what forms us?
The gardens at Killerton House never fail to lift my soul. It’s not just the land falling in waves of trees cut into by sweeping lawns bordered by an array of stunning flowers, nor that arboretum capping the stunning site. It is the lightness, you feel yourself wafting through the perfect arrangements of trees from around the world, charmed by the well tended surprises such as the Alpine nook cut in to the hillside, or the delight of the bear’s hut, a wooden construct to ignite the minds of children aged from three to ninety three.
Add to this imagination. I see her drifting through this artful landscape, stopping here to take in the astounding views over towards Exeter, hugging that soft barked sequoia, climbing this ancient yew, loosing herself amongst the magnolias, dancing down the vale of Himalayan deodars. Her creative, sensitive yet incisive mind, I now realise, was partly formed by gardens such as these, for her family lived between this stately home and Bicton Park near Budleigh Salterton which is now an agricultural college.
Though she was a faint figure in my life, a sparkling presence each time I visited my great-aunt Diana, Naomi was somebody I now wish I had been more aware of. But Diana dominated. And after all, it was Diana, not her lover, whom I had gone to visit. After a polite half hour in her presence, Diana never failed to comment on my ineptitudes, the way I’d driven up to the house she had built for them both, that I was scatty (true) and so many more truths about me, and it only stopped half an hour before I was due to leave a few days later.
It was this trait of hers which often caused a telephone call from Diana, asking us to drive over to their hidden corner of Somerset and shop for her, because she’d once again been banned from every shop in town. “I simply don’t know how to talk to people,” Diana admitted. She had been bought up to bark at us plebs, that’s the way the aristocracy of that period mostly were. My cold father was the same. Naomi, like my mother, was an exception and they both got on well, for unlike Diana, they shared a love for literature. My mother, who had turned from the extensive comforts offered by her own old family when she divorced my violent, arrogant entitled father, transliterated Shakespeare for the kids she taught in the African bush. But Namoi was the star. Naomi translated over 30 famed books from Russian and the Scandinavian languages.
We are influenced, as we develop, by our immediate surroundings. It was Killerton, I am convinced, which moulded Naomi’s mind. Those drifting scapes of planting dreamily arranged yet brimming with botanical detail of which her family would have made her aware as her mind formed. Diana’s father loved racing his collection of extraordinary cars and she spent her childhood fixing them with him. It was how she met Naomi. They were Land Girls during the War against Hitler, Diana driving, repairing, manhandling, Naomi plucking the crop. They moved in to the convoluted hills tucked behind Minehead, because the locals accepted without reacting, the female couples of a certain standing, who moved there in the 1950s. Diana wore men’s Tweed, men’s shoes and had a deep voice; Naomi loved soft floral dresses. All ofDiana’s friends whom I got to know over the years, were gay women.
It is little wonder that tough gangs are mostly formed in the rough city streets such as those I once worked in. That I was often attacked, even though the youth liked me, was part of the way things were. Architects are waking up to the effect their stark modern developments have had on the minds of those growing up in an impersonal environment where nothing natural or artistic exists. Where lines are dead straight, functional. Where concrete and glass dominate. Where a continual echoing and ricochet distorts each and every sound. No wonder the voices of such people are generally sharper than the softer voices of country folk.
If only the genius which created Killerton and Bicton stunning grounds could be applied to living blocks around the world, for most of us live in urban environments. No wonder there is such a huge disconnect from nature, from Global Warming, for we fill our depleted natural existences with distractions created by ourselves - clothes, stuff, endless consumerism. Yes, these can be wonderful, but it is time to stop our self-obsession and think and react and find a way to shift our economies from consumerism and back to a sustainable cohabitation with the natural environment. Each of us, though we grew up in tight little city quarters, is, if we act in unison, powerful. We can redesign our immediate environments to nourish, so that we have no emptiness to fill with junk. There really is no time like the present. Act, we must.