We bought our house in the west of Scotland in autumn 2003. After 20 years in flat, agricultural Cambridgeshire we longed for hills and water: Sherbrooke, a huge and stately mid-Victorian house with 0.5 hectares of terraced garden and views across a broad salt-water channel to the wild north-west coast of the island of Bute, was irresistible.
Sea birds swooped over the yachts at their moorings, the islands of Arran and Inchmarnock swam through mists in the distance, and if you were sharp-eyed and patient you might catch a glimpse of the bobbing head of a seal, or the arc of a dolphin’s back.
The only problem was that it was all 800km from where we were living. We still had commitments in Cambridge (the usual ones: school, work) so for 5 years we struggled from a distance to complete the renovation of the house and stop the garden reverting to wilderness. Basically, we failed. The renovation was the usual nightmare: the builder disappeared without finishing the job (and leaving a lethal bit of loose wiring that subsequently blew up every appliance in the house), the sacked project manager made a bonfire of all the documentation and then, to cap it all, in 2008 the stock market went down the plughole, taking our financial confidence with it. Meanwhile, the garden, superficially tamed and beautiful when we had bought the house, morphed inexorably from Dr Jekyll to Mr Hyde.
Water bubbled up unexpectedly in all sorts of places; large areas of lawn turned into swamp; forests of unfamiliar weeds sprang up in the garden beds and through the gravel paths; huge tree stumps, hidden behind impenetrable thickets of rhododendron, tried to turn back into trees. ‘Gardeners’ came and went without making any impact except on our patience and our bank balance. Weeding was like trying to wallpaper the sky. Holidays that should have given us relaxation and pleasure were more like scenes from a recurring nightmare.
I was close to giving up, but Sherbrooke is the only house Alistair has ever really loved. He served his time in Cambridge for years while the kids were growing up and it seemed only fair that he should be able to look forward, eventually, to living in his beautiful place in Scotland. I just had to calm down and get on with it. We decided that step 1 was to put in a land drainage system, so at the same time that the builders were trashing the house, a drainage contractor proceeded to trash the garden. Apparently they were used to working on farmland so the fiddly details of a domestic garden – terracing, retaining walls, edging, shrubs – were simply obliterated. At the end of it all we had a sea of undulating mud that did finally, in due season, grow a crop of weeds that we could at least mow and pretend was ‘lawn’. That was the point (late 2008) when we moved to live in Edinburgh – still a three-hour drive from Sherbrooke, but a breeze compared to the 9 hours it had taken from Cambridge.
My ideas and plans for the garden were gradually taking shape in my mind. Making a virtue of necessity, I decided that we didn’t need to make any major structural changes. Sherbrooke is like a once-beautiful film star; its ‘bones’ are good but years of shoddy concrete facelifts have coarsened and cheapened it, and some are now crumbling. Although I’d love to rip out all the concrete and replace it with stone, we can’t afford that so we have to work with what we’ve got, softening and concealing the ugliest bits, dealing with the destruction wrought by the drainage work, grubbing out the most accessible of the invasive Rhododendron ponticum, felling some dodgy conifers, re-defining garden beds, working out how to eradicate or (more likely) live with the worst of the perennial weeds and – finally! – revitalising the planting. When we do finally get to the planting, the rule of thumb will be to think of everything that grew well in Cambridge, and avoid it. The flat, fertile, alkaline clay of our garden there (claggy in winter and dry-to-cracking in summer) couldn’t be more different from the permanently boggy, nutrient-poor acid gley soil of Sherbrooke.
So, what do I want from the garden? The impossible, of course: something that is graceful and harmonious, beautiful throughout the seasons, and low-maintenance. Al fresco living is off the menu. The climate is cool and wet, and even in summer the west highland midge makes it impossible to sit outside on all but the brightest and breeziest days. So it will be a garden to look at and to stroll through (fast), not to sit or play in. I’m not a plantaholic: rare species rhododendrons or fussy Himalayan poppies that may or may not deign to survive are not for me. I want good compositions of form and colour, rhythm and repetition – not one of this and one of that plonked in at random. It’s not going to happen all at once. The budget doesn’t run to that, and real gardening is by nature an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary process anyway. But by the time Sherbrooke becomes our main home in 2013, when our younger daughter leaves school, I hope we will have a garden that gives me pleasure both to look at and to work in, but doesn’t rule my life.