'The Gardener' by Prue Leith
PUBLISHED: 14:54 20 April 2011 | UPDATED: 19:13 20 February 2013
Read our exclusive extract from Prue Leith's 'The Gardener'
Extract from 'The Gardener' by Prue Leith:
To build, to plant, whatever you intend,
To rear the column, or the arch to bend,
To swell the terrace, or to sink the grot;
In all, let Nature never be forgot.
Consult the genius of the place in all.
That tells the waters or to rise, or fall,
Or helps the ambitious hill the heavens to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale,
Calls in the Country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, the intending lines;
Paints as you plant, and as you work Designs.
Alexander Pope (16881744), Of Taste
Once the garden at Maddon had been all forest and only God chose what should live and what should die. Trees, old and broken, re-rooted where an elbow touched the ground and tried again, hoping for another life. No one cleared the undergrowth, cut out the dead wood, thinned the saplings, fed or watered. Sprouting acorns took their near-hopeless chances with rot, drought, wild boar, squirrels and a thousand competing seedlings. It was one long story of a million million fights to the death.
For centuries the autumn fall had sweated and mulched into the forest floor so that the leaf-mould gave a cushioned spring to the step. Under the microscope, or even without it, youd have found the earth alive with creatures as bent on winning as the plants. A humus-rich handful would crumble lightly between the fingers, and youd breathe in its rich, comfortable, deep smell, as satisfying as mushroom soup.
And hidden somewhere in the underlay were treasures that erupted, unbidden and unseen, and precisely on cue year after year. Drifts of aconites turning their faces to the feeble sun; snowdrops in January cracking the snow crust, to be followed by pale primroses in clumps so artful and perfect it would be hard not to believe in God. Then, one after the other, blue pools of scillas, wood anemones and great lakes of bluebells. As spring gave way to summer, more magic: explosions of campion and frothy seas of meadowsweet or cow-parsley.
A lull then, as though summer had exhausted the wood. But the underground store had richer and stranger secrets. Overnight, giant puffballs would dot the grassy clearings like polystyrene boulders. Blewits and parasol mushrooms tucked up with fallen leaves, while Velvet Shanks, orange and slimy, preyed on fallen elms.
Even the monks from the Priory seldom disturbed the forest. They only approached the river to attend to their stew-ponds, dug near the bottom of the valley where the water runs shallow and slow. They were good at husbandry, hand-feeding the voracious eels on kitchen scraps, herding the largest tench through the underwater tunnel into the catchment, dropping the gate with precision, netting their supper with glee. The younger monks would sometimes caper about and laugh, revelling in brief escape from drudgery and penance. But in the winter those on fish-pond duty had a hard time of it breaking the thick ice, the sleeves of their habits freezing to the skin as they swept their nets after invisible fish.
But everything changed in 1538 when the Kings men took the Priory. Then the chant of plainsong and the
gentle tolling of bells gave way to sounds of screaming, the crack of fire, the gasping breath of fugitive priests.
The soldiers crashed through the forest, torching the charcoal burners huts, drowning the monks in their own ponds, skewering others at their prayers, felling those tilling the vegetable garden. They sacked the Priory and left it roofless, silently smouldering.
Less than a year later Sir Francis Maydowne, with a wife and nine-year-old heir, and about to be made the Earl of Axtrim, was the forests proud possessor. Given to him by a grateful King, the land was for plaisaunce and the huntynge of beestes. The forest was about to become a garden. Or at least a park. It was to be tamed and managed.
Acres of forest were felled to provide a picturesque setting for the hunting lodge, which was built from the stone of the ruined Priory. The remaining forest was invaded by rides and paths. The Pond Yards were enlarged and stocked with fast-growing carp.
The stables, built from Priory stone, were larger and grander than the size of the house seemed to warrant. But then Sir Francis, now Lord Axtrim, would have to entertain the King. And the Kings horses.
The house did not remain more modest than the stables for long, though. Franciss son John had the good sense to marry a rich seafarers daughter, Mathilda. In truth, she was a pirates daughter, but the Queen (for by then Good Queen Bess was on the throne) approved of pirates provided they plundered for the Crown.
Mathilda built two double-storey Elizabethan wings on to the house, and laid out the terraces and a knot garden, planted flowers and shrubs and added decorative water gardens to the useful Old Pond Yards.
The garden blossomed or suffered along with the fortunes of the Axtrims. In 1700 one of Mathildas wings burned to the ground and could not be rebuilt. The Axtrim male line fizzled out and with it the earldom.
But in 1730 Maddon struck gold. Lord Augustus Fernley, who had made fortunes in both shipping and banking, inherited the estate. And he was a great gardener.
He splashed out as no one had since Mathilda, whose crumbling Elizabethan wings he demolished to build a new house round the old hunting lodge. He dammed the river to make a lake, garnished the stables with classical pediments and columns, built an ice-house, follies and a great artificial mount, a hermits cave and a grotto. He enclosed the entire 400-acre park within a high dry-stone wall.
Proud of his achievements, he hired a map-maker. The Maddon Park Map is a beautiful thing. Made of two calf-skins sewn together, it measures 5 feet by 5 feet. There is a compass rose in the corner. On the back at one end, visible when the map is rolled up correctly, is a decorative cartouche, within which are a few lines of writing, the title words elaborated with ornamentation and strapwork. The words read:
Mapp and Survey of the Domaine and Landes of Lord Augustus Fernley, Seventh Earl of Axtrim, knowne as Maydon Park, lying in the Parish of Osley in the County of Oxfordshire. Surveyd by my Lords most Humble and Obedient Servant, Thomas Hely of Bladon, in the Seventeen Hundred and Forty Seventh Year of our Lord.
The mediaeval hunting lodge is discernible in the embrace of an elegant, symmetrical Georgian manor house. Three of the old lodges eight sides form the bay of the central hall, facing the viewer. Presumably three more face the back. In front of the house quaintly drawn deer roam the park. A double avenue of elms and oaks marches each side of the long straight drive to the front door. The main gate has stately pillars each side, with plain balls on top.
Areas of the garden are labelled North Shrubberies, Rose Walk, Arboretum, and have illustrations to match. All the plants and trees are drawn not from above, as a modern artist might, but from the side, as one would see them from the ground.
The mount is to the west of the house, in the park, and the Hermits Dwelling is on high ground to the east, above the woods.
The artist has drawn the paddock fences behind the circular stable building, with a mare and foal inside, and there are tiny rows of cabbages in the vegetable garden. To the west, beyond the meticulously drawn boundary walls, is the beginning of Home Farm, which is so labelled although its buildings are off the parchment. Mayddon Meadows hug the river. The spelling is erratic: Maddon, Mayddon, Maydon, perhaps indicating later additions to a working document.
There is an avenue of trees, labelled Oake Avenue, leading a mile across the park towards the woods on the east side. The avenue gives way to a lane in the woods, leading first to the grotto and the Mermans pool (complete with a drawing of a merman seated on a rock), and then on to the Pond Yards. A stream, its source marked with a drawing of a spurting fountain and the words Dianas Spring, rises on high ground to the north-west and flows through the woods to join the river, feeding the three fishponds and the Mermans pool on the way.
The goddess of hunting is further honoured. In a round clearing in the woods is a circular colonnaded building, labelled the Temple of Diana.
The gardens glory days did not last long. Augustuss son spent most of his fathers fortune at the gaming tables, and what his son did not lose at cards his grandson lost in speculative ventures. The last of the Fernleys died young, unhappy and childless, and left the estate to St Aldwyns College, Oxford, where the Maddon Archive is still kept. But somewhere along the road Mr Thomas Helys lovely map was lost.
And subsequent owners did not make maps or keep drawings or plans. Or if they did, theyve never been found. The gardens only Victorian archive was the garden log and diary kept by Mr Ferguson, head gardener for forty years from 1840 to 1880.
But the gardens history is there, under the bracken, under the soil, under the forest, under the water. It needs an ardent lover to find it.
When light slants before the sunset, this is
The proper time to watch fritillaries.
They enter creeping: you go on your knees,
The flowers level with your eyes,
And catch the dapple of sunlight through the petals.
Anne Ridler (19122001), Snakes-head Fritillaries
Charlotte Warren, one-time architect and would-be
horticulturalist and plantswoman, glanced at her watch as she approached the Maddon Park entrance. She was early. She drove slowly through the great stone pillars and pulled up at the start of the drive, out of sight of the house. It was twenty years since shed presented herself to a prospective boss and she was as nervous now as shed been then. More perhaps. She had to get this job.
She flapped the sun-visor down to check her face in the mirror. Ill do, she thought. No spinach on the teeth anyway. She ran her comb through her short brown hair and took off her sunglasses. Gardeners, she thought, dont wear shades.
She looked down the drive, marvelling at its dereliction. It was almost bare of gravel and badly potholed,
with grass and weeds growing in a patchy line down the middle. Either side of the drive, dead tree stumps three or four feet across testified to a once magnificent avenue of elms. Some stumps were jagged, some sawn off like picnic tables, some were now just weedy hummocks at ground level.
Lotte frowned, shaking her head fractionally. How could three successive owners have just left them there? It must be thirty years at least since Dutch Elm Disease took almost every elm in the country. How could anyone live with these ugly reminders? Shed never forget the epidemic because a huge old tree in her parents Yorkshire garden had been one of the early victims. Every weekend through the summer shed come home from university to have her father ask her, almost beg her, to agree with him that the tree was getting better, the leaves greener. Or at least not yellower? He had spent 80, a huge sum in 1976, having it injected in a vain attempt to save it.
But the following year the tree was down. Hed sawn the trunk into slices and Lotte and her mother had helped him set them in the grass to make a meandering path. It ran from the back door to the end of the garden, skirting the lush hosta bed on the left, the rockery and pond on the right. It was back-breaking work, but Lotte had enjoyed it.
It was that tree, and its memorial path, that marked the beginning of her interest in gardens. From then on shed astonished her parents by willingly visiting National Trust houses with them, roaming the grounds while they toured the mansions.
When she met Sam, shed dragged him round gardens too. Hed proposed to her in Kew, under a double white flowering cherry hed pinched a sprig and stuck it in her hair. When Annie was a baby and they were both in their first jobs she drawing standard windows for cheap-as-possible council housing, Sam a Civil Service trainee theyd spent Sundays pushing Annies buggy round Syon Park, Cliveden, Kenwood, the Royal Physic Garden or the Tradescants in Lambeth. Even when Christo and Jo-Jo had swelled the family to five, they would be more likely to have a day out at Hampton Court than the Zoo.
Lotte smiled suddenly. Its taken twenty-five years, she thought, but at least Im finally applying for a job I really want.
She restarted the engine and drove slowly up the drive, counting the tree stumps. At least eighty.
Ten or fifteen years ago someone had replanted the avenue with ornamental cherries, placed between the elm stumps. But half the cherries had died and none of them were healthy. Looks like bacterial canker, Lotte thought, peering closely at trunks and branches.
The lawns werent much better. She noticed how badly the mowing had been done, the grass scraped bare in places and left uncut round the stumps where it fought for space with the buttercups. The grass had not been edged either so it flowed wavy-fringed over the drive.
I hope Mr Keegan is a big spender, thought Lotte. The drive alone will cost a packet.
She was trying to keep cool. All the time shed been thinking about the elm avenue, shed been avoiding the thought that this could be a pivotal moment in her life. Shed begun to think architecture might not be right for her while she was still at university. She had thought it would be about making beautiful places for people to live. Her head was full of elegant buildings in elegant settings. But the dominant ethic of the time was minimalism, and the dominant demand efficiency. The high priests of architecture were the steel-and-glass masters like Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Libeskind men she admired, but did not see herself following.
Shed dismissed her student anxieties as normal few of her friends were certain theyd stick to their chosen field. But she was a stayer, the kind who finished what she set her hand to. And her parents had invested so much sacrifice and pride in her. How could she quit?
Several things had finally shaken her into action: shed turned forty and found her first grey hair; her baby daughter Jo-Jo had followed her brother Christo and big sister Annie to school; above all shed discovered that Sam, her nice, reliable civil servant husband of fifteen years, was an unfaithful bastard. Hed been having a two-year affair with his researcher.
Shed forced a complete split with Sam, left her job and gone back to school, this time to study horticulture and garden history. Three years as a mature student had been really tough, having no money, juggling child-care and study, being on her own. Relations with Sam had been horrible at first frosty sentences hiding a well of misery as she handed the children over at weekends, acrimony purveyed in lawyers language. But as she slowly accepted that her preoccupation with the children and work might have had something to do with her broken marriage, she would sometimes catch herself missing Sam, though never her old career.
Lotte parked with care, tucking her little Subaru discreetly into a corner of the great courtyard. She climbed out, took her lace-ups out of the boot and put her handbag into it.
She walked briskly to the front door, carrying the shoes.
Mr Keegan opened the door himself. He wasnt tall, but he was burly and fit, maybe forty years old, with reddish dark hair, a broad, freckled face and confident Irish looks.
Good morning. Brody Keegan. You must be, er, Miss . . .?
Mrs, actually. Warren. Charlotte Warren. Im usually called Lotte.
Keegan pulled the heavy door wider and took his time inspecting her short brown hair, wide grey eyes in a pale face, well-cut tweed jacket over a cream polo-neck and fawn trousers, smart shoes on her feet and old but polished lace-ups in her hand.
He smiled at her in friendly fashion, but his next words were not encouraging. Yes, well, Mrs Warren, I think we could both be wasting our time.
She frowned, alarmed. Why? she asked.
Well, its obvious, isnt it? I knew you were a woman of course, but not that you were so small . . . or so posh. This job is not for a delicate product of the public school system.
He spoke with a soft Irish accent and a broad smile, and Lotte found she was less indignant than she should be. But she didnt smile back. Instead she said, I went to the local comprehensive.
He took the second step down to her level and reached for her hand. Lotte gave it to him, pleased to see him relent enough to observe the civilities. But he didnt shake it. He turned it over and looked at the palm, saying, This is not a desk job. He let her hand go. He was still smiling, but she felt the insult and her chin lifted a fraction.
Calluses and ingrained grime can be acquired, Im sure, she said, and, if I understood your agent correctly, you need someone who understands building and restoration, who can do the research and get it right. Or do you just want a labourer?
As soon as shed said this she regretted it. Shed spoken quietly but she knew there was an edge of indignation to her voice. Oh God, she thought, Ive blown this job already.
But Keegan grinned again. Well said. I should at least give you a hearing. But there are four others on the shortlist, all men, and three of them have wives prepared to work in the house. You know we advertised for a couple, dont you?
No, you didnt, she thought, but this time she had her replies better buttoned down and she answered, Well, you said, Couples Preferred, but I was told . . .
Keegan interrupted her. Anyway, if you are the best, we can find a housekeeper somehow. I wasnt sold on hiring a couple anyway. One is always useless, and if you lose one, you lose them both.
There was no answer to this and Lotte didnt attempt one.
Cmon, said Keegan, turning back into the house.
Lotte followed him through the wide square hall, its marble floor covered in protective polythene, furniture draped in dust-sheets, a decorators ladder leaning against the wall, surrounded by a huddle of paint-pots. She had just enough time to take in the free-flying double sweep of twin Regency staircases before they had skirted a pile of tea-chests and gone down a passage and into a boot-room.
Glad you brought some good shoes, Keegan said. Are they waterproof? The grounds still soggy in places.
While Lotte changed her shoes she watched him take his wellington boots from the row of posts that held six pairs upside down, ranged in order of size (all grown-up sizes, she noted), and sit down on the wooden bench to put them on. They were Hunters boots, green with those inexplicable little straps on the side. Like all the others, they were very clean, not a single bit of pea-grit stuck in the tread, not a smear of mud on the rubber. Probably had his valet polish them, she thought.
She observed his clumsiness and impatience as his trouser bottoms rucked up around his calves. She was tempted to bend down and help, to fold the leg of his chinos and tuck it into his sock before pulling on the boot.
He stood up. Right, lets go, he said, reaching up the wall for what looked like a giant machete, the blade about two feet long. For the nettles, he explained. He looked like a boy setting off on an adventure, Lotte thought. He strode ahead of her out of the boot-room, then headed off across the terrace, machete swinging in his hand.
This was Lottes third interview. Her first had taken half an hour in a London office with Mr Keegans personal assistant. She hadnt thought she had a hope she was fresh out of horticultural college, with almost no experience. But Miss Astley, a woman of about Lottes age, had seemed impressed by her decisive change of direction mid-career and by her academic achievements. Anyway, shed pushed her through to the next interview.
This had consisted of a short tour round Maddon Parks overgrown orchards and derelict kitchen garden with Mr Keegans land agent, Terry Simons. Unlike Miss Astley, he was suspicious of Lottes motives for ditching a solid architectural career for an untried one in gardening. You could tell he thought it was some kind of mid-life crisis.
In both these interviews, Lotte had not told the whole truth. Shed glossed over her subterranean reasons: wanting to get away from a London that held Sam and his mistress, her need to live more closely with her children, her desire for them all to have a country life, her longing for work that was more personal to her, more meaningful than building prize-winning steel-and-glass structures for banks or airports. Instead shed said that since her twenties shed loved gardening, landscape and magnificent gardens, but had not thought there was a career in it. Shed become an architect when she should have been a landscape designer. Shed smiled at Simons, saying, I was born in the wrong century. Once, grand buildings were part of a natural landscape, part of the same plan. Capability Brown could design and build as well as dig and plant.
But Mr Simons had not seemed convinced. Hed not shown her the park, or the south side of the house, which she longed to see. Shed gone away sure she was out of the race.
But here she was at the last hurdle and she was still nervous. Ridiculous, a professional woman of forty-five, a mother of three and an independent divorcee being nervous. Lotte squeezed both her thumbs tight in her fists, a childish habit left over from trying to ensure her place in the netball team. She had to persuade Brody Keegan she was right for the job. It was perfect for her, combining her loves and her talents: gardening, garden history, landscape. But most of all it would be a new start. New job, new home, new life.
She followed Keegan down the steps on to a wide terrace from which you could see the sweep of parkland down to the lake, with its ornamental island with a Chinese-looking summer-house on it, the woods to the left, distant farmland to the right. Shed have liked to spend a few minutes taking it all in and asking Brody about the history of the place, but he was marching ahead of her down the shallow flight of stone steps, bordered with ornamental urns, on to a wide lawn.
She followed him, noticing the clover, dandelions and couch-grass in the turf and the unevenness of the surface. It was poor stuff, and it would take a deal of rolling, weeding, feeding, top-dressing with lawn-sand, scarifying and aerating before it was remotely respectable. But she was sure that given the time and money, she could transform it within a year.
In the middle of the lawn there was a newly dug square flower-bed. Beyond this, at the far edge, was a scruffy fence and ditch, and beyond that open parkland sloping down to the lake. Lotte guessed that the ditch had once been a ha-ha, deep enough to keep the livestock off the lawn without a fence, while creating the illusion of uninterrupted greensward right down to the lake.
Keegan strode towards the rose-bed. Come and look at my new roses. This is our first serious improvement, and they are going to be spectacular, dont you think? I chose them because orange is my wifes favourite colour. Except Amber calls it tangerine.
Lotte looked with dismay at the thickly planted hybrid teas, the orange buds about to burst into bloom. What a disaster! The bed was worthy of a Parks Department it would be strident as hell and would ruin the conceit of the ha-ha.
Keegan said, Andrew thats our current gardener is proud as punch. Says they are healthy as weeds. He turned to her, his face alight with pride.
Feeling a shiny leaf between finger and thumb, she stalled with, Theyre certainly healthy. Not a greenfly in sight. What are they?
Theyre called Tequila Sunrise. Im having brass labels made for them.
Worse and worse. Tequila Sunrise is one of the few roses Id consign to the compost heap, thought Lotte. Red edges to orange petals, stiff stalks and zero fragrance.
Mercifully Keegan did not wait for further comment. He said, Come on. You can tell me what we should do with the jungle. And persuade me that you can at least be a leader of sons of toil.
He didnt give her a chance to do either, but none the less things went better from then on. They walked about two miles round the estate, Keegan keeping up an increasingly enthusiastic commentary as he led the way, hacking double-handed through the overgrown nettles and grabbing Lottes arm to negotiate fallen tree trunks or uneven brick paths slimy with lichen.
Lotte warmed to Keegan in spite of herself. He had no manners; he couldnt tell an oak from an ash, and his taste was dire. He had a townsmans eye, seeing big bright things like the forsythia and not noticing the primroses on the banks. Once Lotte stopped to admire a meadow of snakes-head fritillaries. Keegan could not see what she was looking at until she climbed a fence and came back with one white and one purple flower. She held the purple bells to the light so he could see the fine diamond pattern.
Mmm, he said, impressed. I see what you mean. I was just thinking what an untidy field that is, and that we should mow it.
Lotte shook her head, adamant. You cant do that until July, when the wild flowers have seeded. I should think this meadow is left each year, and only grazed after June Ive never seen so many fritillaries. Arent they wonderful?
Keegan took the delicate blooms in his big hand and said, surprised, Yeah. I guess they are. But why dont we grow a whole lot of them close to the house, in a flowerbed, so people can see them? Whats the point of them in a field?
Lotte let it go, thinking he was not the type to understand. But his enthusiasm carried her along. He clearly loved the place, and seemed to know every inch of the land, if not its flora.
She thought that it would be good to work for someone so in love with his estate. Then she thought: no, working for him would be a nightmare. All he says is, I want to do this . . . Im going to do that . . . This will become . . . That will have to go . . . Hes not once asked me what I think. Maybe he doesnt want anyone who thinks.
But eventually he charged down a muddy tunnel between tall Nigra bamboos to emerge at the lakeside. He pulled her onto a rickety jetty and said, Well, what do you think? Pretty amazing, huh? His voice was full of triumph, his sweeping arm encompassing lake, park and house.
Lotte said nothing, breath and speech suddenly gone. It was amazing. Or not so much amazing as perfect. Utterly perfect. She stared unblinking at the house. The classic Georgian mansion was grand, but it was not a pile. The central section was three floors high, with a shallow pedimented roof. The double-storey wings on either side ended with small octagonal stone towers and identical belfries, their jaunty lead roofs floating in the air on almost invisible supports. The house seemed cosily anchored to the hillside rather than dominating it. Behind it and to the right the land rose gently, covered with deciduous woods. Open parkland continued round the left of the house, rising steeply to a grassy hillock with a knot of bushes on the top.
Lotte shut her eyes for a second, then opened them again, half expecting the vision to have been a dream. But there it was: complete, beautiful and perfect. She had visited hundreds of beautiful houses over the years, but not one had affected her quite like this. Maddon seemed to stroke her soul.
The vista silenced even Keegan and they stood without speaking for a full minute, while the afternoon sun stage-lit the scene, gilding the windows, warming the stone, turning the park an iridescent spring green. It added sparks to the quicksilver ripples in the lake.
Suddenly Lotte laughed. Its ridiculous, she said. No one would believe it on a chocolate box.
Keegan looked pleased at this. Then he said, How am I meant to know if youd fit the bill? Youve hardly said a word all afternoon.
Didnt get a chance, thought Lotte. But she did like Keegan. His impulsiveness and straightforwardness impressed her. Hed bought Maddon Park on a whim, hed said, because hed seen a picture of it in Country Life. She understood that. If she were mega-rich, shed have done the same.
He went on, How did you get on with my PA? And with Terry Simons? For once, he paused for an answer.
Not too good. Miss Astley said I had the right qualifications so she couldnt rule me out in spite of my meagre experience. I thought the agent had crossed me off the list though.
They both think I hire people the same way I buy things, because I like them. So to stop me hiring plausible rogues, they weed out the cowboys and con-men in advance.
Lotte smiled. Glad I survived the cull then.
Yeah, well, it means they think you could do the job, though I still have my doubts. Im sure you know the Latin names for plants and have mugged up a heap of garden history, but can you really handle a gang of navvies?
Yes, said Lotte, I can.
Keegan raised an eyebrow.
Ive been an architect for twenty years, been in charge of countless building projects, had a team of draughtsmen, designers and junior architects reporting to me. Sure, I can handle a team.
How would you begin? What would you do first?
This was the question Lotte had hoped hed ask. Shed thought about it and she answered with confidence. Well, obviously Id find out what your priorities were. But Id advise getting the lawns weeded and fed, and . . .
Keegan interrupted. Why not just strip the lot and roll out new grass like carpet? Like they do on Groundforce.
Fine, said Lotte, smiling. I was trying to save you money . . .
Keegan laughed. Saving money is not what Im good at. Spending, yes. His arm came briefly round her shoulder, a cross between a hug and a clap on the back. So what comes after the returfing?
Mostly cosmetic stuff to make the garden round the house look a whole lot more cared for. Remove those stumps in the drive, regravel the drive and courtyard, cut the overgrown shrubberies back, maybe do some replanting, have the terraces relaid where the paving is uneven, stone walls repaired. Id get all that horrible ivy off the facade . . .
Keegan had been nodding his agreement, but now he interrupted. I like the ivy. Makes the house look romantic and old.
Lotte shook her head. No . . . no. It completely ruins the symmetry of a lovely house. And its a crime to hide that famous honey colour. The ivy is like some horrible skin disease down one side of a perfect face.
He followed her gaze. Besides, she went on, it will have your gutters and roof tiles off, if it hasnt already. Its a killer.
OK, OK, said Keegan, laughing. What then?
Id not do anything dramatic or spend huge sums of money for a year or two while we really do the research. Id leave the woods and the lake, the park and the orchard for now
Again he cut in, his voice a mixture of enthusiasm and authority. No. Well do it all at once. Im an impatient man, Mrs Warren. And Ive got the money. Why not go for it?
Because we will make a hash of it if we do. We need to find out about the house, its past owners, what lies under all the tangle. Lottes eyes swept the view. Take the walled garden, for example. It looks Victorian, but it could be on top of an eighteenth-century garden or even a mediaeval one. Its a question of how much you want to know.
But no one knows anything about the house. The agent said it had changed hands six times since 1900.
But we can find out. Lotte undid the front of her jacket to reach into an inner pocket, and extracted a photocopy of a map. Opening and refolding the map neatly so she had the bit she was looking for centre-stage, she pointed to an area designated Maddon Woods. Look, she said.
Keegan read the words Old Pond Yards out loud. What the hells a Pond Yard?
Ponds for storing fish. Sort of mini fish farm. Sometimes called stew-ponds. If you had a river, you could have one.
He took the map from her and opened it up. It flapped in the breeze and she put out a hand to catch a corner.
And are these pond things on my land? His face was close to hers as they peered at the map together, and she thought she saw a flicker of interest.
They certainly were. And they might be still. I cant see why anyone would destroy them. But I guess they must be overgrown. She pointed to the woods on their right, stretching from the lake edge up the hillside to the distant horizon. In there somewhere. Modern Ordnance Survey Maps just say Maddon Woods. No mention of Old Pond Yards. Keegan looked puzzled, and Lotte said, This is a 1934 map.
Still holding the map, Keegan said, But how did you find it?
Lotte explained that when shed read the advertisement and applied for the job, shed thought shed find out what she could about Maddon. She took the map from him, refolding it. This is in the County Record Office in Oxford. Theres not much else in there though. But I did discover that some of the Maddon papers are in an Oxford college, St Aldwyns, I think. The College owned Maddon Park before the war. So maybe therell be a plan to pinpoint where your ponds are. Or were. Theyd be near the river somewhere. Lotte made an effort to keep her voice cool, but she felt her excitement rising.
Sorry, Mrs Warren. I can see the point in restoring the stable yard or the garden terraces, and I need someone with the knowledge to keep me out of trouble with the planning police. But digging for derelict ponds is not for me. Anyway, Im going to have a sculpture trail along the river and through the woods, with life-size deer and maybe African elephants and giraffes and so on. Give guests something to look at when theyre out walking.
Lotte put her map back in her pocket, averting her face. She feared it would show disappointment or disapproval.
I guess youd better meet the current gardener, Andrew, said Keegan as they headed back across the park. If you get the job youll have him to contend with. Hes worked for three successive owners, all of whom have let him do what he likes which is not a lot.
They found Andrew in the stable yard. He was splitting logs and did not look up until Keegan spoke.
Andrew, this is Mrs Warren. Shes one of the head gardener applicants.
Why is he chopping wood in April, thought Lotte. Thats a winter job. There must be a hundred more urgent things to do. She put her hand out, saying, Youve worked at Maddon for years, I believe? but Andrew looked her up and down with ill-disguised scorn, spat on his hands and returned to his logs.
Lotte frowned, wondering if this was deliberate rudeness or just a lack of the social niceties. She was about to turn away rather than court another snub, when Keegans mobile rang and he swung away to talk of software and contracts, leaving her to the taciturn Scot.
She watched in silence as Andrew dispatched several logs. She had to admire his technique. He swung the axe over his head, embedded it dead-centre in the upturned log, then he reached for the sledgehammer and swung it with the same rhythmic ease, driving the axe-head deep into the log which obediently fell apart. He used the axe alone to cleave the halves into quarters and the quarters into eighths.
In a pause while he stacked the split wood Lotte said, Thats oak, isnt it? Did you have a tree down?
Andrew eyed her blankly and said, Aye, without elaboration.
Determined to be civil, she carried on, Do you do your own tree surgery then?
Aye, he said again.
Ill give it one last shot, thought Lotte, and asked whether the ground was still too wet to mow. This got no reply at all. He just gave her his sullen stare and brought the axe down with what Lotte suspected was unnecessary force. The hostility was palpable. Keegan, who had finished his call now, must have felt it too, for he said as they walked away, Not much for friendly conversation, is he? Though hes useful at the heavy stuff. Dont suppose you could split logs all day, could you? He gave her a sideways glance but Lotte felt he was teasing rather than criticizing her now.
Poor guy. I dont suppose he wants a head gardener over him.
Hell come round. Hes got to. Hes forty-nine, with no qualifications, so hes not going anywhere. And hes on a cushy billet here: nice cottage, decent pay.
Did he want the head gardener job? Lotte asked.
Sure, but I told him to forget it, that I need someone with more skills and education than hes got. If he gets the hump and quits, which he wont, its no great loss.
As she turned off the Westway and headed south towards Fulham and home, Lottes mind was still a swirl of hopes and doubts.
There was something brutal about Keegan that scared her. His insensitivity was, she suspected, the flipside of his drive and directness. If things had to be said, he said them. But if I get the job, she thought, Ill try to win Andrew over. Poor guy, it must be tough to have an outsider come in on top of you.
Though she was confident or nearly confident that she could manage the garden, and even Andrew, Lotte wasnt at all sure she could manage Keegan. How could she work for a man who wasnt interested in what lay beneath his own woods? Who didnt see the point of wild flowers in a field? Who thought a country walk needed livening up with giant giraffes? Who believed lawn genetically modified to stay mown was the way forward? Whose wife was a super-model who liked garish orange roses and was probably going to be a perfect pain?
Suddenly, Lotte laughed aloud. Why pretend? She knew the answer was Yes. Of course she could work for Keegan. Shed work for the devil himself if it meant being head gardener at Maddon Park.
Sure, she cared about garden history, but she could bear it if they ended up with a multi-layered garden: eighteenth-century park, Victorian kitchen garden, twenty-first-century sculpture trail. Why not?
Truth is, she thought, I could even bear the Tequila Sunrise bed. Just so long as its me that gets the job.
Please God, she very nearly prayed, make him choose me.
Prue Leith's The Gardener is published in paperback by Quercus at 7.99. www.quercusbooks.co.uk