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Gardens and Grandparents

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Chris Mills

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In my last post, I was talking about nostalgia and one of the things that I tend to be nostalgic about is gardens (and the flowers therein). The garden might be one of my own or one that I have visited and enjoyed, perhaps a private garden or a public one. The colours, shapes and smells all evoke memories and thoughts of the past. Sometimes it’s the sounds too. When I was a child growing up in Birmingham, a great treat was to visit the Botanical Gardens in Edgbaston. Here not only were there flowers in profusion, but also an aviary from which emanated loud parrot and macaw squawks and screeches. My favourite bird however, was a mynah bird that had a cage to himself (of course, it might have been a female but it was hard to tell) at the entrance to the tropical glasshouse. I have a feeling that it used to be impertinent to visitors but maybe I’m just imaging that because I want it to be true. I was probably fond of the talking bird because my nan kept a succession of budgies that she used to teach to say ‘Whose a pretty boy then?’ as she fed them.

But I’m digressing from the topic of gardens. The most famous fictional garden, A Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett perhaps inspired my love of walled gardens. I’d go so far as to say that my ideal garden has high wall around it to add an air of secrecy and magic. I’ve visited quite a few gardens in the Dublin area and I had the idea that I really should write something about the ones that have walled gardens inside them. Some walled gardens are huge and would at one time have grown food enough to feed a large household as well as flowers. I am particularly fond of the restored walled garden at Marlay Park that has a beautiful floral section as well as an extensive vegetable and fruit garden. I often wonder as I wander the paths, about who worked in the gardens, who strolled in them and who played in them. There must be plenty of stories to be unearthed about the walled gardens and the people of Marlay, Farmleigh and Russborough to name but three.

Another reason for my great interest in gardens and particularly the walled gardens of the great houses is that my granddad used to be a gardener for a ‘big house’ in Birmingham. Or more correct to say, at a house and garden that used to be outside the city boundaries but since absorbed into a suburb. I was thinking about this bit of family history recently after visiting Cabinteely House whose former grounds now form a public park that hundreds of people enjoy every year. Back in Birmingham, the house that my granddad would have known no longer stands but the gardens and grounds live on as a park. Last summer I was over there showing my daughter where her great grandfather used to work. Sadly, the park has no surviving walled garden and it seems harder to conjure up the past without one.

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