I’m joined by good friend and author Georgia Hill this week as she talks about gardens and her new book Janey Trelawney’s Year of Surprising Triumphs. Over to Georgia …
I’m delighted to be back on Morton’s blog and, as my next book is based in a garden centre, I’m equally delighted to accept her suggestion to talk all things gardening.
Flipping through my Chambers’ Dictionary of Quotations in desperate inspiration for title ideas, I came across the quote, ‘Flowers heal the soul.’ At least I think I did. Trying to find it again to see who said it, I failed. It’s quite possible I dreamed it! Whatever the case, it’s true. 2020 saw a lot of us all turn to our gardens as a source of solace, that’s if we were lucky enough to have one.
The first hard lockdown was made slightly easier by the gorgeous warm weather we enjoyed. The skies overhead bloomed an unpolluted blue, clear and hopeful. Just as well as the news was most definitely not.
Gardens have always been important places for me. Somewhere to unwind, de-stress, to re-connect with the natural world. I’ve moved house many times, so much so, friends complain I’ve filled up the ‘H’ page in their address books! Each house came with a garden of some description.
A rented flat in Upton-on-Severn came with a walled garden and a decaying Victorian orangery – magical. I seem to have bought houses which, for various reasons, didn’t have established gardens. A new-build had an unassuming triangular patch which I cheered up with a white lavender and clematis on the fence which faced the sun. I’m fond of white flowers; I like their purity and freshness against the green. I was inspired by the tranquillity of Vita Sackville-West’s White Garden at Sissinghurst when I visited some years ago. Someone once told me that to leave your mark on this world, you must have a son, write a book or plant a tree. So, in the shady part I planted a Japanese acer and filled in with ferns. Having written several books, I’ve now achieved two of these goals but the horse has bolted on the first!
I planted the other bed with cuttings donated by a work colleague including some geraniums which flowered endlessly. I’ve forgotten the name of them and have been looking for some ever since! This was my first garden and, although tiny, I loved it. I’d parade around examining for new growth. One of the things I love about gardens is searching for the changes each season brings. The waxy green of snowdrop shoots pushing through the frozen earth of January, the hopeful spring bulbs, the scent of summer bedding plants, the frost hoar making leaf shapes magical. I had a stressful job when I lived at that house and the garden was my sanctuary.
The house we moved to next was a hop kiln and barn conversion in the middle of rural Herefordshire. An agricultural building, it had never been a home and so had a patch of bumpy turf for a garden. I had to create a garden from scratch – again! We inherited an unlovely laurel hedge which I dug up to create more planting space. However, planting anything was challenging. Most of our garden had once been the farm’s central yard. Digging a hole meant going through layers in time, like in an episode of the Time Team. A layer of dodgy topsoil, tarmac, builder’s rubble, finally uncovering the original farmyard of stout Victorian cobbles.
It was hard work, not helped by the natural soil being heavy clay. I gave up in the end and contented myself with pots! Again, I planted lots of white flowers including an evergreen clematis, a beautifully scented lilac and a white rose which trailed through some honeysuckle over an arch. The rose rejoiced in the name Wedding Day and filled spring evenings with a sweet aroma. Unfortunately, for such a romantically-named plant, it had thorns of the very devil so pruning meant taking your life into your hands!
I created a tranquil space with some running water, a clematis Montana (white of course) and potted up hostas. I’m very fond of hostas. I love the sculptural quality of their leaves. Sadly, so do slugs, against which I waged war.
Again, after spending a long day cooped up in an over-heated classroom or an even more heated meeting, the garden became my refuge. I spent many happy hours watching the wildlife – dragonflies, butterflies, once a swarm of bees. The garden was popular with birds and I had a much-visited bird table. We also had the fattest squirrel in Herefordshire, recognisable by the flash of white on its head and a round tummy. Swallows and house martins swooped overhead, swifts would scream past and I once watched a pair of buzzards teach its youngster how to fly. The skies were big and clear and, as the garden faced south, it enjoyed sunrises and spectacular sunsets. The night, due to the lack of light pollution, was heavy with stars. We used the garden a lot. We ate outside, I worked there when it was too hot to be inside and it was the perfect reading spot. I still miss that garden. It was a very special place.
When we moved south, it was to a little cottage with a sliver of decking-covered back garden. The even tinier front garden, however, delighted us with a flowering cherry tree, several camellias and an unknown white flowering plant which may or may not have been a philadelphus. The cottage was in a pretty Devon village and taking the dog for a stroll in the summer evenings was a sensory delight. Even though I didn’t have much of a garden myself, I could enjoy the hard work of others.
Moving, yet again, found us in another new-build. I never committed myself to the house and could never think of how to plant up the garden. Maybe the two were connected? It was a boring square of turf which sloped slightly downwards. Its only redeeming feature the stupendous sunsets and the butterflies which swarmed.
The next move found us here, in an arts and crafts house in a town and on a busy corner, with a weirdly-shaped wraparound garden and a magnificent wisteria.
This time I inherited a garden and for the first time, I had a year of watching as its delights unfolded. It’s clear this house and its garden has been much-loved. A previous occupant must have been a skilled planner as we have something in flower each season. Even now (I’m writing this at the beginning of January) the low winter sun spears the narrowest part and illuminates a dog wood planted in the perfect spot to catch its rays. My favourite flowers, snowdrops, are poking up snouts and unbelievably, thanks to Devon’s mild climate, I already have a solitary daffodil in flower.
The only downside – there’s no planting space left! I aim to stamp my own presence by painting a wall white and potting up something colourful to create a Mediterranean feel to the patio. We have a resident robin and a blackbird family and some plump woodpigeons but most birdlife is scared off by the gulls which roost noisily on the roof. I’ll introduce some running water, some pots of hostas and, once again, it will be a haven – for me and whatever wildlife chooses to visit.
Thank you for the lovely post, Georgia. Having visited the hop kiln, I know it was a lovely place. Wish I could visit your latest garden – maybe one day fingers crossed. Mx
About Georgia Hill
I write short stories for women’s magazines, novellas, epic historical romances – and some really bad poetry! I love writing romcoms but my passion is for historical romance with a contemporary twist – to read and to write. I’ve written for Harper Collins since 2013. They have published Millie Vanilla’s Cupcake Café, The Little Book Café, While I Was Waiting – a WW1 historical romance and On a Falling Tide, a historical romance set in Lyme Regis. I have a nasty habit of moving house. It’s disrupting to a writing career but being the outsider can be a rich vein for inspiration. I love local history, myth and folklore and these often find their way into my writing. I have now settled in Devon with my two beloved dogs, a husband (also beloved) and a ghost called Zoe. For someone born in the midlands, living by the sea is bliss.
To keep in touch with Georgia Hill you can use the following links:
The book is, very loosely, based on the Doris Day film Calamity Jane. Janey is the eccentric heroine who is forced to rethink her lifestyle when Graham, the work colleague she loves, falls for the uber-groomed Becky.
I needed a profession for Janey, one that she could excel at because, even though she doesn’t think twice about what she looks like, I needed her to be a confident expert in something. As gun slingers are few and far between in romantic fiction, I made her into head gardener at Cheney House Garden Centre instead. It seemed the perfect occupation. I also needed her to be passionate about something. Snowdrops have fascinated me for years; they command a devoted following called galanthophiles.
A dear friend, who is no longer with us, pointed me in the direction of some websites and articles about snowdrops and the book was born. I wrote a blog about the flowers which formed the basis of one of Janey’s blogs but writing the actual book was delayed by other things. By that time, the idea of a sexy but unshowy accountant hero had come along, as had making Janey a film buff. There’s a lot of me in Janey, perhaps too much! I’m a Doris Day fan and, although not exactly a galanthophile, snowdrops are my favourite flowers. I’ve also been known to do the odd dance under a tree (Janey loves dancing under the chestnut trees). And, like Janey, I can’t fathom the modern concept of painted on caterpillar eyebrows but removing body hair from everywhere else!
For Janey, Cheney House and its gardens becomes her refuge from a difficult adolescence. For her, flowers really do heal the soul. Her ultimate sanctuary is her garden shed where her snowdrop project is based. When the conniving Becky takes over as manager, it’s much-needed. By the way, if your interest in snowdrops has been piqued, you can read the fascinating history of their cultivation in the book, Galanthophiles:160 Years of Snowdrop Devotees. It’s well worth a look.
For those who love my Berecombe novels, this one is set in Bereford, the Devon village further up the River Bere and features some beloved Bercombe characters. It should be out sometime in the early spring, to hopefully coincide with the first of the snowdrops.
Buying and contact links:
Cant wait to read this one! Mx