Rosie Johnston finds that Sarah Salway’s poetic guide to the gardens of Kent is a book to be enjoyed both indoors and outdoors.

Digging Up Paradise: Potatoes, People and Poetry in the Garden of Englandsalway
Sarah Salway
Cultured Llama 2014
ISBN 978-0-9926485-6-5
160 pp   £12

If you think Kent is just that over-developed stretch between Dover and the M25, this book might come as a shock. Described on the cover as a tour of the Garden of England from mermaids’ palaces in Margate to garden pianos at Finchcocks, it is an Eden of a book. It combines journal entries, letters, poems and the author’s own photographs to work on all the senses including the poetic and the sense of humour.

Sarah Salway has three novels, a book of short stories and a poetry collection You do not need another self-help book to her credit and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Her mother, Elizabeth Peplow, was a garden historian and writer and Sarah is a full member of the Garden Media Guild herself. This book began during her term as the first Canterbury Laureate in 2012 and is beautifully presented by Cultured Llama, a press based in Teynham near Sittingbourne that specialises in collections and cultural non-fiction, mostly poetry.

The gardens range from Chartwell in the west to Margate’s Shell Grotto on the east coast, and from Gravesend in the north to Derek Jarman’s garden in Dungeness.

Gravesend has a garden for visitors? It does indeed and let’s start there because it is the perfect example of how this book offers far more than a mere guide book. Always literary with the lightest of touches, Salway introduces us to the Rosherville Pleasure Gardens in Gravesend with an extract from PG Wodehouse: There is a story about Sir Stanley Gervase-Gervase at Rosherville Gardens which is ghastly in its perfection of detail. It seems that Sir Stanley – but I can’t tell you. In the mid-1800s Rosherville rivalled Vauxhall as the place to see and be seen and Londoners swarmed there by steamboat for tea and shrimps. It was more about the bear pit and the human cannonball than any plants and … Salway goes on: Hmmm … it seems that part of the guarantee of a “Happy Day” came from an unofficial rule of secrecy, or “what happens in Rosherville stays in Rosherville”. Having described a Mr Baron Nathan’s party trick of dancing blindfolded on thirty-two fresh eggs without breaking a single one (and confiding with us her own party trick – I’ll leave it to you to read the book), she tells us about an old postcard of Rosherville she managed to buy online. The pencil message on the back was a bit of luck, she says, given the picture I had formed of Rosherville: “E, see you Thursday at 11 by the wall. Come alone. William.” Here are the first lines of her poem, ‘A Letter to Mr Baron Nathan from a Lady in the Audience’:

I’m not normally keen on gardens
but was drawn by the posters,
Be prepared for anything,
so when I saw you, blindfolded
and dancing – hello, I thought;
the way that velvet suit encased
a body so smoothly oval
I wanted to tap you here,
and there, to take my spoon to you,
consume slowly down to your yolk –

Margate’s Shell Grotto was uncovered by a small boy and his father digging a duck pond in 1835 and how and when it was built is still a mystery: You come back wide-eyed with stories of magic passages, of mermaid’s palaces, of tunnels lined with treasure from the sea. After her visit there, Salway was surprised to write her poem ‘Mystery’ and it is one of her best. Here is the second stanza:

when I held you through that first night,
tiny body settled in the crook of my arm,
I’d have turned myself inside out
to give you my skeleton as protection;
we stared at each other, our conversation
begun long before either of us was born
and though I wanted to tell every happy
ending, could only whisper, you

All the famous gardens are here too: the Salutation gardens in Sandwich where Jekyll’s famous garden has been beautifully revived by Dominic Parker, now probably more known for appearances with his wife Steph on Channel 4’s Gogglebox; Chartwell where you can see Sir Winston’s art studio and the walls he built to relax; Chilham, Penshurst, Knole, Down House, Morris’s Red House in Bexley ‘clothed’ in traditional climbing plants; Sissinghurst of course; Leeds Castle’s terrifying maze, grotto and history of six queens; and the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale where over 2,300 varieties of apples are kept by Reading University for scientific purposes.

Beside an autumn fire while winds and rain tear up the garden outside, this book is pure joy. I look forward to taking it in the bike basket around Kent in the summer too. It is Salway’s gift for poetic prose that haunts the heart most of all. The harpsichord in Finchcocks Musical Museum in Goudhurst for example has been specially built (Salway writes) so the music can only be heard by the person playing it. I took this thought with me into the garden afterwards as I sat on a bench against one of the ivy covered walls and watched the light making silent songs with shadows on the grass.


Rosie Johnston’s three poetry pamphlets have been published by Lapwing Publications (Belfast), the latest Bittersweet Seventeens in March 2014. She also writes fiction and journalism, facilitates writing groups in London and Cambridge and is Poet in Residence for the Cambridgeshire Wildlife Trust.