W for Woolf, Watsonias and Winter Gardens: Julia Grigg’s Morrab Miscellany

Julia muses on the time Virginia Woolf spent in Cornwall – did she perhaps visit Morrab Gardens? – recalls the work of the visionary poet William Blake and gets some inspiration for the garden in Winter

There you could walk up and down, up and down, under the trees…there were green waterfalls and cushions of grass in which violets grew in spring, or in summer the wild purple orchis.

These are the words of Virginia WOOLF (1882-1941) describing a place for delightful WALKING from ‘Between the Acts,’ the last novel she wrote(completed in 1940 and published posthumously a year later.)

The novel’s action largely unfolds in this garden – however it’s not revealed whether the house described is in Cornwall. Unlike the house featured in ‘To the Lighthouse’ which (despite the novel ostensibly being set in the Hebrides) is patently Talland House in St Ives. Talland was the summer house of Woolf’s family, the Stephens. To anyone who’s ever visited St Ives the resemblance of the lighthouse of the book’s title to Godrevy is all too obvious.

 ‘Probably nothing that we had as children was quite so important to us as our summer in Cornwall,’ Woolf wrote. ‘To have our own house, our own garden – to have that bay, that sea, and the Mount… to hear the waves breaking…to dig in the sand, to scramble over the rocks… Summer at St Ives [was] the best beginning to a life conceivable.’

We can but WONDER whether, when the family visited Penzance, young Virginia was strolled admiringly by her nanny beside the flowerbeds and along Morrab Gardens’ gravelled paths.

A postcard, circa 1920's, showing a view of Morrab Gardens including flower beds, the Bandstand and Morrab Library. From a painting by A R Quinton (1853-1934).
Morrab Gardens as it might have been seen by Virginia Woolf? A postcard, early twentieth century,, showing a view of Morrab Gardens including flower beds, the Bandstand and Morrab Library. From a painting by A R Quinton (1853-1934).

And there’s another source of wonder about Cornwall that’s revisited every time we open our mouths to sing WILLIAM Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, every time we voice his question, ‘And did those feet in ancient times WALK upon England’s mountains green?’

Poet and visionary Blake first used the faraway city symbolically in framing this and his other questions in the period 1804-20, during which he was composing and illustrating the anthem.

In 1947 the Reverend C Dobson, keen to marshal arguments for and against, published a slim volume, price tag one shilling and sixpence, under the title Did Our Lord Visit Britain (as they say in Cornwall and Somerset?) (Avalon Press.)

In my last blog post (10 November) we left Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus’ uncle, having arrived on the Cornish shore, sleeping soundly on a bed of heather. Dobson proposes Joseph had been accompanied on his voyage by his nephew, the young Jesus, their mission to source Cornish tin and copper for the then ruler of Palestine, Pontius Pilate.

While asking his readers, ‘Is this merely a beautiful legend without foundation?’, Dobson reinforces the plausibility of the story he’s recounting by pointing out the absence of any record of Jesus’ whereabouts between the ages of 12 and 30.

Dobson records the proposition that subsequently Joseph and Jesus travelled on to Somerset, where Jesus may have remained a while, residing in a Druidic community. (‘And was the Holy Lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures seen?’)

We’re told that in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey Joseph set down his walking stave. It rooted, and in due course a twice-flowering white-blossomed hawthorn tree grew up – a descendant of this original still extant today, according to the faithful.

A tradition was established whereby the monarch is offered a Christmas-flowering blossom from this sacred tree. (During December every year to this day HM The Queen receives the floral tribute of a hawthorn sprig despatched by Glastonbury’s Vicar and Mayor.)

Is this all merely apocryphal? Could there actually be a historical basis or is such thinking just a wishful response to those arrows of desire shot from Blake’s quiver?

And then, how much does it really matter – if indeed it matters at all – that where Christian faith in events occurring over 2000 years ago is concerned there can be no way for ‘truth’ to be certified with facts?

Attempts to hi-jack the sentiments of Blake’s Jerusalem for causes or celebrations have persisted, the first dating from 1916 when the poem was set to music by Hubert Parry, offering a nation enduring WW1 a way to brace its courage with uplifted voices.

Once, the rights to the song belonged to the suffragette movement while nowadays it’s the hymn of the Labour Party and the Trades Union movement. In 1924 it was adopted by the Federation of Women’s Institutes. 1924 was also the year of the British sprinters’ heroic endeavours at the Paris Olympics, the Games’ idealism and self-sacrifice subsequently woven through the 1981 Chariots of Fire film with its spine-tingling Vangelis theme tune.

And on: this year Jerusalem implicated in today’s raging anti-colonialism debate, the issue being whether or not the hymn should retain its pivotal place in the concert programme closing the Last Night of the Henry Wood Proms, a place it’s occupied since the 1950s.

Jerusalem, a poem that’s become a song that’s begotten a saga, one very possibly not yet over…

My personal take is that if you can just screen out the noise and grasp the essence of the poetic intention Blake had for Jerusalem over 200 years ago, then you’ll discover how piercingly ardent his words still are, how potently still they capture humanity’s yearning for the immortal and the beautiful.

W is for WATSONIA, the flaming bugle lily, a flower whose looks make you hark to the sound of trumpets, how wondrous….

Our picture shows watsonia as a cut flower, bringing to an arrangement the warmth of its sun-kissed heritage in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, southern Africa. Known as a lily, it’s in fact a member of the iris family.

Watsonia (the Bugle Lily) in a cut flower arrangement. Photo: J Spry-Leverton

WELL, it’s undeniable WINTER’s now upon us – and during these short days of low light how we must celebrate the good fortune of the Cornish climate which allows us to witness all around the loveliness of flowering camellias.

I’ve identified that one great bush in my neighbourhood, its single, yellow-stamened, rose-red blossoms glowing against glossy leaves, is Camellia sasanqua ‘Crimson King.’ Native to China and Japan, a bloom which was introduced in Britain in the 1820s, this bush must have been established in its Penzance home at least twenty years ago, and today thrives, its blossoms appearing from early November, in the partial shade of its north-facing aspect.

Camellia sasanqua ‘Crimson King’ growing in Penzance. Photo: J Spry-Leverton

Seeking further wintry inspiration? The search is over when you dip into Winter Gardens: Reinventing the Season by Cedric Pollet (Frances Lincoln 2017) a richly coloured book which recommends the 20 best winter gardens to visit in the UK and France and suggests ways to light the darkest period of your gardening year by introducing a specific palette of plants with coloured stems such as cornus, along with coloured barks, berries and fruits.

Oscar Wilde

Keep love in your heart. A life without it is like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead

WHO has not chuckled at a WITTICISM from Oscar WILDE (1854-1900)? Dublin-born brilliant Oxford scholar, journalist, editor, literary lecturer, playwright and novelist, Wilde’s star shone its brightest in the 1890s with the publication of his only novel, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, and the London staging of four hugely successful society plays. Exemplifying fin de siècle decadence with his louche lifestyle, flamboyant dress and biting wit, Wilde’s notoriety escalated when he was sued for sodomy by the Marquess of Queensberry, convicted and imprisoned. From 1895-97 he suffered hard labour, lastly in Reading Goal, which was movingly described in his prison-composed Ballad. By 1900, exiled in Paris, Wilde was dead at age 46.

Under the Policing and Crime Act passed in 2017 Wilde was among an estimated 50,000 men pardoned for homosexual acts no longer considered offences. Buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery, Paris, he is commemorated with a stained glass window at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Read more of Julia Grigg’s Morrab Miscellany

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