To get to the elder from the house, you leave by the back door in the basement, climb some concrete stairs, negotiate the rampant weeds that persist in growing through the cracks in the terrace and walk across the lawn towards the wilderness. The path I travel across the grass in these images follows the remains of a brick path which we discovered when – having dispatched the head-height nettles – we started to dig into the garden. We found all sorts of things in the soil – it seems to have been used as a rubbish dump at some points. We still find shards of glass all across the garden, to the extent that I have resigned myself to only being able to grow root vegetables in pots. The old path led from the terrace down to where you can still see the trail of it winding round the variegated privet on the left and the sort of ‘rockery’ garden made out of ancient builders’ rubble on the right (now populated with a self-sowed pokeberry which we call The Triffid) towards the end of the garden. The rockery has a chimney pot in it. I don’t know why. It came that way.
At the very end of the garden, by the fence, there is more concrete terrace. I don’t know whether that was originally a spot to sit in the shade of the sycamore tree which overhangs this whole end of the garden, or if it was the foundation of some sort of shed. The shed theory is probably more likely, if less delightful. The neighbours have a shed in about the same spot in their garden, just a little further forward. The gap between their shed and the fence has filled with sadly unproductive blackberries. A couple of years ago, when the brambles weren’t so dense it made a perfect ‘outdoor den’ for the foxes who live under our woodpile (and under all the neighbours’ gardens, it seems). I would creep quietly past the elder to peer over the fence at a cub sleeping among the blackberries in the afternoon. Sometimes, like cats, they would have running dreams, waving their paws and twitching as they slept. Sometimes I would inadvertently tread on a stick and they would be awake in a moment, zipping off to hide in the den-proper.
I suspect the elder was self-sown. They don’t live terribly long compared to some trees – a mere 60 years or so – and ours is still growing vigorously, in spite of the sycamore blocking so much of her sun. She’s nowhere near an elder’s maximum height of 15m – more like about 4, so I suspect she dates from after the time of the shed/terrace and the path. Certainly from after the Second World War when bombs fell all over the town, trying to hit the local RAF airfield. Possibly she sowed herself during the period when our house was seven illegal bedsits and nobody cared about the garden much. Or so I presume. It’s hard to tell because the house had been abandoned for two years after a council raid before we bought it. Maybe the family who lived largely without natural light in the basement of the house actually spent a lot of time in the garden. I hope so. They left sheets in the washing machine when they left.
It took a year or so after we cleared the garden for the elder to flower – or at least for us to notice her flowering. I like to think that she had been growing in secret while the garden was untended, and that when we cleared the nettles, she finally got the sunlight she had been craving. I like to think that when she bloomed for us, that that might have been the first time she had bloomed at all.
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