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It was Forty Years Ago Today…

Posted by on August 20, 2016

Market Harborough is a pleasant enough town. It could do with a little attention being paid to the river that runs through it, unless a series of stagnant pools instead of a flowing stream is what they planned to have beside the car park. There's no easy access to the mowed strip of grass that runs alongside it between Waitrose and Sainsbury, but we spotted a couple of homeless people under a bridge enjoying a bit of rare sunshine. They, like us, probably stumbled down the steep slope to the river where meadowsweet, knapweed, ragwort and fireweed disguise the banks, so hidden to the unwary.

Forty years ago, Christina and I travelled by train to Manchester to begin married life. We hadn't wanted to go there. Our real destination was the Lake District. But what with the tension of appearing in public to make vows to each other, posing for soft-focus photos of us in cheesecloth and ruched cotton (my shirt, her dress), making the journey to the reception at Christina's mums maisonette, squashed in the back of a red and ribbon festooned mini, holding onto the side window that rolled down on its own if given half a chance, we had very little time left at the end of the day to start hitchhiking north out of London. At the wedding breakfast, we stood around in almost embarrassed silence, having finished with the speeches as quickly as was polite to do so. Our departure was delayed by the discovery that Christina had fallen asleep with excitement and a half glass of German white wine. My brother offered to drive us to Euston station to get a train as far north as our meagre savings would allow. It was a relief to accept his offer, if only because we dreaded the thought of having to wave at well-wishers from the bridal car as it bowled along the Marylebone Road blowing our hair into each other's faces through the open window.

Even in August, it was dark in Manchester by the time our train arrived. We chose to spend another large chunk of our hard earned in the hotel opposite the station. Much of what I remember of that first night is of a surely ridiculous feeling that everyone we met could tell that we were newlyweds. A feeling not countered by the fact that we gave our birth names to reception on our way in, something that in 1976 would have been far more awkward. Then, not sharing a surname could get you thrown out of some establishments. Good thing we were still wearing the corroding rings.

Nowadays in Travelodge, they wouldn't raise an eyebrow, so there's not even any point in pretending to be singles booking in together. Though there was a time, somewhere between these two states when you could get a thrill staring down a concierge, who cleared his throat pointedly, as he spotted the Mr and Mrs Smith alias you signed the register with. Okay it's not a pleasure our children and grandchildren will regret not having.

If we were tired this afternoon it was not through stress, but the result of having driven over to Barnsdale Garden, in Rutland. Barnsdale is where the late Geoff Hamilton created a series of separate themed gardens for a BBC gardening programme and left unfinished by his early death. The style of ecological and thrifty gardening, often using recycled materials and with an eye on the conservation of natural resources put him ahead of many others. It makes his legacy even more appropriate and appealing to those living with climate change. When we decided to come this way, we hadn't appreciated that this year marks the twentieth anniversary of his death, or that it would mean a larger crowd than on previous visits. It was lovely to see and hopefully will help those that now manage the garden to pay for its upkeep.

I always think that a garden that doesn't look weary in August is a thing to be admired. If anything the gardens at Barnsdale were bursting with colour, full of flowers, wildlife, bees, birds and butterflies and of course characterised by Geoff's style of mixing ornamental vegetables and flowers in a number of ways that combine the aesthetic and the practical without sacrificing either. We had only come to see a handful of the thirty-eight gardens. We came looking for inspiration for our next home and expected to find it here.

If this had been 1976, I wonder if anything much could have survived that long drought without becoming desiccated and brown. As it is, the time lapse since our last visit is exemplified by how much some features such as the yew hedges have grown and how difficult it has been this largely wet summer, to keep vegetation from bursting the boundaries of the gardens and rampaging through the borders.

One of the joys of being in a crowded place is being able to overhear conversations and reactions to things. In one garden a woman shouted, ” This garden would kill me”. Adding, “with this much work to do, I'd never get anything done”. This despite the fact that all of the Barnsdale TV gardens were created around the kind of plot an average suburban garden, or new build house would have.

The sight of a greenhouse with purple aubergines, tomatoes and chilli peppers sent some people into raptures. Others regarded it with some concern even disbelief. A couple emerged from the greenhouse having had some kind of disagreement, leading her to declare to the world around them, “but I have grown aubergines myself you know”.

Studying behaviour at the garden's cafe served up hints to the neuroses of the British middle classes. The extra crowds forced the staff to work very hard and as delays built up, they and the customers found it all too much. People waited patiently in the dappled sunlit garden, but they took careful note of their position in the order of meals being served. Every now and then a waitress emerged attempting to read out the name from a hastily and possibly illegible slip of paper with the order on it. People were firstly, confused by the misreading of their name, then when it had been mangled several times more, into something close enough to recognise, they were indignant and felt they had to engage with the waitress until she understood and could repeat it back to them verbatim. Only then did they feel they could properly accept the food and drink. Sometimes the waitresses retreated to the kitchen to check again on the pronunciation of the meal owners name, emerging once more to try a different rendering.

We sat at a table in the shade, but the sun moved around to expose us, so we moved tables. When our order arrived, heralded by a few extra syllables to our name, we were almost set upon by those who felt we had been given preferential treatment on arrival. Our neighbours admitted to being jealous, even when we had given an explanation. Others, not quite able to accuse the waitress of an injustice done to them, merely asked, in apologetic tones, if their order had perhaps in some way, as these things happen, got mislaid in the hubbub and would she mind ever so much, just checking for them. And to make sure there were no chance of a mistake, they repeated their name. Not that she would have been able to read it from the scrawled note in her hand.

The countryside around here is dotted with villages that look like sets for a period film. You half expect to see Miss Marple wander out of a cottage, or come across a posse of bonnets being worn to a country wedding. I'm sure the local tourism board has it labelled as 'George Elliot Country' or something. Rutland Water looks very attractive in this weather, with its water reflecting the blue skies we have missed a lot this summer. Still, I don't understand why Rutland as a county exists, except for a nostalgia for the world conjured up in ribbons and stays.


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