The Great Park
I wanted to share with you somewhere that holds a special place in my heart. It’s only a few miles outside of London and takes about an hour to reach from the centre of the city. It’s the thousand acres or so of woodland and gardens that is Windsor Great Park. Whilst working at the Savill & Valley Gardens for a year I was lucky enough to be given accommodation in a cottage slap bang in the middle of it. If you took a map of the park and stuck your finger right in the centre of that big green area – that’s where I was living. For that year it felt like the park was mine.
It’s difficult to know where to begin in describing my time at Windsor. So many memories rush to mind all at once, bumping into each other and shoving with their elbows. Mostly, the things I remember are my experiences and connection with all the nature that was around me. Despite having grown up and lived most of my formative years in the deepest, darkest Lincolnshire countryside, I had never experienced nature in the intimacy and diversity that I experienced living in the Great Park. It sounds crazy I know, given that WGP is literally on the doorstep of the M25 and under the Heathrow flight path. But it’s a huge, old haven, and with its varied landscape perhaps that is why so many creatures choose to make it their home.
It was definitely a time of many wildlife firsts for me and amongst my highlights were: seeing my first woodpeckers – both green and great spotted, hares chilling out in the garden by the cottage, seeing my first nuthatch feeding on an old home-made seed feeder outside my kitchen, watching lapwings from my bedroom window performing their mating dance, a red kite swooping just metres above my car on my return to the cottage one afternoon, leaving the mess room on a sunny morning for 3 roe deer to gallop past in front of me through a stand of Scots pines on Breakheart Hill. Oh, and I should also include watching the bronzed and the lean playing polo on Smith’s lawn in the summer evening sun.
There were many times when I would be off getting lost in some corner of the park, when something special would happen – like the time a couple of great spotted woodpeckers spent a good five to ten minutes darting from one tree to another just above my head. I downed my tools, perched on a step and just watched them for the duration. Or the time a green woodpecker landed on the trunk of a tree right next to me as I was hoeing – I froze, held my breath and wished I had my camera or that someone else had been there to see it. And because, as employees, we had the keys to the garden we could enter as we pleased out of hours. Occasionally after work, if I didn’t go for a walk in the vast park outside my front door, I would return to the gardens with my camera. At these times I would have the whole place to myself, the sun dropping to the horizon and everything suffused with a low, golden glow. Plants became translucent and it was glorious. At weekends I might go at the opposite end of the day, when the sun was just rising. The park would often be mysterious and misty. Living in the park, magical moments such as these start to stack up and my year there was rich with them. I never took them for granted and was in awe of each and every one. These experiences were priceless, uplifting and a complete antidote to my preceding office and city life. I can absolutely see why many people who live and work in the park are reluctant to leave, happy to work their days out there. Yes, it can be a weird place because of this – insular and slightly archaic – but also unique and special.
And all this before I have even touched on the flora. In Windsor the trees have it for me: skyscraping giant redwoods; majestic cedars; huge, stately oaks; twisted sweet chestnuts; fiery liquidambars; heart-stoppingly beautiful Japanese maples (my favourite of which was Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’); not to mention all the flash magnolias and rhododendrons that do their thing in the Valley in spring. Then, of course, there’s Savill Garden with its beautiful bog garden, peat beds, dry garden (which pre-dates Chatto’s much vaunted example and which, I was told, she visited before she created her own), spring woodland and long herbaceous borders. None of this even begins to scratch the surface – just a slight tickle maybe. But these are all stories for perhaps another post. They deserve more justice than I have time for them here.
You should know that it wasn’t all joy in the park. There was also the endless back-, shoulder-, hip-breaking work of raking up leaves in the autumn, interminable hoeing, rabbits with myxomatosis, the 3 dead starlings that I found outside the cottage one afternoon (no idea what happened here – either they died in the nest and were pushed out or perhaps they died falling). However, my time there was an experience that left an indelible mark on me and gave me many memories that will stay with me forever. Suffice it to say that it was the most amazing, magical place I have ever had the privilege to work and live in. I really must return soon for a long over-due visit.
(What’s your favourite bit of the park? It’s so huge and there are so many nooks I don’t think many people venture very far and wide – especially those who park by Virginia Water and just trundle round the lake – oh what they are missing! For anyone wanting to visit the park and its gardens you can find information here. The best places to park for easy access to the gardens is in the Savill Garden car park or the Valley Garden car park off Wick Road.)