A little passion for Valentine’s Day

Sigrid Frenson: watercolour of Rosa ‘Francis E Lester’ hips

It seemed I was the only customer at the David Austin Plant Centre today. Certainly, I was the only one in the gardens, striding purposefully through the mizzle, garden plan in hand.


A few weeks ago I came here to attend a session on rose pruning.  I’d seen the picture of David Austin on the website – silver-haired, golden-faced and pensive – and I knew that if I met him, he would recognise a kindred spirit.  We would talk for hours about about technical and creative aspects of rose breeding; he would value the freshness of my novice insights and would come to name his next rose after me.  This was a certainty, if only he were to spot me, so I put on my prettiest coat of peacock blue velvet, to attract his eye.

I met my fellow pruners and the six of us took morning coffee and polite conversation in the oak-beamed tea rooms.  A lovely lady named Diana led us to the gallery, where she described the different types of roses and explained how each should be shaped and trained.  After questions, it was to the gardens for practical.

As we filed out into the January sleet, Diana looked critically at my coat and offered me her spare wax jacket, which I declined.  She led us around the gardens, pointing out the differences in form between shrub roses and hybrid teas (one natural and voluptuous; the other upright and overbred), and in habit between climbers and ramblers (climbers generally have stiff growth and flower continuously; ramblers tend to be more lax but vigorous in growth, with one big burst of flower often followed by hips).

We stopped to admire a particularly handsome rambler, rosa mulliganii, its clusters of deep coral-bead hips dripping from a pale stone wall: ‘Mr Austin says the best way to grow a rambler on a wall is to plant it behind, so that it cascades over,’ Diana told us, and we all nodded.

We were still admiring and nodding when I felt the thud of two muddy paws on my thigh; the jowly face of a stout black labrador smiled up at me.  I don’t do animals, and this seems to make me a target for them, but while I know that cats are sent from the devil purely to antagonise me, I am prepared to believe that dogs have more benign intentions, evangelical even; they see me as unconverted, convincible.

With outward acquiescence, I said ‘hello doggie,’ then, with my eyes: ‘my soul is as stone to you and you shall not have it’.

‘Hello Betty’, said Diana, then looking over to a white-haired old gentleman on the gravel path beyond, she said ‘good morning Mr Austin.’

David Austin nodded at Diana and tapped his walking stick at Betty, who gave up on me happily to returned to his heel.

I knew I would never wash that coat again.


I passed from the Long Garden into the Renaissance Garden and, still studying the plan closely, walked beside the water channel towards the Pergolas.

‘Won’t do you much good at this time of year.’

I looked across the water to see that same white-haired old gentleman looking back at me, and I realised how ridiculous I must appear to him, using a plan to try to distinguish one set of bare twigs from another.  Betty spotted me and bounded over.

‘I’m looking for hips,’ I explained to Mr Austin, as I patted Betty.

He nodded, and moved to tap his stick.

‘I was thinking Francis E Lester,’ I said quickly, ‘planted behind a fence, so that it cascades over.’

‘Best way,’ he said. ‘How high, the fence?’  He drew the tip of his walking stick up in a vertical line.

‘About there,’ I said when his stick-rule reached nearly six foot.

‘Yes, that will do,’ he nodded, and tapped his stick. He continued his walk, with Betty at his heel.

I glided through the Lion Garden and on into the shop, where I bought Francis E Lester and the biggest book on roses I could find.


A treat for those with misspent 1980s:


Roseraie de l’Hay

Roseraie de l'Hay

I feel bad that I don’t remember her name; she was a lovely old lady, white-haired and soap-scented.  We lived next-door to her for eight years, we couldn’t have called her Mrs Next-Door for all that time.  And besides, I seem to remember Christmas cards being exchanged, so her name must be in there somewhere.  But it won’t surface and I feel discourteous.

Merry Christmas to you all,


Mrs Next-Door and Jeanie.

See, I remember her daughter’s name, but then Jeanie is difficult to forget – a lean woman with pale ankles, long squirrel-coloured hair, a thick stripe of red across her thin lips and everything else green: emerald eyeshadow; lime clothes; olive sandals; even her bedroom glowed jade.  When things got too much for Jeanie, she would take her bongos and her glockenspiel into the garden.

– It’s her glands, Mrs N-D told me once.  I worry about what’s going to happen to her when I’m gone.

Mrs N-D died last year, and what is happening to Jeanie is that she’s selling up and moving to Penzance, to be closer to a creative community.

Roseraie de l'Hay

When you drive into this city – I guess this is probably true of most cities – you get a feel for the localities by their street signs. Or lack of street signs, such as when you pass through rural villages (think The Archers) on the outskirts, where rights and responsibilities are taken seriously and any reminder might be considered condescending and reported to the parish council.  The signs begin, then, further into the city, tentatively, tucked between the leaves of the suburban Stepford estates –

Streetlight not working? Call us…

They are in full swing by the time you reach the council estates –

Kill Your Speed, Not a Child

and by the inner city – the neighbourhood as near to a ghetto as this tiny city can muster – they have lost all sense of decency:

Prostitution is a Crime! 

This is where we live now.  Posh end, mind.

When we lived next-door to Mrs Next-Door, we were somewhere between speeding admonishment and lighting reassurance; a comfy place to be, and when I saw her house up for sale, I flitted with the possibility of returning; to take the kids back to the street they were born. The possibility was slight, but I had to explore it, decide whether to persue it.

I mentioned it first to my home-bird boy.

– But you’ve just decorated the front room, with the comfy settee, and had the stove fitted. It’s so cosy, I don’t really want to leave.

– The settee could come with us, and we could have a new stove fitted.

He looked at me doubtfully and returned to FIFA 13.

So I suggested the idea to my daughter.

– It’s alright here, why would we want to leave?

– Wouldn’t you like to be able to walk home at night without being hassled by cars full of men?

She shrugged.

– It’s character-building, Mum.  If I get to uni next year, nothing and nobody’s gonna scare me.

– Well, that’s a positive way of looking at it.

– Yeah.  Besides, I like when I tell people where I live and they look all shocked.

I didn’t think our address was enough to provoke shock, but if it makes her happy… and sonny-boy is content with his creature comforts, wherever they’re located: just me to convince.

This here is an interesting place to live, but sometimes the enmity threatens to take over.  Especially when driving; a sport that has few rewards for fair play around these narrow streets, where civility is viewed as a weakness.  People seem overwhelmed by their own problems; struggles arouse hostility, drives out humanity.  Look closer and you will find integrity and grace, but they are harder to come by.

Roseraie de l'Hay

I spent this afternoon in the late-summer sunshine, tidying the front.  I trimmed the yew that I’m trying to turn into a hedge, pruning it back to leave room for the daffodils to poke through in the new year.  (Last February they were just about to open when I found all the buds snapped off and strewn on the pavement: we’ll try again next spring.)  When I had done what I could with the yew, I moved on to clip the lavender edging.  (A few weeks ago, I found that someone had dumped a dirty carpet on top: once I’d lugged the big muddy square into the bin, the lavender soon sprang back to life.)  My final job was to hack at the Roseraie de l’Hay, my beautiful rugosa rose.  Rough and tough and thorny, the deep rich crimson of its carefree flowers in the summer is matched by the exuberance of its perfume, but this late in the season it is past its best, so I chop back, save its energies for next year.  I was nearly done when I noticed Mrs Atwal standing beside me (the two Mrs Atwals were introduced here: this was the sedate one).

– Are you throwing the sticks away?

– Well, I was going to…

– Please can I take one? I’d like to put it in the soil of our garden to see if it will grow.

– Of course.

– I walk past here every day.

– Yes, I see you sometimes.  (I don’t tell her I used to buy 10p mixes off her in her shop, but I wonder if she remembers me.)

– In the summer, this rose smells beautiful. I asked my sister and she smells it too. We would love that in our garden, thank you.

 – You’re welcome. I hope it works for you.

Roseraie de l'Hay

Once outside was spick and span, I came inside and checked the estate agent’s website.  Mrs N-D’s house is sold: Jeanie will get her dream, get to live where she wants to.

I will keep on living here, keeping searching out the grace.  After all, this here is an honest place to live, and my kids have lived here longer than anywhere else.  After all, it’s our home.

Roseraie de l'Hay