Why have we turned our gardens into a drawing room?
There were many things that were missing from my and most of my contemporaries’ childhoods that we now take for granted. In the 50s and 60s it was, for example, impossible to get a pizza, a bulb of garlic or an avocado. As far as I remember no car had a glass sunroof, no kitchen had an electric clock and no bathroom had a power shower (or any sort of shower for that matter). There were no supermarkets, no cordless appliances, no credit cards and no trainers (only plimsolls).
The list is endless but what in particular prompted this flight of nostalgia during these flaming days was that there was no garden furniture to speak of. It is true the gardens of grand houses had chipped-paint wrought iron chairs surrounding rusty iron tables, the occasional dark wood bench and, if they were particularly swanky, a Lady Penelope swing seat. The rest of us made do with a stained canvas collapsible deck chair or a few seats commandeered from the kitchen.
Nowadays a blast of hot weather sees the back gardens of the Cotswolds’ gentry morph into expensive outdoor drawing rooms. There is not a collapsible Formica table, white plastic chair, or a multi-coloured beach umbrella to be seen. This was exemplified at the Chelsea Flow Show this year when one of the show gardens was dominated not by flowers but by a large designer seating area with puffed up sofa cushions in pale yellow and orange to “blend in harmoniously” with white and yellow peonies and lupins in the less important surrounding borders.
A barbecue that is more professional kitchen than caveman fire is the finishing folly to these alfresco lounges. I don’t know when the British fell in love with barbecuing but it barely existed when I was young. It was, as far as I can ascertain, towards the end of the last century when it became part of our DNA. On the first sunny day of the summer Englishmen would drag out their grease-caked kettle stove to cook, if that is the right word, a chicken drumstick, a burnt sausage and a supermarket burger. Today cookers that would embarrass an Aga have replaced those Heath Robinson medicine balls. (Again at Chelsea there was The Elemental, a bespoke designer streamlined outdoor stove made from wood, stone and metal priced at between £50,000 and £80,000.) And yet despite this leap forward in open-air gourmet gear, the amateur British short-order chef continues to burn the outside of the sausage while leaving the inside of the chicken leg the colour of sunburn.
The bizarre thing about this investment in posh garden furniture and grand BBQS is that the English summer, despite global warming, is erratic. In 2010 I invested in a cheap gazebo. In the seven summers since my pop-up pavilion has shaded an outdoor feast for less than a couple of days in any one year.
This past May has been the hottest since records began in 1910 but another way of putting that statistic is that we have had the first decent late spring and early summer in 108 years. The reason for the old wives tale “ne’er cast a clout till May is out” exists because it is usually a bloody cold and grey month. There are, it is true, some hot weeks in June and the occasional baking days in July. But in August it almost always rains and a sunny September – quite often the sunniest month of the year - is blighted by a return to school and work. And yet despite these documented decades of inclement summers we are now designing our gardens as if we were living in Provence.
There is one certainty about this year’s sweltering summer – if it is a scorcher (and I am writing this in early June) then it is an odds-on bet that we won’t have another like it for years. And for that reason I decided that this year I would buy my garden furniture from the Fosse Cross dump. In a spare container at the tip, from whence any half-decent stuff is kept back and sold, I bought six wooden kitchen chairs for a tenner. They have already earned their money. As for the BBQ I will be burning my sausages on a brand new 14’’ inch steel-tripod portable patio grill that cost me £10.99 on Ebay. The contraption will go to the dump on the first day of autumn… on the same day that I chop up my chairs for firewood.