Interview with gardener Charlie Hart PLUS win a copy of his new book Skymeadow
PUBLISHED: 14:45 17 April 2018 | UPDATED: 09:11 24 April 2018
In perhaps her most challenging interview to date, Essex Life’s Sybilla Hart speaks to gardening expert and author Charlie Hart about his latest book, oh, and whether he has put the rubbish out
Kids dispatched to school, dishwasher stacked, pets fed and washing machine on. Now it is time to sit down at the kitchen table and do something slightly odd, namely, interview my very own husband, Charlie, about his new book Skymeadow: notes from an English gardener.
As we sit down opposite each other, I notice he looks slightly shifty, so I ask him my first question. “Have you taken the rubbish out.” He exhibits signs, if not of frustration, then of minor annoyance. “No,” he answers sheepishly. Right, pause interview.
As he is out of the room taking the clear bag with heaps of brightly coloured and completely unnecessary packaging to the bin, together with all the plastic tat that arrived with my mother the previous week, I realise the question I really want to ask him is why did he sacrifice so much of his time, time in which he could have been either helping me or playing with our four little bundles of unadulterated joy (ahem) to write a book, and particularly this book.
But I can’t go straight in with this question. I know I will have to butter him up first.
The interview resumes. I ask him when he found the time to write the book, given that he is a gardener, a journalist and a father of four?
“Mostly early in the morning, or late at night. Isn’t that when most books get written?”
I secretly wonder whether he would have replied with that slightly tart tone if I didn’t happen to be his wife.
So I raise my game by asking what it felt like to write the book. “It felt like a wrestling match with a big, smelly gladiator,” replies Charlie. “It took me nine months to make him surrender and now I am sitting on his head.”
I fire a couple of further questions at him and he begins to look bored.
In my other role as his wife, I know full well that Skymeadow isn’t just a book about how he has single-handedly built a new five-acre garden around our house, it is really a book about how building that garden helped him grieve loosing his father and then his mother in quite quick succession.
So I ask what was it about building a new garden that helped him grieve loosing his parents?
“Digging played its part, in that the endorphins that accompany hard physical graft make you feel better, but that was pain relief rather than a cure. Men, particularly English men, can stuff their feelings under an internal carpet.
“Gardening teaches you to look, to look patiently and properly, and as I learned to look at things outside, I began to feel able to look at things inside too. This was a first step towards beginning to unpack all those tricky feelings I had been carrying around.
“In the garden I had the space to start tying up loose ends and untying knots. I often say to people that as the garden began to come together on an incoming tide, my grief seemed to recede on an ebbing one.”
In his book Charlie also deals with anxiety, another personal bête noir that I know has haunted him on and off (thankfully there have been plenty of off times too).
“I deal with my anxiety issues in Skymeadow, but I do so personally as a gardener, writer and jabberer. I have no medical training. As you know, Calpol confuses me.”
I decide it is time to take the interview onto merrier climes.
What is it about Essex that he particularly loves? “I love my links to the place. I love the fact that my father and grandfather loved it. But more than that, north Essex countryside has an essential softness to it.
“My job in this garden has been to constantly try to catch and magnify that softness. It is one reason why the avenue is a cherry avenue, as opposed to a posh lime one, for example.”
My mind turns to our children. I ask Charlie if he enjoys gardening with them. “Isaac likes mowing, Beatrice likes digging and doing, Florence is a budding designer and Celestia (our toddler) loves watering. Celestia was genuinely helpful keeping the veg patch damp last summer.”
He raises his eyebrows. “Let’s be honest, sometimes it’s more a case of childcare than genuine help.” So will any of them follow you into gardening as a career, I ask? “I think the key is never to force them to do anything.”
At the end of the interview I ask him a favour. As he is my husband, will he say something to me that he hasn’t said in any other interviews and won’t say to another journalist?
“Yes,” he replies. “What’s for lunch?”
Essex Life is offering you the chance to win one of five copies of the book Skymeadow – Notes from an English Gardener by Charlie Hart. To be in with a chance of winning this prize, fill out the below form and answer the question:
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Skymeadow is the garden at Peverels, a small farmhouse that sits lazily on the lip of a hill running down into the Peb Valley near Wakes Colne. An expanse of untouched meadowland was the perfect setting for an audacious garden, serving Charlie’s unquenchable urge to dig and to create something.
The days he spent wrestling with the soil in the rose garden were the days in which he mourned the loss of his parents. Gardening has taught him that you can dig for victory, but you can also dig for mental health. In Skymeadow, Charlie seamlessly weaves together his own memoir with that of his garden.
Skymeadow – Notes from an English Gardener by Charlie Hart is published by Constable in hardback, priced £16.99. It’s available in all good book shops and online retailers.