Musing on how man’s earthworks – from Stonehenge to modern mining – have altered the planet, Monty recalls his own with a mix of shame and pride
was listening to the radio the other day, when I caught two geologists being interviewed about the amount of rearranging of earth that man has done. It seems that we have shifted the entire structure of the planet to an enormous extent. The interviewer cheerfully used Stonehenge as an example of this kind of geological rearranging, but the scientists pointed out that in fact they were talking about trillions of tons of rock and earth being moved, mainly as a result of modern-day mining and construction. I thought about my own excavatory exploits with a tinge of shame, but mostly pride and pleasure. I do like a digger and I do like to move, if not mountains, then hillsides that I can hack into. I suspect that this is not environmentally, culturally or aesthetically a good thing and can run perilously close to vandalism, but there you are. It may be wrong, but it is very good fun. And it can be creative. One of the features of most show gardens at flower shows is that they are made in levels. For those of us without the money or the space to get an excavator into our back gardens, it is much easier and cheaper to go up than to go down. Even a small shift in level adds dynamism to a garden, and decking − whether it’s just a few steps or a platform of some kind − can be achievable. About 40 years ago, I was asked to move a large pile of builders’ rubble from a back garden in Cambridge, so I used it as the central core of a mount. Mounts were a Tudor idea, from which you could survey your garden. Thus inspired, pretentious thing that I was, I dug a deep ditch around the pile, heaped earth over the top of it and used turf to cover the whole thing, with a path winding from a causeway across the ditch to the top. The small children of the household loved it and the owner… well, she had not got rid of the rubble but she had gained a mount – not many Cambridge back gardens in the late 1970s could boast that. But going down is more dramatic and gives you spoil with which to go up. Dig a sunken garden and you have the material for all kinds of contours and constructs. My guess is that sunken gardens are not being made much nowadays but there was a vogue for them in the Edwardian era. It meant that you could look down on the planting from a surrounding path and have steps down into it. The low walls were retained by stone or brick that, in turn, leant themselves to a range of protected planting. But that only really applies to a level plot. Once you start gardening on a slope, let alone a proper hillside, then the fun really begins. At the end of the 1980s, I began making a garden (which I wrote about in my book, The Prickotty Bush*, now inexplicably and cruelly out of print) on a steep hillside looking across to the Black Mountains in south-east Wales. With the help of an expert digger driver, Ginger, we made terraces, cut out lawns and moved hundreds, if not thousands, of tons of soil. I loved it. This summer, I helped a friend make a ha-ha in his garden in Wales, levelling and cutting into the slope to create a hidden wall and ditch, a hundred yards long, to keep the endless Welsh sheep out of the new planting. Again, it was tremendous fun to sculpt so much earth and to garden on that scale. About ten years ago, I acquired a mini digger. We used it to make the mound here at Longmeadow and I contemplated making a rill that ran all the way down the cricket pitch into the Jewel garden, but it was outvoted. My wife, being wiser and more grown-up than I am, pointed out that any fool could make a mess but the clearing up and finishing was what mattered… so this fool demurred. Nevertheless, if this telly malarkey goes pear-shaped, I still have my diggerdriving skills and would be very happy to help move the earth for you.
I think about my own excavatory exploits with a tinge of shame