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A Story of Despair and Redemption
‘A wave of intense sadness soaked through me. I felt completely alone. I sat quietly for a minute or two gathering myself, unable to move, letting the storm pass. All day I filmed among the seeds, knowing that I was not well, knowing that this was not good, knowing that if I let go, I might never put the pieces back together again.
I drove home, a grown man sobbing on the motorway, and got back to the empty house. I rang Sarah and from the other side of the country she lovingly talked me down, like a flight controller bringing a flaming plane safely in to land.
Something breaks. Something shatters, and it takes a long while to put it all together again.’
If you are an enthusiastic gardener and you live in the UK, the chances are that at 8.30pm every Friday evening from March to October you will stop what you’re doing and sit down in front of the television to watch a half hour programme in which a softly spoken man wanders around his garden, talking about potatoes and roses and box blight. The programme is Gardeners’ World, the man is Montagu Don – known to his legions of followers simply as ‘Monty’ – and the garden is at Longmeadow in Herefordshire, the house that he and his wife Sarah bought some 20 years ago, after the collapse of their jewellery business.
He’s the sort of gardening guru who gives you heart, because things go wrong. Crops fail and plant diseases strike and he is endearingly honest about it all. We see his pathetic marrows, lacklustre french beans and scabby apples. He unflinchingly points out the plants that are pining because he put them in the wrong place and the rambling rose that’s going berserk and strangling its neighbours because it’s been neglected. His is gardening in the real world – the sort that ordinary people like me can identify with: imperfect, frustrating and totally absorbing.
From his youth all he had ever wanted was to be a writer and to work on the land, although curiously enough it had never occurred to him to write about gardening. Instead he wrote and destroyed a couple of ‘excruciatingly bad novels’ and drifted through life as he tried to work out where he was going and how he wanted to get there.
He met his wife Sarah at university. He was a penniless undergraduate who had more or less bludgeoned his way into Cambridge and she was married to a postgraduate. They ran off together to the North York Moors – ‘trying to escape the inevitable mess that we had created’ – and it was the start of a strong and enduring union.
Sarah, who married at the age of 19, travelled with her first husband to Papua New Guinea, where he was researching the winged bean. It was there that she first became interested in primitive jewellery and artefacts – an interest which would eventually lead to Sarah and Monty creating their own jewellery company – ‘Monty Don’ – in the early 1980s.
Their timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Their designs were big and brash and glitzy, just like the decade, and within an incredibly short space of time everybody who was anybody was wearing Monty Don jewellery. It was an immediate and runaway success and for a few brief years the Dons – especially the eponymous Monty – were the feted and courted darlings of the fashion world.
In the late 80s however, it all came tumbling down around their ears. Their luck and timing deserted them and a combination of misplaced optimism, the 1987 stock market crash, a slump in demand for luxury items, rocketing interest rates and plummeting house prices found them in debt up to their ears and faced with the prospect of bankruptcy. They had no choice but to sell everything – their shop, their business, their beautiful country home and garden, their furniture – the lot. It all went.
When they’d bought their first Herefordshire home – The Hanburies – ‘escaping to the country’ had been a novel idea, and Monty was commissioned to write a book about the move and the making of the garden. The book had led to television work and thus it was almost by accident that he took his first steps in front of the cameras as a gardening guru. Right when he most needed the work however, it dried up and by the early 1990s he was claiming unemployment benefit.
It was, poignantly, the death of his mother that rescued the Dons. In her will she left him her portfolio of stocks and shares, which he immediately sold and with the money put down a deposit on a derelict shell of a farmhouse on a bend of the River Arrow, with no water or electricity and a ‘garden’ that was nothing more than an abandoned field.
The farmhouse was Longmeadow and the field would be gradually transformed into the garden that has now become so familiar to so many.
The process wasn’t an easy one, however. As well as no power or water, Longmeadow also had no windows or internal walls. It simply wasn’t fit to live in – especially as, by then, they had a young family to worry about. They scratched along somehow, living first with Sarah’s parents, then renting a damp, cold and rat-infested farmhouse close to Longmeadow. Unsurprisingly, it was during those darkest months that the depression, to which Monty had always been slightly prone, descended with a vengeance. As the depression took hold, Sarah delivered an ultimatum: either he sought medical help or she would leave him.
The Jewel Garden is a collaborative work and comprises extracts from the diaries that they have kept over many years linked by a blisteringly honest narrative thread. Both are natural and unforced writers. The integrity that is the hallmark of Monty’s gardening programmes manifests itself in his writing, too – and Sarah pulls no punches in her clear-sighted analysis of her driven and talented but flawed husband.
There is no quick fix for depression and everybody has to find their own way of coping with it. In Monty Don’s case there was never any real doubt what that way would be. He states it simply, in two words:
While he accepted medical help to ease the immediate and worst effects of depression, it was gardening that helped him – and continues to help him – to keep the Black Dog subdued on a day-to-day basis. Immersing himself in the simple grunt work needed to start creating the garden at Longmeadow, he began the long climb back from the depths. On the 8th of December 1992 enough of the work on the house had been completed for the family to move in, and on the very same day, the telephone rang. It was Granada Television, offering studio work the following day. Although their troubles were far from over, it marked the beginning of a new stage in their lives.
The garden at Longmeadow is laid out in a semi-formal grid pattern and at its heart is what is now known as the jewel garden – a flower garden favouring the rich and vivid colours of the jewels that first made their name and then nearly destroyed them. The second part of the book is the story of the creation of that garden – the blunders, the experiments and the setbacks.
Profusely illustrated throughout with glorious full colour photographs, The Jewel Garden is one of those books that refuses to be pigeon-holed. Part auto-biography, part ‘how to’ book, part gardening calendar it is above all a testament to the power of love, determination and sheer bloody-mindedness and a timely reminder that whatever happened in the past and whatever lies in wait in the future, the only place we can live is in the present and that,
‘… in the end the most exciting time of all is always the shining here and now.’
Hodder and Stoughton. 2004. ISBN-13: 978-0340826713. Hardcover. 224pp.
(Also available in paperback and as an ebook.)