Village in a Valleyby Beverley Nichols, Bryan Connon (Foreword by)
This reprint of the third book in Nichols's Allways trilogy contains a new foreword by Bryan Connon, Beverley Nichols's biographer. Set in the English countryside, the hilarious memoir is as much about the author's love for plants as it is about the village in which he lived. The depictions of flowers and ornamentals—"A single one of those
This reprint of the third book in Nichols's Allways trilogy contains a new foreword by Bryan Connon, Beverley Nichols's biographer. Set in the English countryside, the hilarious memoir is as much about the author's love for plants as it is about the village in which he lived. The depictions of flowers and ornamentals—"A single one of those gloxinias would be an event in Allways. . . I should give a party for it"—are both inspiring and unforgettable. This is the voice of one whose chief endowment is an appreciation for plants and the landscape, including a keen understanding of the importance gardens play in an increasingly modern world.
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Read an Excerpt
Miss Hazlitt was installed in her shop on a rainy day in November, a day so rainy that all our water-butts were overflowing, and our thatches dark and soaked, while the little stream by the public-house was so high and fierce that we feared that the road would soon be flooded.
For in those distant days it did rain. It rained real water, and lots of it. After two years of drought it seems difficult to believe, but such, you will recall, was the case.
And this rain caused such complications in my private life that for the moment we will leave Miss Hazlitt to settle into her shop, promising to pay her a visit at the earliest opportunity.
The complications occurred in my wood. This wood, some people coldly assured me, existed only in my own imagination. To them, it was only the field over the garden hedge, with a few trees in it. And true, three years ago, it had been just a field. But now, it had far more trees in it than people seemed to realize. If they could have seen my bills from the nurserymen they would have been bound to admit that it must be a wood. Nobody could possibly spend so much on trees and flowering shrubs and fail to have a wood. Besides, if you stood in the middle of the field in summer, under the weeping ash, and if you half closed your eyes and faced due south, and looked at the little group of silver poplars with the tiny clusters of mock-orange at their feet, and beyond that to the small but sturdy cluster of silver birch, you felt that you were quite definitely in a wood, provided, of course, that you had had enough to drink.
But to make a wood it is necessary to do a great many more things than put trees into a field. As each year goes by, bringing with it some fresh menace to my newly planted trees a menace of drought, or of wind, or of blight — I wonder, more earnestly, how any wood ever manages to grow at all, without human assistance! My trees have to be staked, and pedicured and dieted and Lord knows what else. How do ordinary trees manage when there is nobody to do any of these things for them? Nobody to cut away the grass round their trunks? Nobody to check the hungry ivy, nor support them against the south-westers, nor give them a drink when they need it? This is one of the profound mysteries of nature to all amateur gardeners.
The trouble that was now brewing in the wood was directly connected with the rain that was soaking Miss Hazlitt's roof, and filling our water-butts. And it was my father who first sounded the note of alarm.
When I showed him the list of trees I had ordered — which included excitements like tulip-trees, mulberries, maidenhair-trees, standard wistarias, rare buddleias and all sorts of things which, in my imagination, had already formed themselves into a tropical forest, laden with fruit and blossom, with large rude birds bouncing about on the branches, all he did was to screw his eye-glass into his eye, tap the paper before him and say, 'What are you doing about drainage; it's swampy in parts. I noticed sedge grass too. What kind of grass is that? It's triangular without joints, marsh stuff.'
Now to me, in those dark ages, a drain meant merely a rather disagreeable thing a long way under the earth, which one left to the tender mercies of the local Borough Council. Sometimes the drains 'went wrong', in which case, one went away as far as possible, and stayed with relations until they had gone right again. The only place where drains were at all in evidence was the Riviera, and then the only thing to do was to swim round to the bay next door, or to put on one's clothes and go off to the Casino in a huff.
So I said to my father, somewhat indignantly, 'There aren't any drains in my field. Why should there be? There isn't a house anywhere near. There are only a few very modest cows on the hill above.'
'I'm not talking about sewerage. I'm talking about land drains.'
From the tone of my voice my father realized that I had not the least idea what he meant. So he proceeded to tell me about land drains, and said that if we did not put them in, half of the trees would be waterlogged. I still had not the least idea what he meant.
So I paid no attention to him. And when he had gone I took the piece of paper on which he had drawn a drainage plan of my field, and I drew large cats poking their heads out of one end of each drain, and small cats poking their tails out of the other end. I gained much satisfaction from doing so, and forgot about the urgencies of life for at least half an hour.
But all through November it continued to rain. Day after day it rained. The roads were full of puddles perpetually puckered with rain-drops, and the little stream at the bottom of the field swelled to a whirring yellow torrent. I used to go out, swathed to the eyes in a mackintosh, and stand under the great elm to watch it. When you have not got a proper stream on your land — only a petulant dribble — it is very exciting when the great rains come and turn your stream into the real thing. You think of the lakes you could make, and the fish you could catch, and all sorts of idiotic pleasures like that. You also think of the islands you could make. You could put the cat on an island and say to it, 'See! You are on an island.'
'The hell I am,' the cat would reply as it jumped back on to the bank. At least, if it were like my cat, it would.
But rain, if it pours incessantly for a fortnight, begins to get on one's nerves. One hurries to the greenhouse, and breathes a sigh of relief to be in the shelter, among the quiet green plants. The chrysanthemums regard one gravely, with great tawny faces. The early white cyclamen arch their thin necks, nestling among their foliage like swans in summer reeds. The solitary orchid poses disdainfully in a corner, with the air of an exquisitely clad mannequin flaunting her satins before the plain tweeds and serges of the common folk. The bloom is already trembling on the under-leaves of the cinerarias, a bloom that will deepen as the dark days hurry by, till the leaves and flowers revel in an enchanting competition of colour. But meanwhile, the rain is beating a tattoo on the glass, nervously, maddeningly, and one cannot enjoy these things. ...
'The water tank is overflowing on to the floor again, I must have a proper pipe put in ... '
'But if I do have a pipe where is the water to go to?'
'If it goes outside it will flood the violet bed. If I run it past the violet bed it will lie in a pool on the path and rot the frames. I could move the frames, but there is only one other place for them, and that is under the poplars, where they will get no sun. ... '
'Oh Lord ... will it never stop raining?'
And one goes indoors, disconsolate, leaves the umbrella to make a puddle on the red brick, and sits in front of the fire, moping, while the rain comes down the chimney and spits spitefully on the great logs.
By the time the new year was in, the trees were standing in water. I used to go out with a spade, day after day, and cut little channels through the grass, from the stem of some particular tree to the hedge. For a while the water would drain away, and I breathed a sigh of satisfaction as the ground round the stems became clear and firm. But one could not do this with the whole wood. The water-channels became horribly complicated, and got all mixed up, and sometimes, when one had dug a channel, one met another channel, and all the water from the whole wood charged down it, so that the last state of the tree was worse than the first.
Mrs. M., of course, knew all about this. At the most unfortunate moments, her head would pop out over the hedge, and she would stare with ill-concealed glee at my pitiful little efforts at drainage.
'Well — how are the water-works progressing? Ha! ha! He! He!'
'Very well thank you, Mrs. M.'
'Looks like a map of the rivers of England, doesn't it?'
'Yes, very,' I said, between clenched teeth, longing to take a spadeful of yellow water and throw it over the hedge into her face.
'There was something in what your old father said, wasn't there?'
To which I paid no attention whatever. And the only consolation about the rain was that it was so heavy that Mrs. M. could not stand in it for very long, looking over my hedge. Which shows that it must have been heavy indeed.
At last the rain stopped. The earth turned in space, a bright globe, cleanly washed, and the great winds caressed it, and fanned it dry, and the sun hurried through the vanquished clouds, and gave it blessing.
Reading that sentence again, I realize that it would have been much simpler to say 'spring came'. Simpler, but not really quite so true.
For though spring came to Allways, though little blue pools of scillas gathered miraculously under the stems of other peoples' beeches, and the catkins danced about on other peoples' nut-bushes, spring did not come to my wood. Indeed, from the condition of the majority of the trees, you would say that we were in the middle of a strange and bitter autumn.
The silver birches were the worst sufferers. Their lovely bark, which should have been as smooth as silk — (have you ever stripped off the thin grey outer film of a silver birch to find the pale shining stem beneath?) — their bark was rough and pock-marked. And when you bent a twig, instead of springing back with a happy resilience, it either snapped or split, revealing an unhealthy yellow core.
The tulip tree put out one or two sickly leaves, which mildewed and fell off. The horse-chestnuts flourished, it is true — but then you can't kill a horse-chestnut even if you try — and the willows and the poplars seemed quite pleased with life. But at least half the trees were sickly, and struggling, with tiny, pathetic leaves, mildewed trunks and the general appearance of children from one of the worst areas of the slums.
One day I could bear it no longer. I knew, in my heart of hearts, what was the matter, and I decided that I would face the facts. I walked grimly out into the wood, took hold of a silver birch, gave a great heave and tugged it out of the ground.
There was a sickening squelch. And in the hole where the silver birch had stood, there was a pool of dirty water, rapidly filling.
Two days later my father was tramping over the ground, making snorting noises, taking hold of the trunks of trees, shaking them, listening to the squelchy sound made by the roots, and then making more snorting noises.
'It's a damned disgrace,' he said. 'You might as well chuck most of 'em on the fire. Why didn't you do as I told you, and put in drains?'
'I didn't understand.'
Another snort. 'The ground's as sour as a lemon. We'll have to get old W. on the job at once.'
Old W. came, and he and my father spent the morning marching round my wood, talking mysteriously of 'levels' and 'drawing power'. I followed in a state of puzzled depression, with wet feet.
'If the water follows the spade, we're all right,' said my father.
This phrase was constantly on his lips. 'If it'll follow the spade.' I had incongruous visions of a rustic musical comedy with all the girls singing:
Fol-low the spade!
Come to the open spaces!
However these visions were soon dispelled by the fascinating game that my father and old W. proceeded to play. The main drain was dug right across the wood with a lot of minor drains leading off it. To me the whole wood looked as flat as a fen, but both my father and old W. said No — there was a distinct rise in the centre from which the water would flow, outwards, draining into a pond at each end.
But the really exciting part came when they actually laid the drains in the troughs which had been dug for them. Because, all they did was to get length after length of pipe and lay them together, without any sort of cement to join them, and then to shovel the earth on top of the lengths of pipe again.
Please try to follow this. It's important.
'But where does the water come through?'
'It sinks through the earth, through the cracks between the pipes.'
'But if it goes through the cracks at the top won't it go straight out again through the cracks at the bottom?'
'No it won't.'
'But it stands to reason ... '
My father screwed his eyeglass at me. 'I've drained forty-acre fields a good many years before you were thought of.'
'Well then, can't you explain why the water runs through the top cracks and doesn't run through the bottom? It seems so very odd.'
'A lot of things in agriculture are extremely odd,' remarked my father tersely. He then turned with a sigh of relief to old W.
I was so astonished by this latest revelation of the mysterious nature of water that when the drains had all been covered in I almost hoped that they would not 'draw', in order that I could prove my father wrong.
On the night after the drains were finished there was a heavy rainfall. I rushed out in the morning and ran to the mouth of the drain. It was quite dry. Water, water everywhere, but not a sign of water in my drain. I returned to the house in triumph.'
'It is running through the cracks at the bottom,' I proclaimed. 'There isn't a drop of water coming out at the end.'
'And there probably won't be,' said my father, calmly, 'for another couple of months.'
He said it again.
'But why?' This was really the most baffling thing I had yet heard. Why the water should run through the cracks at the bottom for two months and then suddenly stop doing so, and run through the drain, as per plan — this seemed to me almost beyond a joke.
And yet, that is what happened. We put in the drains in May. No water came out of them, into either pond, till the middle of July. Then, one day there was a thunderstorm. As I walked in the wood, after it was over, to see if any damage had been done, I heard a pleasant tinkle. I looked across the pond, and there, from the main drain (whose mouth was almost concealed by a big clump of wild irises), water was merrily trickling. The drains were working. They have worked perfectly ever since.
That is how the first great Battle of the Wood was waged, and I am happy to say that it ended in my favour. Next winter the trees were no longer water-logged, their trunks were no longer covered with green slime, and the ground about their feet was sweet and clean.
Meet the Author
Beverley Nichols (1898–1983) was a prolific writer on subjects ranging from religion to politics and travel, in addition to authoring six novels, five detective mysteries, four children's stories, six autobiographies, and six plays. He is perhaps best remembered today for his gardening books. The first of them, Down the Garden Path, centered on his home and garden at Glatton and has been in print almost continuously since 1932. Merry Hall (1951) and its sequels Laughter on the Stairs (1953) and Sunlight on the Lawn (1956) document Nichols' travails in renovating a Georgian mansion and its gardens soon after the war. His final garden was at Sudbrook Cottage, which serves as the setting for Garden Open Today (1963) and Garden Open Tomorrow (1968). The progress of all three gardens was followed avidly by readers of his books and weekly magazine columns.
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His books bring one back to a simpler time, told with humor and passion for his gardens, with comical characters! A great storyteller