Gardening: Are you sitting beautifully?

A garden seat shouldn't be rushed into, says Anna Pavord
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The Independent Online
Sitting is something I do much more in other people's gardens, than in my own. I like the idea of sitting, but somehow it never happens the way it ought to. I take a cup of coffee outside, my sights firmly set on the seat at the bottom of the vegetable patch, but before I'm halfway there I've been distracted by something that needs tying in, or cutting off, or watering. Or else I shoot back inside to look up the name of something I've forgotten. It seems so inhospitable to have things in the garden that you can't say hello to. So by the time I remember what I started out to do, the coffee is cold and the moment for sitting gone.

But a garden seat should be as pleasant to look at as sit on. I like seeing them in the garden - they give a feeling of restfulness to the place. They are lying through their teeth, of course, but that doesn't matter. The promise is there, of some future time, when I will be able to look for over 30 seconds at a patch of the garden without seeing 10 jobs that need doing.

A seat can work like a big pot or a statue to focus the eye at the end of a view. Or it can be hidden away in a dog-leg corner to make a private retreat in an otherwise too open space. You can combine a seat with a bower, so that wafts of honeysuckle and rose wash over you when you are sitting there. The local blacksmith made us one, five feet wide, six and a half feet high and two feet nine inches deep. The back and sides are covered with one-inch iron mesh, set diagonally so that it makes diamonds rather than squares. The seat is a thick plank of oak which rests on ledges inside the bower.

At one stage, I thought I would let ivy climb up the mesh, so that we would sit in a cave of green, but I went off that idea, because ivy enveloped so many other things in the garden and I began to feel I was drowning in the stuff. A London florist, who came down here to do a wedding, crooned over the ivy as though it were handmade from finest silk. "You don't realise what you have to pay for this in Covent Garden market," he said reprovingly.

That seat is on the bank, set at the only point where there is a view out over the valley to the high ridge beyond. That is another thing about seats. Their positioning must work in two ways. You need to enjoy looking at the seat in its particular niche, but you also need to enjoy looking at whatever is in front of you when you are actually sitting in it.

If you have a tree seat, a circular structure built round the trunk of a tree, you can choose the view according to your mood or the time of day. You need the right kind of free-standing tree to start with, but given that, a tree seat has enormous charm. I've a weak spot for them, because of one that played an important part in the place where I grew up. That was a functional Victorian one, made from flat strips of iron, arranged in concentric circles round a big oak tree. The backrest was made the same way, clasping the trunk too tightly for the tree's good. If you are putting one in place, you need to allow room for the tree's middle-age spread.

Thinking of one for our own garden, I went to see Alex Clive, a 37-year- old farmer who after 10 years running the family's fruit farm, chucked it all in and turned to ironworking instead. I'd seen an intriguing tree seat of his, the supports made from the spring tines of an old agricultural cultivator. In general form, it followed the lines of the 19th-century standard design, but the spring tines gave it great personality. And the circles of iron, rather than being concentric, crossed over each other now and then, so that the seat was not mechanical, but curiously like something that was itself alive.

Mr Clive lives with Phoebe Woods-Humphery in a barn near Newent, Gloucestershire. The yard is a salvage merchant's dream: old rafters and purlins piled up under a cart shed, pieces of plough and harrow stacked against the workshop. Among it all is his own work: a garden arch incorporating the elegantly tapered tines of an old hand-forged garden fork, a garden gate with metal curled as gently as vine tendrils round burnished ball finials. And quarter of a tree seat.

The idea for this grew out of a seat he and Phoebe designed for a neighbour, who wanted something to complement an old cedar. The trunk was huge, so a full tree seat would have been too massive a structure. Instead, they installed a curving iron bench looking out at the best bit of the view, with the two side supports creeping up the tree trunk like ivy runners.

That seat was designed from scratch, without the starting point of the recycled material that had inspired the seat I first saw. The right kind of scrap is now harder to come by. Farm sales, said Phoebe, are not what they were, even in their untrendy bit of Gloucestershire. There's little potential for them in power tools and outmoded Alfa Laval milking machines. On the other hand, they have a fruitful relationship with a nearby scrap merchant. He saves them bed irons and any old tools. They take him copper piping and bits of lead that come their way.

Because he's a practical man from a practical background, you won't find Alex Clive cooing over his joints. He learnt metal-working by fixing harvesting machines. The technique of fixing one thing to another he takes for granted.

He's much more interested in the process of teasing out from customers what they really want and then of making a piece of garden furniture that fits so inevitably into its site, you think it must always have been there. "I'm interested in the way people live," he says. "And in trying to find a happier way for them to be in their houses and gardens." That's a lot of weight for a tree seat to carry. But if you are looking for something special that production-line furniture can't supply, Alex Clive may be your man.

You can find Alex Clive at Ironworks, Herridges Barn, Pauntley, Newent, Gloucestershire GL18 1LU (01531 890268).

Other one-off pieces of garden furniture from: Paul Anderson (01237 441645) - recycled material transformed into elegantly surreal garden furniture. Robert Baulch (01795 521392) - eclectic wooden thrones made from grubbed up fruit wood. Nick Parker (01297 489006) - Adirondack-style chairs made from coppiced hazel. Luke Pearson (0171 727 6285) - modern loungers in epoxy coated tubular steel, covered with polyester mesh.

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