Quentin Letts: Dismantle the decking, clear the gravel, and savour the British lawn

New research shows we are rediscovering a love for our own plot of grass as a symbol of the nation's desires and aspirations
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The Independent Online

From suburbia's back gardens comes the sound of sawing and splintering woodwork. They are at the decking again. This time, thank goodness, it is not being installed. Instead, the demolition men have moved in. Haven't you heard? Decking is out.

Gardeners are giving up on one of the less lovely fads of recent decades. Decking was all the rage in the late 1990s and came to adorn, even represent, the Blair era of modernist-ugly convenience. That age may have passed. According to reports last week, thousands of acres' worth of garden space are being returned to Mother Nature and the majority of gardeners now recoil from the idea of covering their grass with strips of mass-bevelled timber from the DIY superstore. Decking is being ripped out and consigned to the tinder pile. Lovely, lush lawns are back.

For some of us the moment is as sweet as the scent of fresh-beheaded daisies. Three years ago I included Alan Titchmarsh in a book called Fifty People Who Buggered Up Britain. He was up there alongside Edward Heath, Rupert Murdoch and Mother Thatcher. Mr Titchmarsh's many fans were aghast and I was subjected to a show trial on Titch's daytime chat show. But our Alan (not an entirely bad chap) deserved his criticism.

He used to present the TV programme Ground Force and it was that, more than anything, which caused the craze for decking in our once-green land. Any corner of suburban lawn which had not already fallen victim to in-fill developers and Tarmac-drive maniacs was now sacrificed to the ker-pump of Tommy Walsh's rivet gun and the whack of three-inch nails assembling cheap, wooden patios. Whole generations of earthworms grew up never seeing daylight as a result. Moles surfaced and hit their heads on horrid undersides of sub-Californian deck wood. Ouch!

The garden lawn is more than just a patch of grass. For dogs it may be a place to do their business. For wagtails it may be a place to hop and bob and peck for grubs. For young boys it becomes the square at Lord's or the goalmouth at Wembley. But it is much more than any of those things.

To some it is a symbol of prosperity. Look at my lawn, neighbours, and turn green yourselves – with envy. To others it is a living lung, environmental relief, a visual breather from the brick and concrete of the modern townscape. It makes us think, at least for a moment, that we are not boxed in by the stinking urbs but are 18th-century grandees with our own rolling gallops.

Again, this is but part of the story. The lawn, apparently so orderly and contained, is a grassy Tardis. In its few square feet it holds endless possibilities. Decking was only ever a manufactured platform, one which soon chipped and started to look tatty after a season. Decking aged horribly. Lawns mature into even greater beauty. Rain refreshes them.

There are people who regard the lawn as an ideal of order, a canvas for mower-stripes, a retreat from 21st century stresses. It may become an obsession or an expression. It can be an emblem of Pooterish domesticity, a talking point, an artistic experiment or a cop-out (so much easier on the back than veg' beds). Lawns can reflect the personality of their owner, shaggy round the edges or short on top. They can set off a herbaceous border. They may sometimes be in need of attention.

Lawns are something to own, an investment, a place to exercise (star jumps before brekker) or an excuse to avoid other chores. All these things are true of lawns, yet somehow they do not quite capture the whole picture.

The late Christopher Lloyd, gardening writer and master of Great Dixter in East Sussex, liked a bit of rough. No, no, I don't mean THAT. I mean he liked rough grass in his garden and was suspicious of the "manicured lawn". What a dread phrase that is. "Manicured lawn". As a young reporter on The Daily Telegraph in the 1980s I was told I would be sacked if I ever used it. "It's almost as bad as 'leafy suburbs'," barked an old-timer. The lawns of British High Commissions in Africa and the Near East were invariably described in the cheap sheets as "manicured" and it made you think of native gardeners trimming the edges with nail-clippers, which I suppose may sometimes have happened.

But the reason "manicured" will not do for a lawn is that it fails to appreciate that lawns are the product of so much more than a final snippety-snip before the governor-general's annual tiffin. As millions of readers of lawn supremo Dr Hessayon know, lawns require aeration and top-dressing, slitting and hollow-tining. They must be watered, scarified, de-thatched, fed.

Lawns have "problems", just like humans. Some take a hump and need to be straightened out. Others succumb to plantain or field bindweed, than which there is no greater disgrace. Lawn maintenance has a whole dictionary of terms, from "firming in" to "finishing off". Pure English nudge-nudge. Imagine what joy the late Frankie Howerd could have had with such expressions.

But back to Christopher Lloyd. Not for him the precision and symmetry of the "manicured" lawn. In childhood, he had loved walking through meadows. "If at an early age you enjoyed moving between walls of flowering grasses and moon daisies higher than yourself, if you enjoyed pulling stems of meadow foxtail out of their sockets and nibbling the sweet soft end, or getting your shoes yellow with pollen as you walked through a buttercup field ... you'll take quite naturally to the concept of wild grass gardening."

Lloyd was right that wild grasses can be beautiful and that the English meadow is a lyrical place. But is there not also beauty in the tapestry of plants which comprise a classic lawn? Tom Fort, writer of a history of lawn-mowing, The Grass is Greener, notes that at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire the head gardener, Hopkins, once set about classifying the elements in the stately home's superb lawn. Fort describes that lawn as an "extraordinary heterogeneous carpet of herbage". It was laid in the 1760s by Capability Brown, sown with hayseed, and was then grazed by deer for a couple of centuries before being mown by a succession of horse-drawn and petrol-powered machines.

The Chatsworth lawn contains flowers such as bird's foot trefoil, mouse-ear hawkweed, speedwell, hawkbit, selfheal, woodrush, dove's-foot, cranesbill, storksbill, madder, cinquefoil, crowfoot and celandine. The poetry simply in those names!

Old Hopkins crouched down, stretched forth his muddy fingernails, and had a good rummage in the Chatsworth lawn. Fort writes that apart from those flowers and "a medley of mosses and lichens, they found heathers, violas, harebell, tormentil, sweet-vernal grass, yarrow, ox-eyed daisy, ladies bedstraw, sorrel and cat's ear". Viewed from the house, this collection of species became "a shifting sea, jade merging into emerald, light into dark, alive with secrets and changing moods".

Few of us can hope ever to match the Duke of Devonshire's greensward but we can still enjoy our lawns. We can lie on them on Sunday afternoons and summon into our nostrils the scent of freedom. We can stretch ourselves flat on them, faces to the cloud-racing skies, and almost feel the curvature of the Earth's belly. On a lawn we will sleep more sweetly than in any garden-centre chair or on any yard of Titchmarshian decking. A lawn gives us a relationship with the seasons. It is something we can nurture but unlike children it will not leave us – well, not unless the drought becomes Saharan.

If you listen to some analysts, lawns give modern man an outlet for an ancient desire to control yet still inhabit nature. Tom Fort even quotes a psychologist, Professor Halla Beloff, who reckons that the act of lawn mowing has something phallic about it – the mower as a source of potency, throbbing and thrusting at groin level. Good grief. They don't mention that in the adverts for Qualcast.

Matthew Arnold wrote of the "wet, bird-haunted English lawn" and the music of its trees at dawn. Other nationalities try to grow lawns but they never quite get it right. The Spaniards have a spongy affair which comes up like carpet. The Americans' lawns feel somehow genetically modified. On an Indian lawn you can never quite relax for fear of a snake. The Irish lawn is too wet.

At the end of National "Love Your Lawn" Week, let us draw pleasure and pride in this most complex but modest of creations. More than fish and chips, more than the Union Jack, far more than the Tories' oak tree, more even than the Duchess of Cornwall's cleavage, the lawn is a symbol of our wonderful country. And now it is back. Hooray.

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