Spiritual Gardener: Winter at Oxford

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Have you noticed we seem to be having a decidedly English winter this year?

Last week, Maine had temperatures in the minus fifties which is a bit excessive, even for the hardy, long-suffering people of Maine. And this back-and-forth weather we’ve been having, between bright and bitter on one hand, and cloudy and milder on the other, takes me vividly back to winters in England when we would have a long run of the one sort of weather until you were sick of it, followed by a long run of the other, until you were fairly desperate for a change again.

And so it went on, month after month, back and forth, until winter finally gave up its frozen grip, usually on a fine weekend in May, followed almost instantly by the sudden, considerable (and all too brief) glories of an English midsummer. These are certainly compensation for the harshness of the English winter, but far from compensation enough in my opinion.

I chose inexpensive lodgings when I lived in England to save money from my generous but not infinite stipend, so I could travel in Europe during the breaks. My room at Magdalen College in Oxford was at the top of the second staircase in St. Swithun’s Quad (St. Swithun being the English patron saint of – usually bad –  weather, who is buried appropriately outside, beneath the storm-swept grounds of Salisbury Cathedral). This room had lofty ceilings, a beautiful old coal-burning fireplace (long-since disused) with linen fold oak paneling and a sunny window seat with a window that faced south and opened onto a tiny parapet that overlooked High Street and which I considered my balcony.

The windows were leaded glass and very lovely, but also very old, with only a single pane of glass. Many were the nights that I would literally freeze in my room, which I know for a fact because the water in my little electric teapot would be frozen solid in the morning. I slept under a pile of woolen blankets so thick and heavy that it was hard to turn over, and often I would wake up pinned into the same position in which I had fallen asleep.

I had only a tiny electric space-heater to warm the room; it had a foot-long bar that glowed a cheery red but did not throw off much heat unless you crouched right next to it. It had no hope of heating the entire room, even if I left it on all night, which I rarely dared to do for fear of fire. For cheerful comfort, I also had a tiny Oxford-brown ceramic teapot that even then was quite old and had dispensed countless cups of English tea to countless generations of Oxford students.  I have it still, though it is rarely used these days. My wife, not knowing its precious provenance, was cleaning out our kitchen cupboards one day and to my horror I found it just in time in the pile of things to be got rid of. Cultural vandalism, narrowly averted.

How well and fondly, in fact, do I remember those occasional bright days in January, when we rejoiced to see the sun again and didn’t even mind the cold, at least for a few days. We would tramp through the Oxford water meadows to The Trout for lunch on a Sunday, enjoying the funky warmth of the tiny pub that was packed with people, sunshine streaming though the small, deeply set windows.

Or, in the alternative weather, when it was milder but overcast, going for long walks (or sometimes athletic runs) through Addison’s Walk and on into the University Parks in the misty, smoke-blue air through which the sun couldn’t penetrate to reach the frosted trees, shrubs and grass that crackled sharply with crusty rime. It was totally an impressionist landscape: all the shapes and vistas were romantically blurred by the dim light and the blue air and the blue shadows.

My first Christmas at Oxford was rather sad and dull.  I had not made any friendships solid enough to be invited home for Christmas my first year, so I had to spend the holiday completely alone, which I had never done before and which was very odd and, as I think now, rather pathetic.  However, to my joy, there was a heavy snowfall on Christmas Eve, and the ancient university was magically transformed overnight. I grabbed my camera and pulled on my warmest clothes and went off on a long tramp around that beautiful city with its glorious buildings, snapping photos of the magical scene with a much lighter and happier heart.

Later, I went to the Christmas Day service at St. Mary’s University Church, the great church that was made even greater by its association with the Anglican intellectual who later became a Catholic cardinal, John Henry Newman. Then I returned to my room, made a large pot of coffee and opened my presents from home, wrapped and carefully laid out under a tiny, potted Norfolk pine that I had bought at the Covered Market and decorated with some hand-made decorations; you know the kind, strings of popcorn and some colored paper chains.

It’s nice, really, and poignant for me now to remember how much I loved my family at 21 and how I missed them that Christmas. It helps me understand what my daughter is feeling at college when she gets blue these days. Though it is so much easier for kids now to travel back and forth and to be in constant communication, if they want to. When I was in college, especially far away in England, the sense of separation and isolation was strong. Mail from home was unspeakably precious and longed for, and it took two full weeks to write home and receive an answer, an agony. Travel back and forth was impractical, as it was much too expensive. But I soon made great and lifelong friendships, spring came again as it does even in dear old England, and all was soon put right in the world once again.

These days, one of my best defenses against a bitter winter (American or English) weekend in January, besides drinking Algonquins, is to look at gorgeous gardening books and feast on the colors, vitality and glowing energy of plants in their prime, and to make garden plans! Somewhere I read that a gardener should grow at least one plant that is completely new to him every year, and I think this is an excellent policy.

This year, in fact, I am going to try two. Anemones are a wonderful plant that I have never tried and that I think is rather uncommon around the gardens I know. And yet they have so much to recommend them, especially that the spring hybrids that grow from rhizomes can flourish in a bit of shade (always a valuable and worthy trait in a plant), and the species that grow from fibrous roots and need sun have the virtue of being at their best in late summer, when the garden (or mine anyway) starts to look a bit ratty and tired. So I am going to get half a dozen of each: white ones for spring in the elliptical bed and pink ones for late summer in the herbaceous border where it will be difficult to find space for them, but never mind. When was it ever easy to find space for things in the garden?

The second new thing I am excited to try is love-in-a-mist (nigella damascena). Like the anemone, these seem to be a staple of the English garden but are not so commonly seen in gardens in the States.  There is a pale blue version that is named for the English gardener Gertrude Jekyll, who liked to let it self-seed among her German irises, so that its pale blue flowers would float above their lacy leaves to form blue and green color mists above the sharp-edged green of the irises’ sword leaves and bold pastel colors. I have seen pictures of this exact scheme, with the irises still flowering with the nigella, and it is quite amazing when it works out just right.

As mine, I am sure will not. I find all these sublime garden schemes never quite work out the way I imagine – which is why the gardener has such a supple and optimistically elastic mind and personality, has he not? For in his mind, he lives in a perfect world that only gets better and where the future is particularly beautiful and full of inviting promise, as well as in the real world that is so tiresomely disappointing, but at the same time presents all the wonderful material and possibility of perfection, or at least improvement.

Or merely perhaps an anemone, growing beautifully and elegantly where one has never grown before. In the bright spring sunshine!



David Jensen writes the popular American blog “The Garden Interior,” which chronicles his garden in southern New Jersey. Please visit at www.TheGardenInterior.com. You can follow David Jensen on Twitter at @GardenInterior.