Come with me and take a stroll around the garden of my childhood. We leave the main road abruptly and climb a slight hill, the original cobblestones occasionally bubbling to the surface through the tarmac. We enter by two heavy wooden jade green gates which, faded now with age, lie permanently open to reveal a sweep of red-gravelled driveway. Tread carefully here to avoid the rain-filled potholes that have caused many an unwary guest to arrive wet-shod.
To our right the whoops and calls of children at play in the adjacent school are muted by the high stone wall. Beyond that blossoming privet hedge to our left, lies the vegetable garden enclosing the silence of growing things and butterflies. There is a small gateway further along where we can go in and see the layout.
Ah yes, just as I remember, continuous stone walling to West and North, sandstone velveted by soot. To the East, high-whispering beeches hide sight of the stone, castellated manor house. Clustered at their feet, a nursery of young apple trees, showily bedecked in lacy pink and white.
My father maintained the original usage of this garden for many years, cultivating row upon row of peas, runner beans, Spring greens, and Savoy cabbages, highly nourishing but unpalatable to the child conscious of their caterpillar inhabitants. A large garden to feed a large household, including indoor and outdoor servants, when the house was first built mid-nineteenth century. Because of its size my father used a hand-held motorized digger, the phut-phutting engine producing a plume of inorganic-smelling fumes as he dug his furrows.
Of course it was made over into a paddock once he got the riding stables established. The white painted one-bar fence marks the boundary, inside which we practiced the basic technique of staying-put, novices at the trot and the more proficient over jumps. In front of us where the northern wall climbs into a high arch are the stables. The roof, as you can see, is made entirely of doors which, at only a shilling each during slum clearance, were a bargain.
Originally a vinery back in the 1850s the arched wall protected the small black grapes from the North winds. My father found a root still flourishing and trained it into the greenhouse where it continued to produce grapes with the bite of a lemon. Not so the tomatoes. I have to agree with him, there is nothing like a home-grown tomato for sweetness and taste, especially picked and eaten straight from the plant.
The small path running parallel with the wall leads from the enormous kitchen at the rear of the house, which served as our living room. My mother would lead us small children up to the low wall bordering this path where we would all sit together on balmy summer afternoons. Hot out-of-doors tea and freshly made currant loaf melting with butter made our picnic treat. My father, hot and dirty from digging, smiled with achievement. My mother fulfilled as wife and mother smiled too. It was a happy time.
That run of apple trees on the eastern border proved less euphoric for the boy caught stealing their fruit. One of the gang who had taken to raiding the garden, my father imprisoned him for an afternoon in the underground boiler room that heated the greenhouse. My mother was aghast at such cruelty, my father phlegmatic. He had no further trouble from local lads.
As we retrace our steps to the gate, I'll tell you of another time that boiler house caused great excitement. My father had to spend a Sunday afternoon digging out the flues. He stimulated my brother and myself to help him for hours that wintry day by telling us there was a secret underground tunnel linking Sheffield Castle, to the West, with Wincobank Hill to the East, along which the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots had tried to escape.
Never has the uncovering of flues been regarded with such exhilaration. My mother called such deception, shameful. I disagree. To stir imagination in this way is an art and I am eternally grateful, not only for the host of memories my father planted but also for the imagination he nurtured that I might stroll at will within my garden long after the original has ceased to be.