At some point this winter the old ash pollard leaned into the next phase of its life as a refuge for all the things that have contributed to its end. A seedling elder in the crown deposited by birds, brambles between its knuckled roots and, of several mycological inhabitants, a matt black fungus exuding from its cracks and fissures.
Pollarding the ash was one of the things that the farmer here did in his last and seventy fourth year. It was the year before we moved to Hillside and took over the custodianship of the land and in our first year here the ash put out hesitant regrowth that indicated that the tree was in retreat. It stood quietly alone and monumental on the flank of The Tump to mark the handover. A figure, an enormous timber bust we named Venus, which surveyed the open grounds in each direction.
Today, twelve years later and under a different regime, we had almost lost sight of its presence in a copse of seedling hawthorn that had sprung from seed that must have been deposited there by birds that sat in limbs that once reached and soared. The hawthorn, now strong enough and full of the life passed on by the ash, received the massive trunk as she toppled. Like a person leaning back in an act of trust to the companions who have promised to catch.
In our time here we have been planting trees on an annual basis to make up for the sparsity of the slopes that welcomed us here. More ash to join our pollard which, when they were planted didn’t come with the threat of ash dieback, which is slowly moving through the valley and changing the landscape. Glad, our closest neighbour who is now in her eighties and was born here, remembers the valley hedges full of mature elm, which made it impossible to see up and down the valley as we do now after they succumbed to Dutch Elm disease. We may well be able to tell similar stories if the ash continue to fail.
So far, I have lost about half of the new saplings and whilst we remain on vigil, I am planting a future generation. Oaks at all the gateways and English lime to replace the ash in the hedgerows and mark the ridges to accentuate the high ground. Two new orchards have already transformed the feeling of the place, but their lifetime has already been defined by the trees in the old orchard in our top fields which were planted by the previous farmer’s parents. We share a similar lifespan and their three score years and ten is now starting to see them fail. They are beyond pruning, but when we had a biodiversity audit carried out last year it was these old apples which were the host to the greatest variety of wildlife. Colonists which will eventually bring them down, but are welcome, nevertheless, in the big picture.
Last year I took grafts from the strongest wood to send to Keepers Nursery, as we do not know the variety and want to establish a new generation before they are lost for good. Not in the same footprint, to avoid replant disease, but close by where they can echo a little history.
We have planted several trees as memorials. A little grove of Kentish cob nuts for Heidi who worked in the design studio and sadly had her time cut far too short. A seed-raised oak for Huw’s mother down by the spring in the field below the house and a sweet chestnut for my father (main image) which you discover on the streamside walk. All the trees have a special resonance as you walk amongst them and allow for reflection. Their growth, so much in this life and having its influence upon a place and their association keeping the past alive. We will not see the oak in maturity as we will the cobs, but the sense of onward movement is what matters.
Last week, in a moment between the squalls, I planted an apricot in the plum orchard for Priscilla Carluccio who died last year. Priscilla was introduced to me by my first client, Frances Mossman, when I was starting out and in their different ways they have both been enormously influential on how I have approached my work. Frances was keen for us to meet because Priscilla had such a particular sensibility and always went deep in her thinking as a designer. At the time she was working with her brother, Terence Conran, as the design director for The Conran Shop and she had recently taken on a flint and thatch cottage in Hampshire. Priscilla and her husband, Antonio, were yet to found Carluccio’s restaurants, and Ivy House Farm became somewhere very personal where all things, inside and out, became connected.
Priscilla was a clear thinker and was very precise about what she wanted. A kitchen garden that would feel part of the Downland where, as in apothecary and monastic gardens, everything would be appropriate and useful. She also saw the property as being part of the surrounding landscape which, at the time was not the norm. Her approach demanded complete integrity and together we made a place that might once have been there in the 1600’s.
A simple hawthorn hedge enclosed the organised world of the kitchen garden. A nuttery provided nuts, sticks and supports for the garden. She instructed me in the importance of local vernacular, provenance and craft and so a nearby sawmill supplied local oak to edge the beds, chestnut from Hampshire woodsmen made the split rail fences and we used a local flint gravel to make the paths and resurface the farmyard. Even then, back in the late ‘80’s, she put a complete ban on plastic, and so we made hessian ties for orchard trees and cut stakes from the woods.
The farmyard was seeded with a sea of native oxeye daisies that migrated amongst lavenders and tree lupins. Hops were sent up arbours with wild honeysuckle, and almost everything was made into something. Gallica roses were turned into syrup and preserves made from the quince and medlar, while the orchard apples were selected for local provenance. All the vegetables, which were chosen for their scarcity at market, were delighted in. Antonio foraged in the woods for mushrooms and wild garlic and whenever I was there to look after the garden, we ate simply and seasonally.
I was schooled in the discipline of authenticity and lunchtimes were always generous with advice and talk, accompanied by the smell of woodsmoke from an open fire. The house, with its bare plaster walls that Priscilla had asked the plasterers to sculpt like pillows between the beams, was dark and low lit. The same bricks were used for both the garden paths and the interior ground floor. Bold moves. Attention to detail. Everything felt like it came together there.
The origin of a cheese was described to bring it alive on the plate. An explanation of where the handmade glasses or ceramics on the table came from. Descriptions of the makers and suppliers Priscilla had met on her travels to help craft something special she had in mind. We talked about the importance of process, which she admired in a gardener, and of quality. Quality in the everyday. All that you need and no more and how this can make your environment special.
Priscilla’s influence was far wider than many people appreciate and I feel fortunate to have had such an intimate time with her in my twenties. All that Priscilla taught me in her quest for finding the essence of things, her rigour, restraint and inquisitive thinking live on as good life lessons. The apricot, which I am sure she would have delighted in for its early blossom and perfumed fruit that captures summer, will provide the perfect opportunity to remember her by.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan | Portrait of Priscilla Carluccio © Rachael Smith
Published 20 January 2023