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10 June 2020updated 05 Aug 2021 8:29am

From the NS archive: Country notes

28 May 1938: Vita Sackville-West forsees the return of English wine.

By Vita Sackville-West

Vita Sackville-West is best known for her novels, poetry, lively love life and membership of the Bloomsbury set. She was also a gardener of note, albeit of a patrician sort. In 1930, she and her husband Harold Nicolson bought the Elizabethan manor of Sissinghurst in Kent and she set about rescuing its gardens from ruin. When she wrote about plants and gardening for the New Statesman she knew what she was about. In this column, among other things, she chivvies the reader to be more adventurous with their fruit planting, predicts – in a way – the revival of English vineyards.


Better Though Not Bigger Fruit

Writing about vegetables for these columns the other day reminded me of several grievances I hold against fruit-growers also. In many of her counties England is very definitely a fruit-growing country; witness the clouds of blossom that float over miles of orchard during April and May. Late frosts, hailstorms and lack of sun are of course the unconquerable enemies, but although we may never hope to rival the jewelled, Mantegna-like swags and garland of southerly climates – those lemons, those oranges, those grapes, those apricots, all so rich, heavy, and glowing – we still contrive to make a fair show both with our blossom in the spring and our country-cheeked apples and cherries in the late summer. There are moments when I feel I would not exchange all the groves of grape-fruit and peaches in California for the sight of an English orchard, its boughs weighted down with fruit and all the pleasant cheerful business of picking going on. 

But to return to my grievance. I do wonder why the amateur fruit-grower in this on the whole favoured country should content himself with the meagre variety he allows his garden to provide. Gooseberries – yes, they are very well, and their hairy paunches explode agreeably against the palate when pressed by the tongue. Raspberries – they are very well too, especially, as somebody remarked, for the first hundred times. Currants, too, red, black, and white, are very good, particularly when damped in their bunches and then dipped in caster sugar. But the amateur’s garden will do much better for him than that, if he gives it the chance. Has he grown the pink currant? No, probably not. Has he discovered the Alpine strawberry, for which he will ungrudgingly pay an exorbitant price when it appears on the menu as Fraises des bois on his Continental holiday? If he hasn’t, let me tell him that in the Alpine strawberry (which is quite as easy to grow as any other strawberry) he will find a fruit in every way superior to the rather woody little berry provided as Fraises des bois – larger, less “seedy”, more luscious altogether, and with the advantage of a longer fruiting season than the ordinary strawberry, lasting, in fact, well into the autumn. Has he tried figs against a south wall? It is a mistake to think that outdoor figs will ripen only in southern Europe; they will ripen perfectly in the southern counties in an average English summer. Given the protection of glass (unheated) they will even provide two crops during the year. Peaches and nectarines, also, are too rarely planted, yet they fruit exuberantly against a wall exposed to the sun. Any house, however small, can supply such a wall; its owner would be better advised to plant a peach or a nectarine against it than the tangle of Dorothy Perkins or American Pillar under which such walls are usually disguised.

The Vineyards of England

England had her vineyards once, so there seems to be no reason why she should not have them again. They enjoy the prestige of mention in Domesday Book, and they grew on the south slopes of the North Downs. They have long since receded into history, and the descendants of our original vintagers have quite given up the idea of growing the grape vine now for their own benefit. Here and there a solitary vine exists to provide its bunches annually, which in due course are turned into an excruciatingly nasty drink labelled “Homemade wine” by cottage-wives, equivalent to other home-made wines such as “cowslip” and “elderberry”, whose names carry a charmingly old-world suggestion so long as the decoction remains in the bottle, but not once it has left the bottle for the glass. In spite of this scepticism taught by experience, I see no reason why grape-vines should not still be grown more freely out-of-doors in the south of England. Even if we refrain from making our own wine, there is a certain satisfaction in heaping a plate with some dark bunches, however tasteless, however watery, of our own growing. The names alone of hardy vines provide an ornament to the garden; they remind one vaguely of the troubadours and the Crusades: Primavere Frontignan, Muscatel, Muscadine, Black Prince. The leaves in themselves are very beautiful, both in design and colour – bright green in the spring, dark red in the autumn; what more could be asked of any leaf? I used to dry the most brilliant and perfectly shaped ones between blotting paper pressed under two volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, after which they used to lie about in the unhappy way of things which have neither use nor a place of their own, until such time as an impatient schoolroom maid, saying she couldn’t put up with my dust-traps any longer, would throw them all into the fire. 

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In conversation with a farmer friend, I recently learned of the existence of this complaint – not to be confused with scrapie, which, as readers of The New Statesman and Nation are no doubt well aware, is due to a small parasite or sarcocyst lodging in the ovine muscular system. No. The complaint called scrape has a far more endearing origin than a mere parasitic insect producing excessive itchiness and consequent loss of wool. It is nothing less than homesickness; it occurs only in sheep pining for their native land. The native land, in this case, happens to be the Highlands of Scotland. You cannot, it appears, buy Highland sheep and bring them to the south of England without their becoming infected with this most inconvenient disease. The odd thing about it is that the first generation does not suffer; it is only in the lambs that the homesickness begins to work. They start by pawing the ground uneasily (hence the name scrape), they pine; and if not speedily restored to their ancestral hills they die. The only remedy, according to my friend, is to cross the breed with a southern ram, when the North apparently agrees to settle down comfortably with the South. What an example for Queen Elizabeth. If only she had known about scrape, she would certainly have arranged an English marriage for Mary Queen of Scots.

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Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)