12 November 2018


We’ve had so many people staying recently that I had to resort to the industrial-scale washing and drying machines in the very purple-hued local launderette to deal with my mountain of sheets and towels. Unfortunately, because days and days of rain had stopped people getting to their washing lines, so had many others.

I say unfortunately (and time-wise that was so) but in fact it’s a neat glance into bits of local life.

I get the feeling that some little girls who live in Le Barricate – the oddly named out-lying bit of town where the launderette is located – look upon the place as a play-house. One sat there for ages when I was there the other day, talking importantly into a cellphone which I’m pretty sure wasn’t connected to anything, announcing from time to time to anyone who’d listen that her father was about to appear with washing to put in the machine. He didn’t.

Women who flash metaphorical razorblades to ensure no one gets to the driers out of turn will then help each other fold piles of sheets, chatting cordially as if there had never been any tension at all.

A friendly burly woman who looks after the linen for my friend Silvia said she muscled in on the job when she saw the cack-handed way that the previous male sheet-washer was bungling the job: in the realm of the CdP launderette, men are truly the epitome of incompetence.

As the last of my sheets tumbled about in the drier, the non-stop rain that had marked the end of October and early November gave way to bright sunshine and coat-free temperatures. Our drought-ish September, with less than 10mm of rainfall, was amply compensated by 122mm in October – hopeless for getting any work done on my various projects but not quite enough to dampen spirits for our 30th wedding get-together of far-flung friends.

A big round number has that effect, and it’s wonderful. It mobilizes people – in this case from around Europe but also from as far away as Seattle – to make journeys they might not otherwise have undertaken. What a joy.

Now that it’s gloriously sunny after our heavy rains, I’m back in the same holding pattern as last spring: clients clamoring, contractors overwhelmed. I recently shed – in a very amicable way – one client, who said she couldn’t possibly pay me so much for a “project” which consisted of “a computerized drawing and some ideas”. Which got me thinking about what I do as a garden designer and the various ways it’s perceived.

First, of course, I pointed out to this very lovely lady that that was, reductio ad absurdum, my job description: using my training, experience and expertise to come up with ideas for improving and beautifying gardens and landscapes which I then represent clearly in graphic form.

1112FBut mostly it made me reflect once again the degree to which garden-making – so terribly important IMHO in magicking a property into a unified whole – is looked on as something of an afterthought, even by people with connections to very important gardens indeed. Of course (rightly), the garden is always the last thing to done in any (re)building or makeover. And so I often find myself working with the left-over small change of clients who just want the whole lengthy process – most of which I haven’t been involved in – to end, fast.

But then I come up against the ‘one step up from a couple of pots of geraniums’ school of thought. Anyone can stick some plants in is a common attitude among people who have called me in nevertheless – people who would never, for example, say “anyone can stick some curtains up and paint a wall” – things which are equally true. Why do they think that a garden designer is any lower in the pecking order than an architect or interior designer?

Then there’s the problem I have with some clients – more often than not women – who overlook the ‘designer’ part of my job title and focus on the ‘garden’ – as in gardening: a nice thing to potter about doing of a Sunday, wearing your pretty straw hat and your flowery gloves. By extension, they see what I do as a hobby job, rather than the fruit of long architectural training. “I really don’t understand what I’m paying you for,” one client many years ago announced – then proceeded to employ a (male) colleague at great expense to work on another area of the garden with no qualms or questioning.

Am I moaning? Only a little, because the vast majority of the garden owners I work with and for are wonderful. Most, I have to say, really do get it.

Last weekend, on a take-your-breath-away visit to the Villa Albani Torlonia in Rome, I found myself musing on how that owner/garden designer relationship might have been when the immense garden of a suburban villa, designed to wow visitors into abject amazement, was being plotted. Of course, the client there was an aristo with little interest in the professional pride of his designer. But there must have been some kind of implicit mutual understanding of the huge importance of the outside reflecting the grandeur of the interior.

I was quivering with emotion, visiting those magnificent parterres. This villa – six hectares now engulfed in Rome’s northern suburbs – was something I studied in depth for my Landscape Architecture degree. But at that time it was a dark secret: not even world-class scholars got past the Torlonia family – hugely private and perhap embittered by battles with the state over what they could and couldn’t do with their vast art collection… if it still existed and if they hadn’t spirited it away, into collections in the Gulf and the US (it seems that most of the culture ministry’s worst fears have been disproved).

Photographs of the villa were rare, as they still are now that the family has relaxed its rules just a tiny bit: visitors are forced to sign a document swearing not to snap as they go around the place on pain of being sued. This has the fascinating side-effect of making people look. The group we were with were itchy and jumpy to start off with when deprived of their devices. Some people couldn’t resist getting cellphones out – ostensibly checking messages or taking notes but very possibly defying the rules. But by the end, most were peering and staring, and asking questions in a way that they would not have had they been filtering the experience through a lens. It was a very good thing.

We were there as part of the extravagant package of entertainments for yet another relaunch of the Grand Hotel, now the St Regis Grand. The evening before, we guests were taken in our black tie finery to sip champagne inside the Baths of Diocletian, shut of course at that hour, and splendidly illuminated just for us. It was, naturally, breathtaking.

And so on for two days. We managed just 16 hours of the event but were there for the ballroom dinner jamboree, with a scenografia that was quite magnificent, and floral arrangements in Victorian decoupage/Belle Epoque decadence tones which were truly marvellous… though they did make conversation with guests on the other side of the table rather complicated.

And now, after parties and celebrations of various magnitude, we hunker down for the cold months. Each day you tick off the signs, for better and for worse. The hot water bottles. The stoves lit in the evening, then perhaps mid-afternoon. Those small dazzling spots of lower-in-the-sky morning sunlight breaking in around the edges of the closed shutters to hit unlikely points on living room and kitchen walls. The night time trip to the bathroom that leaves your teeth chattering as you hurry back to bed.

Outside, I’ve taken down the tomato supports. Gales battered the persimmon leaves badly so they’re not as startlingly scarlet and salmon this year but the luminous fruit glow as ever. I’m trying to find a moment to give the grass (such as it is) one final cut before I take my brave neglected lawn mower to be serviced, but it’s still too damp underfoot. The trees across the valley looked so green for so long this year that I had begun wondering whether we’d have autumn colours at all but I shouldn’t have worried.