Woodward, A. (2010) The Garden in the Clouds – from Derelict Smallholding to Mountain Paradise Harper Press ISBN 978 0 00 721651 2
“It is better to have your head in the clouds and know where you are- than to breathe the clearer atmosphere below them, and think you are in paradise.” David Thoreau
The book describes the story of Antony Woodward’s purchase of a six-acre derelict small-holding so high up in the Black Mountains near Crickhowell in Wales it was routinely lost in cloud.
Equally ill-at-ease in town and country after too long in London’s ad-land, Woodward bought Tair-Ffynnon because he yearned to reconnect with the countryside he never felt part of as a child.
Warm, thought-provoking and at times gently humorous, this is a memoir of a hopeless romantic with a grandly ludicrous ambition – an ambition that anyone who’s ever dropped into a garden centre, or opened a packet of seeds, might recognise. He sets out to create a garden, not any old garden but one that could claim to be the highest garden in Britain in just a year, a garden so special it would be selected for the prestigious Yellow Book – the famous National Gardens Scheme guide to gardens open to the public for charity.
It’s an unlikely ambition to entertain in this most unlikely of settings, and one that soon sees Woodward driven by odder and odder compulsions – from hauling a 20-tonne railway carriage up the mountain to making hay with hopelessly antiquated machinery.
It’s the garden that provides the structure for the book, though this isn’t exclusively a gardening book, as it shares Woodward’s journey through family upheaval, risk and grief towards achieving an elusive sense of belonging taking in childhood haunts, children’s books and Proustian nostalgia trips as we go.
He re-introduces pole-vaulting mountain sheep that eat everything, ‘hay, straw, silage, horse and cattle feed, chicken feed, bird seed, cat food, grass cuttings’, they even eat, and are none the worse for eating, ivy, and, incredibly, yew’; hauls a 20- foot-long, 20-ton railway carriage (‘The Perfect Country Room’), which it takes two tractors and a bulldozer to bring up the lane, breaking gate-posts and stone walls; and introduces bees, and the bottling of the honey, which leaves the kitchen a padded cell of stickiness.
Woodward’s easy writing style draws you in, and you find yourself firmly on his side as madcap scheme follows madcap scheme, making his project both readable and perversely logical, a story of triumph against all reason and the odds.
As his young family battles gales, mud and those Welsh mountain sheep of marble-eyed cunning, not to mention the notoriously fastidious NGS County Organiser, it remains deeply uncertain whether the ‘Not Garden’ and the ‘infinity vegetable patch’ (that grows only stones) will ever make the grade. (Take a quick look at the collage of images above to reach your own conclusions as to whether he achieved his goal.)
‘I set out determined to dislike the book, and I completely failed to do so. There can be no higher praise than that … I read [it] through in one sitting, at first from malice, then for enjoyment.’ Byron Rogers, Spectator
‘Woodward’s tongue-in-cheek account of finding, making and growing his own little patch of heaven is right on the button.’ The Times