Charlie Hart: How my garden saved my sanity
How my garden saved my sanity: Charlie had always been emotionally fragile – then his father’s death and mother’s decline threatened to tip him into the abyss, until his slice of heaven worked its healing magic
Gardening has taught me many things. It has taught me that you can dig for victory — but that you can also dig for mental health.
The days I spent creating my rose garden in East Anglia — cutting turf, forking in compost and manure — were the days in which I physically mourned the loss of my parents.
Out of breath, covered in sweat, I’d trample my tears into the soil — the same soil that now produces abundant foliage and a profusion of blooms each summer.
My rose garden is a story of hope. It has enabled me to turn loss into gain.
My wife Sybilla and I had bought beautiful Peverels farmhouse, on the border of Suffolk and Essex, in the summer of 2013. When we saw it for the first time, before I’d even turned off the car engine, we knew we had found our paradise.
With its heavy oak doors and ancient beams, the house itself was a delight. But it was the seven acres of England that came with it that won our hearts.
Charlie Hart (pictured centre with his wife Sybilla and children) revealed how moving away from the city and spending time in his garden helped to boost his mental health
Sitting in a vast sea of cornfields deep in Constable countryside, the glorious meadowland surrounding the house was a blank canvas — a gardener’s heaven. I’d already started planning what I’d do with it as we drove back home to London.
And yet, looking back, I know the garden of my dreams had really begun taking shape in my mind two years earlier, in 2011, as I stood in a room in a Suffolk hospital with my brothers witnessing our adored father, David Hart, taking his leave for the final time.
He had been such an over-arching and titanic figure in all of our lives. Businessman, film-maker, novelist and political adviser to Margaret Thatcher and Michael Portillo, he was the sun around which we had all orbited.
With his less than conventional attitude to marriage and family life (his five children have four different mothers), he had led a flamboyant, Technicolor existence. But now, in the opening days of that year, his sun was setting for ever.
After his death I remember a feeling of sheer exhaustion. Overwhelmingly, I felt I just wanted to build something — anything. I needed to use my hands. Unlike the work of the mind, painting, decorating, building, gardening, even housework, lift the soul.
With my father gone, and the Suffolk farm where he had lived gone, I couldn’t bear the thought of interminable weekends stuck in London with no escape other than the fabricated countryside of a city park, which served only to remind me that I was failing miserably to live the life I wanted.
More than anything, I needed to escape, and Sybilla agreed.
This urge ultimately led me to the garden my wife and I named Skymeadow — so-called because it seemed to lead directly to the heavens. It was Skymeadow that helped save my sanity.
Charlie and his family moved out of London in 2013 following the death of his father (Pictured: Charlie’s cultivated a seven-acre garden)
Moving out of London with three children under six was tiring, but desperately exciting. It was my dream to save up enough money from the madness of working in the capital to move full-time to the countryside, but I hadn’t reached that point, and was still commuting to my job.
It was exhausting, but the peace at Peverels was overwhelming, and I couldn’t wait to sit on a warm evening on the wall with my son and look nonchalantly at the pond, and at the ducks which would dabble on its surface. I couldn’t wait to watch an East Anglian sunset with those I loved most.
Every day that first winter I walked round the garden and pondered. Long list after long list was drawn up and I scrabbled to prioritise which jobs should come first.
But all the while there was a shadow hanging over our new adventure.
Even as we planned our move, it had become increasingly obvious that my mother Christina was entering the final chapter of her life.
Charlie (pictured left with his wife Sybilla) revealed he had felt broken-hearted as a child after his parents split
Her GP in London had already gently suggested that, following her diagnosis with lung cancer in the summer of 2013, she may only have months to live.
My idyllic new existence might, I feared, leave my conscience with some distinctly jagged edges as it took me further away from her than I wanted to be.
My mother had been an achingly beautiful woman — every inch an English rose, and a famous model in the decade before Twiggy. After my parents split up I lived with her in London in the week, and with my father in Suffolk at weekends.
I didn’t realise it as a young child, but I now see that she was utterly broken-hearted.
I remember aged six walking into the sitting room to find her with an envelope, weeping. The divorce papers had arrived — there was no going back.
There was so much I did not understand, but I do recall the day we planted an apple tree together in the tiny garden of the London home we shared, of which we both became immeasurably proud. Somewhere, there is a photograph of me eating its first rosy red fruit. The link between horticulture and healing was established early on.
But after the divorce I missed my dad and loved being out in the countryside with him.
I remember him once visiting us in London. It was my birthday and my heart leapt as I heard someone say: ‘David is at the door.’
In he swept, followed by a chauffeur carrying the largest, reddest remote-controlled car I had ever seen.
He stood by the cooker, but I could tell the situation was getting to him, and after five minutes he left. His immaculate car sped off down our street.
As it accelerated rapidly, the pain of not sitting next to him in the back seat was indescribable.
But I knew, even as a small child, that my constant longing to be with him in rural Suffolk equated to abandoning my mother to her more or less solitary city life. The joy of being with him was surrounded by a sea of guilt about leaving my mum.
And now those thoughts were back again all those years later.
Charlie claims he felt a split of loyalty between his declining mother and the farmhouse (pictured) the family fell in love with
A mounting sense of split loyalty, the tension between my new home and being with my mother as she was dying. Constantly, anxiously, I asked myself if I should be doing more for her.
I resolved that if she was too ill to come to my garden, I would take my garden to her.
And so I did. I took her great bundles of lavender for her to smell, bouquets of different roses to see and punnets of gooseberries, raspberries and strawberries to eat. Although she was so ill, smell and taste still gave her great pleasure.
And I derive great comfort from the fact that I still have those very same fruit bushes from which that particular harvest came — that I can touch them now as I touched them then, and look for a further harvest.
It is a link between us. They feed us still. A tiny thing that for me holds a disproportionate significance.
Amid all the helter-skelter of our lives, other important things were happening at this time.
I had at last made the break from commuting, and was now seriously putting out feelers to see if I could make a career of gardening, and writing about it. In the meantime we were lucky to have savings from our time in London.
And we had discovered, to our surprise — but delight — that Sybilla was pregnant with our fourth child.
Charlie (pictured with his family) revealed his mother was determined to stay alive to see the birth of his fourth child
When we told Mum the news I could see that she was determined to remain alive until the baby arrived. My mother was tough, and I knew that this would become her final milestone.
Whichever way you looked at it, change of one sort or another was now coming at us thick and fast.
People battle different adversaries, but the one that has taken me to the edge more frequently than not is anxiety.
I don’t mean worry, which is merely a sort of symptom that can be ignored, but the chemical and biological consequences of trying to live a normal life when you are metaphorically in the throes of mortal combat with a lion.
For periods, anxiety forced me into my bed, where I spent long stretches of unpleasant time in a sort of trippy headspace and with a metallic taste in my mouth.
The worst period was not when my father died, but when he was very, very, ill at the start of the decade, in 2010.
During his illness with a form of motor neurone disease, my world had shaken and heaved and wrenched itself from its sprockets. And as I fought it, it wrenched and heaved some more. I thought I might be going mad.
At its worst, I simply couldn’t do anything. But gradually I learned to switch on a sort of autopilot that enabled me to function and accomplish tasks in a way that outwardly appeared normal, though inwardly I was in a kind of frozen state.
When my father was so ill he could only communicate by looking at letters on a board, I told him what I was going through. It is a mark of his gargantuan strength and commitment to truth that I knew I could share it with him, notwithstanding his ill health, without leaving him in the conventional sense ‘worried’.
Though he had never spoken of it before, letter by letter he spelt out his own experience. His 30s had been filled with exactly the same thing. No one who knew him could possibly have guessed. He never seemed to flinch, even when in grave physical danger. He had clearly learnt to turn on the autopilot, too.
Charlie (pictured) remembers the trees being in flower along with his father when he received his A-level results
My dad had never lost confidence in me or my academic abilities. It was during a drive with him in Scotland as a teenager that I set my heart on going to Cambridge to study theology. When I announced this to my school they said that my prospects were poor and refused to support my dream.
My father was incandescent with fury, and in the end my teachers changed their minds.
I still remember with crystal clarity the bright sunny morning when my A-level grades arrived in an envelope. I remember telling my father, bursting with excitement, as I found him by the magnolia trees he had planted down one side of the house, that they were the ones I needed for Cambridge.
The trees were in flower, he was in flower, I was in flower. It was a moment of sheer ecstasy, and we shared the ecstasy in completely equal measure.
At Cambridge, though, things started to unravel, and fast. I had climbed my first summit in life and found it didn’t hold the answers I craved. I quested for peace, for fulfilment and for belonging, and my quest took me to some rather unpleasant places.
Off the rails would be an understatement; my journey took me through narcotics, unrequited love and misplaced desire. It took me through enough booze to sink a battleship and eventually to a magistrates’ court on the Horseferry Road in London.
Charlie believes his garden (pictured) kept him sane through his difficult periods including his mother’s death four years after his father passed away
Before my turn, there was a lady of the night being sentenced for plying her trade.
The law forced the judge to ask her how she would earn the money to pay her fine. The magistrate’s face was grizzled and embarrassed. She answered simply: ‘How do you think?’
I stared into a misery far greater than my own and I resolved to do something. Ground zero. The only way was up.
My mother did it. She managed to keep going until baby Celestia was born during our second autumn at Skymeadow.
Two days after her birth Mum was driven up to Peverels by my middle brother and a nurse.
She was in excruciating pain but she managed to cradle our tiny girl in her arms. But soon she was tired. There was no question of showing her the garden.
The fact that I couldn’t take her round it and describe my plans was heartbreaking at the time, but it matters to me less that neither of my parents have seen the garden than I might have imagined it would.
As I laid it out, I had moments of intense excitement that I would have deeply loved to share with them. But I had, though, felt their pleasure as I created my garden.
Despite their differences, both would have understood what I was trying to achieve with my tireless efforts to extract some meaning from the earth.
Anyway, my mother had done what she came for — a cuddle with her new grand-daughter. That was her nine-month target achieved. Now she had to return to London.
Gingerly, we lifted her back into the car and tucked her round with rugs.
Not for the first time, the image of a car driving away from me is seared into my memory alongside feelings of intense sadness and pain.
It was the last proper time I spent with her, as I knew it would be.
My mother took her leave four years and two days after my father had. In the middle of another grim January night. Both occasions were marked by terrible storms.
Charlie claims his grief has become the most important gift his parents have given him
Her funeral was held in a church in London. It was a bright, clear day. Later, I returned to Peverels, an orphan at the age of 33.
A curious thing happened after my mother died, which was entirely unexpected.
I was heartbroken, and in pain, but I found within myself a new confidence, a new certainty.
That spring, as my garden started out into its first true growing season under our stewardship, so my own sense of self-confidence seemed to rise with the sap.
Just as the rose garden I’d planted amid such emotion when we’d arrived was growing from nothing into the beating heart of the garden, I, too, was growing in strength and hope and acceptance. I could see how, shorn of parents, you are also in some vague sense shorn of excuses.
When you no longer have parents, there is nobody else to blame. When the king is dead, you become the king. The buck stops with you.
My grief had become a gift — the last and most important my parents gave me. I found freedom and I found responsibility.
I can’t remember whether I told my mother, or I just told myself, that I would plant a tree in the meadow to remember her by, just as we had planted that apple tree together all those years ago.
I haven’t done it yet — there is still too much pain — but I will.
In the meantime, my blue-eyed daughters remind me daily of my extravagantly beautiful, dearly beloved and ruggedly tough mother.
My father had a so-called ‘peace garden’ filled with old English roses planted in geometrically shaped beds. He knew to choose roses that smelt nice and, when I once remarked on this, I could tell he took pleasure that I had noticed.
During the Cold War he would entertain spies, generals and politicians in this garden in order to have long conversations about how to defend freedom from the threat of Soviet totalitarianism.
I am grateful to this cast of characters because they were surprisingly kind and patient with me — indeed, they were my social life as a child. And now I have my own rose garden through which I can tell my father in plants and flowers what I can no longer tell him in words. A garden which also serves as a tribute to my English rose of a mother.
Skymeadow: Notes From An English Gardener by Charlie Hart
I have experienced the healing power of a garden. Building it has kept me sane. I needed it to. Endorphins played their part as I shifted ton after ton of soil.
But they were a medicine, not a cure. I still pull every weed in a spirit of gratitude.
Whatever I do or do not do, the garden is there.
When I think of the infinite sprigs of new growth each spring that happen when I’m not even there, I realise that my ability to influence this garden in any fundamental way is actually quite limited.
My garden puts things in their proper perspective. It has parented me in ways that my own father and mother couldn’t. As it has formed around me on an incoming tide, I have seen the pain I felt over losing my parents rescind on an ebbing one.
Waving goodbye to this pain doesn’t mean forgetting either of them, but rather ensuring that they are more clearly remembered.
For the first time, this spring, when the anniversary of my parents’ death came around in January, something had moved within me.
I looked out of my study window. A robin chirruped. He needed his breakfast. I went out and picked up my spade. That morning I dug, but for pleasure, not pain.
That little robin is now tucked up with his brood in a far ash tree. Life goes on.
Adapted from Skymeadow: Notes From An English Gardener by Charlie Hart, published today by Constable at £16.99. © Charlie Hart 2018
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