Going for a walk each day is now part of our life. It all started last March at the beginning of the pandemic. Over time many of our walks have changed as we have become fitter and more adventurous, or in response to suggestions by friends. Recently there has been another reason – some of the original walks were putting us at risk.
Knowing that keeping ones distance from others reduces the likelihood of infection, we have decided to begin and end many of our walks by taking the emptier back streets. We still end up in Richmond Park, but we now avoid the inevitable brushes with walkers and joggers on the busy Thames towpath and on parts of the road up to the Park’s main gate. This blog is about a discovery made when walking through the new routes.
In 1846 a railway link was established between Richmond and central London. Within twenty years town maps show that street after street of grand Victorian houses had been built in walking distance of the station. It is along these streets, which generally look alike, that we now walk. Set back behind the pavements are imposing, three, or four-storey semi-detached houses. In keeping, the rooms on their upper floors are spacious with high ceilings traditional of the period.
Despite all this elegance, the appearance and setting of these grand houses is now flawed. Originally, behind a low front wall or fence, each house would have had a lawn, some flower beds and a plant-bordered path leading to the front door. Instead, most houses now have a paved or concreted area serving as a car park. If loosing the garden and front wall were not enough, for access the kerb in front of the house is lowered meaning that the defining lines and symmetry of the street are also lost.
Nineteenth century streets were never the cleanest of places and, for the Victorians, the front garden helped distance home–owners from the dowdier aspects of town living. In addition the garden area providing space for the movement of people, fuel and rubbish. More importantly, however it offered a way of creating a community. Victorian homeowners were proud of their gardens which they would have seen as ornaments to be shared and which brought pleasure to the street at large and offered a chance for communication – ‘over the garden fence’.
Well, on my walks I discovered a wonderful exception to front garden plunder – the front garden at number 17. In the street there are twenty two houses and twenty one car ports leaving just one with a garden. Here, behind a low wall, sits a meticulously worked green sculpture made from box tree shrubs. Twelve years ago, sixteen shrubs were planted and now there is a series of variously sized, coalescing, green spheres without a leaf out of place; Gill, the owner, calls it ‘Clouds’, I see it as ‘Bubbles’ (see illustration). Whatever its name, each time I arrive at Number 17, I stand and stare, breathe a sigh of relief and feel thankful. Of course there are other front gardens in Richmond but they are rare and none of those I have seen are so lovingly managed.
Having this treasure makes Gill anxious. Throughout England, box trees are being destroyed by caterpillars of the box tree moth (Cydalima perspectalis). These green and black caterpillars can strip a shrub of its leaves, killing it in a week. Eerily, the caterpillar’s story echoes the current viral pandemic. In 2006, the moth, a native of China, first appeared in Germany. By 2007 it had invaded Switzerland and the Netherlands. In 2008 it arrived in the UK. In 2009 in France and so on. So far, and as the result of Gill’s meticulous plant inspection and caterpillar elimination – an effective equivalent of ‘track and trace’ – her ‘Clouds’ have been spared.
While I love the ‘Clouds’ and all they represent, box tree topiary does not appeal to everyone. Down the side of Number 17 is a narrow, artificially-lit conservatory in which there is a riot of pink, purple, orange and scarlet. Just as Gill tends her box tree shrubs, her husband grows orchids. When Rohan and I walk past Number 17 and I celebrate the sculptured box shrubs, it is always the orchids on which Rohan prefers to concentrate.
It is interesting how one exception – the front garden of Number 17 – has made me realise how awful it is when Victorian front gardens are destroyed in favour of a space for off-street parking with direct access to the street. In making these changes the front of the house and the feel of the street seems defaced.
The illustration shows a photo of the sculptured box tree shrubs behind a low wall in the front garden of Number 17
For help with writing this blog I would like to thank Gill, Nick, Ron, Rohan and Vivien
6 thoughts on “The Garden at Number 17”
The bubbles or clouds are so dreamy Joe, how stunning and I’m so glad the box tree shrubs haven’t been munched.
Unfortunately, the reliance on cars and somewhere to park them has made many pretty gardens and a welcome home oasis relegated to a parking space. I moved into my home 15years ago and retained much of the first garden and olde worlde shrubs including an orange rose (name unknown), to make room for my small car; most neighbours have completed replaced their garden with off street parking for two large vehicles.
The budding of the orange rose, the bloom and the heavenly scent is enjoyed by many and cheers me up on my return to my sanctuary.
Dear Carolyn, Thank you for your comment. I would see it as one thing to discretely tuck a small car away in a wide garden and quite another to knock down the front wall and replace the garden with a concrete car park. Well done. Love, Joe
A most interesting story and a reflection of how the modern world cannot easily exist with an older world. We have something similar occurring in Sydney- lovely old houses built in the early 1900s but without garages. Councils will not allow changes to these “heritage houses” so they are hard for people to sell when they need to move. I loved that there is one holdout on your walk!
Dear Robin, Thank you for your comments. All strength to the Sydney councils. Allowing the concreting over and loss of front gardens would be a terrible mistake. Love, Joe
You might remember when you walked down our lane in Sauliac (Lot) that wild box grows everywhere. So it was a catastrophy when those dreadful caterpillars invaded the region and the whole of France 2 years ago. They devoured the evergreen box vegetation and left the boxes like dead, just wood no leaves left.
We were not around when the caterpillars had enothing left to eat and changed into a kind of moth by the million and flew somewhere else to lay their eggs for the next generation .
Our friend told us you just coud not go outside unless you like having moth up your nose or you like the taste of moth in your mouth.
In oxford I have my “therapeutic” boxes which I trimm into caterpillars, snails, gerbils and rabbit. I pretend I do it for the pleasure of our 3 grandchildren, but in fact I find the clipping very relaxing and soothing.
I did not know that these horrible monster caterpillars had arrived in UK.
But you can tell your friend Gill the good news: during our now “treasured” visit to Sauliac last October November we saw fresh green little leaves on all the boxes we thought dead.
Chemicals can be used to protct them but it is not really necessary as boxes are extremely resilient even regrow after a fire.
I agre with you about the plague of front gardens beeing changed into tarmac parkings and often creating flooding . At least gravel should be compulsory so water can sink into the ground.
Dear Guillemette, Thank you for your comments. What a horrible story of destruction that the caterpillars can bring. The moth has certainly arrived in the UK. I have told Gill about the new leaves growing back on the ‘dead’ bushes – she was delighted. I completely overlooked how concreting over the gardens will interfere with the water table thanks for that. Love,Joe