Since moving into a thatched cottage, I find I like reading about them, probably to reinforce the idea that I’ve done the right thing. An old favourite is A Thatched Roof by Beverley Nichols, the sequel to the best gardening book ever written: Down the Garden Path. Beverley Nichols was not only a prolific writer but what we would call today a celebrity. His phizog could be seen on advertisements telling the world that ‘If Beverley Nichols offered you a cigarette it would be a De Reszke.’ (There’s a famous story of Noël Coward saying, at a party given by the notoriously mean Godfrey Winn, ‘If Godfrey Winn offered you a cigarette, it would be a b-bloody m-miracle.’)
Nichols was a prolific writer; he said himself that he had a ‘fatal facility’. He gardened fanatically, played the piano to concert standard, adored cats. Astonishingly, and a sign of how celebrity culture has changed since those days, he managed for years to be doted on by women readers, including those of Woman’s Own, while drinking like a fish and carrying on a sex life which is hem hem too strong for my journal.
I’d like more people to enjoy his books so I’m recycling (sheer laziness) an article I wrote a long time ago
Running the book stall, I get a pretty good idea of which books will sell. Lavishly-produced modern gardening books are spurned, while any old battered copy of a Beverley Nichols’ title is snapped up as soon as it appears on the table. Down the Garden Path was first published in 1932 and has never since been out of print. Hugh Johnson wrote in The Principles of Gardening (1979) that the book is ‘one of the most perfect introductions to gardening that I know’: I couldn’t agree more with this verdict. It is a book written in the first flush of the author’s own enthusiasm for gardening and it wonderfully conveys the excitement that he felt. Take this famous passage about taking cuttings, from a chapter headed ‘Miracles’:
Do you not realise that the whole thing is miraculous? …Surely you would be surprised if, having snipped off your little finger, and pushed it into a flower pot, you were to find a miniature edition of yourself in the flower pot a day later?
Or, after the failures of ‘How Not to Make a Rock Garden’, the thrill of eventual success:
The charm of a rock garden is essentially Lilliputian. To extract the keenest pleasure from it you must be able to diminish yourself…into a creature that is able to walk, in spirit, under the tiny saxifrages, and shiver with alarm at the heavy weight of their blossom, to climb, in your mind’s eye, the mossy stones, and grow dizzy on their steep escarpments.
Author and publisher were keen to cash in on the wild success of this book and it was followed by two more yarns about the Huntingdonshire cottage. A Thatched Roof appeared in 1933 and A Village in a Valley in 1934. Published by Cape, perfectly complemented by Rex Whistler’s illustrations, these books form the Allways Trilogy. After seven years of cottage-dwelling and commuting, Beverley Nichols left ‘Allways’ for a modern house in Hampstead. From the garden here came Green Grows the City in 1939; a rather optimistic title when the country was on the verge of war. In this book Nichols was preoccupied by garden design and it is illustrated with plans and photographs. The trusty formula of garden raptures, nosy neighbours and delightful cats make it still a good read. The author then bought Butcher’s Barn, twelve acres of land in Sussex, planning to make a new garden and write about it. Unsurprisingly this idea was not a success in war-time and the property was sold again, at a loss, in 1941.
Fortunately, his next house and garden provided him with another trilogy, the Merry Hall sequence. Merry Hall was a Georgian manor house near Ashtead in Surrey and once again Nichols hit the jackpot with Merry Hall (1951), Laughter on the Stairs (1953) and Sunlight on the Lawn (1956). Rex Whistler had been killed in the war and these books were illustrated (in a similar spirit) by Will McClaren. You would not guess it from reading these books but by 1956 Nichols, in spite of the huge sums he had made from his writing, had nearly bankrupted himself by renovating the house and garden and was starting to worry about his old age. Merry Hall was sold and he lived briefly in a Hampstead flat. He had the garden here professionally landscaped and, according to his biographer Brian Connon, ‘the result was reminiscent of the temporary displays at the Chelsea Flower Show’. In spite of his oft-repeated mantra ‘There is no way to take the backache out of gardening’, Nichols was not keen on breaking his own back.
In 1958 Beverley Nichols moved to Sudbrook Cottage, Richmond, where he remained for the rest of his life. The Richmond garden was the subject of Garden Open Today (Cape 1963) and Garden Open Tomorrow (Heinemann 1968) and also featured in The Englishman’s Garden edited by Alvilde Lees-Milne and Rosemary Verey in 1982, the year before he died. There is a special interest for Dorset readers in Garden Open Today as Nichols had become keen on heathers, which he obtained from Maxwell & Beale Ltd., Broadstone. He also recommended Stewart’s Nurseries, Ferndown, for supplies of Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Ferndown’.
The garden books are only a small part of Nichols’ vast output over the years but they are probably the most successful and certainly the most enduring. He also published How Does Your Garden Grow? (Allen & Unwin 1935), whose other contributors were Vita Sackville-West, Marion Cran and Compton Mackenzie. Forty Favourite Flowers (Studio Vista 1964) consists of full-page black and white flower portraits, each with its own essay. The Art of Flower Arrangement (Collins, 1967), is a beautifully written and illustrated treatment of its subject but sales were disappointing. The Allways trilogy was reissued in condensed form by W H Allen as The Gift of a Garden (1971) and The Gift of a Home (1972).
It is hard to find a first edition of Down the Garden Path in a dustwrapper but apart from that, the early titles were reprinted so often that they are neither scarce nor expensive. Of the other titles, only The Art of Flower Arrangement is pricey. Once you’ve read one you are likely to read the rest and as for me, if I could keep only one of my gardening books, it would be Down the Garden Path.