Monday, 13 July 2015

The Parham Effect

I've been at it again - spending my free day off work meandering around gardens.
Yesterday, it was the turn of Parham House and Gardens between Pulborough and Storrington in West Sussex. This was my third visit to the gardens, although both my previous two visits were a year ago now.

As I turned into the white gated driveway and passed the gatehouse that sits at the entrance, the track began to feed between lines of ancient trees and swathes of ripe hay-grasses, gently dropping downhill and winding, teasing with glimpses of a view until suddenly the landscape opens out and the house is revealed at the central axis of a secluded bowl, lined with quintessential parkland, meadows and distant woods, held softly in the circling arms of the South Downs. I felt the familiar skip of excitement, anticipation and pleasure that always welcomes me over the threshold from the busy rush of normal everyday life to the magical world where Parham seems to exist slightly apart. I have never quite understood quite why or how that first view provokes such a feeling, almost akin to homecoming. Today the Downs were shrouded in drizzle, which the breeze was sending in drifts across the valley to mist across the windscreen and awaken the nerves in my skin with cold touches. The yellow-grey sandstone of the walls however, common across house, courtyard and even that initial gatehouse now behind me along the elongated drive, retained a glow of sun-kissed warmth, whilst the white clock-tower contrasted starkly with the grey massing of clouds. From the rooftop, a union flag fluttered proudly in the breeze, as if inspired by the music of the marching band, formed by musicians of a variety of ages from a local scout group, which were playing in the courtyard of the house. Last year a twittering congregation of house martins swirled around the eaves, nesting on the eastern side of the building. I did not notice them there today.

A step through a gateway led visitors into the bustle of this weekend’s main attraction, the Parham House and Garden’s Annual Open Garden Weekend, ‘always the second weekend in July’.  I joined the throng and wandered happily from stand to stand, distracted by the multitude of flowers of all shapes, colours and forms that jostled for attention and suggested themselves eagerly as candidates to be taken home and introduced into my own garden.



 



The dampening of the rain was becoming a little wearing on the spirit, so I retreated indoors to the calm, sanctuary like rooms of Parham House, with their whispering echoes of the past. Sometimes it feels, as you step softly around the bend in the stairs, that you have just disturbed a conversation on the landing, the participants melting back into their frames on the walls when you look over your shoulder. Light is diffused through tall windows that long-gaze over a view of countryside, a tiny church, a cricket pitch, rolling downs. A window-seat makes me wonder why I didn’t bring a book, so I could be tempted to sit awhile, and lose myself within the pages whilst waiting for the warmth of the sun to find me through the aged glass.


 


Outside a strengthening wind was blowing the damp morning away to the northeast. A blackbird sang, signalling a change in the weather. On first glance, the wide borders of the gardens, with its mix of herbs and edibles with herbaceous and annual flowers and formal structure with natural wild areas, may seem chaotic, random and undisciplined, but look closely and there is detail and interest in every corner. 

The dark flower stems of marjoram picked out the matching stamens of the hardy geranium that joined it in its efforts to spill across the path. The crimson centres of each flower on the spires of verbascum co-ordinated with the reclining petals of the bold helenium. Flat splays of yellow fennel and dill opposed purple sprays of buddleia. The prettiest of pink sweet-peas paired with white lace umbellifers like scented frilly knickers. Subtle, soft roses billowed around benches and blushed beside sculptures of the human form, drawing me in to see how, when observed up close, their delicate petals were adorned with raindrops. 

 


 



Bees clung to the shelter of the underside of flowers, but as the afternoon warmed, they became more active, drifting from flower to flower and bringing life to the borders. Over the long grasses that formed a three dimensional tapestry beneath the fruit trees in the orchard, brown butterflies began to dance.
Occasional glimpses over flowers or through archways to the house, and beyond to the veiled Downs reminded me that I would, at some approaching hour, have to return from my indulgent wanderings.




I made that return an hour or two later, following the signs that directed me out onto a lane past another gatehouse. A bright blue flash of a kingfisher bolted across the road as I paused and waited for oncoming traffic at a narrow bridge, and over the main road closer to home a red kite hung directly above the central white line, waiting its chance to collect any road-kill that might provide it with today’s meal. And I carried with me a sense of the uplifting of spirit from that first view of Parham, and the playful exuberance of the gardens that were such a delight.


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