Sometimes travel planning can be a hassle: searching for the best price for flights, trying to find accommodation that meets all your criteria, or ensuring that what you want to see is actually open while you’re there. At other times, outings can fall into place at the touch of a button. In this particular case, that button was the Facebook refresh on MrElaineous’ mobile phone—it revealed that a friend was hosting an open garden event in the nearby town of Devizes that afternoon. We could easily squeeze it in after our Community Clean Up and before the England-Sweden match.
Devizes is a charming Wiltshire market town, one of many that we are fortunate to have in our neck of the woods. One of its claims to fame is being on the Kennet and Avon Canal. Which doesn’t seem to require that much fame, until you realise that the canal has to climb over 230 feet to take it to Devizes. As I’m sure you’re aware, water doesn’t flow uphill and a series of 29 locks were required to allow boats to climb to the appropriate level. At Caen Hill, this was taken to extremes and 16 locks can be found in a row.
The railways put an end to industrial canal transportation and this incredible feat of engineering fell into disuse for over a century. It took three decades of restoration to get it running again, but it is now possible to travel the Kennet and Avon Canal in a narrowboat. However, if you wish to do so to get to Devizes, consider yourself duly warned: it can take up to six hours to travel all 29 locks. [And while I was in the middle of writing this post someone had a little accident with the lock gates.]
We skipped the boat and went by car. While our initial plan was to have a walk along the canalside, we got slightly distracted in our exploration around the town centre. MrElaineous is quite familiar with Devizes since he performs there on a regular basis, but even he was stunned when we stumbled across the oldest part of the town, a row of 15th century buildings just off the main road. We intentionally drove to Ledbury in the Malverns to soak up history like this, and it was a pleasant surprise to find it in the very heart of our local patch.
This led to catching sight of a sign advertising an art trail, which in turn led us into one of the 15th century buildings and up to an incredible display of local photography by Stephen Davis. While some of the places featured in the artwork were familiar from my own Wiltshire wanderings, like the bluebells of West Wood or Japanese maples in Westonbirt, Stephen uses early morning light to turn Wiltshire into a wonderland. I admit that I felt equal parts admiration for his photographs and jealous of the incredible scenes he managed to capture.
From there we visited a second venue on the arts trail, one that happened to be run by a friend of MrElaineous. This is the multi-talented Bryony Cox, who not only treads the boards with White Horse Opera, but also paints stunning images from her travels around the world (as well as the ever-changing Wiltshire weather!). Her Unguarded Moment series in particular was a lovely look at people as they went about their day-to-day lives. Although the activities she depicts take place a world away from what we are familiar with, she captures the subject’s emotions and shared humanity in a touching way.
Then it was on to the garden that kicked off this whole excursion, a participant in the National Garden Scheme. This programme raises money for nursing charities through private gardens opening their gates to the public. People pay a donation, but get two things in return: the chance to experience lovely gardens that are otherwise hidden away and, potentially, to be inspired to do a bit of gardening themselves.
In many ways the National Garden Scheme is a prime example of peer-to-peer learning. National Trust gardens are beautiful to look at and explore, but can feel out of reach of the ordinary gardener. Open gardens, however, can belong to friends, neighbours, and otherwise regular people with a passion for plants. It’s easy to see their work and think, “If they can do that, so can I!”
This particular back garden has been turned into a paradise for humans and wildlife alike. It’s the type of place you walk into and find yourself saying “Wow!” – not just because of the sheer riot of flowers, but because you feel like you’ve stepped from an ordinary suburban street into another world. During our visit everything was set off beautifully by the cloudless blue sky, and several types of butterflies made themselves at home flitting between the plants. One of my favourite spots was the pond with its pale yellow waterlilies and dainty blue forget-me-nots, where I caught sight of my first frog of the year as it quite sensibly retreated into the cool water. The trickling of a stream completed the picture and I didn’t want to leave.
But it was nearing kick-off time and so we headed back the way we came, leaving the canal to explore another time. The day that had started off with rubbish ended with an English victory … and was filled with some pretty remarkable sights in between.
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