Ewen's garden

A collection of columns, paintings and photographs about gardening on an offshore island in New Zealand.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Letter from Scotland

It seems a very long time since I last wrote, so many things to see and think about. On leaving Denmark and the cold northwest winds we spent one night in London and headed for the West Highlands in Scotland. This is nearly all my ancestors come from after the highland clearances made way for sheep (a little ironic, as in New Zealand my forebears made their living running sheep!) The West Highlands and in particular Morvern, was where we headed. It is a hard but beautiful land of steep mountains and deep lochs. Looking at the landscape today it seems improbable so many people could have survived here, but survive they did and happily so. Saying this though, there was naturally a lessened life expectancy then. The hills have suffered over the years through over grazing and lack of good land husbandry, in consequence much of the land is no longer productive good only for heather and forestry.
We stayed in a small village called Lochaline, on the edge of the Sound of Mull. There is a ferry from here to the Island of Mull, taking both foot passengers and cars. Everywhere here in the last remnants of forest were swathes of blue bells and wild garlic (with white flowers). One afternoon we took one of the narrow roads, not wide enough for two cars, on the infrequent times a car approaches from the opposite direction it is necessary to duck into one of the passing bays, a hair-raising experience at times! We were heading down one such road for Rahoy, passed a couple of lochs. The only thing of interest was a stroll up into the hills to visit a deserted settlement of Inniemore, the inhabitants evicted at only a moments notice one morning, to make way for the sheep. This place has laid forgotten, the Forestry commission planting a forest here in the 1930s. All that remains now are a few walls and the outlines of the dwellings of a township that housed some fifteen families of Camerons. A brutal end to an existence carried on for generations without any trouble.
To bring my story back to a more horticultural line of thought, along the path to this village were small clumps of violets and yellow primulas flowering, amongst the blue bells. Along the edge of this stony path were silver birches, beech and oaks, all flush with their first new spring leaves. Many of trees, rocks and ground were smothered in a verdant cloak of moss, creating an almost mystical effect, what nature does with ease we can only attempt a poor imitation.
Of the forestry trees they largely consisted of imported varieties such as Norwegian spruce and douglas fir. The forests planted in the thirties only just now being harvested. It seems strange to think this wee settlement was only just rediscovered after the felling of the forest, how quick we forget!
There is not much to say of the gardens of the everyday people here, except their small patches were sprinkled with a few tulips, ericas, conifers and the like. I did not travel north to Inverewe in Western Ross, where the Gulf Stream sweeps in providing a micro-climate where many New Zealand natives flourish. Another time eh?
Back down in London, the roses are all bursting into flower, and shortly, in fact, by the time you read this I will be back on Waiheke Island, another adventure at an end.
I wonder how big my weeds will be? Perish the thought!

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, May 06, 2007

European Spring

Last time I wrote we were in Hong Kong, from here we traveled to Belgium and to Mesen/Messines in the south of Belgium for ANZAC Day Commemorations. Here I was surprised to find the fields were not a mass of red poppies. There were one or two flowering along the waste land of the railway, but not at large in the fields. Thinking about this later I realised these plants prefer the infertile gritty soil of waysides. During World War One, the fields were laid waste, as were many of the towns, the perfect environment for the poppy. Today the land is agricultural and well nourished and so the poppies are not so commonly seen.
The rest of our stay in Belgium was in the city of Antwerp and spring was early, the hottest and driest on record, so dry in fact they recorded no rain for the whole month of April. In light of this, many of the bulbs had already finished their flamboyant spring show. The leaves on the trees were nearly all out and the frequent horse chestnuts were a mass of flowers, originally an import from the East coast of the US. Everywhere were hedges of beech with their flush of bright green new leaves evident. Many of the street trees are pleached or pollarded into towering mature hedges of trees. What appears to be a new fad in the suburban garden is the establishment of espaliers of deciduous trees. These were on trunks up to a height of about 2m with a further 1.5m or so, creating a screen around the boundaries of properties. Losing their leaves in winter then allows the light in winter to penetrate into to the garden, while still giving a sense of enclosure.
While in Antwerp we visited the botanical gardens, a small area of about one acre. Here the tulips were still in bloom, the perennials only just making headway. Unfortunately the glasshouses were closed the day we visited, being May May, a public holiday.
From Antwerp we hopped across the Channel to London to stay one night with friends, their flat over looking Clapham Common. This is a large park in South London, consisting of tree lined walks around large open grass fields.
Next day we flew to Billund, Denmark to visit yet more friends. The weekend found us in Copenhagen for the night, Denmark is not a large country and driving from one side to the other does not take long. The journey took us through a largely flat landscape of green, unfenced crops of barley, interrupted by the occasional copse of trees and eye piercing, sulphur yellow fields of rape seed. This crop is used to make a vegetable oil for cooking and margarine. All through, tall wind turbines slowly turn, generating electricity, even in the gentlest of breezes. Copenhagen is not a city with tree lined avenues, rather a few fine parks, well populated by the residents enjoying the spring sun. The spring here is a little behind London and Belgium and tulips were still flashing their bright colours about. Particularly interesting here was a wonder about the enclave of Christiania, an ex-military ramparts, probably of 17th century construction. After being abandoned by the military, hippies moved in and squatted in the buildings. Here is group of creative, alternative people living in the middle of a modern city. Nearly all the properties had small gardens, in front of what might be called bohemian homes, some of these not constructed along conventional lines.
Returning Give, the small town near Billund where our hosts live, the road is planted with trees, many lilacs, forsythia, and hawthorns. A very pleasant trip, with not a cloud in the sky until we got back when the clouds rolled in and the first rain for our trip began to fall. Mustn’t grumble, the poor farmers and gardeners desperately need the moisture, a thing we can all relate to!
Next up, Scotland and London.