I’m not long back from the Atlantic Island of Ile de Re, a small flat, salty patch of land that lies just off the French west coast.
Immediately on arriving I learned something about myself that I’d never known.
It hit me as soon as I was over the bridge and onto the island. Before me stood a crest of steep sided grasses rolling in the wind, their strong, upright growth bending in a wave of sea glass green, their soft feathery flowers heads a convincing watery froth. Stipa tenuissima. Lots of it moving in a single dynamic flow as ever changing as the surrounding sea.
A short blast of speeding bike wheels down to the dunes deepened the impact. Sea Holly. More Stipa. Fennel. Hollyhocks. Poppies. Gaura. Verbascum. Teasels. And the little white puffs of Lagurus Ovatus, a grass commonly known as Bunny Tails. All around me, growing where the seeds fell, with no more intervention than the seasons bring, were so many of the plants I grow at home.
It felt a little like turning the last page in a cheap thriller. It was so obvious – but still exciting. How come I hadn’t seen it before?
When I hear gardeners speak of their deep influences – Dan Pearson talking about how the South Downs and the influenced his parents had on him is just one example that pops up – I feel a little estranged from the fray. I don’t have a long lineage of green-fingered relatives – I used to hoe the bare soil between my Grandmother’s well-tended roses and there’s no doubt we both loved them but that hardly counts. And I didn’t grow up in a verdant little pocket of green England, knowing the names of everything that sprang from the earth.
I grew up running through sand, my short little calves shredded by the sharp tongues of the tough, razor sharp grasses that sprang like blades from the dunes. Sometimes I was on friendlier terms with the sea grass, I burrowed hollows in the dunes that became dens and wove makeshift roofs from the tough blades. Or my camouflaged hole became a trap for Heffalumps and foes imagined, or real – perhaps I might trap the beaky faced old lady who scared me when she came walking with her yappy little dogs. And inevitably later the dunes were a place to deal discreetly with the business of boys and all the pleasure and trouble that comes with them.
Fair to say then, that Yes, my love for the sea and the dunes has always been there, an obvious thing. I really do like to be beside the seaside. I possess for this coastal world of grasses, wild flowers and big skies the same visceral connection I recognise in others when they talk of their formative landscapes. I just hadn’t recognised it as the deep well from which I draw my creative inspiration.
Yet a quick flick through my image libraries throws up masses of photographic evidence. Beaches and their plant rich margins are everywhere. When I was in Ameland, a small island in the Netherlands, last year I was more smitten with the dunes, and the wild plants than the neatly kempt gardens, but still I didn’t really get it.
A few days before I flew out to Ile de Re I went for a walk along Gullane beach, close to home, and realised that nothing I create in my garden could speak to me in the same way as the rolling dunes and the tough, salty survivors who grew there. But I still didn’t recognise how the landscape influenced in my gardening.
It’s taken so long for the penny to drop. My love of grasses and semi-feral plants, grown in cultivated imitation of a more natural setting – a style that everywhere is called Meadow, or Prairie Planting – exists because this style affect a good substitute for the coastal world in which I grew up.
Ile de Re on the East Coast of Scotland
I first visited Ile de Re three years ago, I’d been gardening for long a while, beginning to establish my garden at the School House. I loved the island then, its wild windswept marshes, the hollyhocks and wild flowers that grew abundantly everywhere. And I mean everywhere. I filled my pockets with hollyhock seeds, took them home and grew the little plants that now flourish in my own garden – not quite with the same vigour, but well enough. But it’s taken a return visit to see how much more than just the seeds I took home with me.
What I’ve unconsciously created owes a lot to this little spot. Of course there are differences, what flourishes on the Atlantic coast of France is a little different to what will live happily close to coast on the of Scotland, and there are coastal plants like Alba maritima that equally don’t belong on Ile de Re, but the influence is so clearly there, in the plant combinations and the overall effect.
I can’t believe it took me so long to trace my creative influences – all those synapses fizzing away for all those years and not a whiff of insight. Feels good at last to know where my roots are planted.