Digging damage.

by AnneWareham on January 28, 2014

Post image for Digging damage.

We need a landscaper with a little digger and much drainage work doing. This relentless rain is beginning to make our yews suffer. The only way you can kill a yew, besides ruthless attack, is making it sit in water. And that is just what this weather is doing, despite our garden slopes.The hedges above are browning.

We haven’t found a local landscaper yet, which is surprising, but neither have we had the weather to bring machines on the land. So – we suffer and worry.

It’s a strange business having heavy machinery in. They can change a whole landscape in moments. Scary. And needs caution.

'That Population' Gate, Veddw copyright Charles Hawes

Description of the 19th century inhabitants of the Veddw from a local document.

Since I started making our garden twenty six years ago I have also spent a great deal of time studying the history of the landscape I’ve made the garden in. I started by investigating the history of our house. I suppose that we generally tend to think that it is buildings which are important historically, but I came to realise that the land had been intensively used in a variety of identifiable ways long before the house was built.

This is clearly true everywhere in this country, where all the land has been being used for thousands of years. Even a modern housing estate has a history worth investigating when you start focusing on the land rather than the buildings.

The boundary ditch in the woods Copyright Anne Wareham

This undulation on the ground is the remnant of a wall and ditch across the wood

And one of the things I discovered was just how much of the detail of the past is still there in the land, especially where earthmovers have not reared their buckets. We have a little corner of the garden sticking out incongruously into a field. I puzzled over how it came to be such a funny shape for a long time, and it took several old maps to make sense of what I was seeing. This bit of land was the end of an old lane into the field. The reason it was sticking out was that the current field was once several fields, and the lane ran to the end of one of these old fields. Those fields had been the land belonging to a cottage, of which there are no visible remains. But once I had  pieced it together from the map I could see clearly where someone’s home and garden have left their mark behind.

Grasses Parterre, Veddw copyright Charles Hawes

The Grasses Parterre represents the Tithe Map of the local field system.

This land, which is ours for a time, has a little wood and a steep sided valley. From the Tithe Map of 1841 we can see that it was arable at that time – as a result of shortages caused by the Napoleonic Wars ? That means that this incredibly undulating land would have been ploughed. When I dug up the shoe of a mule it became clear how my predecessors on the land had done that unlikely and very temporary ploughing.

Elsewhere, an expert in woodland conservation pointed out to me that the trees which appear to be growing out of our walls actually predate the walls. They are the coppice trees which were in the wood before the land was cleared for cultivation. The bark of the coppice trees used to be used for tanning, and stripping the bark was a seasonal occupation for people living here. The wall builders had just incorporated the trees into the walls when they built them.

All this makes me want to be very gentle with the land, and leave these marks of other people’s lives, along with my own. The danger with the earthmoving game is that suddenly the machine erases all marks of the past, and if I am not careful I am no better than the person grubbing up hedges and building houses and roads all over our very fragile countryside.

Anne Wareham

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Stephen Hackett January 28, 2014 at 7:52 pm

Really enjoyed that. Nothing better than really getting to understand a piece of ground and its history. I loved your phrase “this land, which is ours for a time,” – too often forgotten that the ground we garden has been others’ and will be others’ ere long.

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AnneWareham January 28, 2014 at 11:51 pm

Understanding the ground, and the place has been very important to me. Has taken me long journeys into history and prehistory… And that our own stay is transitory too is a big confrontation. I sometimes want to protest about it!

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Sharon Moncur January 29, 2014 at 10:56 am

I loved that comment too. Really hope that the yews can hold on.

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AnneWareham January 29, 2014 at 11:05 am

Me too!

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Pam January 29, 2014 at 2:51 pm

Yes, that phrase struck me as well. I am reluctant to bring even a walk-behind rototiller onto my garden. It is almost physically painful for me to watch earth-movers sculpting the land to suit building projects. Your gently-stated message is one that needs to be heard in our times.

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Maggie January 28, 2014 at 7:59 pm

Hi Anne, for the work, you might try http://www.brlewis.co.uk
Ben on 07831 441088
They live in Lydney and they did a splendid job for us – super drainage – no floods, sensitive to ground damage, but ours was a field, not a garden scape.
About equidistant between you and me.
Otherwise, small diggers don’t cost much to hire for a day or two if you have the man muscle!

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AnneWareham January 28, 2014 at 11:47 pm

Thanks Maggie – I’ll be on to them tomorrow. See above: it’s going to take more than a trench. Ie soakaway, removal of spoil, filling the trench…. Great to have another lead, anyway. xxx

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John January 28, 2014 at 7:59 pm

Sounds like you are searching for a non-existent individual. Can you not engage a competent mini-digger operator and supervise yourself/get Steve to do fill that role/recruit a landscaper separately? Getting a skilled operator will probably be more important than anything else given the operating environment. As to weight, there are mini-diggers and mini-mini-diggers. I have seen one which is small enough to get through a house if needs be (in this case it went through a “corner shop” type place) – little more than 2 feet wide and removing the arm was a doddle for 2 people. And much better on steep slopes as well as being a lot lighter, very maneuverable yet surprisingly powerful.

Separately, I’d offer a commercial proposition – 3 each of your lysimachia firecracker and variegated ground elder grown to 1 ltr pot size for a fiver each (that seems to be the going rate!). I’ll collect in the summer.

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AnneWareham January 28, 2014 at 11:45 pm

It’ll take more than a trench, John, that’s the thing.

When we see you I’ll give you what I can of those plants. They are not as spread as you might imagine. But I’ll try for the 3 each in 1 litre pots – love your precision! Xx

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Pat Webster January 28, 2014 at 10:38 pm

I share your attitude towards the land. The marks of history are there, if we choose to see them — and if the bulldozer doesn’t erase them. Hope you are able to solve the water drainage and save the hedges.

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AnneWareham January 28, 2014 at 11:42 pm

Thank you, and good to hear from someone with shared preoccupation.

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Bethan Green January 29, 2014 at 10:59 am

Are Billies attempts at digging not cutting the mustard?

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AnneWareham January 29, 2014 at 11:04 am

He’s too busy eating everything he digs up….

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Jean Sherry January 29, 2014 at 2:16 pm

That was a fascinating read. And I must admit to not having thought about it before – or at least not in relation to homes & gardens in suburbia, my own included; I do see things (remnants of walls & buildings, odd features in the landscape, etc) when walking in the country, and wonder about the what & the why, but it’s never crossed my mind in relation to a built-up area such as the one I live in. I shall look about me with a new eye!
Meantime, I hope you find an answer to your current drainage problem.

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AnneWareham January 31, 2014 at 10:37 am

From Jacquetta Menzies http://www.jacquettamenzies.co.uk
Thank you for this article. Sorry that your yews are suffering. I agree that the damage which can be caused by heavy machinery is underestimated. I sometimes wonder if the Spirit of the Place is not some elf or sprite, but more like a book – an ongoing story of a certain piece of land. Designers should not only be aware of that story but find a way of at least hinting at it. Though, no doubt, this idea would have been met with a blank look from Capability “Move that Village” Brown.

I always enjoy your writing and ideas. Thanks

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Jane Scorer February 2, 2014 at 6:13 pm

I love that gardening puts you on that continuum, and that you can make a contribution to the life of the landscape. I also love those reminders of the ones who went before, which you can find as you garden. I often dig up pieces of clay pipe and wonder who dropped it there, and what they were doing on the same plot of land.

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AnneWareham February 2, 2014 at 6:21 pm

And the blue and white china..so civilised for our lot, described as living in ‘turf and mud huts’. Having a description of them at a certain time is so poignant and tantalising…

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Jill Foxley February 18, 2014 at 3:21 pm

How true is the need for a gentle hand. Would that others were so considerate. Nature does things so well on its own, sometimes it simply needs to tell its own tale.

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AnneWareham February 18, 2014 at 3:25 pm

Nature – and in this case, what you might call the hand of history…

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