Charlie Hart

Posted by Sue Leonard on Sunday 17th June 2018

Living in London, Charlie Hart was near breaking point. He’d started various businesses but had given up on them the moment they showed signs of being successful. Deep in grief, after the death of the father he had adored, he felt a burning need to get out to the countryside.

“Living in cities is hard for me,” he tells me over the phone from England. “It’s like living in an untuned TV set, and I just wanted to get out. I’d have done anything to get out.”

When he, and his wife Sybilla first saw Peverels, a farmhouse set on seven acres overlooking the Peb Valley, they knew they had found their haven. And, once they’d moved their family of three children there, Charlie found gardening the perfect way to stem his grief.

“I threw myself into the garden in a trance of fury, and found the act of digging and sweating, and getting tired helped. But I wasn’t just building a garden. I was also trying to grow meaning at the same time. Healing was a mysterious exchange. As the garden came together on an incoming tide, my grief seemed to recede on an ebbing one.”

But if he’d found paradise – it was one that came with a cost. Sybilla didn’t drive. She hadn’t needed to in London, and the couple blithely assumed that she’d learn, and pass her test in a couple of months. But Sybilla has dyspraxia, a condition that makes it difficult to learn, and it would be eighteen months and numerous tests before she finally tore up the L plates.

“It was a tough time. We were living in the middle of nowhere – the nearest house was half a mile away and the nearest shop a mile away. My mother was very ill, and we realised she was going to die. I was doing every school run – taking our three children in three different directions, and I was having to go to London for meetings between school runs. It was discombobulating.”

The problem was that his heart wasn’t really in his remaining business.

“All I wanted was to garden full time,” he says, “but I couldn’t see how I could make that work.”

Then one evening, when the couple were having a long, late night chat over a glass of wine, Sybilla surprised him.

“She said, ‘Look. I’ve thought about this, if you really want to do this gardening thing I think you should do it. You don’t want to get to eighty and think, ‘Gosh, I want to have another go at life.’’ We went to bed and I sent a few prayers up saying, ‘if this is right can something come along and prove it, pronto.’

“And the next day my friend Mirabelle got in touch and said that together with a bunch of mates she was taking a garden to the Chelsea Flower Show to spread awareness of modern slavery.” It’s a cause close to Charlie’s heart. “She knew I was interested, and knew I was a weirdly obsessive gardener, and she said, ‘Will you help us?’ I jumped at it. I understudied Juliet Sargeant who is brilliant. It was wonderful!”

Charlie then started writing about gardens for magazines. And he approached a publisher with the idea of penning a memoir based on building the garden. On one level, it’s a ‘how to,’ book – with chapters dedicated to Trees, paths and hedges – all based around a diary of Charlie’s work in the garden from season to season.  He writes of his childhood, and of the anxiety that has plagued him. The result is a heartfelt look at love, grief, and redemption. It’s quite beautifully written.

The section on the rose garden is written with passion. It was a project built with love, in a tribute to his parents. They separated when Charlie was young, and the young boy divided his time between his mother, in London, and his father in the countryside. Although this caused him pain, and a sense of guilt – because whoever he was staying with, he felt badly about the other parent – it did at least keep him in contact with his father.

David Hart, a controversial political writer and lobbyist, was an advisor for Margaret Thatcher.

“He was a quite eccentric, brilliant chap. He had all these interesting and wonderful contacts and they came and went. One morning at breakfast, a man was speaking Russian and drinking all the orange juice, straight from the jug. I looked at my brother, who was considerably older than me, and said, ‘That’s really rude. We’re not allowed to do that, and I want a glass of orange juice.’

“My father said, ‘He has just got out of 10 years in a gulag. I think we’ll cut him some slack.”

Charlie remembers happy hours spent in the company of his father. When he was hedging – a length pursuit, Charlie would be sitting beside him on a specially made seat.

“I’d be bouncing all over the place, and my father would be smoking, filling the cab with smoke, but we had wonderful chats.”

The anxiety that had always plagued Charlie, came to a head whilst he was at Cambridge University, and although he got his life together afterwards, it never entirely left. And when David Hart was close to death, he told his son that he, too, had suffered from the condition.

“He was very ill and could only communicate by looking at letters on a board. He spelt out, painfully, that he had the same experience in his twenties and thirties. I was astonished,” he says. “No one could ever have known, and I can only conclude that it can make you more robust not less.

“If you have extreme mortal combat with a lion 15 times a day – and that is what anxiety feels like – and then you have to go and talk to the Prime Minister, its not so frightening. Because you learn that the anxiety is just a feeling.”

There was a moment, one Spring, when Charlie realised his grief had turned a corner.

“I was sitting at my desk and a robin chirped. I went outside and started digging, and I realised I was doing it for pleasure, not pain.”

The garden essentially built, Charlie’s family has grown. A fourth child and third daughter arrived just in time to meet her grandmother, before she died. Then there’s Seymour, a chocolate Labrador who the family adore.

“He’s sitting at my feet at the moment,” says Charlie. “He’s delicious! We have a boarder terrier now too.”

Charlie writes about the difficulties he has, sometimes, sharing his beloved garden with his children. But he swears he gives them a pretty free rein.

“Yesterday Beatrice and Florence decided that they could grab on to two extremities of a Chestnut tree and use it as a swing. It looked terribly good fun, but was not entirely beneficial for the Chestnut tree, so I drew the line there.”

With ideas for more books, and a steady stream of gardening journalism, the future looks promising.

“I want to keep writing about gardens because I find them so enlivening and helpful.  If I can capture that in a way that might be useful for someone else, and if I can find a way of doing so that will pay the bills, then great!”

Skymeadow. The Story of an English Gardener. Constable. London: €25.70.   Kindle: €11.10

Published in The Irish Examiner on 2nd June, 2018

© Sue Leonard. 2018

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