I’m a city dweller. Cities are what draws me, and if not cities, then coastlines. So, although I’ve always liked gardens, and even admired some, I’ve never really “gotten” them. It always felt as if there was some secret I wasn’t let in on.  I never really understood the strong passions gardens arouse, until now.
Sarah Salway is a novelist, poet and teacher,  and one of the most overall creative people I have ever met. She has written, and Cultured Llama has published, an absolutely wonderful book called Digging Up Paradise: Potatoes, People and Poetry in the Garden of England. She began to write this while serving as Canterbury Laureate, and I remember hearing about the project when it was first just an idea. And of course, I didn’t quite get it. I knew that Sarah lived in Kent and I understood that Kent is the so-called Garden of England, but beyond that I didn’t really have an inkling of how this idea could turn into such a beautiful, fun, and moving book — which it really now is.
Part travelogue, part poetry collection, part how-to and part diy, Digging Up Paradise is a collection of reflections, stories, poetry, writing prompts and photographs. It couldn’t have been written by anyone other than Sarah, the daughter of a garden historian who grew up surrounded by gardens, feeling at home in them, ‘getting’ them. The book, like the gardens it describes, is incredibly creative, sensitive and funny in equal measure, with a keen sense of beauty, both for the gardens and the words used to describe them. These are very personal reactions, but Sarah is very generous to share the most personal with us, both through her poetry and her prose. As she has written about Dungeness:
Perhaps it’s a prime example of how we need nature to shock us out of the prisons we make in our own minds.
And how do we do that? Sarah teaches not only by example. She gives the reader exercises as if we were all part of one of her well-known and well-respected workshops:
Walk in a garden and make portraits of two plants. Imagine them having a conversation.
Describe a tree for someone who has never seen one.
Go for a walk and photograph or draw as many red things as you can find.
If you are more of an arm chair garden-lover, there are plenty of anecdotes and history here to transport you from one end of Kent to the other. These tidbits were some of my favourite parts of the book. They really reveal these gardeners in all their English eccentricities, showing personal quirkinesses which are reflected in the gardens they created.
This is a uniquely English book and there should be a copy of it in every English home, and in every home where there lives a bit of England in someone’s heart. You see, I’ve gone all mushy reading it. And did I mention there’s also a map? I love maps!
Do buy a copy right now. And while you’re waiting for it to arrive in your postbox or your carry bag, you can find some more of Sarah’s gardens and photographs here.