THE GARDEN OF ENGLAND: THE PATCHWORK QUILT

Even your most unadventurous fellow can hardly look on a fair prospect
of fields and meadows, woods, villages with smoking chimneys, a river,
and a road, without a certain feeling rising in him that he would like
to tread the road that winds so dapperly through the country, and
discover for himself where it leads.

To those who love their country the road is but a garden path running
between borders of fair flowers whose names and virtues should be known
to every child.

A poet can weave a story from the speck of mud on a fellow traveller’s
boot—the red soil of a Devonshire lane calls up such pictures of
fern-covered banks, such rushing streams, as make a poem in themselves.

It strikes one from the very first how neatly most of England is kept.
The dip and rise of softly swelling hills across which the curling
ribbon of the road winds leisurely between neat hedges, the fields in
patches, coloured brown and green, golden with Corn, scarlet with
Poppies, yellow with Buttercups; the circular bunches of trees under
whose shade fat cattle stand lazily switching their tails at flies; the
woods, hangers, shaws and coppices, glades, dells, dingles and combes,
all set out so orderly and precise that, from a hill, the country has
the appearance of a patchwork quilt set in a pleasant irregularity,
studded with straggling farms, and little sleepy villages where the
resonant note of the church clock checks off the drowsy hours. The road
that runs through this quilt land seems like a thread on which villages
and market towns are strung, beads of endless variety, some huddled in a
bunch upon a hill, some long and straggling, some thatched and warm,
red-bricked and creeper-covered, others white with roofs of purple
slate, others of grey stone, others of warm yellow. All alive with birds
and flowers and village children, butterflies and trees; fed by broad
rivers, or hanging over singing streams or deep in the lush grass of
water meadows gay with kingcups.

This garden is for us who care to know it. We can take the road, our
garden path, and pluck, as we will, flowers of all kinds from our
borders; sleep in our garden on beds of bracken pulled and piled high
under trees; or on soft heaps of heather heaped under sheltering stones.
If we know our garden well enough it will give us food—salads, fruits
and nuts; it will cure us of our ills by its herbs; feed our imagination
by the quaint names of flower and herb. Here’s a small list that will
sing a man to sleep, dreaming of England.

Poet’s Asphodel.
Shepherd’s Purse.
Our Lady’s Bedstraw.
Water Soldier.
Rowan.
Hound’s Tongue.
Gipsy Rose.
Fool’s Parsley.
Celandine.
Columbine.
Adder’s Tongue.
Speedwell.
Thorn Apple.
Virgin Bower.
Whin.

These alone of hundreds give a lift to the day: there’s a story to each
of them.

Take our England as a garden and let the eye roam over the land. Here’s
the flat country of the Fens, long, long vistas of fields, with spires
and towers sticking up against the sky. Plenty of rare flowers there for
your gardener, marsh flowers, water plants galore. That’s the place to
see the sky, to watch a summer storm across the plain, to see the
Poplars bending in an angry wind, and the white windmills glare against
purple rain clouds. Few hedges here but plenty of banks and dykes, and
canals they call drains. Here you may find Marsh Valerian, Water
Crowsfoot, Frogbit, pink Cuckoo-flowers, Bog Bean, Sundews, Sea
Lavender, and Bladder-worts. The Sundews alone will give you an hour’s
pleasure with their glistening red glands tricked out to catch unwary
flies and midges.

Then there’s a wild garden waiting you by stone walls in the dales of
Derbyshire, or in the Yorkshire wolds, or the Lancashire fells. On the
open heaths, where the grey roads wind through warm carpets of ling and
heather, you can fill your nostrils with the sweet scent of Gorse and
Thyme.

I was sitting one hot afternoon, drawing the twisted bole of a Beech
tree. All the wood in which I sat was stirring with life; the dingle
below me a mist of flowers, Primroses, Wind-flowers, Hyacinths whose
bells made the air softly fragrant. Above me the sky showed through a
trellis-work of young leaves, the distance of the wood was purple with
opening buds, and the floor was a swaying sea of Bluebells dancing in a
gentle breeze. Squirrels chattered in the trees; now and then a wood
pigeon flopped out of a tree, and a blackbird whistled in some hidden
place.

All absorbed in my work, following the grotesquely beautiful curves of
the beech roots, I heard no sound of approaching footsteps. A voice
behind me said “Good,” and I started, dropping my pencil in my
confusion.

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you,” said the voice.

I turned round and saw a man standing behind me, a man without a cap,
with curly brown hair, and a face coloured deep brown by the sun. He was
dressed in a faded suit of greenish tweed, wore a blue flannel shirt,
carried a thick stick in his hand, and had a worn-looking box slung over
his shoulders by a stained leather strap.

I suppose my surprise showed in my face in some comic way, for he
laughed heartily, showing a set of strong white teeth.

“No, I’m not Pan,” he said laughing, “or a keeper, or a vision. I’m a
gardener.”

His admirable assurance and pleasant address were very captivating.

I asked him what he did there, and he immediately sat down by me, pulled
out a black clay pipe, and lit up before replying. He extended the
honours of his match to my cigarette and I noticed that his hands were
well formed, and that he wore a silver ring on the little finger of his
right hand.

When he had arranged himself to his comfort, propping his back against a
tree and crossing his legs, he told me he was a gardener on a very large
scale.

I wished him joy of his garden, at which he smiled broadly, and informed
me in the most matter-of-fact way that he gardened the whole of Great
Britain.

For a moment I wondered if I had fallen in with an amiable lunatic, but
a closer inspection of his face showed me he was sane, uncommonly
healthy, and, I judged, a clever man.

“A vast garden?” I said.

Without exactly replying to my remark, which was put half in the manner
of a question, he said, partly to himself, “The slight fingers of April.
Do you notice how delicate everything is?”

I had noticed. The air was full of suggestion, the flowers were very
fairylike, the green of the trees very tender.

“Pied April,” said I.

Instead of answering me again he unstrapped the box that now lay beside
him on the grass, opened it and took from it a beautiful Fritillaria.

“There’s one of the April Princesses, if you like,” he said. “There are
not many about here, just an odd one or two; plenty near Oxford though.”

“You know Oxford?” said I.

“Guess again,” he said, smiling. “I’m no Oxford man, but I know the
woods about there well. Please go on working; I’ll talk.”

I was about to look at my watch when he stopped me.

“It’s half-past two,” he said. “The slant of the sun on the leaves ought
to tell you that.”




I was amused, interested in the man; he was so odd and quaint. “I’ve not
eaten my lunch yet,” I said. “Perhaps you’ll share it with me.”

“I was wondering if you’d invite me,” he replied. “I’m rather hungry.”

I had, luckily, enough for two. Slices of ham, some cheese, a loaf of
new bread, and a full flask. Very soon we were eating together like old
friends.

In an inconsequent way he asked me what I thought of the name of Noakes.

I said it was as good as any other.

“Let’s have it Noakes, then,” he said, laughing again. A very merry man.

“About this garden of yours, Mr. Noakes?” I asked.

He tapped his wooden box and said, “If you want to know, I’m a
herbalist. You can scarcely call me a civilised being, except on
occasions when I do go among my fellow men to winter.” He pulled a cap
and a pair of gloves out of his pocket. “My titles to respectability,”
he said.

“And in the Spring?”

“I take to the road with the Coltsfoot and the Butterburrs. I come out
with the first Violet, and the Pussy-cat Willow. I wander, all through
the year, up and down the length and breadth of England, with my box of
herbs. I get my bread and cheese that way—while you draw for pleasure.”

“Partly.”

“It must be for pleasure, or you wouldn’t take so much pains. I suppose
you think I’m a very disgraceful person, a bad citizen, a worse patriot.
But I know the news of the world better than those who read newspapers.
Although I trade on superstitions, I do no harm.”

“Do you sell your herbs?”

“Colchicum for gout—Autumn Crocus, you know it,” he replied.
“Willow-bark quinine; Violet distilled, for coughs. Not a bad
trade—besides, it keeps me free.”

I hazarded a question. “Tell me—you must observe these things—do swifts
drink as they fly? It has often puzzled me.”

“I don’t know,” said he. “Ask Mother Nature. Some of these things are
the province of professors. I’m not a learned man; just a herbalist.”

At that moment a thrush began to sing in a tree overhead. My friend
cocked his head, just like an animal.

“There’s the wise thrush,” he quoted softly, “he sings his song twice
over.”

“So you read Browning,” I said.

“I have a garret and a library,” he said. “Winter quarters. We shall
meet one day, and you’ll be surprised. I actually possess two dress
suits. It’s a mad world.” He stopped abruptly to listen to the thrush.
“This is better than the Carlton or Delmonico’s, anyhow!”

“What do you do?” I asked. “Go from village to village selling herbs?”

“That’s about it. Lord! Listen to that bird. I heard and saw a
nightingale sing once in a shaw near Ewelme. I think a thrush is the
better musician, though. Yes, I sell my herbs, all sorts and kinds.
Drugs and ointments, very simple I assure you—Hemlock and Poppy to cure
the toothache. Wood Sorrel—full of oxalic acid, you know, like
Rhubarb—for fevers. Aconite for rheumatics—very popular medicine I make
of that, sells like hot cakes in water meadow land, so does Agrimony for
Fen ague. Tansy and Camomile for liver—excellent. Hellebore for
blisters, and Cowslip pips for measles—I’m a regular quack, you see.”

“And it’s worth doing, is it?”

He leaned back, his pipe between his lips, a very contented man. “Worth
doing!” he said. “Worth owning England, with all the wonderful mornings,
and the clean air; worth waking up to the scent of Violets; worth lying
on your back near a Bean field on a summer day; worth seeing the Bracken
fronds uncurl; watching kingfishers; worth having the fields and
hedgerows for a garden, full of flowers always—I should think so. I earn
my bread, and I’m happy, far happier than most men. I can lend a hand at
haymaking, at the harvest; at sheep-shearing, at the cider press, at
hoeing, when I’m tired of my own company. I’ve worked the seines in the
mackerel season on the South coast—do you know the bend of shore by Lyme
and Charmouth? I’ve ploughed in the Lowlands, and found lost sheep in
the Lake Country; caught moles for a living in Norfolk, and cut
Hop-poles in Kent, and Heather in the Highlands.—And I’m not forty, and
I’m never ill.”

[Illustration: THE WEALD OF KENT SHOWING THE COUNTRY LIKE A PATCHWORK
QUILT.]

“It sounds delightful.”

He rose to his feet and gave me his hand.

“We shall meet again,” he said laughing. “Perhaps in the conventional
armour of starched shirts and inky black. For the present—to my work,”
he pointed over his shoulder. “I’m building hen-coops for a widow.
_Hasta luego._”

With that he vanished as quietly as he came. Almost as soon as the trees
had hidden him from my sight, a blackbird began to whistle, then
stopped, and a laugh came out of the woods.

Altogether a very strange man.

I found, when he had gone, that he had written something on a piece of
paper and had pinned it to the tree with a long thorn. It was this:

“I think, very likely, you may not know Ben Jonson’s ‘Gipsy
Benediction.’ If you don’t, accept the offering as a return for my
excellent lunch.

“The faerybeam upon you—
The stars to glisten on you—
A moon of light
In the noon of night,
Till the firedrake hath o’er gone you!
The wheel of fortune guide you;
The boy with the bow beside you;
Run aye in the way
Till the bird of day,
And the luckier lot, betide you.”

He signed, at the foot, “Noakes, Under the Greenwood Tree.” And he
seemed to have written some of his clear laughter into it.

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