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Words: Steffie Shields
Photography: Steffie Shields
Featured in the March 2015 issue

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Steffie Shields highlights the joys of sitting in a garden.

I am taking the liberty to adapt William Henry Davies’s well-known poem:
‘What is this life, if full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare..?’

Let’s simply take time to sit and stare. March is a perfect month to assess your garden space – evaluate its future performing potential. You need to sit in the garden, not just glance through the window.

A garden without a seat is a lost opportunity. We all need a place to think, plan, remember, and, just as important, observe tones and textures in order to improve and perfect, looking to the future. So, as they say, take a pew.

Yes, I know, March is not a good time yet to sit and stare. There will still be the odd frost, or blustery wind; so, well wrapped up for the fresh air, find a sheltered spot on a sunny day. What could be more blissful? Seeing delicate life awakening around your feet, bursting into crocus colour, daffodil dizziness, primrose prettiness and sweet-smelling violets, (sorry, I could not resist an onomatopoeia moment) will energise, and in a heartbeat, stir emotions and stimulate senses.

Wake up with Nature. Pause. Take a deep breath, a breather, ‘time out’ to ponder. Look. Listen to the birdsong. If you don’t have a good seat in a permanent position, now is a good opportunity to research the options and styles and save up for one. Then you can bask in summer, and invite the odd chum to share the view you have created, or are trying to create.

The late Geoff Hamilton, TV’s Gardeners’ World guru, was a wise, down-to-earth gardener. He attracted many more people into gardening by turning his back on pompous expertise and mystique, and by making everything much more accessible, more possible. He encouraged us off our sofas to ‘have a go’.

Barnsdale Gardens in Rutland, thanks to the tender loving care of his son Nick Hamilton, still offers ideas and inspiration and calming oases of loveliness in all seasons. Geoff advised that every ‘outdoor room’, from rural cottage garden to contemporary town garden – whatever the style, size or mood – should always have a seat a place to rest and enjoy a cup of tea. Somehow, more than his smiling memorial bronze, in exploring all the different corners, you can still feel his presence conjured up by each individual bench in each ‘pocket garden’; each bench married into its setting by varied shrubs, hostas, lavender and climbing roses.

Whether we are active or not, we all need to recharge our batteries. Gardeners need to recover from the physical excess of their labours, and plan the next seasonal job that needs tackling. A bench has more use in a garden than simply a place to perch for a while with mug of coffee in the hazy glow of a still morning, or with a glass of chilled wine on a sultry summer’s evening. As Geoff recognised, a seat is an extremely useful design tool. Whatever its character, and whatever material used to fashion it, a bench sets the tone and should complement the space and its planting. Now builders and surveyors among you will know that the term ‘benchmark’ has its origins in the chiselled horizontal marks that surveyors made in stone structures, a small arrow, underlined with a horizontal line, a mark placed to form a ‘bench’ that was used to measure levels. Nowadays benchmark has a more commonly used metaphorical meaning, a term of evaluating performance in business organisations, but also arises in geology, in geocaching, and marking places.

Talk of making marks, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716–1783), having married a Boston girl, Bridget Wayet, worked on many sites around the country, including Brocklesby, Hainton and Grimsthorpe, with Burghley and Belvoir bordering the county lines. Many of his spacious landscapes are enjoyed by countless thousands and still underpin cultural and sporting life and act as sensational backdrops for film and television. With the tercentenary fast approaching of possibly the first ‘professional’ landscape gardener who worked with contractors, next year will see a Capability Brown Festival, with many events nationwide supported by many organisations, hopefully underpinned by the Heritage Lottery Fund. (See capabilitybrown.org to register your support if you wish to volunteer and to receive regular information updates).

Brown, like Geoff Hamilton, knew the value of taking a pause. Some of his plans include seats placed out in the expanse of a landscaped park or in intimate, sheltered flower gardens for the ladies of the house. A seat, carefully positioned, made a focal feature to draw the eye, and suggested a destination for a walk, encouraging families and their visitors to step out. Once the seat was there, one can be sure Brown paused to look and admire his mirror lake and planting improvements from the very spot.

Unfortunately, those seats and arbours that were wooden, including tree-seats encircling feature trees, have long since gone the way of the world. So it would be wonderful to have Brown’s seats reinstated to their key positions – such as Mrs Constable’s seat in the park at Burton Constable; the garden seat on the hill overlooking the lake on Brown’s plan for Wimpole Park (Cambridgeshire); the tree-seat in Zoffany’s charming painting in Luton Park, and another sketched by J C Nattes near the Mausoleum in Brocklesby. Then today’s visitors could enjoy taking ‘time out’ by contemplating the same horizons that ‘Capability’ Brown improved with his far-seeing eye.

Of course, the Victorians loved a good bench and utilised their industrial capabilities with longer lasting cast-iron, and comfy, classical serpentine-armed designs. The Edwardians loved their rose-bedecked wooden arbour seats. Civilisation moves on, with the choice of material and inventive styles ever-improving. A bench will always be an invitation. It is up to you whether you take advantage and whether you share it with others. If you choose to pass by, you will miss out, you will not perceive the very reason for its existence, its position – be it a sudden, touching memory of a loved one coming to mind, or the blessing of fleeting highlights in a unique garden view.

A poor life this if, full of care, We have no time to sit and stare (with apologies to William Henry Davies).

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