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Crocus Cyclamen coum Hellebore 'Merlin' Snowdrop Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

Discovering Old Garden Books - Beverly Nichols

Beverley Nichols (1898-1983) surely had one of the most varied writing careers of anyone I've heard of, publishing over 60 books during his lifetime. In addition to gardening books, he wrote novels and children's stories as well as non-fiction works on politics, religion, biography, music, poetry, travel, cats and even paranormal activity. Of the novels, six were a mystery detective series that was published during the 50s. In addition to writing, he wrote music and plays and acted in at least one feature film (sadly, that film is lost). For two decades, he wrote a weekly column for Woman's Own magazine.

When he wasn't writing, he was restoring houses, creating gardens, arranging flowers and generally schmoozing with the likes of Noel Coward and Tallulah Bankhead. A true bon vivant.

His first novel Prelude garnered him early celebrity status and he maintained that image with each successive book that he wrote. His books were wildly popular but none ever achieved a lasting literary reputation such as his friend Evelyn Waugh and, according to his biographer Byran Connon, this caused Nichols much consternation.  Occasionally, his sardonic nature got him into trouble, as in 1966 when he took sides on a sensitive issue between Somerset Maugham and his wife. The book Of Human Bondage was widely ridiculed. And, again in 1972 when he published a scathing and mean-spirited biography of his father (Father Figure).

His legacy and continued popularity lie in a series of gardening books that are still in print. The first, published in 1932, was Down the Garden Path which recounts his purchase of Thatch Cottage in Glatton (he renamed it "Allways" after an Irving Berlin song). Nichols knew the previous owner and had fond memories of visiting the cottage when he was younger. Many years later, while on an overseas flight, he read in the newspaper that the owner had died. Recalling the idyllic beauty of the cottage, he sent a telegram to the mother of the deceased as soon as he landed and offered to buy it. His offer was accepted but when  Nichols arrived back at the cottage, he discovered that the house and grounds were in serious neglect and he set about a restoration. Always on the lookout for writing material, he thought that a book about his gardening efforts might be popular. He was right. Astonishingly, he wrote it in a mere three weeks.

Allways

"Down the Garden Path" was such a success, both in England and the United States, that Nichols quickly followed it up with two more titles - A Thatched Roof (1933) and Village in a Valley (1934). By this time, Nichols popularity has spread widely and the little village of Glatton was seeing regular visitors who had traveled there to get a glimpse of the dream cottage and garden. Nichols only lived  in Glatton for a few years, but the town maintained an affinity for their famous resident. In 2018, Glatton hosted a Beverly Nichols Festival which culminated on what would have been Nichols 120th birthday.

Referring to Nichols's books as "gardening books" actually misses the mark as they are also autobiographical and sprinkled with fictional characters. Indeed, they often read like novels. His colorful descriptions and dialog flow off the page in an effortless conversational tone that is suffused with a caustic wit.  Yes, there is useful gardening knowledge to gain but the reader will also get a good laugh in the process. For me, the books vividly bring to life an era that is now gone and one that I would loved to have been a part of.

Nichols and his partner Cyril Butcher at Allways

 

The books are beautifully illustrated by evocative line drawings by Rex Whistler. However, if you are like me, you long to see actual photos of the garden and I've only managed to find a few. The one at the right shows a small section of the garden at Allways.

Keeping up with Nichols's various abodes is confusing but Bryan Connon's Beverley Nichols : A Life makes it easier. After less than a decade, Nichols sold the cottage in the fall of 1937 and moved on. He had been spending less time in Glatton and was also leasing a house in London. After the London house lease expired, he purchased a house at Number One Ellerdale Close in Hampstead. 

The Ellerdown Close house had a small and irregularly shaped garden which he wrote about in Green Grows the City: The Story of a London Garden (1939).  Nichols faithful manservant, Reginald Gaskin, who features prominently in the books, supposedly found the house in three hours. The house met the checks on Nichols's checklist except for a very small and perplexing garden space. 

In the book, he methodically goes through the thought processes of how he came up with the design for the garden which included the installation of a domed greenhouse in the corner of the triangle.
Green Grows The City turned out to be one of my personal favorites of his books.  

And unlike his other books, this one has photos!

The London garden - before

The London garden - after

As usual, there is comic relief provided by the neighbors, in particular Mrs. H., a snooty woman who disapproves of everything he does. And there are lots of cats. I forgot to mention that Nichols was a big cat lover.

 

Beverley Nichols, lover of cats

After the war ended, Nichols went in search of an English country house with room to garden. He found it at Merry Hall, a Georgian manor house in Surrey. The house had twenty-two rooms and a four-acre garden. It was all in need of renovation, a project that he, of course, wrote about.  

"Some fall in love with women; some fall in love with art; some fall in love with
death. I fall in love with gardens, which is much the same as falling in love with
all three at once. For a garden is a mistress, and gardening is a blend of all the
arts, and if it is not the death of me, sooner or later, I hall be much surprised."

Thus begins Merry Hall (1951), the first in a trilogy that was followed by Laughter On The Stairs (1953) and Sunlight On The Lawn (1956).

Nichols's favorite flower was the lily and it was the glorious sight of Regale lilies growing in the kitchen garden at Merry Hall that cemented the deal to purchase the house. The lilies were grown by Oldfield, the gardener, who stayed on and worked with Nichols. Every year, Nichols' would give a party to celebrate the Regale lilies when they were in bloom. Bouquets of them would be displayed throughout the house.

Merry Hall

I haven't had success finding photos of the gardens at Merry Hall. This one of Nichols strolling through it was widely used on his book jackets. You don't see much of the garden but there are the famous urns that he devotes an entertaining chapter to -


 

At Allways, there was a wall where famous guests signed their names. At Merry Hall, a hidden door was used for the same purpose. Among the signatures are those of Somerset Maugham, Greer Garson, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.

The Door of Autographs at Merry Hall

A running theme throughout Merry Hall is the ghostly presence of Mr. Stebbing, the previous owner whom Oldfield as well as the neighbors held in high esteem and balked at anything Nichols wanted to change. The book is as entertaining as his previous efforts although it is longer and I found the continual escapades of Old Rose and Miss Emily tiring.


Oldfield and Nichols in the greenhouse at Merry Hall

Nichols, Gaskin and Oldfield at Merry Hall

Beginning with Merry Hall, Nichols's gardening books were illustrated by William McLaren (Rex Whister was killed in 1944 during World War II).

Rex Whistler's illustrations

 

William McLaren's illustrations

After a decade at Merry Hall, Nichols sold it in 1956. A move to a flat proved unsatisfactory (Gaskin and Cyril hated it as much as Nichols did). He eventually found Sudbrook Cottage, a large four bedroom house with an almost one-acre walled garden and moved in during the summer of 1958. This would be Nichols's final residence and he lived there with Cyril until his death. Kenneth Page helped Nichols with the garden. I am not sure what happened to Oldfield but I assume that he must have stayed on at Merry Hall.

Sudbrook Cottage

Nichols published two books -  Garden Open Today (1963) and Garden Open Tomorrow (1968) while at Sudbrook Cottage. Both books concentrated on gardening and plants and did not have the usual fictional characters that filled his earlier books. With one exception - Marius - a philosophizing friend whom Nichols later said was basically himself. Nichols devoted entire chapters to his favorite plants - daffodils, snowdrops, rhododendron, heather, roses and of course, lilies. He also discusses a few individuals such as Constance Spry, the great flower arranger. A particularly interesting and informative chapter focuses on Sir Frederick Stern who created Highdown Gardens, a garden created on a difficult chalk-based plot. And one of Nichols's favorite topics (which appeared in most of his books) - winter flowers.

The book titles refer to the practice of opening private gardens to the public (an event very popular here in the Pacific Northwest). Nichols opened his Sudbrook Cottage garden on a regular basis and even encouraged visitors to drop him a note and arrange a visit in the books.

I was pleasantly surprised to find some recent photos of the garden at Sudbrook Cottage. They come  from fellow blogger Matthew Rees (Ham Life).  Here are a few - check out his blog post at https://hamlife.blogspot.com/2012/05/garden-open-today.html for more photos.

The garden at Sudbrook Cottage (Photo courtesy Matthew Rees)



Beverley Nichols and Cyril Butcher


Beverley Nichols died on September 15, 1983, six days after his 85th birthday. Cyril Butcher died February 23, 1987 at the age of 77.

 

Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

Comments

  1. What a delightful article about Beverley Nichols. I've enjoyed his books about creating gardens but find his snark to be grating at times. There is no denying he had great garden design skills. I think my favorite point he made was to make your garden seem larger by cutting it in half. This concept was illustrated with a line drawing of a line! :) Nichols and his Sudbrook Cottage garden are featured in Rosemary Verey's book The Englishman's Garden. There are several photos including one of the lily pond and of Nichols himself as an old man. The accompanying essay, written by Nichols, is full of his typical snarky writing style. You may enjoy it. This is probably the last feature of that garden as the book was published in 1982 (1983 in the US). Robin Spencer, creator of the exquisite York Gate garden, is also featured in this book. I think you would enjoy it.

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    1. Thanks Felicia. As I was reading that, I was thinking, "oh my gosh, I have that book" but then realized I have the "American Man's Garden". I will double check. I started to comment on his snarky nature but decided not too. DId you read the biography? His mouth got him in trouble several times and some of his non-gardening books were not favorable received (such as the scathing memoir he wrote about his father).

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    2. You're welcome, Phillip. I have not read his biography but I will put it on my list. What I like about his garden books are the themes that still exit for gardeners today (plant lust, garden design agony, wishing our plant budgets were bigger, etc.). Definitely themes we can all relate too! Yet his books are at a point in history that feels like it doesn't exist anymore. A good visual accompaniment to his books is Ursula Buchan's book, Garden People, featuring Valerie Finnis's photography. Now her images really capture mid-century garden history.

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  2. This was a pleasure to read! I have only read a single book by Beverly Nichols, lent to me by a friend, and that was so many years ago now I can't remember which it was (but suspect it was Down the Garden Path). Perhaps the long dark month of January will be a good time to read more.

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    1. This is definitely the time to catch up on reading.

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  3. I admit I hadn't heard of him before, which it sounds like he wouldn't have liked at all. Besides Green Grows the City, which books of his are your favorites?

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    1. Sweetbay, they are all good. I would suggest starting with the first one "Down the Garden Path". I would say it and "Merry Hall" and "Garden Open Tomorrow" were my favorites.

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  4. Thanks, Phillip. A friend introduced me to his books decades ago and I have a few. I went to Amazon to look and prices are a little steep. Also realized I can't read regular print (detached retina last year - fixed but bad vision still) so I've let go of that. You told me things I didn't know about him - yes, he was snarky but I kind of enjoyed that.

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    1. I noticed the prices were high. I bet they have gone out of print again.

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  5. Thanks for the history! I read 'Down the Garden Path' years (decades?) ago and found it amusing although, knowing nothing whatsoever about the author at the time, I'd have guessed him to be more elderly than your history and photographs reflect.

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  6. I often get his books out during winter to reread. I loved his snarky self. The butler was hilarious. He didn't hold back when toasting someone. ha... Quite a character he was.

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  7. Oh, I loved this post. I am a garden history nerd (I own to that too...lol) and always looking to learn more. And now you got me in trouble, because looks like I will be adding a few books to my stack to read. Have a great week!

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