Elspeth Thompson first came to my attention several years ago through her writings about the environment, self-sufficiency, and ethical living in The Guardian and about gardening in The Telegraph. I was captivated by her idea to turn two railway cottages into a cottage — could anything be more charmingly English? — her photographs, love of poetry, and by the way, as someone at The Telegraph noted, she found the ethereal in the everyday. She had a wonderful blog mostly about the railway cottage adventure, Off the Rails but with poems, pictures, and other bits and bobs, and a very new gardening blog started only last month, Gardening Against the Odds, where she wrote about unlikely gardens in unpromising places. Elspeth Thompson could make a stone in a desert sprout leaves, and she could write about it enchantingly. I began to seek out her books, Urban Gardener and A Tale of Two Gardens, collections of her Telegraph columns; The Wonderful Weekend Book: Reclaim Life’s Simple Pleasures, which just came out in paperback. And I’ve been looking forward to the upcoming Homemade: Gorgeous Things to Make with Love co-authored with Ros Badger, which I want to get for Laura’s summer birthday. Ms. Thompson sparkled so much through her writing that I can only imagine what it must have been like to know her.
It was catching up at her blog yesterday, when I really should have been packing or cleaning, that I learned the terribly sad news of her death on March 25th from a note by her husband Frank Wilson, who wrote,
It is with the deepest sadness that I must tell you that my beautiful and beloved wife Elspeth died on Thursday 25th March aged 48.
She brought her family and friends so much happiness during her short life and she loved to share some of the things that brought her happiness through her writing. She was loving, warm, wonderful and generous and she will be missed by many.
Several years ago, Elspeth Thompson was one of the last writers to interview Anita Roddick before the latter’s sudden and untimely death. From that interview,
“The most exciting time is now!” [Anita Roddick] declared, as we prepared to leave. And it was easy to believe that, of ourselves as well as her, as we sped down the drive. It is lined with chestnut trees – some ancient, some planted when Roddick moved in.
Typically impatient, she tried to stop the designer planting small trees: “I’ll be dead before they’re fully grown!” He persuaded her that they would grow quickly. What a great sadness that she will never see that happen.
I’m so very saddened to think of Elspeth Thompson’s death, especially in the spring, with her garden waking up and waiting for her. In her first, and only, blog post at Gardening Against the Odds, she wrote on March 7,
Why do we garden? And why does the passion with which we garden so often seem to be in inverse proportion to the conditions in which we do it? This is a question on which I often ponder while weeding my seaside garden or cycling down London’s sooty, smelly Brixton Road. This last month, three instances of what I call “gardening against the odds” have made me ponder even more. Number one is a balcony in a concrete council block that I pass on my bike ride into the centre of town. Every summer, this tiny, unprepossessing space – it can’t be more than 6 x 4ft – and overlooking a busy road – is a riot of sweetcorn and sunflowers. I’ve never once seen the owner, but like to fantasise that it’s one of the many local residents who came over from the Caribbean in the 1950s and 60s, for whom beans and corn in the back yard mean independence. Anyway, it does cheer me up as as I ride past.
The second is a roadside verge down near the south coast, in the village where we spend most of our weekends. On a turning off the busy sea road into a modern housing estate, someone has taken the trouble to plant a narrow strip of “no-man’s land” with bearded iris, sisyrinchiums, white astrantia and low-growing grasses and campanulas. It’s such a beautiful piece of planting, I’m surprised it doesn’t cause traffic accidents. And it seems to me all the more beautiful for it being completely selfless – it reminds me of that old hippy tenet to “practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty”.
The last instance, and one it makes me sad to write about, concerns the father of a close friend of mine, who recently died from cancer. Some weeks ago, having just been told the worst by the hospital, he became agitated that he had not been able to order and sow seeds of the balsam flowers (Impatiens balsamina) that he and his wife have always loved to grow in their garden. You could call it displacement anxiety, but I could understand this gnawing concern about his favourite seeds, which were no longer offered by the mail order company that he habitually used. Sensing the comfort he would have in knowing the garden would be full of these sweet-smelling flowers all summer, even if he might not be there to see them. I helped to track down the seeds, he sowed them and a few weeks after his death his widow sent me a small tray of seedlings to plant in my own garden.
So what is this human urge to garden – to fill our living space, no matter how small – with living plants; to embark on this passionate collaboration with nature, however seemingly inauspicious the circumstances? After 20 years of travelling to write about gardens, it is by no means just the great and grand gardens that remain in my memory. If anything, I remember all the more vividly the hundreds of tiny patches – on strips of rooftops, sun-baked shingle, even the tops of narrow boats or travellers’ converted buses – all conceived and tended with the deepest love and care. I remember the nonogenarian who was still planning (and did, in fact finish) an ambitious water cascade in his garden in Oxfordshire; the front garden fashioned from blue and white painted breeze blocks and car-tyre containers in rural Barbados; the miniature Versailles behind a modern housing estate in Holland; the woman who raises homegrown vegetables, including 20 types of basil, on a tiny roof terrace in Chelsea.
It is in honour of these and all the many other “gardeners against the odds” that I am planting out John Bloom’s balsam in my garden this afternoon.
And that, years later, I am beginning this blog.
Would that she had been able to continue living, gardening, blogging. I’ll end here with the poem Elspeth Thompson posted this past New Year’s Eve, “Twenty Blessings” by Scottish poet Thomas A. Clark,
by Thomas A. Clark
May the best hour of the day be yours.
May luck go with you from hill to sea.
May you stand against the prevailing wind.
May no forest intimidate you.
May you look out from your own eyes.
May near and far attend you.
May you bathe your face in the sun’s rays.
May you have milk, cream, substance.
May your actions be effective.
May your thoughts be affective.
May you will both the wild and the mild.
May you sing the lark from the sky.
May you place yourself in circumstance.
May you be surrounded by goldfinches.
May you pause among alders.
May your desire be infinite.
May what you touch be touched.
May the company be less for your leaving.
May you walk alone beneath the stars.
May your embers still glow in the morning.
Blessings on Elspeth Thompson, her husband and young daughter. May they always be surrounded by goldfinches.