I’ve just spent a lovely couple of hours at West Green House Gardens visiting their Christmas Fair and this has become such an annual fixture in my diary that I only ever really feel that the Christmas season has started once I’ve stepped through the familiar threshold into the gravelled area by the shop. An area which, this year, seems to be displaying some very posh chicken houses indeed, so that I’m left to wonder whether there really is a very fortunate, or possibly bewildered, brood of chickens that is going to find itself installed in a chicken-mansion on Christmas morning! But then, at West Green, where the Pekin chickens in the Chicken Garden occupy a fanciful replica of The Willow Pattern complete with mural, this is all par for the course.
This year, the event runs from 16th November until 11th December and, as ever, the shop, barn and greenhouse are bedecked to bursting point with quirky Christmas decorations and garden-related objects. My friend and I enjoyed a lunch of carrot and coriander soup followed by pear tart, sat at one of the long tables in the greenhouse amidst all the Christmassy clutter. The chicken theme continued as we watched newly commissioned embroidered cushion covers being unpacked for the shelves depicting (we were assured) likenesses of West Green’s own chickens. Ornate garden lanterns, bird baths and other garden adornments, mostly with a vintage feel, compete for space with feathered white peacocks and song birds for clipping onto table decorations and branches. More than a touch of English eccentricity runs through it all, which is probably why I find the array of goodies at West Green so thoroughly appealing and invariably bring one of two things back for my own mad-cap Christmas scheme.
Both the shop and the barn are packed full of Christmas decorations for this Fair, interspersed with lanterns, candles and table adornments, the occasional Kew Gardens plant pot, sparkling glassware, embroidered napkins and Christmas garlands. None of this could be called run-of-the-mill; all of the stock has been selected with care and some of the most weird and wonderful decorations in my possession have been amassed over the course of several years that I have been coming to this event. The most stunning of these nearly always seem to come from the Gisela Graham range of eccentric fairy-type characters, typically adorned with fantastical costumes of sparkle and painted chiffon, stripey tights, buckle shoes, skirts made of fruit or inverted flower heads, wings taken from birds or butterflies, carrying handfuls of cakes, wands and garlands of flowers or wearing eccentric headdresses. Whilst I’ve never been big on fairies or girlie themes, I love these characters for seeming to have stepped straight out of the pages of an illustrated tome of mid-European folklore.
This year, a new addition is that the gardens themselves (usually out-of-bounds until Spring) are open for a stroll about during the Fair and, on what has been a gloriously golden autumn afternoon, this proved to be every bit as enjoyable as when I last visited the gardens in high summer, for the West Green Opera in August, as there was still plenty of colour and texture to take in whilst the intense aroma of wet grass and damp earth was so evocative of the season that it only added to my festive mood, stirring up memories of childhood gardens, dewy churchyards and bonfires, so that I felt quite steeped in nostalgia by the end of our walk.
The formal outlines of the gardens were as intact as ever, if characterised by a little less profusion and, just as it was on the evening of Don Giovanni (if about six or so hours earlier in the day), the sun was starting to visibly drop towards the horizon, casting long shadows and flooding pathways with a milky glow. The main difference was that, where leaves had been profuse and vivid green before, they were now sparse and acid-yellow, even the wisteria against the wall of the house, so that with the sun behind them, the golden glow of the afternoon was amplified many times over, lending the gardens an eerie quality and dressing them in a sepia hue, like an old photograph come-to-life. By the lake side, yellow and orange leaves wafted in the breeze like abandoned party-bunting right next to spot where we spent our balmy opera-evening in deckchairs by lantern-light just three short months ago.
Threaded into this colour scheme, woven through figs growing against the wall or in defiant display on standard holly trees, were the red berries of the season, Nature’s own Christmas decoration. Other splashes of colour came in the form of unfeasibly vivid cerise or orange stalks, purple-hued brocoli heads, yellow courgettes and the occasional late rose.
Equally enjoyable, whenever I visit West Green, is the fifteen minute drive to and from it, along tree-lined country lanes (some of the loveliest imaginable), alongside glorious woodland and chimney-smoking cottages but, most of all, past one of my favourite properties of all, Dipley Mill – a house which, however much of a rush you are in, simply compels you to ease the foot off the accelerator (just as well) as you pass over the narrow hump-back bridge so that you can turn your head to the side and take in that jaw-dropping vista with the mill stream passing underneath the house. I have some photos of my visit there in July which need to be sorted through and so more on Dipley Mill soon…
What is it about West Green that simply is Christmas for me? Was it really just a couple of days ago that I was stood in the hustle and bustle of Regent Street, wondering why Christmas seemed to be happening all around me and long before I felt ready for it? Yes, I do believe it was! Well, without further ado, and now that a couple of slightly odd Christmas tree decorations (including an eccentric-looking female in a big skirt, picked because her spring-loaded legs kick so excitedly to the side whenever she spins round like someone who’s been at the Christmas sherry) have made their way into my collection, I can officially declare that my own festive season is underway.
The Christmas Fair at West Green House Gardens is open daily from 11am until 4pm and runs until 11th December.