Memoir: It's NOT all Wine & Roses


In the very early days of my treatment, when I was finding the canula insertion very distressing, and painful, Martin, the head teaching nurse, had advised me to find a ‘happy place,’ and to teach myself to go there, in my mind, during these unpleasant experiences. I had many more to endure, he had said.

He was suggesting a form of meditation, a practice that many cancer sufferers follow, and that I had tried to learn just after my diagnosis. I’d had a couple of sessions with a ‘wellness expert”, which, I must confess, I had found rather boring. I’d also bought from him a meditation CD, to guide me in the process. I found it impossible to concentrate, however: I rose early each morning to play the disc, but found my mind wandering to the early morning news. Eventually I gave in, and didn’t meditate again. But I did recall several beautiful, happy places to which I could return in my mind during painful treatments.

Just about my favourite happy place was – and still is – in Ros and John Wallinger’s garden, The Manor House at Upton Grey, in the English county of Hampshire. Designed by the renowned designer Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932), the garden is now the most important, and authentic, Jekyll garden in the world. Ros had access to Miss Jekyll’s original plans for the garden, which now reside at UCLA, Berkeley, in California, and has honoured them perfectly. There is a simple seat in the meadow at the edge of the garden, by a winding path that leads to the 13th century village church. During the early treatments I would imagine Ros and I sitting, deep in garden chat, on the seat near the church, in the midst of the old varieties of daffodils that were planted in the early 20th century.

It is endlessly fascinating to reflect upon, and research, the experiences and places that inspired scholars, writers and artists of ancient times. I’d sailed up the Yangtze River, and down the different gorges, wanting to see the landscapes, with their soaring, mist covered peaks, that had inspired earlier scholars and artists. I’d wanted to see it before the Three Gorges Dam had washed it all away, with it hundreds of years of cultural history.

This search for inspiration, and for beauty, has taken me also to the lakes of northern Italy in search of the landscapes that informed 18th and 19th artists and writers. If you’ve long dreamed about these jewel-like bodies of water that string out in the shadow of the Italian and Swiss alps, you’re part of a long tradition of romantic travellers. Poets, diarists, novelists and composers were among the many artists who derived both inspiration and restoration from these glittering waters.

The lakes were most eloquently described by writers like Charles Dickens, George Sitwell, Henry James and Edith Wharton, who were among the throng of American and British literati that descended upon the Lakes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to savour what Wharton called their ‘air of perennial loveliness.’

Lake Como, perhaps the best known, was, wrote Henry James, ‘fairly wallowing in libretto’. Vincenzo Bellini composed Norma and La Sonnambula on its shores in 1831, when he was staying with his lover, the soprano Guiditta Pasta, who first performed his Norma in Milan in 1831. Rossini created Tancredi there, and Verdi wrote Act II of La Traviata at Villa Melzi.

The fantasy gardens that hug the eastern and the western shores of Lake Como are complete works of art, encompassing all the disciplines: the study of history, architecture, sculpture, theatre, performance and imagination, along with, of course, horticulture. In Italy, just as in the United Kingdom, plant hunters were sponsored by leading families who received, in return, dividends in the form of seeds of the botanical bounty. And the owners of these grand gardens competed with each other – for the most up-to-date design and for the rarest botanical treasures.

Among several great gardens is the Villa del Balbianello, perched a-top a terraced promontory on the western shore of Lake Como. It’s where James Bond, in the guise of the actor Daniel Craig, convalesced after being assaulted by the evil ‘Le Chiffre’ in the 2006 version of Casino Royale. Before the movie makers arrived, however, Lake Como was patronised by princes and cardinals; villas were built on its shores by industrial and banking families who chose the unique setting for their holiday retreats; then by writers and artists from the UK and US.

Balbianello was created for the ambitious Cardinal Angelo Durini in the late 18th century on the site of a 13th century Franciscan monastery. It was bought and renovated in the 1970’s by the Italian Himalayan explorer Guido Monzino, and the villa now houses not only his collection of treasures from his myriad interests, but a fascinating, and somewhat chilling, museum of artefacts from his climbs in the Himalaya.

As well as the landscape suggesting the layout of the garden at Balbianello, the shallow soil of the rocky site has dictated the choice of plant species. Those three essentials of Italian gardens – water, stone and evergreen plants – are again employed here. On the main lawn in spring, the bare, twisted branches of the sculpted plane trees form a tracery against the clear blue sky; their crowns provide lush canopies to shade high summer.

In front of the villa holm oaks are carefully pruned to ensure the view is not compromised, while a backdrop of obelisk-like cypress introduces the woodland that clothes the steep mountains in the background.

The expansive terrace in front of the villa is protected by a stone balustrade separating the garden from the lake beyond: it is decorated with urns of cascading geraniums, their brilliant red blooms in perfect counterpoint to the burnt umber wash on the villa walls behind, and to the intense blue of the water below.

It is easy to understand why these great gardens, each set like a jewel in the landscape, remain loved by so many. As Edith Wharton wrote, in ‘Italian Villas and Their Gardens,’ published in 1904, “The Italian garden must be studied in relation to the house, and both in relation to the landscape. They are part of the same beautiful composition.” At Villa del Balbianello the relationship between towering mountains, the garden and the lake it overlooks is all important, existing as if created together.

I can never look at my pictures of the Villa del Balbienello without a chuckle. Just after I first visited a few years ago - it was just prior to the financial meltdown which has become known as the GFC - I had lunch with a friend at Bellagio, the small town on the finger of land that protrudes into Lake Como. My friend, an English girl who was married to an Italian chef and who had lived there for more than two decades, was, figuratively, tearing her hair out. She was arranging a wedding for two New York bankers who were to be married at Balbienello the following week. It seemed that daily they emailed with more demands. Just that morning they had phoned asking that a helicopter might drop rose petals onto the ceremony and over the bridal couple. Now, as we all know, Italy is a sophisticated country: it does fabric and cut like no other culture - but such obsessive attention to extravagant detail was almost vulgar to the Italians.

After all, when you have a wedding venue like the Villa del Balbienello, what more could you want? Needless to say, they did not get their helicopter, and one wonders how they are faring post-GFC.

three gorges Villa Melzi Lake Como

Upton Grey small