by Tamsin Grainger
“One of the nicest things about gardening is the sudden surprise we may get when something that we arranged years ago comes into its own and is at last doing what we had intended to do.”
Vita Sackville-West, celebrated gardener of Sissinghurst, England.
I am what they call a late bloomer! In 2016, aged 51, I took a break from a life that had somehow stopped being as fulfilling as it once was, and a whole new flourishing one opened up.
My beloved kids had left home; my ongoing complementary therapy work which I believed in didn’t seem to be flushing me with happiness any longer; and, despite my efforts, I hadn’t been in a relationship since my divorce many years before. I was more of a single English tea rose than a floribunda, a single blossom on my own stem, not one of a cluster. To make matters worse, I kept coming across reports which said that people on their deathbeds were full of regret, provoking me to lie awake at night and worry: ‘What if I die before I do what I have always wanted?’
The urge to have an adventure was getting stronger and stronger, and I was working with a therapist to let myself go, but responsibilities restrained d me like weeds stifling the vegetable patch. Then, one midsummer morning, I woke to a burst of clarity— I should go to Spain. That autumn I took a train all the way from Edinburgh to Portsmouth to visit my Great Aunty Fay who was 101 years old. When she was in her late 20s, she met Uncle Alan and went out to Gibraltar to marry him. I was shown a fabulous photo of her perched on the ship’s rail in a natty outfit, hair tucked up under a scarf to manage the sea breezes, her happily grinning face like a sweet briar. Perhaps she influenced me more than I thought, because that was my decision made — I boarded a boat that sailed me through the Bay of Biscay and all the way to Santander on the northern Spanish coast. Halfway there, I heard the clapping of a great whale’s tail cheering me on.
I had promised myself I would say “Yes!”, even though I didn’t know where I was going to stay or what route I would take; I had sat on the sofa long enough and the waiting was over. I didn’t feel brave, no; I just knew that to grow into the next 50 years of a life like my Great Aunt’s, I had to behave like a sweet pea, I simply had to wind my curls around any suitable stalk and follow my nature to thrive.
All through that sunshine journey with the brine at my nostrils, I was checking messages from Gill in Madrid who had kindly translated my offer of ‘Shiatsu in exchange for a bed’ and sent it out to her students and associates. I lay myself flat out on a deck chair, closed my eyes, and nurtured my seedling dreams. As we neared shore, the invite I needed came: an offer from Pilates instructor Rosa. That was to be my first experience of the kindness of strangers, and I think that was when my soul started to blossom.
Over the next month, it was a pleasure to sit at the tables of the effervescent women who hosted me. I wandered the orchards of Salinas in the west, and gardens of Egileor in the east, picking figs and photographing magenta bougainvillea. I marvelled at the sprouting broccoli and kale growing in every Galician front garden and basked in the Feria market where there were groaning tables of produce from the Basque mountains — olive green and magnolia squash, speckled and striped, and orange pumpkins the colour of the rising sun. The Iberian climate enriched me as if I was a poor, sandy soil in need of feeding.
And then it happened. I plucked up the courage for a long-distance walk.
Leaving Pamplona, city of setas mushrooms and syrupy honey and cinnamon desserts, I set out with my backpack, for all the world as if I was a teenager just finishing school. I didn’t look back until I arrived in Santiago. I started trekking by fields of burgeoning corn and scarlet peppers, and already felt fitter than I had for many years. On day two, I nibbled my first wild fennel, the aniseed taste erupting in my mouth, and I basked in the heat which seemed to caress my arms and neck. I was treated to oysters and sparkling Cava — bubbles around my heart — and the heady burgundy of Rioja grapes accompanied the attentions from a new lover. I was as happy as all the fields of sunflowers put together. As the year turned towards winter, the scent of rotting chestnut leaves and the fresh-air fragrance of eucalyptus heralded the completion of my long walk.
The French man who I met very early on, and who had escorted me every step of the way, left after a few delicious days in Finisterre, Spain’s Land’s End, and though I was sad to see him go, plans had already been laid. I had an idea to write an article and when I returned home a month later, the article prompted a workshop invitation. On the back of that came an offer to write a book and four years later it was published.
I had to cut back some dead wood to make way for the new shoots of course, which is always a challenge; however, my new sense of blossoming made it all worth it. Continuing to walk abroad, I explored Zagreb’s Gradski Park (Croatia) and Tartu’s Botanics (Estonia), I penned my sample chapter in the balmy walled garden of a Picardy convent (France) and sketched the geometric pools and plots of Porto’s Seralves art gallery (Portugal). Finding my way over Austria’s sacred mountains was a highlight. In a pattern of three months away and three in Scotland, I cheated the seasons by taking trains and buses across countries and borders, and I met the most wonderful people by always saying “Yes!” when they asked me to look after their horses and hens (Greece), or walk the dogs amongst the pomegranate trees of the Sierra Calderona (Spain).
My petals are a little more withered as I approach 61. Some of my tendrils droop, and I suffered a severe pruning during the Covid-19 pandemic, but I am, nevertheless, more of a rambling than an English tea rose these days, and I believe my scent is as sweet as a damask, now that I am fully, if rather lately, blooming.