Tree's A Crowd.

Tree's A Crowd. - Lighthouse

The renovation has taken on a mysterious change of pace. By 8:00 in the morning there are now usually at least 6 people cheerfully cutting through things with circular saws while singing along loudly with Kajagoogoo. There is also an almost constant stream of people wanting to use the bathroom. I helped with the recent Primary Three trip to the Transport Museum and it has to be said that the 7 year olds were much better at sticking to the allotted piddle breaks than any of the men in their mid-forties that we have working on the house. I suspect that the sudden sense of urgency (professional rather than lavatorial) may be because the worker bees are anticipating their 2 weeks in the Costa Blanca and do not wish to have to return to Thompson Towers for yet more fun on their return. Obviously, this works very much in our favour as I harbour a fond (and possibly hopelessly unrealistic) hope of finishing the job before Christmas. In any case, renovations not withstanding, June often turns out to be a very busy month in general.

For, like so many, we are locked into the school calendar. What with small one at primary school and Beloved chipping away at the coal-face of high-pressure high-drama hormonal moanitude that is his lot for being foolish enough to try to educate teenagers for a living, our fortunes rise and fall with each passing term. June is very similar to December in the sense of extreme urgency that begins to imbibe every activity. There are a lot of events to be shoehorned into one very short month and everything has a distinct whiff of Doomsday. Due to the fact that the summer hols start on the 1st July, every 30th June has become like the 31st December 1999 all over again: no-one is totally sure whether life as we know it will definitely continue on the following morning.  Donations for the secondhand sock collection for charity must therefore be made NO LATER THAN (Emboldened. Underlined.) 24th June. For Surely Armageddon Followeth?

BBC Radio 4's Gardener's Question Time - Mount Stewart

As an antidote to the end of term and end (ish) of renovation stresses and strains I decided I deserved a little “treat yo self!” day. A while back, I discovered that the Gardener’s Question Time Summer Garden Party was coming to Northern Ireland for the very first time. If you’re the kind of philistine who does not enjoy clearing up the chicken-grease-covered multi-roasting-pan kitchen-apocalypse that is post-Sunday-lunch whilst listening to tips on how to remove ground elder from your borders on Radio 4’s hallowed airwaves, then the excitement of this momentous occasion will be lost on you. However, to me and many people on the greater Irish continent (especially, it seems, those in the latter years of their retirement), the day was circled in highlighter pen on the kitchen calendar. 

The day in question dawned fair. I arrived at the National Trust property which was hosting the event, and was emphatically and determinedly waved into my allotted parking space with the precision and enthusiasm usually reserved for the marshalling of a Boeing 747. This task was completed by a string of, not one, not two, but six men, equally spaced apart along the route, each wearing identical high-vis tabards and very focused expressions. I had been very worried that I would forget my ticket / mix up the dates / arrive at the wrong time / accidentally get locked in the toilet (again). But all was well. I was on time and even managed to squeeze in a Rose and Pistachio Cream Tea on the croquet lawn beforehand.

The recording itself was very entertaining. It’s always strange to see the faces, and perhaps more importantly the hair and teeth, that belong to the characters whose voices you would recognise anywhere, but whose visage you have never actually looked upon. The phrase “a face for radio” may indeed have a basis in fact. Bob Flowerdew and Bunny Guinness argued about potash. There was a minor drama at the end of our row when a woman got stung by a wasp. We clapped and laughed on cue and sometimes off cue. And before I knew it the hour had passed and the programme was finished. After the recording, it was time for some retail therapy.

Unusual Perennial Plants at Mount Stewart

I was idly drifting along the various stalls set out in front of the grand house, browsing a lovely selection of candelabra primula when I glanced around and saw, standing not 4 feet away, none other than Diarmuid Gavin! “Gasp!” I thought. Luckily, however, in real life I kept my cool. “Here is a man,” I thought, “Who is probably completely fed up with the whole celebrity hullabaloo and just wants to be treated like a normal person.” I had every intention of doing that very thing. I had every intention not invading Diarmuid Gavin’s privacy and allowing him to look at the rare plant stand in peace, so I determinedly did not rush straight up to him giggling like a schoolgirl. Instead, I casually sauntered around, glancing at plants labels here and there. But I’m ashamed to say that it was a clever ruse. For all the while I was actually manoeuvring into place behind a long line of Acer Palmatum so I could see him properly without in turn being seen. To paraphrase Otis Lee Crenshaw: some people call it stalking; I call it selective walking.

Sadly, I clearly wasn’t the only person to have spotted him. I felt like a tourist on the observation deck watching a wounded gazelle being dropped into the lion enclosure. Very swiftly, the pride went in for the kill and three different sets of women in turn trooped up to him to ask for a photo.  They were very giggly and irritating and spent at least three hours pressing different buttons on their phones until at last the camera worked and the picture was taken. But he maintained a smiling and gracious demeanour throughout, laughing and cracking jokes. I suddenly knew what I had to do. It was time to be more lion. I sidled up to him and asked if I too could have a selfie. He laughed in a good natured fashion: “No problem.” We posed. I was very hot and giggly and irritating and took at least three hours to find the right button so the camera would work. But I got the photo. “Thanks,” I said to his swiftly retreating back. By this point I was grinning like a more smug version of the Cheshire cat. 

Gardens at Mount Stewart

It’s hard to explain what happened next. I don’t know if it was my breathtaking brush with celebrity, or whether the heat, or clotted cream, went to my head, but, in no time at all, I seemed to wake up as from a daze and found myself completely surrounded by biodegradable plastic bags bulging with plants. A lot of plants. It looked like I had set up my own stall. I also seemed to have bought two trees.

Two main difficulties immediately presented themselves. 1. I had never before tested to capacity the plant-containing qualities of my car and had no idea whether everything I had just bought would fit. 2. Said car was parked approximately 3/4 of a mile away in the overflow carpark. Even if I strapped the ornamental  copper beech to my back, there was no way I could make it.

Mount Stewart Plant Delivery Buggie 

Luckily, a very kind National Trust employee called Jenny said she would help me back to the car in a little motorised buggy - a kind of glorified golf cart that she had been using to deliver sound equipment to the recording tent. Problem solved.

Soon my purchases were loaded up and Jenny and I climbed into the cab. Jenny performed a excruciatingly slow 17-point turn in front of the semicircle of curious onlookers, and off we set.

Soon it became painfully clear that the journey might take some time. The cart barely broke a top speed of 5 mph. It also sounded as though the original engine had broken down and been replaced with chainsaw parts. However, the sun was shining and I was enjoying my post-plant-purchasing glow. Chatting merrily, my new trees jauntily waving in the breeze behind us, we bumped over speed bumps and navigated around clusters of visitors, all the while accompanied by the grating sound of metal being slowly scraped across metal, which we judiciously ignored.

Eventually, with some difficulty we located the chariot in the now very full overflow carpark. My joie de vivre was briefly dampened as I glanced quickly back and forth between car and the burgeoning collection of plants we had just unloaded unto the grass. The trees in particular seemed to chide me. Who on earth buys a tree on a whim?

However, after some time, a considerable bit of huffing and puffing, and a lot of utterances such as “If you just slide the primulas to the left a bit I might be able to squeeze another salvia down the side of this seat”, we got everything in. Jenny was visibly relieved. So was I. We were both sweating profusely.

View from Mount Stewart   Front of Mount Stewart   Plant Purchases at Mount Stewart

I squeezed into the driver’s seat. It was akin to breaking into the canopy of the Amazonian rainforest. I felt like reaching for my pith helmet. I waved to Jenny, joyfully shouting my grateful thanks through the undergrowth, and drove off, foliage tickling the back of my neck. The high-vis tabard-team, who had been watching the entire loading operation, formed a respectful guard of honour as I bumped back out of the field. The final one gave me a thumbs up as I negotiated the cattle grid. 

As I drove out onto the main road, homeward bound at last, a bee lazily flew in one car window, harvested some nectar from one of my purchases, and flew out the other. The air was warm. The car was filled with the lemon verbena scent of the salvias I had just bought. The topmost branches of both trees, poking as they were, quite far out of the passenger window, rustled gently in the breeze.

It had been, I reflected with a satisfied sigh, a most unexpectedly, and almost entirely, perfect day.


Previous posts by Alison Thompson:

Curtain Disaster

A Shed of One's Own

In Like A Lion

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