He stood so small beneath the arch into the cobbled courtyard. His granny commanded, “Paul, this is the way out.”
“No.” His little face grew troubled.
“Darling, this is,” she snapped.
“The way IN,” he pointed with defiance.
“We’ve had a lovely time,” her voice conciliatory, “and this is the way out.” “No!”
Watching from a shaded corner, I got it, and said, “Paul’s saying this is the way in to the courtyard.”
He looked at me. “Yes.”
She got it and let him walk against the trickle of people walking in to the famous gardens whilst she obeyed Covid orders by taking the route prescribed.
The interaction suited my mood. I felt light, relaxed, delighted. I had spent the morning boring my wife by reflecting on how the outstanding gardens had helped form the character of my aunt’s girl friend. Naomi grew up playing in the lauded gardens of this stately home, rolling down the lawns which slipped from the abundant arboretum, hiding amongst the waves of flower borders centred on collections of colourful and architectural trees, darting about amongst the ancient trees cresting the hill which is topped by a four thousand year old hill-fort, dreaming in the artistic wooden summer house one of her ancestors had built for his wife two hundred years ago.
Naomi, a lovely light and fay creature, had met my formidable aunt Diana when they were Land Girls doing their part for the War-Effort, Diana drove and repaired a truck and maybe Naomi polish the chrome. After the War, to escape the prying eyes of everyone they knew, they moved to a remote part of Somerset and bought a plot of land beside the estate of the avant-garde Lord Lytton. When I visited Diana I’d be introduced to various highly intelligent female couples who lived together far from suspicious relatives and neighbours. Diana, who wore men’s clothes, helped the carpenters build their long cedar bungalow and she did all the manly things whilst Naomi, who wore long flowery dresses, translated books from Russian, Swedish and Finnish in their home with its stunning views across the Bristol Channel and over to Brecon Beacons in Wales.
Naomi’s family gave the magical gardens and their charmed home, Killerton House, to the National Trust; such properties were expensive to run and the same happened with the ancient house and gardens belonging to the English branch of my mother’s family. Most National Trust gardens have soul and Killerton’s skilled combination of loose planting and inspiring topography lift the heart. That little boy who presented me with gravel certainly felt this as strongly as I had.
Deep inside the subconscious the perfect arrangement of plants and space resonates, if you are as open as Naomi, such enchanted places enhance your life. Visiting them, even without the emotional connection I am fortunate to have, regenerates you. How lucky we British are to have an environmentally considerate organisation such as the National Trust, which, incidentally, is owned by the public through an affordable membership scheme. The NT has protected much of our coastline from being spoilt and across this land it is a powerful protector of nature. Oh that there were other such organisations worldwide; we'd tried to persuade French friends with a vast wealth and ancient chateaux the'd owned for centuries, to start such an organisation, but it wasn't possible. An environmental paper I wrote was the blueprint for such a conservancy which won world-wide acclaim, but the owners who are old friends, didn't link up to copy-cat safari-park cum conservation zones which popped up in Kenya.
Stepping in to the courtyard, Paul looked up at me and smiled.
I said, “You’re going home now?”
“Yes.” His face was bright. “I give you present.”
“That’s kind, thank you.”
“I make it at home.”
“That’s lovely, you can give it to me when we meet again.”
He pondered this for a second then walked towards me, bent down and scraped up a handful of gravel. “My present.”
Joining his make-believe, I thanked him for the special gift and held out my palm. “Lovely, thank you. Oh! Look! Here’s something special.” I held up the largest of the little shards of grit. “Put it by your bed, say goodnight to it when you go to sleep and it’ll give you lot’s of lovely dreams.”
He held it up, smiled, dropped it and trotted about as it bounced on the cobbled surface. When he caught it he rammed it in his pocket, waved and walked off to the carpark as his granny said, “Paul, you’ve now got bouncing dream stone.”