Dyrham Park, today, with our youngest grandson. I love this place – it’s run nowadays by the National Trust, but sixty years ago when I first climbed over the wall, as a young trespasser, I fell in love with it. Ten years later there was a riding centre in the grounds and once more we (yes we were a ‘we’ by then) – explored it legally on horseback and I had my first experience of a runaway horse attempting to scrape me off its back by galloping under a low branch. I (just) won that round but lost reins and stirrups in the process, and clung on for dear life until it was over. The horse, called ‘Copper’, gave me a bit of a funny look and we reached an understanding. Later the same horse threw a friend and dislocated his shoulder – so not an easy ride!
We come here often these days. It’s a wildlife paradise, with roe and fallow deer, cattle today – which was a first – and some extraordinarily rich plant life. Sadly I couldn’t tempt our little grandson up to Whitefield which is a quite marvellous unimproved meadow very close to the place I first climbed over the wall. There are bee orchids there, and I’ve never seen one. Many other plants as well, spotted while driving past it on the way out. My heart was aching to be in there with the orchids – were they Pyramidal or Southern Marsh – hard to tell from a car, even at ten miles an hour. If you’ve never seen an unimproved meadow it’s like plant heaven, and you want to lie, like the young Laurie Lee, amongst the grasses and flowers with a cheek on the cool earth, while the myriad bees, flies, butterflies and hoverflies go about their business. “Jack go to bed at noon”, Marbled Whites” and so many yet-to-be-named flora and fauna. In all these sixty years I’ve never been inside the house.
Grandchildren give us permission to see the world through a child’s eyes once again. There were many children there with grandparents – free childcare you might say, except grandparents offer something different. Some of the mums there with children looked pretty tired, and they mostly had one eye on the phone as if the loss of autonomy and status was not compensated for by the relentless demands of parenting. I remember that stage so well – for both of us the demands were almost overwhelming. Grandparenting is an entirely different thing. We’re untroubled by any worries about whether we’re doing it right because we know we’re probably not. We give in to them, feed them unsuitable food without a twinge of conscience (parents do it secretly and feel guilty afterwards) and for some inexplicable reason they love us as unconditionally as we love them.
My biggest worries are for the future of these children. We worry about it because they’ll have to live in it and we’re leaving it in a dreadful state. I’m so pleased that our two year old grandson lets me take him around the gardens offering him leaves and flowers to smell. Our six year old is already a wildlife fanatic and the middle one is an absolute toughie, untroubled by the challenges she faces as a SWAN, carrying but never suffering from a syndrome without a name.
Madame’s Grandparents were the single stable influence in her peripatetic life, and my maternal grandfather was, notwithstanding my most strenuous efforts, the greatest influence in mine. We are formed by our histories, just as this tree was formed by its own. Constricted by a fence that’s now been removed, the trunk is scarred by the experience but nothing daunted it went on to grow to a full sized tree. Even after being partly felled, it still refuses to give up and has started to grow new branches.
On Sunday we’ll go back alone to Whitefield and I’ll bend my thoughts to all the plants I can’t yet name. In a week it will have been mown and baled so some fortunate animals can dine on the richest hay to be had anywhere, and I’ll dream of another year when I can make even more friends among the plants. The Tao that can be spoken is not the Tao. Wise words, but I still want to thank the Tao that cannot be spoken with words that cannot be written.