Saturday, October 1, 2011

Four Hedges - Clare Leighton

I've been aware of Clare Leighton for a long time. Firstly, as the sister of Roland Leighton, Vera Brittain's fiancé who was killed just before Christmas 1915. Roland's death & the other bereavements Vera suffered during WWI were devastating for Vera as they must also have been for the Leighton family. Vera writes about them in Testament of Youth, one of my favourite books. Later, I came to know Clare Leighton as a wood engraver. Early editions of the Persephone Quarterly were illustrated with beautiful woodcuts, many by Clare Leighton, including the lovely one on the cover of this reprint of Four Hedges, called A Lapful of Windfalls.

Four Hedges is the story of a year in the garden of Clare & her partner, Noel Brailsford, in the 1930s. The garden was on a slope of the Chiltern Hills, exposed to ferocious winds & the soil was an unforgiving chalk. The four hedges were a necessary shelter for the plants within. Yet the struggle to cultivate the soil & grow anything at all is a part of the charm of the book &, I suspect, to Leighton herself. I don't think she would have been happy in an easy garden with fertile soil & no problems to overcome. She returns home from a visit to such a garden even more determined to succeed with the challenges of her own place. The hard work of the garden is welcomed & appreciated just as much as the fruits of the garden. Clare & Noel take delight in planning, reading catalogues & making lists as well as mowing the meadow & weeding. Their ambitions are lofty but realistic. The delight of the book is Leighton's intimate descriptions of the plants & animals that live in her garden. I'm not going to rhapsodise about the writing, I'm just going to let you enjoy a few passages along with some of the many woodcuts that illustrate the book.

And then rain falls, a gentle "growing" rain, as the villagers call it. They look upon it as a friend. To love rain one must live in the country. It falls for several days and the plants strengthen and swell. The faces of the villagers glow as we meet them and discuss it. I listen to it as lie awake one night. There is at first silence, for the rain has ceased. This silence is so dense as to seem to be black. Then comes the silky rustle of soft rain like the sound of a gentle wind in a ripening cornfield. Some while after comes the steady drip of the rain from the pipes into the rain-water tank.

These days of sun demoralise us. We should be working and gardening hard. But it is lovely to lie on my back under the chestnut tree, looking up at the sky; to feel patches of warmth moving over my body as the sun shifts behind different branches and leaves of the trees; to see the insects hover above me and to wonder if, with luck, one of the swallows that twitter high in the air will sweep low near my hand to catch the insects. But for some time now the sun has been behind the thicker part of the chestnut leaves.

For there is the same beauty in the shape of the scythe that is in all fundamental things, where shape has been determined by need; so does one think of the lines of a boat, or the curve of a waggon. The sun shines on his back and arms as he swings the scythe, a figure of clear-cut light and shadow. The grasses are so dry this rainless summer that it is like cutting wire; even the dew of early morning soon vanishes and the resisting grasses blunt the blade. Noel has to stop often to sharpen the blade. He holds it upright, stroking the blade with the whetstone along its length on either side. He stands thus ennobled, for there is no pose that is not lyrical and rhythmic when it is tied to the sweeping lines of a scythe.

It is no wonder that we spend so much time with the fruit tree catalogues, for they contain the most engaging descriptions. In them we learn that one apple tree is a "shy bearer". Another "is not suitable for orchards where cattle graze, as it has a weeping habit." ... The Irish Peach should be eaten from the tree. This would seem to make of apple eating a most serious occupation. We wonder if we have hitherto been too casual.... We read that Allen's everlasting is "a bad character," and it is with disappointment that we learn that he is so condemned merely because he does not ripen in cold years. Our malice whetted, we see that Beauty of Bath is "self-sterile," a condition not uncommon in that resort, and that Baumann's Reinette is "more pleasing to the eye than to the palate."

We should never take our gardens too seriously. It is hard to curb ourselves in this, if we have any love for our plants, even as it is difficult to take a walk round the garden without pulling up weeds... It is better to have a few weeds and untidy edges to our flower beds, and to enjoy our garden, than to allow ourselves to be dominated by it. To be able occasionally to shut our eyes to weeds is a great art. Let us relax in our gardens, and as a dear old countrywoman used to say, let us "poddle" in them. We waste else the very beauty for which we have worked.

My copy of Four Hedges is a reprint from Little Toller Books, an imprint of The Dovecote Press. It's a beautiful object as well as a delightful read, with lots of woodcut illustrations, and French flaps. Little Toller specialize in books about the English countryside & they have some very tempting books on their list. My only disappointment was that my copy of Four Hedges was misbound so I ended up with two Octobers & no December.

Without planning it, I've read two illustrated books in the past week. By coincidence, the other book was also being read by Lynne over at Dovegreyreader. I'll be reviewing it in a few days.


  1. A beautiful book in so many ways and thank you for writing about Little Toller. I have never heard of them but I'm off to learn more...

  2. I loved Testament of Youth and did not know Roland's sister was a writer. It sounds an interesting read.

  3. Darlene, Little Toller have some lovely titles. I have another of their books, Men & the Fields by Adrian Bell (I won it in a competition at Dovegreyreader) & it's illustrated with beautiful lithographs by John Nash from the original edition. They have several other titles I'm tempted by... Candyce, TOY is one of my favourite books & it was an interesting connection when I realised that Clare Leighton, the wood engraver, was Roland's sister.

  4. A very lovely posting! If you don't mind I've reposted it (with full credits and links) to my blog which has something of a 'garden-lit' book club category where I post various reviews (often by others) of great gardening books. If you object I will remove immediately.


    1. Hello, that's fine. I couldn't find a link to your blog but I'd like to have a look at it if you could post a link for me.