no skeleton chained to a wall, no ghostly dancing lights… but hey, an extra room is always going to be a good enough find, even if the ceiling wasn’t high enough to stand upright.

Over the next few weeks, I levered up every brick from the non-cemented floor and carried them up the stairs, through the kitchen and all the way out to the back garden. We knocked out the bricked-up window and dug out clay to a further depth of twelve inches, passing it out through the window to a waiting skip. And yes, you’re right. That was a big job. Eventually, we laid a new concrete floor and tanked the walls to make it all watertight. (We think it had been bricked up historically because it was just too darn wet).

I sometimes dream of finding an undiscovered room in my house, or better still, an entire dusty, unused wing, but, to date, this is the only time it happened for real. Have you ever bought or rented a property and discovered a hidden room or rooms? Do tell.

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I repurposed the cellar bricks as pathways, many pathways, in the rear garden.

The Fern Walk

This rear garden, the main garden to the cottage, was some way away: across a smaller garden behind the house, then hang a right, open the pale blue gate and pass down a narrow passage. Later, I planted this shady little passage with ferns and named it, imaginatively, the Fern Walk. Jim looked at me for a moment and called me a pretentious knob. Which, in fact, was fair.

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The old vegetable garden

It was this larger, main garden that clinched the house-deal for us. If we were going to live in the middle of nowhere, comparatively, we needed a biggish garden. We wanted chickens, we wanted log stores, a coal bunker, fruit trees. We wanted to grow vegetables, we wanted to be Tom Good. Or Barbara. The previous owner grew her vegetables here and, for decades, she’d dug in compost and she’d dug in manure. We looked skyward and humbly thanked her. The soil was rich and crumbly and sweet smelling. But, as her health deteriorated, tending a big kitchen garden became too much for her and the plot slipped into neglect.

The photo above was taken on the day we first viewed the house in the spring of 2005. But by the time we moved in, it was waist high with grass, dock, nettle and bramble.

I’ll show you what we did with it next time.

34 thoughts on “We Made A Garden, Part 1

  1. Great house stories – looking forward to the garden instalment.
    I do dream of finding extra rooms in the various houses I lived in – have read that it’s not uncommon, but no idea what it means. Have never come across anyone who actually found one under the house – on second thoughts apart perhaps from San Clemente in Rome!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I remember that day very clearly, Lorraine. Ady sent me a couple of photos of us all outside the kitchen door not so very long ago. Seems like your visit was just yesterday, which, of course, it wasn’t. Hugs, Dxxx

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  2. Great story; a sad and unloved cottage brought back to life by a pair of intrepid adventurers. Will there be a happy ending? I hope your uni course is/was successful. I went back to uni in later life and found it exciting and challenging in equal measure. Good to from you again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Annet, yeah, a happy end on the whole. I’m only in the 2nd year of my degree but, amazingly, it’ll all be over in a little over a year. It’s whizzed by so quickly. Certainly challenging and exciting. And hard! Best, D

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  3. Great story; sad unloved cottage brought back to life by a pair of intrepid adventurers. Will there be a happy ending? Hope your uni course was/is successful and you are still enjoying writing. I went back to study in later life and found it exciting and challenging in in equal measure. Good to hear from you again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ooh, you’re here twice. here’s my other reply (should you have missed it!).

      Yeah, a happy end on the whole. I’m only in the 2nd year of my degree but, amazingly, it’ll all be over in a little over a year. It’s whizzed by so quickly. Certainly challenging and exciting. And hard! Best, D

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  4. Dave,”We were both new to gardening, pretty clueless actually, and I trawled charity shops and second hand bookshops”, “I was a bit overwhelmed” and “…by the time we moved in, it was waist high with grass, dock, nettle and bramble” is exactly where I am right now ! (The house is turning into a major doer-upper too – you and Jim are an inspiration). Will be following your blog intently !

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Fab I remembered alot of what went on in your house and garden.
    Great blog and story.
    Loved visiting you both and the house then.
    Even if you invited us and forgot, then we saw you leaving on our arrival.
    Even then we still came back like bad pennies we were lol .
    Miss you guys 👦

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha! We’re never going to be forgiven for that are we? And quite right. Another five minutes and we would have been gone! That house holds so many memories and Sunday trips and pub lunches with you and Andrew are way up there. I can’t believe we moved out almost twelve years ago. Hugs, Dx

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  6. Ooh, I love stories like this. Fresh starts, hidden rooms, difficulties that turn into assets, wicked landlords, fairy godmothers who compost. Cliffhangers. Looking forward to the next installment, Dave. Good to see you blogging. xxStacy

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    • Hehe. Godmothers who compost. Perfectly put, Stacy. I wish I’d met Joyce (The composting Godmother). Her husband had died several years earlier and was listed on one document I saw as an ostler. Not a job description you see very often! Dxx

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