A secret garden in Binsted Woods

A June day in the realm of Broad Oak and Green Oak. We are standing in a clearing of waist-high grass, trousers tucked in against ticks. In our son’s hand is a map sketched on the back of a jam-stained household bill.

The map comes with instructions:

At the clearing, face south-east. There is a gap into the woods, like an archway. In the woods, walk parallel to the footpath. You will come to a fallen tree. Its branches are like antlers. The antlers point directly at the secret garden.

We choose a likely arch of low branches at the clearing’s edge and, lifting the child through sticky goosegrass, enter the wood.

For years I have heard stories of the secret garden that Bloomsbury Set affiliate Lorna Wishart made in Binsted Woods. A beloved, hard-to-find space, carved out of woodland and filled with deer sculptures, urns and other decorations.

It has grown in my mind to be an ivy-bound, Midsummer Night’s Dream-y place; a place outside time, summoned from the mists of classical mythology and English folklore. Part fairy tale, part myth. Part Herne the Hunter, Bacchus, Pan, Diana, Green Man.

The life and art of Lorna herself feeds into this vision. Her mythologised self portrait of a horse ride from Arundel to Binsted, for example:

Lorna died at the turn of the millennium, aged 89. She is known in the wider world as lover and muse to poet Laurie Lee and painter Lucian Freud. She took a guiding role in their lives and work, turning up with stuffed zebra heads and dead herons for Freud to paint.

In the words of biographer Valerie Grove, Lorna was ‘fiercely unconventional and rampantly seductive’. Her younger lovers were besotted. Lee wrote poems inspired by lying at night in Binsted’s fields with Lorna, as the bombs of the Second World War fell; wrote too of her ‘voice full of musky secrets… limbs uncoiling on beds of moonlight’.

Binsted remembers her as a brightly shining presence, builder of shrines, an artist in her own right. Members of her family still live in the village. She has left her mark. The pond where Binsted Lane passes through the woods is still watched over by the statue of the Madonna that Lorna placed there.

On a day like today, with unseen clouds casting shadows in the wood’s dappled half-light, old stories of Lorna galloping her horse through these trees seem to hang in the air.

‘That one!’ says the boy, suddenly.

We all agree the fallen tree is a contender. Its antlers point into woods that quickly become thicker. Our trainers slip in mud, crunch into dead wood.

We traipse on. I am sure we should have crossed the path we earlier thought we were parallel to. A moment ago, shapes and shades in the wood denoted known paths and clearings, but now the singular, densely woven entity that surrounds us is unfamiliar.

Then, we see two holly trees, side by side. The perfect entrance to a secret garden.

The hollies lead only to a forest of matted brambles. But we feel the garden is close. We wander this way and that, trusting fate, convinced the garden wants to find us.

But we are still not sure what to look for. A clearing? A statue? The sound of hooves, a glimpse of a woman on horseback?

We turn back, try to retrace our steps. Now that we notice it, there are a lot of fallen trees in this part of the wood. There aren’t many that don’t have branches like antlers.

‘Maybe the garden’s not here today’, M says, breezily.

The boy stops walking.

He looks at us uncertainly. ‘Is it… really not always there?’

It had been something his Granny said, as she drew the map. A warning that sometimes even she can’t find Lorna’s garden. It had taken on an air of magic and now, in this unknown part of the wood, the garden – shifting, hidden, hiding from us – maybe seems a little less like a game.

We admit defeat. ‘We’ll come back another day with Granny’.

Soon we are back in familiar territory, the last patch of wood before the open fields. The boy has found a stick. He runs up the muddy path and stands for a moment on the edge, primed in the bright sunlight, the lost garden behind him, the next adventure ahead.

We ascend the wooded tunnel in slow pursuit. The air hums softly with hovering insects. Away to our left, a brook’s summer remnant trickles beneath brambles. In the mud of the track before us, a stray sunbeam catches the fresh marks of a horses hooves.


References

Lorna Wishart’s artistic legacy: here

A wonderfully enamoured introduction to Lorna herself: here


Image notes:

‘Girl with a Tulip’ by Lucian Freud (a portrait of Lorna Wishart)

Drawings of Binsted Oaks by Richard Geraint Evans

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