Wednesday, 16 April 2014

A guest at my table - John Daniel

I was minding the time in a tiny second hand bookshop, shoved somewhere up a narrow alleyway in a town I no longer remember. Crouching down amongst the fug of slightly damp, brown paper hedges, I came across a book called 'Cottesbrooke: An English Kitchen Garden' by Susan Campbell. It was 1989 and this book only published a couple of years earlier seemed to have been read and discarded rapidly. But as I started to read this diary of one of the last surviving working Kitchen Gardens in Northamptonshire, documented for the year 1984-85, I found myself standing beyond the door of 'The Secret Garden', looking in on a world that no one knew existed anymore; and I was totally and utterly enchanted. This for me was a formative moment; the moment a passion was ignited whose flame has stayed pure to this day.

I started to soak up everything I could about old Kitchen Gardens, tracing their outline at National Trust Houses where often only a couple of espalier trees remained against a sun drenched wall. I followed architectural books and plans of old hot houses, visited the glasshouses at Kew, traced plant histories in physic gardens and old herbals. And all the while, like a ball of wool being wound, this passion grew and grew.

So when, finally, in 1991, I found myself with an outline for a kitchen garden, hemmed in by the walls of an old farmyard at our new home, I knew exactly what I wanted to create. At just that moment I chanced upon a scruffy little note on the village noticeboard advertising box hedging for sale by the foot. In my mind there was a perfect square parterre with clipped box hedges and filled with herbs and vegetables; with gravel paths to ward off slugs and spanned at the edges with an arch of climbing roses and clematis.

Seeing that the number was just down the road I took a chance and hammered on the old cottage door. A tall man with iron grey hair and a heavy moustache came to the door, still dressed in a pair of enormous wellies. He was gruff but friendly, more so when he realised I'd come about the hedging. He was turning over the whole garden to vegetables, he said, and the old hedging was in the way. We went to look at it and I took a double take. Although it was a little ragged and sitting amongst a good crop of wild grass, the shape was undeniably the same shape in my mind's eye. How many feet did I need? he asked. All of it, I replied, all exactly as it was. Over the next weekend I moved the entire parterre, chunk by chunk, in a wheelbarrow up the road to our cottage farmhouse at the top. The roots of box are shallow and compact and it was like fitting a jigsaw back into place, rotating the corners to just the right angle, as if it had been grown exactly for the space in which it was intended.

John Daniel came up to check I was watering it properly and that all the roots were properly covered and anchored in. Then he came up again with seedlings; vegetables he had a surplus of. Over the next few months all sorts of gifts started arriving; each one a lovingly tended little specimen cocooned within an old yoghurt pot or a piece of empty toilet roll. I had often noted the ingenuity of allotment holders in creating plant holders and supports out of recycled 'rubbish', but John Daniel had this down to a fine art. Nothing was ever wasted in his house. Cloches were made out of orange squash bottles and homemade beer to line the slug defence system. Cd's whirred in the sunshine deterring birds from his precious seedlings and the copper stripped from old wiring to wind around the pots - a second line of defence against the inebriated slugs.

John Daniel lived on his own with only his old sheepdog Nell for company. His wife had died a few years earlier and with her the desire to remain kempt for the rest of humanity's sake. He was reverting back to nature along with the plants that he tended. His plan was to buy as little as possible from an actual shop, preferring to scavenge from the multitude of skips left outside more affluent homes and to grow everything that he ate. I worried that his diet might be a little boring at times, but I needn't have worried. He brought a pan of nettle soup made from the tips of young nettles and a little lemon thyme. It was wonderful. Never did I have the chance to thank him in a way that would have been acceptable. But in exchange, he would look around and see what was going to waste. If the builders we had in had left some plastic pipes then he would go off with those to construct a tower to grow courgettes in or a tumbler for a cascade of tiny tomatoes that grew plump and red in the Cornish sunshine.

In the Summertime, I took him into the cool of the cowshed wall where an old lean-to greenhouse had been constructed. 'This', I told him emphatically, 'was the sole reason we had bought this particular house'. And then I showed him inside my secret palace. The 'Greenhouse', as such was about 30 feet long and had been constructed around a very old grapevine. The previous owner had told me that the grapevine was at least 80 years old. The roots were outside under the shade of a wonderfully-shaped willow tree where I parked the baby's pram, and came in through the wall  and along the roof the entire length of the house. There was a gutter which dripped water onto the roots, which they loved, and the 'stem' of the vine was the diameter of a man's arm. In summer we were harvesting six large bunches of red grapes a day just to keep from going mouldy. The neighbours were kept in presents and my then-husband had me treading grapes in the bathtub to turn into wine. (Somehow, though, it wasn't an occupation he was prepared to do himself).

I made Dolmades out of the young vine leaves and took them over to John Daniel's. We sat on old striped deckchairs next to the blue plastic potato barrel to eat; and I suddenly realised that I'd made something very fine indeed. There was an ease to this kind of living, a giving and receiving that was both natural and uncomplicated. So often there is no gift without a kind of price tag fixed at some imaginary point in the future that will be called in. With John Daniel there was none of this. The only money that ever changed hands was in square footage over a length of box hedging. The friendship built lives on to this day, as does the passion for kitchen gardening which he help foster.

I am smiling broadly as he draws up outside my new home. He carries a bottle with a hand-written label on it. Will it be more of his mind-blowingly strong parsnip wine I wonder? He leaves his worn espadrilles at the door and fusses the dog as she greets a friend she has yet to meet. There are treats in his trouser pockets and he has won her over as he did us all those many years ago. There is a genuine abundance about him, a generosity that has no truck with material possessions. I feel that if I asked for his coat he would give it to me, willingly, and be glad to have been of service. It is hard to give back to someone like that who doesn't ask for it, and insulting to be more obvious. A meal is good. He will accept my hospitality gladly, and the chicken pie that I have made with its liquor interior of pale ale is heartily received. He has made something similar himself, he declares, checking the label on the bottle. Organic, naturally. I never doubted it for one moment.

1 comment:

  1. This is an incredible post. I have a tear in my eye.