The Buddha and the Pear

(extract from an original essay first published in New Welsh Reader, 2018) 

Visiting Aberglasney gardens on a hot August afternoon, I was enchanted by all the unsolved riddles of their history which, according to the 15th century bard, Lewis Glyn Cothi, began as ‘nine green gardens’ with orchards, ‘crooked vines’ and oak trees somewhere hereabouts.  By the late 20th century, neglected, looted and vandalized, the house and gardens had been abandoned in a riot of brambles and ivy; it was brought back to life in the mid-1990s by a rare group of horticultural geniuses in a restoration project nothing short of miraculous. As they dug deeper, they unearthed the gems of a 17th century cloistered garden; they reconstructed upwards, arched over with hazel and glass, they espaliered, mapped out radical new patterns, mixed modern and minimalist with heritage, wild woodland and bluebells with herbaceous borders and exotics, tuning in with each decision to the wisdom of the gardens’ ancestors.

When the restorers turned over the soil and rubble, they shook out centuries of resident spirits, a colourful troupe of successive owners all sharing in the accumulation of debt: lawyers and poets, bon viveurs and teetotallers, a boxer, a bishop and a surgeon. The modern designers unfolded a new story for Aberglasney, leaving plenty of room for the ghosts to flit about telling tall tales, wafting disembodied candle flames around when the mood took them, hiding in the yew tunnel or playing in the shadows of an early summer evening.

No doubt Bishop Rudd, former owner and keen builder, whose family were in residence in the 1600s, would have wanted to call by to check on his cloistered garden that afternoon where a wedding was about to take place around the grass of the parterre at the same time as I arrived. I was informed by reception that if I wanted to see the sunken garden to the north-west of the house, I had half an hour to explore it before the wedding party headed that way for a private champagne reception after the ceremony. 

A wisteria tunnel guided me through to a bench a short distance in front of the water sculpture which was the focal point: a single stainless-steel orb crafted by William Pye. It rested in the centre of a geometrically elegant pond, its depth hard to fathom, set within a pale paved surround, extending out to planted borders. I sat down alone on the bench in the searing heat to observe it. The sphere sat in unexpected harmony with the rectangular courtyard of old stone buildings: historically out of time but perfectly in place. House martins squealed and looped in and out of nests tucked under the eaves and in narrow slits of the old barn, in a summer feeding frenzy, the movement of the birds mirroring the light bouncing back and forth around the masonry.

The orb was both there and not: a hemisphere made whole by its own reflection under the water’s surface, floating as two forms, then merging as one. A band of shining steel seemed to run around its circumference, a dazzling ringed planet giving off so much heat it made the striking blooms of red-hot poker burn a deeper shade and the air around it bubble and shimmer. On the other side of the pond, two members of staff started popping corks and pouring chilled champagne into fluted glasses, as the clack of stilettoes on stone announced the arrival of the wedding party – my signal to leave.

I moved off for a cooling drink in the café before heading to the less formal of the walled gardens, where fruit and vegetables were grown together with flowers for cutting and display, and sat in the loggia built from the donation of an elderly visitor who had been just as captivated by the place when she came to visit in 2007. Its buff roof crafted from slate once quarried on the Pembrokeshire-Carmarthenshire border, sheltered a long simple wooden bench. Two plain pillars framed an uninterrupted view of the garden with miniature apple hedges neatly bordering the vegetable beds; on one side was a structured row of bay trees and on the other, the west-facing wall was bursting with pears and apples trained in a criss-cross design that brought the stone alive, growing together with the seasons of the garden. Unlike other formal gardens which made me generally uneasy, the walls did not exclude or oppress but had offered themselves like an irresistible blank canvas to the imagination of the skilled gardeners whose summer festival creation had love-lies bleeding trailing over ruby chard and maroon and white sweet peas parading up bamboo poles, offering a nod to the flamboyant gladioli and the orange and crimson dahlias.

‘Nice,’ a voice chirped beside me. A small woman with white hair in tight curls, perching on the other end of the bench like a tiny bird, had appeared from nowhere. ‘Sorry?’ I responded, not quite sure how she had got their unnoticed or what the ‘nice’ referred to. ‘It’s nice to keep a journal,’ she smiled and continued, ‘I hope you don’t mind. I saw you back there, sitting in the café a while ago, writing in your notebook. I keep one too.’ ‘Oh yes,’ I replied glancing down at the notebook on my lap, ‘It is nice.’ There was so much warmth in her, there seemed nothing intrusive about the fact she had been watching me. She had made a connection – both of us had been there by ourselves, looking on at the wedding, wrapped in our own private thoughts, jotting things down. It would have been fascinating to compare notes. We sat in silence for a while before she sprung up from the bench as swiftly as she had arrived, ‘Enjoy the peace,’ and vanished through the wooden archway into the upper walled garden.