Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Rousham: a secret garden

Rousham gardens are worth a short daytrip from Oxford. In the mid 18th century, William Kent landscaped the grounds, and they have changed very little since. The 17th century house is still owned by the original family but only open to the public by private arrangement. It is “unspoiled” meaning no commercial development or tea room.

Children under 15 aren’t allowed which is a shame because I would have loved it the more at my daughter’s age of ten. The severe manor and walled gardens covered with blooming vines reminded me of The Secret Garden. Well trimmed hedges were hollowed out to hidden tunnels, too low for an adult to stand.

The countryside was green and lush with winding trails along the Cherwell River that runs from Oxford. Daffodils were growing as thick as the dandelions in my yard back in Maine. The English are so much more careful with their gardens. Even wildness is a well planned illusion.

The property had many follies, architectural curiosities built for admiring the grounds without getting damp. Some even had fireplaces, and all had benches. It felt like a setting for a Masterpiece Theater costume drama.

Whimsical was the word that came to mind. A narrow aqueduct shunted water downhill but not for irrigation in this wet country. Instead it fed in and out of a bathing pool. How my son would have loved sending a toy sailboat down the channel!

Everywhere I looked, there was something blooming. The primroses grew in more colors than I’d ever seen, and there were bulbs sprouting effusively. The viburnum smelled fragrant.

The yew hedges by a medieval church were cut into the oddest shapes, like spinning tops. I learned from the gardeners on my Oxford Newcomers’ Club tour that the poisonous yews were often planted around churches to keep the cattle out of the graveyards.

Organic vegetable gardens were kept fertile with pigeon droppings. The estate had a fresh supply from its 1685 dove cot. The birds would have been served for meals.

Walking the grounds builds an appetite. We stopped at The Boat Inn at Thrupp on the drive south to Oxford. The food was nothing special, but I did like the old pub atmosphere. True to its name, the pub was situated on the Oxford Canal that runs 78 miles to Coventry. Canal boats were tied up for lunch.

The English gardening spirit showed itself in window boxes adorning tiny row houses along the canal road.

It did look like high spring, but appearances can be deceiving. After an unusually mild winter, even by English standards, we had our first snowstorm on Saturday. It was impressive even by New England standards, but it didn't stick. I couldn’t walk into the wind with horizontal hail and monster flakes. Then Easter Sunday brought more snow, making daffodils swoon. It felt exhilarating to experience winter, only this is spring!

Snow makes me think of Maine. Tonight is the community straw vote on the new elementary school back home in Brunswick. It’s at 6:30pm at the junior high school. I’ll post the results later. My grassroots involvement in this project motivated me to write a novel (S.A.D.) on school politics. Only my story is totally fictional and looks at Intelligent Design vs. Evolution instead of school size and grade configuration. It still has that quirky small town flavor of local politics with plenty of romance and drama just for fun.

Next week (April 2nd) my husband will be guest-blogging here about his rail trip to Scotland with our son. Our thirteen-year-old has 4 weeks holiday that doesn’t totally overlap with his sister’s 2 weeks. I’m not quite sure how Henry and I will manage to keep working on our books, but I’m too engrossed with S.A.D. revisions to stop.

As a working mom, I much prefer the American system of one long summer break and one-week breaks during the school year. Tag team parenting, grandparents and separate vacations will tide us over. Some vacation days with the kids will be fun too. Part of my work in England is experiencing it. Not a bad job!

Unofficial Brunswick Straw Poll Results:
253 yes's vs. 45 no's for a new elementary school!
The final townwide referendum vote is June 10th.


Ki said...

Very beautiful flowering quince and viburnums. Crazy top shaped yews gave me a laugh. Thanks for sharing the photos.

Sarah Laurence said...

Hi Ki,

Are those blooming flame flowers quince? They look like a wild cousin of the stately quince tree in my backyard that is only budding leaves now. I was so intrigued by the nursery rhyme plant that I posted a blog about quince back in September when it was heavy with weird fruit.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Sarah, for the peek into the English countryside. Totally charming and inspiring.

tina said...

so glad to hear from you! my mother is very excited to read your blog. she will be checking it out and commenting.

glad you are going to maine in july-nothing better than summers in maine. i live in tennessee now and i love it here. too bad the irises will be done blooming. maybe the delphiniums will still be blooming.

you have a very beautiful blog. nice writing and pictures. mine is more local about tennessee and gardening. my garden and also about friends. i occasionally post about maine. i did the snow people (olympia and the man governor-old age event i can't remember his name). i also sometimes do snow and i did a post about the rugosa rose, as my mother has one and they don't do well here in the south.

your life sounds so exciting and maybe sometime when i come to maine i will let you know and we can visit at dr. mcewen's iris gardens or something. i will keep in touch. take care.

Sarah Laurence said...

Thanks, Kathryn. I enjoyed the garden images on your blog too.

Hi Tina! Thanks for your nice comments. I really liked the river of daffs on your blog today. I’d love to have your family visit my blog. I’m homesick for stories from Maine. I heard they just got 4 MORE inches of snow. A visit to McEwen’s irises sounds like a lovely idea. I’ll be back in Maine in July. That ties right into my question:

So, local gardeners in/from Maine, I need your help fact checking my novel S.A.D. I have a (fictional) Brunswick garden in peak June bloom (2007.) My protagonist likes wildflowers especially but plants some perennials and bulbs. Think wild colorful abandon, attracting monarch butterflies and dragonflies. Plenty of sun. The lilacs and rhodies are fading, but the irises are out in full force with the roses. Wild lupines and daisies have taken over the meadow. Am I remembering right? Anything else that might be blooming?

tina said...

it has been a while since i have lived and gardened in maine, but i will try. my mother and sister can dispute me or not. i am just not sure of the bloom times.

shasta daisies?
late peonies?

these might bloom in june in maine. not completely sure. hope i helped. it is hard to find info on these but there are a few maine garden blogs out there. maybe they can help? i hope so. i am going to be posting lists of plants that bloom in my garden by type for tennessee. we need that everywhere or we have to rely on memories. not always clear and precise though.

yes, lobsterman i was-a small and sorry one, but i did pull a few traps at one time.


Anonymous said...

I am thrilled to think about what blooms in June.....Peonies ,chives,think pink and purple flowers,my magnolia is still in bloom, late tulips,hyacinths,ornamental poppies,early day lilies, forget- me- nots,..these are the ones that come to mind..

I love looking at your pictures Sarah and reading a bout all your adventures...Brights spots in my day here in Maine.

tina said...

it is a small world. i checked your website, thanks for sending the link. my stepfather used to work at bowdoin college. i wish you luck with S.A.D. i have always wanted to write a book. it takes along time and it can be hard to find a publisher, so not for me now. maybe one day i will publish postings from my blog-that is an idea-huh?

Jean Merriman said...

Hi Sarah, I am Tina's mother of In the Garden blog and as I told you on her blog I live in Harpswell. Love your blog and spent over 3 hours on it yesterday and some again today. Sometime I will have read it all and then keep up with it day by day.

More floweres that coume to mind in June here would be Blanket Flowers, Speedwell and Chamomile.

Cloudy here in Harpswell today and we went to Brunswick to do errands.
While there it started to rain and turned to big powder puff snow flakes but then back to rain.

Sarah Laurence said...

Thanks Tina, Terry and Jean! You have planted colorful literary seeds. Happy to hear that my writing is bringing some sun to your long winter. It’s so nice to hear from home.

kate smudges said...

I like the image of daffodils as thick as dandelions. It must be wonderful fun visiting gardens as old as these.

Fantastic Forrest said...

Hi Sarah!

I've seen you over at Bee Drunken's. Your shots of England make me wildly jealous. I want to go back!

Your book S.A.D. sounds really interesting. I've been searching your blog for more about the process you went through in researching the issue. I'd love to learn more about that. There has been such a struggle regarding science education in this country for decades. I recently taught a social justice film class that explored the topic a bit using the classic (factually shaky) Inherit the Wind. And I uncovered a number of interesting current participants in the debate. I'll be curious to see if you incorporate any of those in your novel.

Sarah Laurence said...

FF, welcome to my blog! Your course sounds fascinating.

As you can see I was writing SAD before the recent films came out. SAD’s a fictional story, but I did read many articles, books and websites. I also watched Inherit the Wind again and spoke to experts, including an education lawyer and the head of the high school science department.

I’ll be very interested in your reaction to SAD once/if it gets published. Books have been suffering in this economic climate. I hope to announce the good news one day on my blog and website.

Fantastic Forrest said...


By "current participants" I was thinking more about Richard Dawkins or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Some fun stuff there.


Sarah Laurence said...

FF, I did read Dawkins and visited the funny Flying Spaghetti Monsters although neither are specifically sited in my novel - at least not in the current form. It's about a small, remote town dealing with the issue without much info. I've tried to dramatize the arguments in the debates as opposed to site them. It's written to appeal to a broad audience.

Fantastic Forrest said...

Your novel sounds really worthwhile.

After I asked you about this, I reread the description. I figured you wouldn't include a lot of references to such things within the framework of the story, but was curious about the background research you did. Sounds like it was very thorough.

I was amused that the evangelical ministers wouldn't reply to you. But yay you for going to the churches to observe it all for yourself. Good researcher gold star for you! :)

Sarah Laurence said...

FF, I started out in academia so research is second nature to me. My agent was nonplussed when I offered a bibliography for a novel. There will be a long acknowledgement page instead. So nice to get encouragement, thank you!