The story of a garden, for Andy & Victoria
Manley Road Chorlton, a garden dedicated to the strength and courage of Andy & Victoria.
I can usually predict and choose from a reasonably short list why somebody has decided to employ my services as a garden designer, ranging from kids now grown up so time for us to reclaim the garden, to families wanting to make better use of the space, to we are missing the wow factor.
My first call from, and visit to Andy & Victoria seemed to bear all the hallmarks of a couple looking for a more grown up and user-friendly space. It was April 2012 and warm for the time of year. Sitting outside drinking tea we started to discuss what their aspirations for the space were. Mentally I noted the garden was surprisingly long for a town garden and due to the odd layout of a neighbour’s garden, seemed to stretch on to infinity. As a result neighbouring properties are barely visible in the distance. It was also in a bit of a state. In the ensuing conversation Vicky spoke of the colours and scents from her childhood in Kiev and both stated they wanted a garden with some mystery and magic to it. After a short discussion, which involved me explaining how I worked as a designer, I can clearly remember the moment, Andy moving in closer to the table, looked me straight in the eye and said: “There is another important factor to this project that we feel is important to share with you.” With that Andy proceeded to explain that Victoria was suffering from terminal cancer. And with those simple, but deafening words, the nature of this project changed completely. My mind suddenly struck with the realisation of the fragility and transience of life. A moment of awkwardness, then broken, as Victoria explained that the garden was to be part of a healing process, and would be part of her therapy. From that first meeting Vic displayed a strength and determination to survive and beat the condition if at all possible. For my part I will be honest and say that, on leaving that first meeting, I was not sure if wanted to, or indeed would be emotionally able to take on such a momentous task, along with the inherent responsibility it entailed. More so as I was still grieving the loss of my own brother who had tragically died at a young age. I was also profoundly afraid that she might not live to see the project completed. Following discussion with family and friends it became clear to me that I couldn't avoid taking the project. What follows is a brief description of the process that followed and the garden that transpired.
During the ensuing design process I couldn't help but admire the enormous strength of faith that both Victoria and Andy had, and I somehow wanted to reflect that in the designs for the garden. Equally I had this strong sense of a stormy journey. I imagined a platform, a little like a magic carpet, or a ship in a storm flowing along a river before finally coming to rest in amongst a field of swaying grasses.
This journey starts with a path from the kitchen that winds as it goes, revealing a hidden tree seat built onto the trunk of a wonderful old silver birch, a place to sit and contemplate, to catch the drift of sage and lavender in the air. A faint whiff of aniseed from brushed-past fennel Whilst the musky scent of peony (a favourite of Vic’s) follows the path, a lazy S, past creeping thymes, sage and box balls, with fruits visible to the opposite boundary beds, a red tomato glistens in the afternoon sun. Stepping up onto the wooden bridge the mood is dreamy. An enclosed raised platform, a sort of transcendental space, hovering just above the ground, suggesting an ability to rise above our situation, taking a view from another perspective. Equally a very old fallen-down hawthorn to the rear area of the garden had its own significance, as it had re-positioned its branches to recapture the sunlight from its now fallen place and continued to grow. So the covered seat to this area was designed to incorporate the fallen hawthorn into its structure. Indicative of our human ability to adapt and go on. Meanwhile, a large Fatsia japonica growing to the rear of the area designated for the deck platform is incorporated into the design to now appear to grow out of the platform with deck boards cut to fit around its trunk. Little splashes of colour catch the eye, the sparkly globe of a purple flowering Allium, a pale iris soothing in silver grass, a dusky pink anemone almost hidden, whilst ferns creep out from under weathered fallen branches. My imagining, it was as if the garden although caught up in a violent storm had continued to grow and evolve in its aftermath. As such it is an affirmation of our very human desire, energy and determination to survive come what may. It is then it strikes me, this is a garden which, similar to life, isn't immediately visible, but reveals its secrets as you go.
With lots of love and very fond memories, Vicky this is for you.
Below is the transcript an email received from Andy, September 2013.
We wanted to tell you a little bit about how the garden is going. Since you came so much has come out grown, developed, fruited flowered. And we've had a lot of really good quality time out there together. But one of the nice incidents recently was when we were sitting at the end of the garden with a friend and with Vic's mum who is with us from Kiev. Sitting on the platform and suddenly I was aware that Vic's mum was talking about being on a ship. Now you might remember that she is the one whose father was a riverboat captain on the Volga, which was part of our stories with you which led to the idea or partly led to the idea of the nautical feel and the river feel to the garden. So there she was indicating the stern of the boat and the waves she said were the grasses waving between her and the rest of the garden as she looked down towards the house. We were just absolutely amazed. Vic's mum is not the kind of person to say things that she doesn't mean and it just felt that you really should know that some of your ideas translated that clearly into practice.
In the weeks since Vic's mum came in the middle of August, she and her have spent a lot of time in the garden walking up and down the path for exercise, and Vic has even been weeding again. Both of them really enjoying being out there to take in the fresh air and sitting in the sunshine. The last few days have been harder for Vic because of a pain in her back that we've been dealing with and her health has definitely deteriorated again. But the garden remains a wonderful and such a positive influence and friend to us. It was completely natural to us to think when Oscar our cat sadly died about a month ago to bury him at the end of the garden near the bamboo. Which incidentally is doing well, only one of the plants now still looking a little sad.
So thank you again. We rarely go a day without counting our blessings including having found you on the Internet and asking you to transform the space into something beautiful. Trusting everything is going well with you, including with your automated chicken coop, and looking forward to seeing you again soon.
Manley Road, Chorlton, Andy’s story.
David has eloquently told of the transformation of our garden from his point of view as designer, and how this garden came to mean more to him than simply another job. Perhaps all gardens mean more, to David. But we felt very special, in his hands; we felt a truly human connection at a time when we were feeling pretty vulnerable. I’m not surprised to read that David thought twice about taking us on, though I had no inkling of that at the time. April 2012, sitting with Vic and him in our conservatory, talking possibilities: our eyes lighting up at his thought of a raised platform at the end of the garden; a flash of panic at his cautiously-worded suggestion that we entirely lose the lawn. All very exciting, and all in the context of a relationship developing around this idea, to create a place that could facilitate healing for Vic, and for me. We talked hopefully together. David looked ahead for us, seeing Vic seeing spring. In the end, she saw a glorious summer too. As I write in mid-October, with the leaves starting to turn, it’s been just a week since she drew a final, peaceful breath, sitting in a loft window looking onto that garden, close family together with her. Our beloved Vika; a peaceful end.
Some moments: Vic and Oscar our cat, curled up together on the platform (the ship? the quayside?) asleep in the sun. Vic, stretched out on the seat under the old silver birch, shaded for a while longer by the lower branches, as afternoon wears on. That same seat became my afternoon rest in these final weeks of intensive nursing, lying under the care of the birch branches way up there. Earlier: Vic coming in to tell me that she’s walked eighty lengths of the garden, swimming pool substituted by what has become a much tougher form of exercise. Cancer is slowly cutting down her lung capacity, but the garden continues to stretch her soul onwards, and mine. It pulls us outside, in a way unknown to us before this – to plant, sweep, water, wander, observe, sit. We have been blessed, and we are thankful. Thankfulness is the dominant note, for Vika too. I am amazed by this.
Further back: Vic making tea for Sid and David; one doing the work, the other keeping an eye on the unfolding plans, then suddenly all four of us talking hope, spirit, determination, recalling daunting experiences that have not broken us. We will not be broken. Instead, like the bamboo along the back fence under a tearing wind, we bow low, but spring back. We nearly lost most of that bamboo, failing to water enough through the winter – but we learnt our lesson in time, and the bamboo healed itself. The roots held on to receive the water that we eventually sent pooling around them, and slowly the brown leaves were replaced by that transcendent green. Throughout the garden, with and without our care, there is revival.
April this year: sitting with Vic and David in the morning sun, first time on the new furniture on the decking, drinking tea, eating toast, luxuriating in the tranquility created there. Telling stories, meeting again, watching the shadows playing across the new grasses.
This garden is alive. For Vic’s mum, a place to pace and pray; for me, a place of rest. With Jess, nearly 11, a seat to sit and talk, or cry. Faith is buoyed by action, and especially by creation. Calm after a storm, yes. And a holding place for a while.