Hah. Flights. Like number 67 buses. You don’t so much as look at an aeroplane for years, and then you’re in one four times in two weeks. To say nothing of a 600-mile round trip to Cumbria in between.
I’ve been off on my travels again, for the third time in as many weeks. I am not accustomed to such excitement, and it’s left me a little breathless. And with a huge backlog of work to catch up with. It’s all very well this gallivanting malarkey but you do pay for it after.
Anyway, mustn’t complain. The most recent of my gallivants was to Guernsey, to give a talk or two at the invitation of the Guernsey branch of Plant Heritage.
I was more than a bit chuffed to be asked, as I’ve long been curious to see Guernsey. Just nine miles by five, a few miles from the coast of France, this little lump of rock is nonetheless a horticultural legend. I know it chiefly as a place where, above all other things, they Grow Stuff.
It is an elegant isle: wild rocky coastline tumbling down to little secret sandy coves and mile-long pristine beaches, rolling round to a more urbane, harbour-dominated sophistication around the capital, St Peter Port.
It is also resolutely and proudly British. The Queen is head of state, and the flag is a Union Jack. They have pound notes, for goodness’ sake.
But on closer inspection, it isn’t quite that simple. The island has its own government (the States) able to set taxes – though not defence or foreign affairs – and the people have no vote in British elections. Shop names, entire restaurants, most people’s surnames, the street names and many of the place names are in French.
The last time the island belonged to France was in the middle ages, when it used to be part of the Duchy of Normandy. It became British in 1204, when the people had to choose and voted to join Britain. But – in a quirk which says it all – they also chose to retain a Norman legal system.
Guernsey is far closer to the French coastline and everyone goes to St Malo and Paris for the weekend. But they send their kids to school in Britain and commute back and forth for work. The truth of it is that back in 1204 they were choosing to be British, but with French food. Sounds eminently sensible to me.
Even as I flew in over the island’s rocky coastline the island’s horticultural heritage was obvious: below were rack after rack of massive greenhouses. Even in private gardens people seem to have bigger-than-average greenhouses here. And in fields, by farms, in fact studding the island wherever you look are massive ranks of horticultural greenhouses, covering acres of land.
But things ain’t what they used to be. Guernsey’s horticultural industry is reeling in the wake of a fifty-year battering. First it was cheaper imports from the Netherlands: grapes, tomatoes and more recently daffodils and other cut flowers succumbed. Then changes to close a VAT loophole a year or two ago mainly aimed at the record company, HMV, had the devastating side-effect of removing all the mail-order horticultural business the island had come to rely on, practically overnight.
It’s left many horticultural businesses broke, dozens more clinging on by their fingernails, and just a small core of success stories still standing. It is still a place of horticultural excellence, with a handful of companies flying the (British) flag for Guernsey with pride and considerable success. But that’s a shadow of the hundreds of horticultural companies there used to be.
But what that horticultural legacy has left behind, more hopefully than the broken, empty greenhouses, and improbable fields of abandoned arum lilies, is an island nation of gardeners.
Every garden is beautifully tended and full of half-hardy delights like Madeiran geraniums and self-seeding echiums, relishing the benign climate and the envy of shivering gardeners on the mainland. ‘Hedge veg’ honesty boxes are a popular way of distributing the surplus from enthusiastic veg growers; and there are some spectacular Victorian greenhouses, and subtropical gardens full of gingers, palms and colocasia.
It’ll take something stronger than tax laws and EU competitors to drive the horticulture out of Guernsey. They may be a bit confused about the whole British-French thing, but they’re gardeners to the core.