The butterfly bush

Other people’s words about … English gardens

The garden was in a jungle state of desuetude: weeds were everywhere. The top lawn descended to a second, where was a tangled rose garden and sun-dial: thence further descent, past more noble trees to a third lawn in the middle of which was a pond, or miniature lake. It had an off-centre well-scaped island, containing one weeping willow and some iris out of flower. Pigeons flew heavily out of bushes like people leaving a play of which they disapproved. Rabbits cavorted and then escaped their attention just in time. A huge old buddleia was spattered with either tortoise-shell or Painted Lady butterflies. Arabella seemed delighted by the whole thing.

from ‘Odd Girl Out
by Elizabeth Jane Howard

When I was fourteen years old, my family spent a year away from Australia, living in England. My whole family, on both sides, comes from the UK; my sister and I were born there, too. We migrated to Australia when I was three.

So the year back in England was a homecoming of sorts, for my parents, at least. We lived in an old stone coach house, in Oxfordshire. As I remember it, the coach house stood on stilts in the gardens of a much grander house, also built of stone. There were brambles, and two black cats — one bold and prowling, the other timid and long-haired and neurotic — and several peacocks strutted the spreading lawns, letting out frightening, ghoulish shrieks beneath our windows. That year, the winter in England was unusually severe, and drifts of snow built up in the garden and in the country lanes leading to our house. My bedroom in that cold house was tiny, with room only for a single bed, a chest of drawers, and the hot-water boiler. Because of the presence of the boiler, though, I remember my room as being always cosy and warm. It had cheerful Laura Ashley wallpaper with sprigs of tiny green flowers dotted all over it.

Butterfly poster
Butterfly poster

My grandparents on my mother’s side had retired to live in Dorset, and we spent many weekends there. My grandfather loved to garden; he had a small allotment on the fringe of the village, where he grew runner beans and potatoes and lettuce and — that most English of vegetables — spring greens. Their own backyard was small, with a stone wall at the end, beyond which cows grazed in a field.

Near the house grew a bush with beautiful purple flowers. Memory is a strange thing — I remember this bush as a buddleia bush; I remember my grandfather telling me that’s what it was; and I remember the butterflies that visited it in the spring, drinking nectar from the flowers, their wings warmed by the sun as they clustered on the blossoms. Now, years later, my mother tells me the bush wasn’t a buddleia at all: it couldn’t have been, because my grandmother considered buddleias weeds. It was, in fact, a lilac tree.

Butterfly brooch (1)
Butterfly brooch

However faulty my memory is, I know that it was in my grandfather’s garden that I learned to distinguish between tortoiseshells and painted ladies and swallowtails and cabbage whites. Though we returned to Australia a year later, I retained my love for butterflies. The butterflies here are different, and I delight in them just as much, so much so that my house is cluttered with butterfly ornaments and trinkets and gifts from friends.

Assorted butterfly earrings
Assorted butterfly earrings

How do I remember England and our time there? That’s another memory for another time. Lest anyone wonder, this post isn’t intended to be a commentary, condemnatory or otherwise, about the recent Brexit. The timing of this post is purely coincidental. Still, what I love about the words from Elizabeth Jane Howard in the quote above is how, in just a few sentences, they capture an English summer in all its Englishness … at least as I remember it.


4 thoughts on “The butterfly bush

  1. Memory is a funny thing. I have siblings who remember completely different things about the same event. It is nice that your visit to England resulted in a lifelong love of butterflies. 🙂

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