A Year at Cheeseburn
Who can see a path or an arched space in a wall and not wonder where it leads, what’s on the other side? Unbidden, your legs walk you along, towards and through – into the surprise of beyond. And the map inside your body, your mind is extended by it: where you walk, what you see, changes you. It can no longer be un-known. As you find it, it finds you, filtering into your imagination, the gardenscape of your own story.
Walking around Cheeseburn soon after Candlemas, traditionally the start of spring, it is more than ever a place of threshold – all paths and openings, gates and archways; the garden’s topography exposed by trees still leafless, growth still low, the muted winter palette. It’s a pleasure to get lost following the maze of tracks: some official; others less so, softer, more hesitant; others leading only to a dramatic tree or an intriguing view. There is always a hint of that somewhere beyond, everywhere connected with everywhere else.
The door at the beginning of February opens more thoroughly onto the months ahead than any bleary-eyed, foggy-headed New Year’s Day, at the mercy of the blunt dictates of the calendar. And sunlight – especially when rare and precious – is the best key for opening the eyes and the heart after too many days indoors. It licks everything in its path into life. Clumps of long-stalked grasses toss it back to the four corners of the parterre, empty seedheads shimmering like tiny fish in the breeze. Still cold enough for scarf, hat and gloves, when the sun dances out from behind the clouds you might be fooled into casting off a layer, your thick coat, to dance with it – but fool you would be. The dazzle is bright but brief, teasing you into such hope and anticipation, filling your head with a storm of questions. What will Spring bring? Will we escape without snow? Will tender shoots sprouting from the cold earth survive? How will the apple, pear and plum trees fare after pruning? One thought leading to another, just like the paths, the gates, gaps and steps – a collaboration between earth and air, your breath, fire and metal, stone, wood and water.
A conflation not unlike the interconnecting stainless steel rods of Joe Hillier’s Lure, laid like an egg on the lawn that rises out of the paved garden. It is egg, seed and net, physics diagram and map of the artist’s brain. The bronze figure of a man seen from a distance walks towards it, drawing the eye to a rupture – navel or omphalos, the place a cotyledon might sprout: where everything begins and where it will return. The piece set beneath an ancient conifer reminds you the cycle will start over again, just as the garden comes back to life after long months of darkness.
This year Cheeseburn and its guardians have borne witness to 717 such returns. The history it has seen and the people who have lived here, time and weather, have shaped the land, left so many traces, different ways to explore the grounds, a navigation both rational and intuitive, more than simply getting from A to B. The whole place is one that invites connection, contemplation, consideration.
In 1820 the eighteenth-century Hall entrance was transplanted to frame a stone shelter looking out onto the formal garden. Bearing the carved arms of the Widdrington clan, flanked by two oddly spotted creatures who have lost their ears, honeysuckle and roses trained up the outer walls, it is a resting-place, a nook for trysts, revelations, imprecations, secrets. And so the human and the land come together in the best of ways – with creativity and appreciation, humility and care.
You can hear it in the garden inventory blowing in the wind like music, song: bamboo, lavender, box, snowdrop, dogwood, cyclamen, honesty, butterbur, hellebore. Even at such a fallow time of year there is a strong sense of plenitude and potential. Harboured in a curve in the River Pont, Cheeseburn is a sturdy vessel, holding the land safe and in balance so, all being well, it can do what it needs to do, be what it needs to be.
Through what leaves there are, stray voices percolate the air; otherwise it’s just the sound of the wind, birdsong and the occasional plane or gunshot. Back through the arboretum, the yellow and coral threads of two witch hazels are a happy shock to the eye; ‘tassel’ too predictable a word for these perfect, unravelled petals, dense with colour and a clean, antiseptic smell. Watching a slow fly graze the flowers, you see their slender branches also take the form of paths – the paths you followed round the garden – all bud and junction and dead end. Down the stone steps, past the yew hedge, there are yet more spaces, openings. The circle you have walked is only the beginning of a story about routes and roots, gaps and maps, the spirit of this place and a new year unfolding.
Just past the Equinox, the garden at Cheeseburn is all about light: an astonishment of light, a tip and pour of light – whatever the collective noun is for something that can’t be collected, only wondered at and kissed as it flies. The birds are singing their hearts out in it and the buds reach for it as it cascades from the sky.
And what sky – a vast blue dome holding the estate in place and announcing its continual changes as the truest compass points for those with eyes to see. Surely the only way we can measure anything is by the seasons, their dance between flow and stillness. The old sundial has given up its ghost, a puzzle now of broken gnomons and random numbers, nearly worn away by centuries of March winds and April showers.
In his novel, The Leopard, set in 19th century Sicily, Lampedusa might have been talking about this small swathe of Northumberland when he has one of his characters, Tancredi, say: If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change. Tradition, continuity and the tick, tick, tick of Spring, like the robin’s song, in charge, knowing there’s only one way to go – towards longer days and more life. It’s the time for appetite and longing, a riot of shape-shifting, hunger and thirst.
Neruda wrote to his beloved: I want to do with you what Spring does with the cherry trees. The garden shares some of that intoxication, dizzy and surrendered, powerless to resist Spring’s advances. The earth’s warmed up and new shoots are burgeoning, perennials returning from the dead. One good thing about Climate Change is that Spring is not a cliché any more. No longer predictable, when it does come we are deeply relieved, grateful that another year has turned, another winter passed and we have survived to see it: a magical time of transformation, effected by the alchemy of light, legerdemain of shadows; light that alters and connects everything – us, the land, its plants and creatures. The lambs still keep close to their mothers, tight new fleeces dazzling in the sunshine, tails swinging as they skip, like catkins in the breeze.
When everything changes, it’s not clear what to hold onto – even gravity can’t be relied on. We feel lighter, as if we could leap like lambs or shimmy like the shadows of leaves on a light-drenched limestone wall. The sky is such a deep shade of blue it has almost more affinity with ocean than air. The name for its blue hasn’t been invented yet – cerulean, marine, forget-me-not. Whoever designed these blessed days knew that particular colour would make a perfect backdrop for budding branches, the coral blossoms of a Japanese quince, the blackbird’s trilling.
As well as rolling out a wide horizon, the light in the sky tosses us an anchor, a chance to be still and witness the miracle of the season. Cheeseburn is poised, ready for anything, undergoing its own transfiguration. The chunter of a tractor, a brace of shepherd’s quads, the clip, clip of shears levelling a laurel hedge, the won’t-take-no-for-an-answer jab of a digger. There is a space where the greenhouses had once been: an expanse of redbrick wall, scrawled with evidence – pipes and power points, gas bottles and tidemarks, the odd shriveled bunch of black grapes, like underwater creatures, sea anemones or bladderwrack.
There is much labour, less behind the scenes than a living part of it, everyone working with the pulse of the earth and our own belief in the power of transformation, this human need for change, the engine of great literature, art. Isn’t that how we make the invisible visible? And need to give something back to the world? Light for light – a fair exchange.
Beneath the trees in the north there are still patches of frost amongst the dappled sunlight. Along the lane it glints off holly and rhododendrons, picks up stitches on the periwinkle and ivy enlivening the woodland floor. If, as Alice Walker would have it, horses make a landscape more beautiful, then light definitely makes a garden more beautiful and turns it into a work of art.
Everything is so soaked in light and just on the point of blazing into life, it is a poised dramatic moment. Cheeseburn has caught the gist of the season’s spirit of anticipation and preparation, hovering on its rise at the top of the drive, waiting to respond, to greet passing travellers and invite them in. Next to the mounting steps outside the stables – stairs rising into nowhere – a forsythia spills its yellow stars over the wall, as if gold were tumbling out of the sky. At this time of year nothing will stop us filling our pockets with it, amazed at our own good fortune and plenty enough to share.
Painterly mauve, maroon and yellow of Renaissance irises. The blue and white stripes of the lupin. A rhododendron’s peachy lingerie. Deep double blush of peony. The Cape daisy’s dusky back and studded golden eye; its botanical name Osteospermum suggesting both ‘bone’ and ‘seed’. Intimations of the human body feel like no accident. On the cusp between spring and summer the garden at Cheeseburn becomes almost unrecognizable; its skeleton concealed by vegetation’s muscle and flesh, an encyclopedic quantity of plants – too many to list, to remember the names of – all elegant and surprising, irresistibly propelled by Dylan Thomas’s ‘force that through the green fuse drives the flower’.
Along the riverbanks the woodland has also become an entirely new universe. All bearings lost beneath the shade of the thickening canopy, the paths are drifts of fallen beech blossoms, spreading periwinkle and sweet woodruff, woodpigeons’ feathers and pinecones. Tufts of bluebell and spurred crane’s-bill rise among stretches of dappled green.
In a clearing, sunlight warms the weathered graveyard stones of Mary and Barbara, Oswald, Arthur and Philip. Their resting place softened now not just by creeping moss and lichen, but also a hem of newly-sprung forget-me-nots. Commemoration and memento mori, this small square amid the trees is an exhortation to feel yourself more alive, to let your own sap rise, its charge flooding like electric volts through the fuse of your senses.
As soon as you walk into the walled garden the smell of fresh-mown grass punches an involuntary sigh from your diaphragm – recognition and gratitude. The expanse of shorn green gives the illusion that the space is bigger than it is, suggesting a stadium, showground or arena. The structure of the three-sided brick enclosure more clearly revealed, the curving capped endpoints are a flourish of decoration for its own sake and an invitation to enter, encouraging the gentle movement of visitors and air. Inside, towards the back wall, the clear definition of a line of fruit trees, well in leaf, re-asserts the idiosyncratic geometry, an unfinished symmetry. This is a holding bay. There is no gate to open or close – just a long mown path of grass through grass, a green carpet.
If grass is the topnote, it’s shot through with more subtle fragrances and colours – sweet lilac and honeysuckle, the violet smell of the irises, something spicy issuing from the lupin and heady from the azaleas. Though scent resists translation into words, it sets the pulse and the imagination racing like nothing else. There is a zing and tingle that makes a person feel full of juice, gloriously glad to be hatched, incarnate.
Sights and smells compete for your attention – what to let your eyes feast on or bury your nose in first? The environment at Cheeseburn leaves you in no doubt every single element is very much alive and that you too are alive. Isn’t this May – a season on fire with itself? There is plenty of fuel in the tank, a constant acceleration, something urgent in the air.
The chorus is More! More! More! chirruped by the birds, passerines hidden among the thickets of green. Their songs come from all directions, a performance in sensurround, percussive, avant garde. As much a plethora of rhythms and notes as there are plants – layer upon layer of song, accompanied by the hum and drawl of insects. Wasps saw away at the wooden table to chew what they can into paper for their nests. Footsteps scrunch on gravel like sounds off. A light breeze riffles through the treetops. The motor of the mower drones on the other side of a wall, trying to keep on top of the acres of grass that won’t stop growing between now and October – two day’s work to complete the circuit.
Touch is texture – translated into seasonal petals and foliage – blade, spike, rosette and silk, leather, suede. This is material: the garden and we are matter. We all matter. When you risk your face, your fingers, it is impossible to separate what you smell from what you see and feel. Silver lavender leaves ask you to linger, drink in a little more of their pure soothing. The senses won’t be dissected; the body too complex a machine. So full of sounds, scents and textures, there’s no room left for taste, hunger. For now, you are sated, content.
Two miniature human forms have sprouted like May flowers from the hollow of the lawn beyond the parterre. One is light; one is dark. Both are made as much from the space between the metal as their material structure. They are as much suggestion, interpretation as they are outline or detail. Maquettes for larger than life-size figures, titled Digital Rendition, by Joe Hillier: whilst drawing our attention to embodiment, they seem to remind us that there is more here than is visible to the naked eye. And this just when we might be persuaded otherwise by the evidence of nature. All there seems to be – extravagant enough in its bounty – is not all there is. In all the spaces in between there are dreams and songs and stories – no end to May’s gifts.
Today it is presence. Today we have no need for before or after, what if. Today there is what the eye sees, what the ear hears, the nose smells, what the fingers touch and the tongue tastes. And then there’s that mysterious sixth sense – what’s beyond all these and happens somewhere in the region of the heart, the imagination: this is what we’ve always known but every moment are in danger of forgetting. Today we tie a Beltane thread to the branch of an apple tree. Today our body is here, remembering.
The gardener Christopher Lloyd said that, in the end, people are more important than plants. Only when a garden is seen does it fulfill its promise. Cheeseburn enjoyed an opportunity to be appreciated on the National Gardens Scheme Open Day, Sunday 6th July, when several hundred visitors passed through the gates. Despite the weather forecast, the rain stayed away and, between 11 in the morning and 4 in the afternoon, people were able to take their time exploring the garden and the grounds.
The mood was celebratory and sociable. Even on the road approaching the entrance bright yellow signs announced ‘NGS Gardens Open For Charity’, festive and expectant. Five rows of cars were parked in the field to the right of the driveway just before the gates where the entrance fees were collected. The whole place looked bright and inviting, bustling with folk in summer clothes, and the gardens were also dressed in their Sunday best, with more flowers in bloom than in any previous month.
Turning the corner from the house onto the lawn, visitors were greeted by the wonderful sight of a stretch of over a hundred feet of roses, pink and white, heavy with the weight of July and some recent rainfall. Wide-eyed mauve geraniums brimmed at their feet and two woolly willows softened the four steps up to the arboretum.
As well as the roses and two long floating beds, lush with skilfully textured planting, the lawn was also vivid with a marquee strung with bunting. Teas! Produce! Plants! Crafts! Antiques! A selection of wooden tables set with jars arranged with pretty midsummer flowers were ranged round with folk drinking tea, eating scones and catching up on the news of the day.
The tables shared the lawn with William Peers’s striking white sculpture. Marble carved into a folded obelisk, it appears to take on new properties – creased softness, a defiant yielding – doing what stone isn’t meant to do. In the sculptor’s own words: ‘more plant than human’. Maybe the people sitting alongside it caught some of its lightness and have been prompted to do what they don’t do, making new shapes out of their lives. The way art sometimes whispers in our ears when we’re looking the other way.
Whichever way you looked at it, Cheeseburn was barely recognizable, transformed by this sudden spike in its population – so many souls in drifts of two or more, like perennials planted in an ever-expanding border. Some had brought their dogs, also welcome, with their own wagging eccentricities. All day people traced their way through the maze of paths, negotiating the different routes, looking at the plants and sculptures, lingering to smell the roses or take a photograph. There were some resting on benches, talking in low voices; an assortment of walking sticks, the occasional wheelchair; children excited by all the space, weaving their way between trees, under the tunnel, up and down the steps to the treehouse.
There is something very British about this particular summer Sunday afternoon ritual – akin to the Village Fete, the Pageant or Flower Show. These are the modern day equivalents of traditional Fairs and Festivals, stitched into the seasons and agricultural gatherings, the pagan and Christian calendar. They are important social rites, gestures of community and belonging for the locals; as well as a chance to see how some of their rural neighbours live for those who travel from towns and cities further afield.
There are familiar, reassuring protocols – the particular pleasures of walking unhurriedly around a garden very different from your own, one for whose upkeep you bear no responsibility; stopping for tea and a little home-baked something, before buying a plant to take home as a souvenir of your visit, a small scrap of an English country garden to transplant to your own modest plot; at the end of a gentle, wholesome afternoon, carrying back to the car a tray of astrantia perhaps or sedum, some unusual grasses the stallholder assured you could survive anywhere.
Like August, the slow winding avenue up to Cheeseburn, through two wide gates, is grand, expansive and full of promise. August. Even the sound of the word is heavy with potential: that particular combination of vowels and consonants, a hint of fruit ripening.
Classical and Romantic, only the metal plate of the intercom differs from how this approach might have looked one or two hundred years ago. Where you might expect neo-classical sculpted stone, carved with grapes or acanthus, a rustic urn made entirely of tiny bricks roughly interlocked stands between towering oaks and limes. Rich terracotta glints with touches of turquoise, purple and yellow glaze. Although a classical amphora form, this one reflects a make-it-up-as-you-go-along post-modern world, with the reality of India’s needs-must make-do-and-mend culture, where the bricks were sourced and then recycled by sculptor Andrew Burton. It’s a cheering sight, a surprising welcome. Turning the corner of the house, the wisteria is putting on a second flowering, intricate mauve racemes drooping against leaves that have swelled into fullness since its first flush.
Lilies and lamb’s ears, Japanese anemones and late roses are all flowers that speak to us of abundance, the season’s mellowness, confirmed by apples already starting to drop from the trees. The vegetable garden is full of swelling beans, spinach, herbs, courgettes. Tomatoes plump to scarlet in the greenhouse. High on the wall of the old kitchens, the blue enamel bell looks as if it might ring at any moment, calling us in for tea, Earl Grey and apple cake.
Sometimes you see a plant more clearly when you don’t know its name, when the flower stays unmasked and you must trust your own eyes. A drift of white stars. Blood orange spears. Intense purple plumes. Loose pink braids standing on end, a-buzz with bees, wasps and all manner of flying insects. So many petals daubed against walls the same terracotta, mottled and venerable, as the urn that greeted you. These bricks would also have been the work of someone’s hands, rough with the memory of history’s accidents and glories.
While cabbage whites graze verbena, red admirals and peacocks are haunting the buddleia – butterflies unable to resist anything purple. Vivid pink and terracotta, echinacea wears the colours of Northern India. Harder than it looks, its central cone is a dark mound of little prickles, beloved by bees.
Not all ripening is soft and lush, nature is also busy with the process of thinning and drying as flowers transform themselves into seed packets on stems. Drained of colour, alliums are satellites, floating above lavender and statice and heuchera, all in it for the long game. Rudbeckia is twisting itself into shy spirals where its seeds will be safe to set.
These flower forms are works of art, an endless array of beautiful sculptures; so small and easily overlooked you have to lean down and examine them very closely, shift your sense of scale. They are part of a story bigger than we are – the dance, this game summer invites us to play.
One minute bright sunlight, one minute black clouds, spots of rain. August is like that. Promise is also precarious. What will ripen? What will rot? In the long garden, an underground stream is capped with a miniature folly, a four-legged stone campanile without a bell. Here grass spills down into the woodland that borders the River Pont. High up in an old spreading cedar sits an enormous red globe – apple, sun, berry, ball. Lodged among the flowing branches, it is caught midway between flying and falling. Its poise is breathtaking, lifting you up to see things differently, change the world around you. It’s braided, wrapped with rope, asking to be stroked but, twenty feet above your head, beyond your reach. All you have is the yearning – familiar strings tugging at your gut – the imagination’s hunger. You may as well think you could reach up and touch the moon.
And then there it is! Next to the path, another cedar with the moon on its arm, and they’re dancing – making it look easy, nothing more natural in the world. This moon is made of wood and shines in light borrowed from the sun. It appears to be just on the point of falling, slipping down the slide of the tree’s starry needles, bounced out of orbit. But, defying gravity, it stays where it is, and again your stomach flips. It’s the summer holidays and, thanks to these pieces by Colin Rose, the garden at Cheeseburn has come out to play.
Impossible now not to see the four spheres in their quarters of box as planets from another galaxy, weathered concrete spotted with craters and seas. The world and the year is turning, at full tilt, keeping and breaking its promises in a way we understand because, fingers crossed behind our backs, we do it too.
Cheeseburn is a place for reverie. It takes us back in time – a walk through history, at home and abroad, and in the country of our own childhoods, where we might spend whole days tossing a ball in the air, thrilled by the danger of losing it over a wall or high up in a giant tree. Low-flying swallows, casting their nets over the lawn, gather up these last days of summer and the first green chestnuts are there for the taking.
It is another warm and bright day after a long, mild summer. Autumn is tip-toeing slowly across the land, not wanting to disturb us in our fine-weather-dreaming. There are gentle flashes of ginger and gold high in the canopy of the beeches and oaks, but more persuasive evidence of the season underfoot, curled leaves brown and brittle. As you walk your body sways between looking up to the treetops against a delicious blue sky – fetching the names from the cupboard in the back of your mind: redwood, sycamore, holly, cedar, yew, maple, pine, lime, hazel, rowan, fir, cherry, willow – and then down, as you bend your head to inspect the patterns on the carpet beneath your feet – a graphic explosion of leaf litter, burnished conkers, cones, twigs and beech mast like so many fallen stars.
Trees demonstrate the beauty of balance, your own upright axis, stretched between heaven and earth, anchored by the heart. They play their salty susurrations, whispers just for you. The birds’ minims and quavers are percussion and strings. Listen, what do the trees say? Don’t go, come back. An elegy for the leaves they know must be lost. Not yet, not yet.
Trees give all of themselves to their task, entirely surrendering to sun-time, wind-time. Through channels of xylem and phloem, they offer up their oxygen and chemical fragrances for us to breathe and be brightened by. They seduce us with their fruits –fourteen orchard trees, like the lines of a sonnet. One apple so perfect, so crimson, a jewel of a tree, it looks like it could be the one that tempted Eve. Impossible to resist.
Behind them, in the semi-dark of the potting shed two long wooden tables are laden with Gilbert Ward’s ‘fruits’ – cooked on one table, raw on the other. You can’t help reaching out to touch them. Magnified pollen grains or winged seeds, sections of exotic cones, polished or rough – they hint at what nature herself suggests, where it might take you if you opened the door, if you were willing to dream and eat the fruit of the trees. This is what happens when eye, hand, heart and mind meet at the same point, and become intimate with chisel and wood. The ancient flower pots, hundreds of them stacked against the walls, tide-marked by years of soil and weather, have never seen the like.
Trees shade the riverside with green – mostly chestnut, birch and yew. Along the bank, stones are padded with moss, crimped with liverwort. A shaft of sun penetrates the tunnel of foliage and opens a square window of milky light on the water’s surface. The peaty flow seems to pause for an instant – life held still – a state somewhere between sleeping and waking. Here we can see through one element to another – those smooth boulders on the river bed that have lain there, bathed in the current, as long as the Grange has stood among the fields.
The square of light is like a cut-out, one of the shapes in David Mach’s collages hanging on the walls of the Gallery in the Stables. Fairy-tale trees, a patchwork of paper sprouting with chairs and ladders and tables, all the clutter of a human life. A ‘real’ tree has morphed into a chair, with drumstick for roots, still printed with the name of the legendary Vic Firth. Two ‘found’ branches, tangled and twisted, have been extended and fused into arboreal Möbius strips – conundrums with no beginning or end, gestures towards infinity. What we know as living wood is paused, poised between natural and artificial.
Walking outside again, you see sculptures everywhere – all the trees haunted by the ghosts of Mach’s imagination. Branches bend, fork and loop, pointing towards an infinite variety of meanings and possibilities. Your eyes follow their shapes and forms as if you’ve never seen a tree before. The world of the imagination is endless, a dream that never disappears. Why do we keep forgetting, build gates and doors out of wood we can close between us and our most luminous hopes, our unmentionable fears. Within the safe boundary of Cheeseburn, the year’s endless cycle is both engine and harvest. This is a farmer’s wisdom – to work as if we’ll live forever, knowing we might die tomorrow and nothing will ever be finished.
If what you need is shelter, David Mach has built a maquette of a monumental sculpture in the form of a log cabin. Whole tree trunks from Cheeseburn’s trees will create the architecture of a rustic dwelling that might have been lifted straight out of a dream. Heartwood – forest and frontier, sanctuary and survival. The miniature version rests on top of a pile of hay bales, open doorway just at eye level, so you feel yourself shrinking, like Alice, until you’re small enough to enter and either curl up or explore.
Upstairs, in the Stables, what you’re eye to eye with is a stag. Built from matchsticks and then ignited, its charred, dusky head floats like an apparition within the long empty space. Its antlers branch and lilt not unlike the serpentine sections of tree in the rooms next door. All these dreams born of wood, timber and paper – trees.
It’s impossible to imagine Cheeseburn without its trees. They are signpost and flagpole, shelter and temple, furniture and pantry, orchestra and calendar, home for birds, squirrels, insects, fungi and lichen. The list is as tall as the highest conifer, and still growing. Scattered around the grounds, old stone pillars, remnants of the house’s history, are milestones on an invisible road. Some of them are crowned with a burr or a root of some fallen hero. These are sculptures too, inviting contemplation, offering accommodation for the heart and mind. Trees furnish our lives. Who’d want to live in an empty room?
If the year is a compass, early November looks North, the shady part of our lives where memory dwells. The week between All Hallow’s Eve and Remembrance Day is a time for looking back, recalling lost loved ones, the spirits of the dead and departed. For a while, it is said, the veil that separates life and death thins so it is easier to cross from the present into the past.
Arriving at Cheeseburn with these thoughts in mind, the first thing that might catch your eye is a glint of flat silver high in the redwood beside the gate. A curvy line is scribbled across the branches, like a magic spell, the wave of a wand, someone’s secret name. From beginning to end you follow it, but it takes you nowhere. Just more there, deep inside this month’s mystery.
From here the house is hidden behind a dark crown of yew, a great carousel of sprigged and berried evergreen, a tree that has the gift of living forever – or at least appearing to. This is the calendar’s endless circle. Late in what has been a year remarkable for its clemency, even at the beginning of November the sun is warm and valiant, lighting up the gold on the trees and the windfalls on the lawn. Despite the day’s brightness, you know darkness will come earlier and last longer.
There’s no denying this is the beginning of winter, a season for doing things differently, looking at the world with different eyes. Tracing the contours of your summer, you can map the memories of where you’ve been and start to dream the compass of what next spring will bring, what new light might reveal. Today the gates lie open and cast long shadows on your path.
As the landscape is changing, the weather turning, it’s possible to hear the voices of the past not far beneath the surface – the Augustinian monks who tended their garden in the thirteenth century and at this time of year gathered the last of the apples for cider, elderberries and rosehips for tinctures against winter colds.
And the matriarch – in a novel by Jane Austen perhaps – climbing the steps at the east entrance, flanked by carriage lamps, with her still unmarried daughters – two, is it, or three – returning home from visiting neighbours in the village of Stamfordham. Now the kitchen is full of workmen, rescuing it from a recent leak, but in the 1820s there would have been similar upheavals when John Dobson was commissioned to remodel the Grange: the main entrance moved to the west, a tower built above the front door, parapets added and a chapel erected. Their boots would have carried the dust of broken stones far and wide, stirring the spirits in cracks and crevices who keep aflame the memories of Dissolution, Civil War, Primogeniture, Enclosure and Empire.
The bell is silent now but once it rang to call the children in for bedtime during the Second World War when the place was cradle, schoolroom and sanctuary for orphaned children. Listen for their voices – laughter and singing, tears and questions.
Remembrance Day is the sound of sirens and gunshot, a bugle blowing. Reveille, forever – words we no longer use – even they turned into ghosts, evaporated into thin air. The archeology of sound leaves its silt on the inner ear.
Today the radio’s on in the greenhouse – a low hum of music and chatter, traffic announcements and news – ephemeral alongside these stones, the ancient trees, yews hundreds of years old. The click, chuckle and squeak of the birds, the hum of a late bee. The melancholic call of an insomniac owl. So many last things – butterflies, raspberries, roses – bright farewells against the garden’s thinning palette.
Over the course of a morning, the islands of last night’s rain dry on the flagstones, small disappearing worlds. At the hub of the paving rests an empty slab – the compass has no centre. For a few months we will enter the long tunnel of darkness and there will be nothing to hold onto. The past will press upon us and the cycle will do its work of alchemy. Before there can be gold, there must be lead, the weight of memory, months of waiting.
Walk through the archway and who knows where you’ll end up.
A path that appears random leads to a wall hung with five modest tablets of limestone. The grid of four are seasons, points of the compass, elements; the other is longer, larger, a culmination of them all, a map of the ocean. They are all carved – by sculptor Sarah Smith – with curving lines, contours or waves, something we know from so long ago it’s inside us, etched on our bones: the tides of the sea we came from, sand and shells that settled into stone. A remembered rhythm to dance us through the darkness.
Today I travel to Cheeseburn hoping for snow but all I find is a crackle of frost still lying in the shade, catching the last of the short day’s sunlight. It’s interesting how approaching something, somewhere, from a different direction changes the way we see it. Coming from the east rather than the west this time nudges my eye out of its expectations, what’s become familiar, and after the jaded aimlessness of the city post-Christmas, it’s a stark contrast to step into the bracing cold of the winter countryside.
The sweep of the drive feels grander than usual, the trees more powerful; nobility in this place’s insouciance to the vagaries of a commercially-driven season. Unintentionally, one new polished metal sculpture might be the only concession, shining beneath the evergreens like a Christmas bauble from one angle or a star from another. My reflection is inverted, multiplied, fractured in this silver conundrum lodged in a section of tree trunk it rises out of like Excalibur.
Not far away one of the few flowers in bloom is a Christmas rose, small white heads bowed against the dipping temperature, the prospect of snow on its way. The sprouty tops of butterbur poking through the soil are early, keen to get the new year started before this one’s over. Rhododendron buds are still tight-wrapped against the cold.
Even after visiting for an entire year, I’m still spotting details I haven’t noticed before, reminding me not to take anything for granted, fill the gaps of seeing with assumptions. A path leads towards a gate into the parkland edged with sprawling holly. The fields where the sheep graze stretch away, drawing the eye outwards to linger over the soft low light. Next to a long shed – a black horseshoe hung on the grey-green door, the colour of twilight, neither night nor day – an old gatepost stranded in its concrete base is crowned with a cast iron acorn.
Incised on the old puzzle of a sundial standing in front of the potting shed are letters that make up the word CRACOW among sequences of numbers and rusty fragments of metal. On the top rests a spiked globe, engraved with lines of longitude and latitude; moss, lichen and a long historical crack creating the impression of land and sea, continents of green, the deep rift beneath the surface of things. From a distance, with the light bouncing off the weathered brick wall, this odd bricolage of stones could almost be the figure of a man, Lego-style, embodying the puzzle of being human, names and dates etched on our skin and in our stories. From Cracow to Stamfordham – an intriguing journey for anyone, but who? When?
It’s a measure of Cheeseburn’s rich history that here I am, still asking questions – after so much I’ve learned, still so much to know. The nuthatches’ persistent cheeping high in the pines – birds who make their home here all the year round, easier to hear than see. A stray brick printed STEPHENSON used to prop a gate open, a leftover from Throckley Colliery Brickworks in the nineteenth century. Tantalizing snippets from Burke’s Peerage tell tales of notable ancestors, including Sir Walter Blount, who married Sancha de Ayola, daughter of the Chief Justice of Toledo, and went on to be killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403, mistaken for the King. The Riddell Arms recorded cryptically as ‘2nd and 3rd, arg., a fesse between three garbs az., banded or.’ And the Crest: ‘A demi-lion rampant or, holding in the paws a garb as in the arms.’
It takes more than a single year to know a place. And however long it lasts, the dialogue will never be fixed, final. It can only grow with time and attention, a river that never ends. While we keep asking questions, we are in the business of making memories, history. In the formal garden, next to a Garrya elliptica or Silk Tassel Bush, a migrant from coastal California, two figures are deep in conversation – with each other and the tree – its downy catkins already breathing dusky pollen like the smoke of whatever it is they are saying. Grey squirrels scamper away to bury their words among secret hoards of nuts and seeds. How much they will have heard over the years, how much they will have buried.
Just past the point of Winter Solstice don’t we start to feel the ground shift beneath our feet? The light is imperceptibly lifting, or at least the anticipation of it. No respecter of stillness, the engine of the year keeps ticking over. It will show us a whole new calendar of wonders, set more puzzles. As I leave, I hear a sound I’ve never heard on previous visits – the rattle of the flagpole’s rope in the breeze. It sounds like rigging on a boat’s mast, the galleon that is Cheeseburn preparing to set sail into the uncharted seas of another year.