Gifts and memories

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
December 2015

Steffie Shields shares ideas for Christmas
As we daydream how to mark the season, is the joy of Christmas mostly in our minds? Our hearts? Or both? Memories of Christmas past float in. I wonder if misty sentiments gloss over reality.

Last year my son-in-law chose to buy three kittens – Florence, Charlie and Fergal – the day before my husband and I arrived to spend Christmas with the family. I will never know whether he did it to annoy invading in-laws or just to throw a spanner in the works of all things ‘tinsley’. True, my daughter is addicted to Christmas and always goes overboard. She had decorated a spectacular tree – and yes, it came crashing down thanks to the furry invaders.

Let’s not talk about rising stress levels as this festive season approaches. Ever hopeful and welcoming, like the door wreaths and Christmas fir trees, we decorate to lift spirits and create the party mood, evergreens remind us that life goes on. In Sylva, a pioneering seventeenth-century book on trees, the consummate tree-man John Evelyn described them as ‘Verdures, Perennial Greens and Perpetuall Springs’.

Plants such as hellebores and flowering spring bulbs make good, uplifting Christmas gifts especially if you hate wrapping presents with a passion. Just tie on a big ribbon!

Lately I have been observing the ornamental value of evergreens, especially at this time of the year, and at the same time have so enjoyed mulling over how to spend garden vouchers that I have been gifted. This has been such fun, I have been loath to cash them in. I might opt for Phillyrea, a plant that is seldom seen nowadays. Also known as evergreen privet, its leaves are much more reflective of light than the common suburbs hedging. The broad-leafed, hardier P. latifolia was the backbone of many eighteenth-century shrubberies. P. angustifolia, a narrower version with neat leaves and tidy habit, is not unlike box but less susceptible to disease, and will, given time, make a handsome tree with tiny, scented, greeny-white flowers in spring. Just remember that it likes growing in full sun. It makes the perfect, singleton gate-guardian or frame to a house and, as I read recently: ‘Planting one now would be an act of generosity to future generations.’

Pyracantha ‘Firethorn’ is a superb shrub for zillions of dense, brilliant red berries that look amazing draped in snow. Every year without fail a blackbird dares to get up close, eyeing me warily through my study window as he deftly gobbles the berry glut. I am tempted to invest in the unusual strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo, an ancient tree that, year-round, offers something to charm. If a slow-growing shrub, native to Southern Ireland and Mediterranean countries, it has white drooping bell-flowers flowers and fruits at the same time. Its evergreen leaves are also shiny and contrast well with flaking its orange-brown branches. Through the autumn the fruits change from yellow to orange to scarlet red as if decorated with Christmas baubles. All it needs at this time of year are the outdoor fairy lights to twinkle, perfect in large pots either side of a south-facing door or patio.

Doddington Hall is offering ‘Christmas Kaleidoscope’ inspiration and Father Christmas moments, with both house and gardens open (28th November – 20th December). Go and find an awesome evergreen cork oak ‘Quercus suber’ before shopping for presents. Since nationally 2016 has been decreed the Year of the English Garden, forget socks, scarves and chutney, give promise to a loved one, something to look forward to: a ticket to a Hampton Court Flower Show, or garden nursery/garden centre vouchers? Organise an annual subscription for a close chum, such as making them Friends of Easton Walled Gardens or Brightwater Gardens. How about a young pine tree to dance in their gardens? I covet an umbrella pine, Pinus pinea, (they can grow tall) but have only ever spied one growing in these parts on the Lincolnshire Edge at Fulbeck Hall.

Surprise gifts that keep on growing are gifts that keep on giving and memories that keep on glowing! Light, colour and living plant material are more significant to our health and well-being than most people appreciate. We find each flickering candle or a young chorister’s twinkly smile, or ethereal sunbeams from stained-glass panes glancing church pillars, as heart-warming as a surprise rainbow arcing over hedgerows and trees as rainclouds part.

This summer, I was reminded of a special Christmas many moons ago. We had taken my visiting parents for an afternoon drive to find an ancient, isolated hermit’s chapel near Chatton in Northumberland. Spirits lifted as we chanced on the right country lane, though daylight was fading fast. The chapel was thankfully open but disappointing in gloom, almost complete darkness. Would there be electricity out in the wilds we wondered? We groped around the door for a light. My Dad found the switch. Suddenly everything erupted into gorgeous light and reverend old-stone simplicity. Someone had lovingly decorated a little Christmas tree with antique baubles. The navy blue apse ceiling punctuated with hundreds of golden stars took our breath away. I have visited hundreds of beautiful churches at home and abroad, none more heavenly than this.

Last August, on one of my many ‘Capability’ Brown jaunts, exploring Combe Abbey Park near Coventry, I experienced a similar frisson of delight, when I found a church that has been attributed to Brown. It is not widely known that the celebrated landscaper was also an architect. (There is some suggestion but as yet no real evidence that St Helen’s Church at Saxby, built as a mausoleum for the Earl of Scarbrough, might also be Brown’s design.) St Bartholomew’s Church, Binley, near Combe Abbey, opened in 1773, is quite plain and in rather austere grey sandstone. The neo-classical Adamish interior is the exact opposite. Walls and ceilings are laced with plaster mouldings and plaques ‘in the Venetian ballroom taste’ as if the grandest mansion. (N.Pevsner)

The minute I entered, a surprisingly brightly-coloured orange and blue stained-glass window drew me in, painted in 1776 by William Peckitt of York, whose works ornament York Minster, and Exeter and Lincoln cathedrals. This celebratory focal point makes for the warmest of welcomes. So I share the memory, my way of wishing you and your families – and even your kittens – all the joy, peace and memory-making blessings of Christmas.

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