“Oh wow!” said the delivery driver. “It’s like walking into paradise!”

We get that sort of thing a lot. The narrow and faded street is lined with parked cars. The car-park you have to cross to access my son’s home is scruffy and overgrown. There is nothing that leads you to expect what you find behind his gates. Clean, geometric lines contrast with the encircling green of trees, bright spots of colour from the young plants, the tranquillity of running water and the harmony of the pentatonic wind chimes. There is usually a red kite wheeling overhead, sometimes the occasional squirrel and always a symphony of birdsong.

So far, Nick must have heard just about every complimentary phrase possible as people walk into his garden. They will lean over the pond to admire the huge and colourful fish and comment on how quiet and unexpected the space is, just five minutes from the town centre. To be fair, the whole things works rather well.

While I love my son’s garden, especially its relative ease of maintenance, my own tastes run to semi-wild cottage gardens. Give me a flower bed of my own to fill and it will soon be overflowing. Nick prefers order, space and neatness. I like chaos. Our vision of beauty is subjective, but here I work to his…and sneak in the odd bits of chaos where appropriate.

It struck me today, though, that although people see the beauty of the ‘finished product’… not that any garden is ever finished… they do not see what has and still goes into creating beauty. Nick’s garden took months to build… and that was just the bare bones, before we started planting; then we dug in the manure. Every day, I spend a couple of hours outside, either watering, deadheading, weeding, feeding, sweeping and scrubbing, or cleaning out the two pond pumps and filter… and that is without the big jobs like jet washing. And, much as I complain about some of the things I have to do, the results are worth it.

Another thing that people do not see is the true nature of this garden. It is designed to be accessible. From the discrete placement of handrails as part of the design, to the carefully measured distances between handholds… even the sculptures, securely concreted into the ground, serve as extra grab rails… every detail is designed to allow my son to get around his garden on his own two feet, while still allowing wheelchair access. Colour, sound and fragrance compensate for damaged sight and plants are positioned so that he can enjoy their scent without needing to be close.

As Nature is always a good teacher, there are inevitably parallels between the beauty of a garden and the people who enjoy it. Many spend a good deal of time, effort and attention on creating an image of beauty for themselves too, from hair to face to clothing. The face presented to the world may look effortlessly attractive to its ‘owner’, but it will not be to everyone’s taste. Some admire the well-groomed look, others prefer a more natural appearance… but most will not look at what has gone into creating that image. Not in terms of the hours in front of the mirror, but the life experiences, the laughter, tears, joy and pain that shapes every face.

We unconsciously create an image of ourselves, for ourselves. Sometimes the mask is just to please ourselves… more often it is shaped by what we think others want or need us to be, whether it is the corporate look for work or something designed to attract a mate. Many will react to our masks in the way we hope… few, until and unless they get to know us as individuals, will look beyond it.

But we are complicated creatures. Just like Nick’s garden, the ‘clean lines’ of our outer appearance show to their best advantage when we allow ourselves to be ourselves, letting the chaotic colour of character soften the edges, showing that unique beauty that goes deeper than the surface. A beauty only created by living.

A gardener loves gardens and growing things. It doesn’t really matter whether that garden is modern and minimalist or a riot of colour. It is the flowers and fruits of the earth that warm the heart. A person who has learned to grow in both life’s sunshine and rain has that same beauty, no matter what their illusive mirror might tell them, and they too will be looked upon with love.

Sowing warmth

There was a road closure on the way to work, so, to avoid the build-up of traffic, I took to the back streets, wending my way through a residential area and passing the house in which we had first lived when we moved south. To let oncoming cars pass, I pulled to one side, almost outside our old home, and was able to see what had become of my garden.

It had been a blank canvas when we had moved in, with nothing but grass and a bedraggled jasmine, struggling to survive in the concrete near the door. With little money, but lots of ideas, we had set about making a family garden. At the back of the house, surrounded by high walls and fences, we made a little wonderland for the boys.

A small pond, just big enough to attract a bit of wildlife, was lined with sheeting supplied by an undertaker friend. He also brought us a couple of sheets of wood, with an innocent suggestion that we ask no questions. These we turned into a wishing well filled with flowers, making shingles for its roof from a scrap of old roofing felt we found in the shed. Disposable plastic tubs were painted to make wall planters. Tin snips made a flock of painted butterflies up the side of the house and we added a waterwheel to the pond. Strange beings looked out from flowerbeds filled with the seeds, cuttings and wild herbs I collected. It didn’t take long before it was ablaze with life.

The front garden, though not the kind of place where you would spend much time, could be seen through the sitting room window and sloped upwards, giving a good view of the bare grass. I dug borders, planted as many cuttings as I could acquire. While they rooted and grew, I threw in seeds to add colour, and within a few months, the garden looked respectable.

While planting the back garden had been a case of filling space with whatever I could acquire, the front was planned with due regard for eventual height, spread, colour and flowering season, mixing in as many evergreens as I could with summer flowering shrubs and plants, so that it would be attractive all year round.

I have often wondered what became of our little wonderland. I can’t imagine anyone else would have enjoyed it the same as we did, when we had all been involved in its creation. The front garden, though, I have seen a few times over the years. At one point, it was an overgrown jungle. Then someone moved in who took care of it and it began to bloom again.

Today I had just enough time to see that what was left of my winter planting had worked and was still offering scented blooms, colour and texture, even on a cold January day. Many of the plants I had acquired were unlabelled mysteries. Unless I could recognise shoot, bark or leaf, I just planted things and tended them. The handfuls of seed fell where they would and grew how they chose. But the known shrubs had done as I had hoped… even though it is more than twenty years since I planted those first little cuttings.

I couldn’t help thinking, as I drove away after that brief glimpse, how good an analogy a garden can be for aspects of our own lives. I am far from the first to come to that conclusion: the parable of the Sower is well known. We never know if, or how, what we ‘plant’ will grow.

What really struck me, though, was that most of the time, we don’t even realise we are planting ‘seeds’. With every anecdote, every bit of life experience shared, every insight or opinion we offer, every bit of hard-won wisdom we can pass on… even in the lightest of conversations. What seems rather mundane to us, might be exactly what someone needs to hear, even though they may not need or recall it for years to come. When the need does arise, that ‘seed’, unwittingly planted, may just flower and bear fruit.

We may not be around to see it and may never know how our words, deeds and actions affect another’s life. It can be the smallest of things… something we ourselves have not even noticed, from a kind word or a shared smile, that changes a day for someone we don’t even know and may never see again. But it matters. Every time.

Seeds of reality

Every year, the garden catalogue drops through my letterbox and I start to daydream. I mentally design flowerbeds when my body is too busy to be doing any of the other things my mind ought to be doing, adding in all the plants I would love to grow for their beauty, all the fruit and vegetables I would tuck in between them, all the herbs I like to use for home remedies. It is a relaxing pastime that costs neither time nor energy, because I know from experience that the reality will never match the dream.

I have always grown things. This is the first place I’ve ever lived where I haven’t made a proper garden, but even so, there are plants on the windowsill and a little flower bed with a few rescued roses, herbs and wildflowers outside.

There are a good few reasons why the garden I miss so much has yet to materialise. Muscle power has depleted over the years, time and energy are in short supply, money even shorter. The main reason, though, is simply the terrain; the gardens of new-build homes seldom have much topsoil and the earth of my small patch is clay. It bakes hard and cracks wide, so before I can waft around planting things, I’ll need a lorry load of topsoil, a shovel and a wheelbarrow. And probably a man with a rotovator. So I look at it and it looks at me and we both hope I’ll manage to do something with it sometime soon.

I look back on past gardens in wonder. Some were huge, some tiny. I planned them in great detail in imagination, poring over plant and gardening catalogues, but none of them ever went according to the dream. Instead, I foraged, salvaged and recycled whatever showed up, fitting it in where I could. I needed paving, so when a house a mile away took up the old concrete drive, I carried it home, bit by bit in shopping bags, to make crazy paving. A fallen sandstone wall on wasteland scheduled for clearing came home the same way to edge flower beds, eight foot deep and fifty feet long. Dying plants and trees were rehomed and resuscitated, mingling with those raised from cuttings and seeds. Native flowers, often catechised as weeds, were allowed to fill the gaps. And, if it took a year or two more for things to start looking their best, well, gardening is all about patience.


What with one thing and another, though, I was never in one place long enough to watch a garden grow to its full maturity. It would be green and blooming, but the things that take years to grow into their beauty never did so before I had to move on. Sometimes I drive past old gardens. One of them is completely different. Not a stone or plant is the same… the incoming occupants put their own stamp on it, erasing anything I had created. Other gardens, all different now, still hold echoes of my dreams and I see trees I planted  as tiny saplings casting their shade over the lawns.

Whether or not any trace of my dreams survive really does not matter. They were dreams and I always knew they could never be wholly realised. Even so, the beauty of the gardens grew out of them. They were loved, gave food and pleasure, brought me and my sons into close contact with the earth and its creatures, taught us about the cycle of life and the interdependence of all things, so neither the dreams, nor the work that went into those gardens was wasted.

That, I believe, is true of all dreams, no matter how far out of reach they may seem, no matter how implausible. Their value is first and foremost in the dreaming of them. All great advances, all new ideas, first come into being within the imagination. Some will make their way through into the levels of reality with which we are familiar, others may not, or at least, not in the way we imagined them. But none of these ideas are ever wasted and many will linger as an intangible ‘something in the air’, waiting for the moment and the circumstances in which they can manifest, through the agency of dreamers.

Daydreaming can help us process information, exploring it in ways we can use  effectively in ‘real life’. It hones creativity, increases empathy by letting us put ourselves in situations we might not otherwise encounter, helps memory and, as an added bonus, lowers blood pressure. It is good for us, can be the call to physical action, and can add something to the sum of human experience in an act of pure creation.

“ I have a dream,” said Dr Martin Luther King. “I hope some day you’ll join us,” sang John Lennon. Daydreams are acts of creative imagination, and from such dreams do we sow the seeds of reality.

Rivington – The Gardens of Midwinter

rivington pennines 095We had never attempted a Silent Eye pre-solstice workshop before. December in Britain is a challenging time of year to ask a group of spiritually-inclined folks to brave the elements in a pre-solstice ramble in the freezing rain. mud, and, possibly, snow.

But this year we did… We put the idea forward, long in advance, and group of hardy souls turned up for a weekend of companionship to mark the approaching feast of Stephen, the ancient time of the shortest day and longest night, the mirror to the summer solstice–the day of St John, when the poles are reversed.

Our theme was the magic and mystery of what appears to be a very ‘dead’ time of year. From the day of St John, around June 21st each year, the days get shorter. Although still summer, this period, till the winter solstice in December, marks the decline of the light and a ‘victory’ of the growing dark.

What lessons does the darkest point of the year hold?

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The answers can be described by a figure we might relate to the Yin-Yang symbol, where the elements of polarity (in this case black and white) contain within them the seed of the coming cycle. Each part of the symbol, whose shape implies motion or change, is a perfect, if asymmetric, half of the whole. Each seed is both the offspring of what came before and the beginning of the next cycle. Thus, white contains its seeming opposite – black and black contains white. We can imagine an animated Ying-Yang where the seed of (in this case) ‘black within white’ grows to fill the whole of that half figure until it seems to take over the whole. At that very second, when there appears to be no polarity left, the seed of white is born – bringing the half-year of growing light and life into its next cycle, even though the winter is in full force.

In the case of December, the ‘seeds’ of what is to follow are hidden in the wet and cold depths of the earth, saturated and passive; as the only active force – the rotation of the planet – spins the whole into the next half of the dual cycle.

These were the core thoughts for the weekend workshop. We overlaid these with an invitation to our companions to consider the elements of a traditional Christmas – the tree, the child born in a manger, the three wise, men, the shepherds, the mother of Jesus, and the child – born of divinity; and to bring a reading to be used whenever it felt appropriate during the walk.

The landscape of the walk is described later. Our Friday night was spent gaining some cheer from a dinner in a busy pub in Horwich – the closest point to the beautiful moorland village of Rivington, from where we would begin the winter walk the morning after. We finished the Friday evening in good spirits, with a ‘reading in the dark’ in one of our rooms in the nearby hotel, providing a prelude to our re-evaluation of the darkness of winter.

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Saturday dawned, and the weather didn’t look too bad. We left the hotel, dressed in waterproofs and boots, of course, and left one of the cars high on moorland road not too far from where we would finish the morning on the upper level of Rivington’s Terraced Gardens. The gardens are a sweeping set of landscaped levels created by the man who became Viscount Leverhulme, the founder of the Unilever empire. The nearby town of Bolton is my family home. When I was a child, it was a special treat to come and visit this place, which has always held a special magic. We were all very much looking forward to the day, despite the weather forecast.

As a young man and local soap merchant, Leverhulme had courted his future wife on this hillside, and it was to be an area of special interest to him for most of his life. In those days, the only man-made feature of the hill was the stone structure known as the ‘Pike’, perched on the highest point. The Pike looks like a small stone fortress and marks the site of a warning beacon (bonfire signal) used during the English Civil War, when the area around was a stronghold of royalist support. A network of such signal points ranged throughout the high places in the north of England. The Pike is still the scene of much local activity, particularly on Good Friday, when thousands of locals and visitors stream up the hillside in the traditional hill walk.

Leverhulme was an innovative salesman, and soon inherited the original had-cart based business from his father. He is credited with the first ever widespread advertising campaign – something which launched his new company – Lever Brothers, and its brand – ‘Sunlight Soap’ and quickly secured his place in history. As his success and wealth grew, he looked for ways to decrease the costs of soap production and established a ‘model village’ for his workers at the new production facility in what became Port Sunlight on the Wirral. This meant that his shipping costs were not governed by the rates imposed on him by the owners of the Manchester Ship Canal company and he was finally able to have direct access to international waters from the regenerated Port Sunlight docks.

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Despite this, he continued to develop what had now become his country home at Rivington, and, during the economically-critical time of the 1920s, employed most of the stonemasons in nearby Horwich to convert the entire hillside into the series of terraced gardens we seen today. Leverhulme died in 1935. Despite decades of neglect, following the compulsory purchase of the land by Liverpool Corporation for its water rights, the gardens were so well constructed that they retained their basic structure, becoming an overgrown and other-worldly place of mystery for children and adults alike.

Within this mysterious and haunting landscape we were to enact a winter’s journey to mark the Silent Eye’s pre-solstice gathering. Saturday was to be the main day of activity and, since we were not all able to stay at the hotel, the day began with such delights as bacon butties at the Lower Barn, a restored part of the original Leverhulme estate.

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More to follow.