/Summary: there's nothing like a pretty garden - whether in the UK or Malaysia - to get us talking. Add your comment and tell us about gardens you love./
It's a peculiarly English thing: making a special trip to go and wander round someone else's garden - and paying good money for it. To be fair, the gardens are usually several hundred years old, run to many, many acres and owned by a duke or even the Queen. Still, it's taken me a number of decades in the UK to get my head around this odd passtime.
When I first came to England, one of the first school outings was to Sheffield Park Gardens where we were left for several hours to wander around by ourselves. It's a historic landscaped garden owned by the National Trust. I didn't really get the concept - it was so boring looking at trees and shrubs and flowers. I couldn't understand why they hadn't taken us to a shopping mall instead. But the English girls were quite happy pottering about, chatting. (Some girls did set about hunting down any hunky groundsmen, but that's another story).
Chatting. That's a very English skill. In the good old Asian tradition that children should only speak if spoken to, my conversational repertoire at that time was "It's okay,", "I dunno" and a shrug. Today, my 11-year-old nephew - who was born and brought up in England - loves nothing more than a good chat. For me, that afternoon of numbing boredom in a landscaped garden, started to nourish my ability to chat. You start off with a comment about something innocuous - famously, the weather, or that lovely flower, or the beautiful manor house over there. You must always end it with a question mark eg "Gorgeous day, isn't it?" or "What a pretty flower, do you know what it is?". The question mark tosses the ball to the other player and away you go. Before long, you may never know each other's names but you've sussed that the other person is a decent sort and you're the firmest of friends.
But I digress (which is partly what chatting is all about). In my late twenties, I suddenly understood the joy of the English garden. Fittingly, it was at the most celebrated of gardens: Sissinghurst, the home of Vita Sackville-West, gardener, novelist and one of Virginia Woolf's great loves. I was on a cycling tour of Sussex and Kent with a friend in early summer. We arrived, hot and sweaty, legs wobbly from the ride. We had a wander round - chatting of course - and then came into the white garden. It was in full bloom - every flower in it white and the perfume was intoxicating. I had never seen a garden so beautiful.
Every summer, ordinary people open their gardens to the public under the National Gardens Scheme. In the grand tradition of garden visiting, you have to pay to get in but all proceeds go to charity. You can visit private squares in Central London that are otherwise never open to the public. There are a number of houses in my little suburb where they let the masses in on Sundays in May and June to traipse across their lawns and buy pot plants and seedlings. They lay out home-made cakes and cups of tea. Some of these houses and their grounds are quite grand but others in the scheme are little flats with a patio or garden the size of a welcome mat. The only condition for being included in the scheme is that the garden is lovely. Check out http://www.ngs.org.uk/.
In Malaysia, up in the hill stations where it is cool and often misty, the British have left behind English gardens with roses and bedding plants amid the tropical ferns. We used to take family holidays up in Frasers Hill, Cameron Highlands and Maxwell Hill, dressing up in woolly cardigans and lighting the fires in the rest houses to play at being English. These hill resorts had been renamed after Independence - Maxwell is now Bukit Larut - but the old colonial names linger on from my parents' generation. Now, I hear, the old English houses and gardens are falling into disrepair as Malaysians go abroad for their holidays or prefer more action-packed hill sites such as Genting Highlands, famous for its casino.
One of my favourite public gardens in Malaysia is Taiping Lake Gardens. It was first laid out by the British, I believe, cleverly masquerading the wasteland that was left after tin-mining. Over the lakes there are pretty bridges and walkways with pagodas. Lotus pads cover the surface of the still waters. There are hillocks and mounds planted with fragipani trees and long views towards the hills. Sadly, I've been told, the bridges are now looking derelict and the lakes are silting up.
These days, I'm happy to pay to look at a garden and eat cake and chat - to paraphrase that old '80s song, "I think I'm turning English, I really think so". But I haven't quite gone all the way - I'm not submitting my garden to the National Gardens Scheme: that would involve mowing the lawn and weeding and someone still has to convince me of the joys of those activities!
Could any of my Malaysian readers update us on what's happened to the old English gardens in the hill resorts? Can anyone in Taiping tell us about the Lake Gardens? Add your comment to this post to give us the latest reports.
For all my readers: what's your favourite garden? Is it your own garden, your grandma's or maybe you think there's a better National Trust garden than Sissinghurst? Singaporeans - what great gardens are there in the garden city? Why not add a comment and let me - and the other readers - know?
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