Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Earth Not Moving.

This is a wall; a very special wall.
It is part of a garden wall at Eglinton, in Scotland, and even more special and more specialised, it is part of a heated garden wall. The square stones cover flues which channel warm air through cavities in the double skinned wall. The warm air was created by a series of small furnaces in workshops manned night and day by gardening staff - the more lowly orders, such as the apprentices. Woe betide anyone who let the fires go out, because the exotic fruits luxuriating in the warmth on the other side of this wall would be destroyed by the fall in temperature. Peaches would be damaged in the crisp Scottish air. People would lose their jobs, and not just their jobs, but their homes as well, living, as people did a century ago, within the patronal community of the Great House.

The walled garden is a place of magic, especially in its neglected and over-grown state. Those of us reared on the story of The Secret Garden retain its image forever, the locked place which nature has reclaimed and to which order is gently restored by children (it is often not that simple in real-life, but it's a wonderful story).

Much of the charm of the great Cornish garden of Heligan, abandoned when so many of its staff were called to serve in the First World War, is created by its commercial name of 'The Lost Gardens of Heligan'. Lost. Sleeping. Shrouded in mystery, like Sleeping Beauty's castle, waiting for its awakening and transformation. The plain name, Heligan, does not have the same emotive pull.

In real life, the walled garden was equally transformative, but as a result of prodigious hard work by many skilled people. Without the benefits of air or even land transport skilled gardeners could do what Tescos now achieve on a global scale. They could supply fresh fruits, vegetables and often flowers every day of the year. Not merely fruits and vegetables in season, although that was clever enough, but also out of season - apricots, grapes, nectarines and sometimes pineappples could adorn the tables of the rich, even during the winter months.

It took many years of learning through hard and often monotonous work to master the skills required of a gardener in a walled kitchen garden, and to be able to control this small acreage, this miniature empire with its multiple micro-climates.
Each wall had a different temperature and could be used differently. The glasshouses, cold-frames and cloches all extended the temperature range by a few vital degrees, so that fruits and vegetables could be delayed or accelerated in their ripening and maturity.
It was a world apart, an independent place with its own staff, its own traditions and rules.
Sadly, it is a largely lost world today.

There are still walled gardens, and there is an interest in their revival.
A wealth of information may be found here: ' The Walled Kitchen Garden Network' and here you can contact enthusiasts, wanting to find and record lost gardens, and to advise in their restoration and protection. They are also keen to establish new walled gardens, as is a friend of mine.
Together we hope to fire others into a sufficient pitch of enthusiasm to begin a new project.

Oh yes! The sap is rising, but the earth in the walled garden does not move. It is cherished and fed and enriched, and one man's (and woman's) small acre becomes a great estate.


Zhoen said...

A time machine, that actually works.

Relatively Retiring said...

Zhoen - I think your machine image is so apt. At its best the garden and its people worked like a well-oiled machine, balancing supply and demand.

den said...

My son loved the tape of the secret garden and we had to play it again and again in his last days, It gave him misplaced hope. After he died hearing the sound of Ben Weatherstaffs robin gave me hope, and the garden became a healing force.
I love the analogy of a miniature empire, They are rather magical places.

Relatively Retiring said...

den: it's so good that the garden has become a healing force for you in the midst of such sadness.

Von said...

Beautiful!Magic with an edge of mystery.

Relatively Retiring said...

Von: thank you for visiting and commenting.

pohanginapete said...

Fascinating — I'd never heard of gardens with heated walls. Food for thought as well as the kitchen.

On reflection, I suppose any substantial stone wall, if oriented in the right way, would have this effect (absorbing the sun's warmth in the day and radiating it at night), although the effect would presumably be small. Moreover, the critical point might not be the ability of the wall to raise the average temperature (even if only slightly) but to prevent the minimum temperature dropping below the point at which the plants would be damaged. Given the minimum temperature would probably occur when sun was scarce, passive heating/radiating would contribute little or nothing. So, from that perspective, some form of active heating (as you describe here) would be necessary.

I'll stop rambling now. Thanks for the fascinating post :^)

Isabelle said...

Oh, you're back! I'm so glad.

Relatively Retiring said...

PPete - I'm glad you found this interesting. The south facing wall was the most valued space. Glasshouses were generally sited there and the heat and protection made it possible to grow exotic fruits, even in winter.
Heat was also generated by the special composts used, such as oak bark (a waste product of the tanning industry).
Sounds as if you're due for a tour of the English kitchen garden!

Isabelle: Thank you for commenting. Yes, something rather compulsive about it all, isn't there?