Last summer, belly full of unborn kid, I went for a plodding sort of walk with my mother round her neighbourhood. We circled the streets, the patch of London where she’s lived for nearly 50 years, where I grew up. As patches go, it’s plush. But when my parents bought their house at the posh end of Ladbroke Grove in the late 60s, it wasn’t quite so fancy. Back then, celebrity landlord Peter Rachman was fresh-ish in his grave, and his Notting Hill empire of multi-occupancy flats and scrubby brothels had only recently been sold off. Powis Square, Powis Gardens, Colville Road, Colville Terrace, St Stephen’s Gardens, Lancaster Road: this was Rachman-land, packed with immigrants, prostitutes and, gradually, people like my parents snaffling bargains that would soon appreciate in value beyond all reason. Now, so PrimeLocation (“find the home you deserve”) tells me, a “stunning” one-bedroom flat on Colville Road goes for £1.195m. Rachman, you missed the boat.Марши лестниц
On our walk, my mother noted the number of houses with contractors’ boards around the ground floor: the hallmark of excavation. The fashion of the moment is to dig. When you can’t extend, the loft’s already converted and the underfloor-heated conservatory is simmering under the west London sun, you go down. Not just basements, double basements. Somewhere for the gym and the pool and the maid to live.
On Clarendon Road (PrimeLocation: three-bedroom house, £6.25m), she pointed out a row of trees in a front garden. They were trees, but not as you knew them. Branches stretched wide, they looked like they’d been steam-rolled and then woven together to create a screen in front of the creamy mansion behind, tall enough to obscure the unnaturally clean windows. The trees had been pleached, my mother explained.
I’d never heard the word before, but it’s an ancient art, pleaching. Art isn’t right: pleaching was practical, once. Medieval farmers pleached hedgerows – winding together the branches of trees and shrubs to form a living fence around land or livestock – and workers pleached trees in orchards to make the fruit easier to pick. Later, garden designers borrowed the effect to create shaded paths and ‘allées’ in grand country estates. (Who walks in ‘allées’? Men in ruff-collared shirts and girls in full skirts, pugs sniffling at their heels). Shakespeare knew his pleaching. In Much Ado About Nothing, Antonio talks of ‘a thick pleached alley in my orchard’, a line labouring under unwitting innuendo. So it’s an old game, though it fell out of fashion for a while and has only recently made its comeback as a ‘modern style statement’ according to The Telegraph, famed oracle of the horticultural zeitgeist.
I’ve always been a little suspicious of gardening. Not the way my mother does it – growing flowers and fruit and vegetables, then picking them and if appropriate eating them, a straightforward sort of process – but the more formal, competitive kind. You know: gardens where the flowerbeds look like they’ve been tweezered, where there are Latin names printed on little cards, where there are lights in the bushes and props: archways, water features, pointless circular benches around the bases of trees. I like my nature rough and weedy, my trees round and three-dimensional, their branches ranging free. Pleaching, to me, is extreme gardening. And there’s something about the way these trees have been manipulated, their branches trained and teased to grow along wires where they’re fixed in place so they can’t even move in the wind, that reminds me a little of torture, and Chinese foot-binding.
Clarendon Road, my mother says, used to have front gardens full of rose bushes that sprouted over the walls and shed petals on to the pavements. Now, when you walk down the street and around the area there’s no sprouting or spilling; the front gardens are all in straight lines and ceramic pots and right angles. Banks of flattened trees conceal the homes and lives behind. All in the name of privacy, I suppose. Though you can tell as you walk, from the blackness of the windows and the humming silence, that there’s no one inside half these houses anyway. The kind of people that can afford to buy them are the kind of people who can afford not to live in them. The lush communal gardens, open only to those that live in the houses backing on to their pristine lawns, are quiet. The streets are ghosty, populated only by basement-digging builders and roaming cats.
A few months after that summer walk, my husband and I were circling the same streets on our way to lunch with my mother, the unborn kid now born and chuntering in her car seat. We drove round and round the block, along Clarendon Road three, four, five, six times, hoping in vain that she’d drift off to sleep. And we kept passing one of these houses with pleached trees out front. Except now it was winter and the trees had lost their leaves and resembled a skinny schoolboys’ football wall, huddled together and self-consciously clutching their balls. You could see straight though the branches into the beige living room beyond. Ha, I thought. Nature always wins.