We Brits appear to be obsessed with plant nurseries, or, more accurately, ‘garden centres’. Garden centres are essentially department stores with a section, somewhere, that sells plants. They will flog you anything from greetings cards to kitchenware, jewellery to twee ornaments (tree ornaments too), with clothing from Barbour and Burberry. The earthy-chemical tang of fertilisers and weed killers mingles with the heady aroma of Rebel Yell (or whatever those American scented candles are called). I know one that stocks a bewildering array of craftwork material – and, joy of joys, even one that sells plastic aircraft kits and model railway stuff. Others offer pet iguanas and stick insects. Some garden stores specialise in aquatics (fishes and ponds), barbeque sets large enough to prepare a meal for the Five Thousand and exotic garden furniture which necessitates a Mediterranean climate and a plot the size of a soccer pitch to put it in.
Beyond all of this, you will occasionally find plants, bags of soil, garden tools and, perhaps, a modest display of decorative aggregates, sheds and fence panels.
The fact that these places seem to be thriving in the austere times we live in suggests that a good proportion of the population still has a reasonable amount of wealth and leisure-time. Stuck for something to do – “What I’d really like to do today”, said Tarquin, exhausted from a week working in the bank’s complaints department, “What I’d really like to do, is go to the garden centre.” “Right then”, exclaimed Neveah, dragging herself away from Britain’s Got Talent, “Let’s go!”
Then there are the garden centres that are tacked on to the back of the DIY store: soulless places, but good for cheap bedding (plants), compost, tools you can only use once and replacement Hozelok parts.
I know a garden centre that’s a proper nursery. A place where you can indulge yourself wandering past carefully corralled creepers, acres of Alpines, rows of romantic roses and pens of pendulous perennials. More than that, visiting it is a pleasure – partly because it (mostly) doesn’t feel like a garden centre. Or shopping.
A Bit About Britain rarely does commercial plugs, but if you happen to be anywhere in the Penrith area of North-West England, pop in to Larch Cottage Nurseries in the tiny hamlet of Melkinthorpe. Begun in 1985 by Peter Stott, Larch Cottage is genuinely different. The experience starts at the entrance (a very good place to start). There’s a kind of gatehouse into a courtyard which, momentarily, transports you to a sort of Cumbrian version of Tuscany. The range of sculptures that greets you is astonishing – forget the fact that many are way beyond the average mortal’s purse, they look great. The Italianesque theme is carried through with cunningly constructed arches and walls that make you think you’re exploring some long-lost, overgrown, classical ruin. Yes, there are serried ranks of plants to buy – it is, after all, a plant nursery – but there is tasteful and clever planting too. So wandering through Larch Cottage is similar to wandering through a very pleasant garden. Then, every now and again, there’s a statue or thoughtfully sited garden bench – all of which are for sale. There is also a private chapel and garden, which are open on particular days of the year.
This place is poles (or stakes) apart from your common, or garden, garden centre.
The range of plants stocked at Larch Cottage includes many that you don’t often see. I don’t know too much about this kind of thing, but I do know different types of Acer when I see them. The rather lovely one that we bought last year is doing very nicely, thank you, despite a small disagreement with late frost.
Inevitably, there’s a food and coffee offering. Larch Cottage’s is called La Casa Verde, which underlines the whole place’s green and gardening credentials, and which has an atmosphere redolent of an Umbrian bistro (if there is any such thing), with plenty of stone, wood and piped Puccini. The food is broadly Italian in theme, nicely served, tasty and affordable. The staff are friendly, polite, helpful and seem to treat customers as though they were human beings. To cap it all, La Casa Verde also offers a good range of indulgent cakes.
Nether Bottom’s Gardening Circle organised a charabanc trip to Larch Cottage. It was touch and go whether the transport would actually start but, to the driver’s evident surprise and pleasure, it did. Everyone piled in, the naughty ones making their way to the back seats, and I tagged along to make sure everyone behaved. Once there, people mostly concentrated on plants, as befitting, though I do think excitement steadily mounted as lunchtime approached.
Unfortunately, Larch Cottage does have an emporium (to call it a ‘shop’ seems somehow loutish). ‘The Red Barn’ sells mostly attractive, but largely decorative, high-end knick-knacks – including, I am forced to confess, some curiously appealing women’s hats. Hmm – what does that mean, doctor? Upstairs is an art gallery, where we lost the more adventurous group members amongst some admittedly lovely hand-made jewellery, inspiring paintings, pretty (but expensive) pots and obscure pieces of pretentious twaddle. Taste, of course, is relative. Examining a table-lamp that was over-priced at £12.00, I gave up pretending to be interested when I realised the tag actually said £1,200.00, and went outside to count pebbles.
You’ll be delighted to know that, miraculously, the charabanc burst into life for the return journey and Nether Bottom’s Gardening Group all made it back home, clutching purchases, without mishap. In fact, they even stopped off at Abbot Lodge Farm, which produces 40 flavours of its own Jersey ice cream, using real Jersey cows – because a grand day out is all about ice cream. Presumably, the production of the ice cream is aided by the cows being in the frozen north, some 460-odd miles away from their warmer, more southerly, roots.