An arch cut into a high yew hedge, affording a magical glimpse of a secret garden, was my first impression of the house I now call home. A previous purchase had fallen through and I heard that a house with some land and planning permission for a “Granny Annex” was available at the same price. My recently widowed father, although determined to stay independent in his flat in Bath for as long as possible, offered to pay for the ruined Victorian greenhouse to be converted into a comfortable bungalow. As my father was already in his late 80s, there was no time to waste and work began that first Spring. The annex, which is the present-day Rose Cottage, grew up out of a field – which has now become a private driveway, a secluded garden and a productive orchard.
Before my father agreed to move into Rose Cottage on his 91st birthday, the cottage stood empty and a friend and I had an idea for a Women’s Retreat Centre. I provided the accommodation and my friend gave instruction in meditation techniques and offered spiritual guidance to our clients. Most of the women liked the idea of total peace and quiet, away from the noise and chaos of family life, but some found that being alone with no distractions at all, was too difficult to bear. On several separate occasions, the door bell would ring and a disconsolate figure would plead to be allowed in for some company and a chat. My involvement in The Women’s Retreat Centre idea did not last long and my friend bought a remote cottage, with no access by road, up a steep slope in the Black Mountains and carried on her work there.
Still looking for a project which would absorb my time and attention, I decided to plant a vineyard. My son had wide experience of wine making and vineyards in Europe, Australia and New Zealand and together we researched the best grape varieties for this damp climate by visiting the Three Choirs Vineyard near Newent in Gloucestershire. The Three Choirs wines had a good reputation and were winning prizes at the time, so we took their advice and bought three German varieties which we hoped would be resistant to mildew. In the early Spring, a group of us planted the vines in a field that had been an orchard in the past, but where only a stately walnut tree and a magnificent cherry remained. The volunteer planters had spent the previous week working at the Wine Challenge in London and brought down spectacular wines which we enjoyed with our evening meals while throwing out pretentious, wine tasting comments. My helpers then left and I had sole responsibility for watering the tiny vines and keeping them alive through the summer. Each vine was protected from the rabbits by a plastic bag, designed to disguise wine labels, during blind tastings.
The Vineyard flourished for several years and I learned about pruning, spraying and cutting back the leaves to allow the sun to reach the bunches and by the end of each summer we usually had a good crop. Unfortunately, the warm summer would inevitably be followed by a wet early autumn, so that, year after year, mildew would cause ruination and a total failure of the harvest. Another hard lesson for me to learn – vines should be planted on a south facing hillside to maximise the sunshine and to allow breezes to blow through. Our vineyard was south/southwest facing, but on a flat field which meant that the vines would always be prone to mildew.
The Vineyard was eventually grubbed up and has become pasture for the neighbour farmer’s sheep, once more. The wine and cider making equipment has been sold on EBay and will be collected by a couple from West Wales this weekend. Wildlife has taken back the space. The walnut tree, in the centre of the field, offers copious amounts of nuts to the squirrels, while the birds devour every ripe cherry on the venerable cherry tree, before I can reach it. Next to the cherry tree is a small pond, home to the occasional wild duck and a perfect habitat for tadpoles, frogs and newts. The pond is also a welcoming pool, in hot weather, for the two spaniels and any visiting dogs. In place of the vines, more trees have been planted; several young apple trees, two rowan trees, a horse chestnut and my favourite – a copper beech. Memories of the Vineyard will soon fade, but these trees will reach maturity and live on.