I should have heard of him sooner. I’ve been gardening for most of my adult life and have not one, but two decent-sized bookcases devoted to natural history and gardening. I have the usual field guides, garden guides and perennial guides, plus oodles of niche gardening books the likes of which are rarely if ever opened – Baskets from Nature’s Bounty, A Weaver’s Garden, and Chicken Gardening among them. I own books on shade and foliage and roses. Glossy photo books, diaries, and more ‘year-in-garden’ books than years I have left to read them. But I didn’t have Nichols.
And I might have gone my entire life never owning a book by Beverley Nichols if it weren’t for the Oak Bay library. There I stood one drizzly January day and plucked a vintage-looking novel-sized hardcover from the gardening section. The title, apt to cheer anyone, was Merry Hall. The story, I learned from the back flap, was about an English bachelor restoring a Georgian manor and its garden in the late 1940s.
I don’t know about you, but chances are if you’re reading a gardening column, you might have harboured just such a restoration fantasy. I certainly have. A walled kitchen garden? Deep rich soil left from annuals past? Don’t even get me started on laburnum walks, pools, potagers and pergolas.
I snatched up the book. And the next in the series, and the next… until I needed to start on his earlier work with a copy of my own.
I ordered Nichols’ book, Down the Garden Path, first published in 1932, from Ivy’s Bookshop and was at the shop within the hour of its arrival. Shirley had only just called and there I was, practically panting. I felt I had to explain myself.
“He’s really quite a lark.”
A lark? (A Nichols word if there ever was one!) I don’t really even know what lark looks like. Still: The ladies were aflutter.
“We had a peek. The lupins…he made it sound positively dramatic collecting seed.”
Shirley opened the cover. “And look at the endplates.”
A hand-drawn aerial map of a garden unfolded before me. A kitchen garden, fields, an orchard and statuary – gardener’s Narnia.
Down the Garden Path is the first book in Nichols’ thatched cottage trilogy after which 10 more books about homes and gardens follow, not to mention novels, mysteries, travel writing and more.
If you have a new home or garden, read him. If you dream of one? Indulge. Nichols writes from another time and place, but his stories about becoming a gardener have kept his books in print for over 70 years.
Thirty-five dollars later, I set off down the avenue with my hardcover, one that will undoubtedly lead to a very pretty little shelf if not a manor.
This week, when I should really be home digging in the garden, I’ll be in England digging through used bookshops for more Nichols. Talk about being led down the garden path.
Christin Geall teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Victoria and is an avid Oak Bay gardener.