Tales from Titch­marsh

For those who love pot­ter­ing about the coun­try­side, beaches and glo­ri­ous gar­dens, noth­ing beats the Isle of Wight, says Alan

Gardeners' World - - Contents -

Alan waxes lyri­cal about the Isle of Wight

I spend quite a bit of time on The Is­land, lov­ing it for all kinds of rea­sons, not least my abil­ity to grow plants that fail just 35 miles away

he thinks of noth­ing but the Isle of Wight, and she calls it The Is­land as if there were no other is­land in the world.’ This rather carp­ing crit­i­cism is lev­elled at Fanny Price in Mans­field Park and I fear that I am fall­ing into the same trap as Jane Austen’s shy hero­ine. Back then – 200 years ago – its pop­u­la­tion amounted to ‘2,600 souls’*. That num­ber has grown to around 140,000 as of 2017, and even I can’t pre­tend that such ex­pan­sion is due to the fact that the ‘Wight Isle’ has also been known as ‘The Gar­den Isle’ for the past cen­tury. But in my case, that cer­tainly helps. I spend quite a bit of my year on ‘The Is­land’, lov­ing it for all kinds of rea­sons, not least my abil­ity to grow plants that fail to thrive in my gar­den just 35 miles away as the crow flies on the main­land. Give a gar­dener a patch of ground where he can grow some­thing dif­fer­ent from his usual sus­pects and he will rel­ish the op­por­tu­nity. I first jour­neyed across The So­lent – the strip of wa­ter that sep­a­rates the Isle of Wight from main­land Bri­tain – when I was about ten years old. We were vis­it­ing friends who lived in a sub­urb of Southamp­ton, and so a day trip was or­gan­ised. We trav­elled by steamer; I know that be­cause I re­mem­ber the deckchairs that we oc­cu­pied on the up­per deck were cov­ered in smuts that wreaked havoc with my mum’s pale-blue cardi­gan and my dad’s cream flan­nels. I re­call noth­ing of the is­land it­self from that visit, but fast for­ward to the 1990s and we would travel over on our small live-aboard boat, ex­plor­ing the creeks and har­bours of The So­lent by day and ty­ing up in a ma­rina or an­chor­ing in Os­borne Bay by night. We loved our vis­its so much that in the late 1990s we bought a flat on the is­land, then two flats, as our fam­ily grew, and three years ago we bought a house with a gar­den that I am, bit by bit, turn­ing into a trop­i­cal-look­ing jun­gle, with al­lowances made for four small grand­chil­dren (the Wendy house is the lat­est ad­di­tion, ac­com­pa­nied by a sand­pit made from an an­cient Mir­ror dinghy). In the 15 years or so that we en­joyed our bolt-hole life in the flat, I never felt the need for a gar­den, but our de­sires change with time, and thanks to the ex­pan­sion of the fam­ily that ne­ces­si­tated up­siz­ing, I re­alised that I was ready for the chal­lenge. And a chal­lenge it is. The cli­mate may be milder, but the gar­den slopes to the north-west and the soil is in­tractable slip­per clay. How­ever, 50 tonnes of top­soil plus sharp sandy gravel and a drip-ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem later, I find that the range of plants I can grow and get through the win­ter is ex­pand­ing: aeo­ni­ums, echi­ums (though one or two per­ish when their roots strike the cold, wet clay), hedy­chi­ums (gin­ger lilies), bra­hea palms and ole­an­ders in pots plus os­teosper­mums, and aga­pan­thus that grow like weeds. Like Fanny Price, I find my­self wax­ing lyri­cal about ‘The Is­land’, but not just be­cause of my own gar­den. There are oth­ers such as those at Mot­ti­s­tone and Caris­brooke Cas­tle, as well as the is­land’s two jew­els – Vent­nor Botanic Gar­dens on the south coast and Os­borne House in East Cowes. I feel for those who travel to Devon and Cornwall for the week­end, for although I love both coun­ties and hol­i­day there reg­u­larly and hap­pily, the prospect of a jour­ney that on a Fri­day evening will take at best four hours and at worst nine hours (with small chil­dren in the back of the car), is a prospect that is daunt­ing in the ex­treme for a week­end stopover. It is our good for­tune that our jour­ney to the is­land can be ac­com­plished in less than two hours door to door. I sing the is­land’s praises reg­u­larly to those who love rolling coun­try­side, stag­ger­ingly beau­ti­ful views, sandy or peb­bly beaches (we have a choice), fine restau­rants and se­cret coves, with walk­ing, cycling and sail­ing in abun­dance. When they say, ‘I went there once as a child and it rained’, I have some sym­pa­thy. But deep down I know that they don’t know what they’re miss­ing.

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