Gardening: A Poet's Garden: A haunt of ancient peace: The melancholy Alfred Tennyson found solace in the grounds of Gunby Hall in Lincolnshire. Its gothic wild garden and the heavy scent of musk roses still inspire today, writes Helen Chappell

Click to follow
ABOVE the fireplace hangs a small framed picture. Mrs Betty Wrisdale, tenant of Gunby Hall, takes it down to show me. Under the glass, four lines of faded handwriting read:

. . . an English home - gray twilight

On dewy pastures, dewy trees

Softer than sleep - all things in order stored,

A haunt of ancient peace.

It is signed by Alfred Tennyson and dated 1849 - a year before he became Poet Laureate. 'Tennyson was a friend of the family here,' explains Mrs Wrisdale, replacing it carefully on the wall. 'He lived in Lincolnshire too and used to visit the squire's son, Algernon, from his home in Somersby, a few miles away. It must have been one of those visits that inspired that verse in 'The Palace of Art'.' She disappears upstairs to find her sun hat. It is time for a poet's tour of the garden. It may be cool and sombre inside this splendid William and Mary house, but outside there is a warm summer afternoon.

As we walk down the steps from the main door, the scene arranges itself poetically in front of us. A church bell tolls, a herd of cows ambles past the wrought-iron gates at the bottom of the formal garden. I see immediately what impressed Tennyson about this idyllic spot. Just past the sundial, topiary cones and beds of lavender, however, an alien noise assaults our ears. Looking up, I see a streak of silver flash across the sky. 'Tornado jet,' says Mrs Wrisdale wistfully. 'On its way to the aerodrome at Conningsby.' I try to ignore this brash intrusion by admiring the vivid red Japanese quince growing up the wall of the house and the fragrant white lilac tree. 'That horse chestnut would have been around in Tennyson's time,' points out Mrs Wrisdale. 'It was planted in 1720.' We turn a corner into the wild garden.

As we walk, Mrs Wrisdale relates the doings of the Massingberd family, which lived here from 1652 until 1966. She is used to recalling the sweep of history at Gunby Hall. Every year there are 5,000 National Trust visitors, not to mention poetry- reciting invasions by the Tennyson Society and coach parties doing 'Tennyson Country'.

'I think Tennyson had a sad life really,' she says, snapping off heads of ground elder among the Vinca major bordering the path. 'First of all his father was bitter and violent because he had been disinherited and forced to become a vicar. Several members of his family were mentally ill. Then he lost his closest friend when Arthur Hallam died in his twenties; and the love of his life, Rosa Baring, refused to marry him. No wonder he wanted some peace.'

Since he was a child, in fact, Tennyson had been seeking peace in gardens. They were to have a huge influence upon his personality and the imagery in his poems. In his recent biography, Tennyson (Little Brown pounds 20), Michael Thorn describes how young Tennyson would flee from his father's terrifying, drug-sodden rages into the rectory garden: 'Rushing out of the house (sometimes into the churchyard to lie among the graves) became Alfred's stock response to heightened emotion and was a way of escaping increasingly violent domestic outbursts.' Surrounded by greenery,

he would soothe his spirits by composing lyrical but melancholy verses:

The air is damp, and hushed and close,

As a sick man's room when he taketh repose

An hour before death;

My very heart faints and my whole soul grieves

At the moist rich smell of the rotting leaves,

And the breath

Of the fading edges of box beneath,

And the year's last rose.

('Song', 1830)

Tennyson's melancholy was mixed up in his mind with the cruelty and mortality of the natural world. As Margaret Drabble points out in A Writer's Britain: Landscape in Literature (Thames & Hudson 1979, out of print): 'The characteristic Tennysonian world is one of dying swans, decaying flowers, dark roots in elm trees . . . and dew-drenched wood walks . . . The languid atmosphere that breathes from the poems is overwhelming, and it captured the Victorian imagination.' Tennyson's piety was popular too. At about the time that 'Song' was published, he must also have been working on 'The Palace of Art', the long poem containing the verse inspired by Gunby Hall. This epic, published in 1832, moralises at the vain poet who makes a treasurehouse of his talents and memories (Tennyson included a view of Gunby) but refuses to dedicate them to God.

A suitably Tennysonian scene appears before us now at the next garden gate. Tombstones sprout from the long grass in the graveyard of a tiny Victorian church. St Peter's, Gunby, belongs to the local village, not the National Trust, but it is also the burial place of the Massingberd dynasty and of Tennyson's friend Algernon. We scan the lichen-

encrusted inscriptions and find him; the Reverend Algernon Langton Massingberd, who departed this life in 1844. It must have been while Algernon's son (another Algernon) was squire of Gunby that Tennyson revisited the house and copied out, as a souvenir, the verse which now hangs above the fireplace. On his father's death, Mrs Wrisdale gleefully informs me, Algernon junior soon became the black sheep of the family. There wasn't much ancient peace left at Gunby by the time 'Naughty Algernon' had drunk and gambled away the family fortune, sold off most of its treasures and disappeared with an expedition up the Amazon, never to be seen again.

The mood of gothic gloom deepens as we rejoin the garden path and follow it into the Ghost Walk. A canal-shaped pond is bordered by a dense yew hedge, overhung with the sparkling white flowers of Rosa 'Paulii'. Another family drama is associated with this secluded spot. Visitors to the garden have reported seeing the ghostly figure of a Miss Massingberd gliding over the water here at twilight. This tragic lady was apparently caught in the act of eloping with a groom by her ferocious - and murderous - father. Nobody seems sure exactly when this event took place, but then nobody wants to spoil a good story with facts and dates, either. 'It's quite spooky here, don't you think?' says Mrs Wrisdale, with only the ghost of a grin.

Tennyson would certainly have loved the Gunby ghost story. It even has strange echoes of his doomed love for the aristocratic Rosa Baring, whose wealthy family lived just a few miles from here. Flirted with but discarded by the lovely Rosa in favour of a richer husband, Tennyson never forgave or forgot. Twenty years later, successful and (finally) married, he poured all his pent-up rage into his famous poem 'Maud'. Narrated by a 'madman', this epic is bursting with unrequited love, an icy damsel, wrongful disinheritance, sneering aristocrats, duels, suicide, ghosts and revenge. It made quite a change from his usual dreamy verses. The scornful Maud is alternately hated ('cold and clear-cut face, why come you so cruelly meek') and crazily adored, our anti-hero lying in wait for her outside the inevitable garden:

Come into the garden, Maud,

For the black bat, night, has flown.

Come into the garden, Maud

I am here at the gate alone:

And the woodbine spices are wafted abroad,

And the musk of the rose is blown.

Musk roses which would have pleased Tennyson (in a painful sort of way) are still growing today in Gunby's kitchen garden. We enter through a wrought-iron gate and find them - 'Penelope', 'Cornelia' and 'Prosperity', underplanted with drifts of catmint. Fruit trees and vegetables jostle for space in the beds with red Lychnis chalcedonica and golden rod. The drone of bees competes with the cooing of wood pigeons and fan-tailed doves. Mrs Wrisdale winces faintly as another Tornado jet screeches across the sky - the third this afternoon. During the last war, she tells me, the house and garden were scheduled to be demolished to make way for a strategic air force base. Since they were reprieved in 1944 and given to the National Trust, tenants and family have tended to count their blessings and put up with the rude military interruptions. At least it is one outrage which the tormented and hypersensitive Tennyson could not have suffered and turned into a personal grievance. We wander through

another archway and find ourselves in the pergola garden.

Head gardener Paul Gray looks up as we enter. He is working on the herb garden - near the apple pergola - a formal arrangement of more than 80 different species. 'It all had to be dug up and replanted this year,' he explains. 'That's the trouble when you've been growing the same plant in the same patch for over a century.' Then there are the usual head gardener's pests - rabbits, moles and mice - to contend with. Mr Gray shows no mercy to the furry vandals who ruin his border displays. 'We set traps for them, but as soon as we catch one, three more will take its place.' Things were simpler in 1832 when Tennyson praised Gunby's 'dewy trees' and 'dewy pastures'. Most of today's walled gardens were yet to be built. There were no herbaceous borders. Instead the poet could commune with the spirit of a classic English landscape garden, surrounded by his beloved Lincolnshire countryside.

Some things inside these red brick walls were around in Tennyson's day, however. He would have known the ancient pigeon house with white birds flapping and perching on its tower. Against its west wall, the

garden seat with lead-domed roof and classical columns would have been familiar too. But most of this part of the garden belongs to the

early 20th century.

Mr Gray points out the Edwardian apple pergola leading to the sundial and we pause to study the irises, euphorbia and variegated Solomon's seals. Red and pink roses, 'National Trust' and 'Jacques Cartier', are poised to burst into bloom. A peacock shrieks in the distance but its cry is drowned out by the roar of another Tornado jet. A very late 20th- century garden feature.

Out on the lawn, Mr Gray looks up at the great cedar of Lebanon planted in 1812. It was one of tens of thousands of trees planted by the father of Tennyson's friend, Algernon. 'Every time there's a high wind we wonder if it will still be standing in the morning,' says Mr Gray, mournfully. Still, it survives - along with a hundred acres of parkland from the original estate which soothed Tennyson's troubled mind. He must have remembered them as a blessed Arcadian relief from the gothic horror of his youth. Perhaps they were part of the inspiration, too, for his poem, 'The Gardener's Daughter':

Not wholly in the busy world; nor quite

Beyond it, blooms the garden that I love.

News from the humming city comes to it

In sound of funeral or of marriage bells;

. . . The fields between

Are dewy-fresh, browsed by deep-udder'd kine,

And all about the large lime feathers low,

The lime a summer home of murmurous wings.

Tennyson's summer home at Gunby Hall seems as tranquil as ever in today's obliging sunshine. As if on cue, the tinkling of cow-bells fills the air. The cattle (deep-udder'd, no doubt) are coming in from the fields. Even the jets have gone home for tea. No dead poet could have arranged things more prettily. For an hour or two even a half-crazed Victorian might still feel at peace here, coach parties and family ghosts permitting.

Gunby Hall, Nr Spilsbury, Lincs PE23 5SS (0909 486411). House and garden open March 30 to end of September, Wednesdays 2-6pm and (garden only) Thursdays 2-6pm. Private visits also, by appointment.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments