Garden visiting in remembrance

By Bobby Ball, author of Mindfully Bertie

Mrs Maddox, my favourite teacher at primary school, christened me ‘big mouth’ in 1953 and then wrote to my mum when I left later for the big school. “We will really miss Bobby and his stories”. And so for over 60 years, there have been mixed feelings about my ability to ‘talk ‘til the cows come home’. Even the adorable Diddley (otherwise known as Diane, my wife) confided in her friends that she had tried to avoid me at the tea point in the office where we both worked, because I talked so much. Until that is, true love and romantic stories won her over. So, here I am, telling another story. This time about visiting gardens.

Me and Diddley

I’m writing this while sat on the quay during my stay in wonderful Whitby – and looking out to sea across the bay is not unlike witnessing an open garden from the famous Yellow Book. There are lots of happy, smiling people walking by, oblivious to the razzmatazz of the ‘kiss me quick’ world just over there. They are enjoying a break from their normal lives as the sun goes down. In the same way, at a crowded garden on an open day you’ll see lots of content people in their own little worlds, soaking up the beauty and peacefulness that surrounds them. Lots of kindred spirits looking forward to tea and cake. Or here at Whitby fish and chips and a cup of Yorkshire tea.

I have enjoyed visiting gardens for many years. The joy my own garden has brought me has only been matched by seeing other people’s passion and creativity during my National Garden Scheme visits. But there’s one particular garden which holds a particularly special place in my heart and not just because of its aesthetic beauty. Wintershall Manor in Surrey is a sprawling two acre garden with bluebell walks, picture perfect views and stunning woodland – as well as a tiny chapel right next to the lake, consecrated by the Bishop of Guildford and dedicated to St Francis. It was in this chapel, on 19th September 1999, that Diddley and I decided to marry ourselves!

“Will you, Diddley, marry me, Bobby?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“Will you, Bobby, marry me, Diddley?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“We declare ourselves man and wife!”

St Francis Chapel at Wintershall Manor

It was a spectacular afternoon. Sixteen years later in 2015, Diddley passed away. It was the chapel at the National Garden Scheme’s Wintershall Manor that I visited on the two year anniversary of her death – so I could remember that special afternoon in 1999.

During Gardens and Health Week, the National Garden Scheme is raising awareness of the mental wellbeing benefits of visiting gardensIt’s a concept I’m fully on board with. Since Diddley’s heartbreaking passing, I have been continuing my visits to gardens but in a bit of a different way now. Out of solace, and a sense of fun and adventure, Bertie, our 27-year-old teddy bear (who was best man at our official wedding in Scotland), and I take ourselves off to all sorts of gardens across the country, light a candle at each location in memory of Diddley and then tell the stories of our visits as a sort of bereavement therapy on our blog, Mindfully Bertie.

Some of our favourite garden visits to remember Diddley have been Dunsborough Park in Surrey, a wonderful National Garden Scheme garden of exquisite secret corners, historic buildings and statuary and Worthing Gardens in West Sussex, a row of town gardens which open together to create a wonderful shared experience of ‘over the garden fence’. Spitalfields Open House Gardens in east London are equally brilliant – they are a group of 400 year old former Huguenot silk weavers houses that literally open their front doors into a secret world of courtyard gardens. A real historical treat.

My friend Merrill with Bertie at Worthing Gardens

But garden visiting isn’t just therapeutic for me because I lost a loved one. I’ve suffered with mental health issues for most of my life, and if you’ve experienced anxiety, you’ll know all too well the feeling of ‘what if’ in a negative way. The world of gardens is quite the opposite. This year’s failure could be next year’s success. Gardeners are always looking forward to the next season. And all of us have access to that positivity via the famous Yellow Book and it’s on line version – the National Garden Scheme website.

Lighting a candle for Diddley at Spitalfields

Everyone draws something different from garden visiting. While I am in Whitby, my great friend Nancy is looking after my garden. A real challenge during the heatwave. When I told her I was writing about garden visiting and mental wellbeing, she offered her take on what attracts her to the National Garden Scheme. She said, “One of the best things about visiting a National Garden Scheme garden is that it’s easy to visit on your own, but you never feel alone when you’re there. There’s that natural way that anyone interested in gardening is happy to chat to strangers, so you inevitably end up having a natter while walking around or having tea.”

We have just published our 100th post on Mindfully Bertie and it’s been a positive, uplifting and cathartic journey. With time and an enormous void in my life, my story telling has finally found an outlet. And the stories will always end with lighting a candle for Diddley. She would be proud of what we have achieved out of sadness.


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