‘That was the moment when I first saw the lilies. And that was the moment when, having seen them, I mentally signed the contract to buy the house… I had to possess those lilies…’
This is a quote from one of the first chapters of Beverley Nichols’ book Merry Hall, first published in Australia in 1951. It is an account of how he transformed a long neglected English garden, and along the way we meet his gardener, Oldfield, and his various friends and neighbours, all portrayed with sharp wit and acute observation. The story is rather dated now as it is about an era long passed, when people had factotums to tend to the management of their large mansions and full-time gardeners to tend to their surrounding acres — acres that usually included an a pond, statuary, and an orchard and a vegetable garden.
I have my mother’s copy of this book and it has been one of the most influential of all the gardening books I have collected and read over the years, so much so that I have never had a garden without lilies growing somewhere there.
And so it is with this new garden of mine. They are Regale lilies (Christmas lilies is one of their popular names, Lilium regale their botanical name) and the last of the flowers are opening on their tall stems in the far corner of the garden. When I stand among them, some are taller than I am, all of them exquisite and headily fragrant. I am glad they have lasted until now because I can give away large armfuls of them to my friends and fellow gardeners, and fill vases of them for myself to bring a lovely Christmas feel to the house.
Like Nichols’ lilies, my lilies ‘stand in rows of glistening white’. Like Nichols’ lilies, when a faint breeze is stirring, as they nod their heads, there drifts towards me a most exquisite fragrance.
I have just paraphrased Nichols; now I must quote him because only his brilliant writing can do justice to this beautiful flower. ‘Never before, in any garden of the world, have I seen such lilies; their loveliness was literally dazzling; the massed array of white blossom was like sunlit snow. Nor was this shining, shimmering beauty merely the result of mass, for as I walked closer I saw that each individual blossom was a perfect specimen, with a stem that was often four feet high, bearing on its proud summit no less than a dozen blossoms.’
Oldfield had grown those lilies from seed planted some thirty years earlier; at their first meeting, he scoffed at Nichols’ suggestion that he had bought bulbs. ‘Boolbs? [he had a Yorkshire accent] Boolbs? I didn’t get boolbs. I grew ‘em from a handful of seed.’
That was the moment Nichols found his consummate gardener and immortalised him in print; that was the moment in the book when I fell in love with the old man and he became my gardening hero, and when I thought that perhaps I too could grow beautiful flowers if I too planted and tended with patience and care.
I can see the last of my lilies from my desk as I write this and they are reminding me to wish you and yours a happy Christmas, and your garden a bountiful and thriving new year.
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