Book Review: Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols

BOOK REVIEW by Kristine Glenn

In the depths of winter when the green and growing garden is covered by a blanket of snow, the heart of a gardener can wither away. This is the time to pick up a book like Beverley Nichol’s Merry Hall. The book chronicles the British author’s search for the perfect garden and the perfect house. More specifically, he wants a Georgian house and a garden of at least five acre: “a garden riddled with brambles, stung almost to death with nettles, and eaten to the bone with blight… I was in a rescuing mood.”

He finds the ideal place early in the book and Merry Hall describes his initial forays into rescuing and restoring the house, and especially the gardens. The book is written in the aftermath of World War II in a style reminiscent of Oscar Wilde, E.F. Benson, and Jane Austen. Deliciously witty, Nichols delves indiscriminately into horticulture, his talented and taciturn gardener (Oldfield), cats and more cats, nosy neighbors (Miss Emily and Our Rose), garden aesthetics, music, and more. But his first love is the garden and the book hones in on all things gardening. Nichols frequently rhapsodizes about the beauty of a blossom, warning the reader “when I begin to write about flowers, I lose all sense of restraint, and it is far, far too late to do anything about it.”

With every reading and re-reading, Merry Hall keeps me simultaneously laughing and in awe of Nichols’ turn of phrase and ability to cut to the heart of the matter, whether it is commentary on a passive-aggressive spinster or falling in love with a bank of Lilium regale. The story wends its way through the pages in an organic and enticing manner. Nichols cautions the readers that Merry Hall “is not really a book at all; it is only a long walk round a garden, in winter and summer, in rain and in sunshine; and if it bores you to walk round gardens you will have long ago chucked it aside.”

The book is meant for slow reading where each page is savored and the story visualized, absorbed, and chuckled over. It’s best read with a notepad close by so you can write down unfamiliar plant names and references for later research. It can take some work to adjust to the style as the setting is quintessentially British and the world it inhabits is from almost 70 years ago. But it is worth the effort. So I encourage you to settle down with the book – preferably in a comfortable chair, by a crackling fire, and with your favorite drink – and enter the entertaining, insightful, and somewhat cynical world of Beverley Nichols.

Note: Beverley Nichols was a prolific writer in a career spanning 60 years. Best remembered for his gardening books, his most popular is Down The Garden Path, which has been in nearly continuous print since 1932. Merry Hall is the first book of the Merry Hall trilogy. If you like it, the next book, Laughter On The Stairs, shifts the focus to restoring the 22-room mansion amidst life in the village. The final book, Sunlight on the Lawn, brings more stories of the house, garden, friends, and neighbors. All of the books are available on Amazon. Regrettably, they are not available at the Billings Public Library. I’ll remedy that if I find some spare funds.


Spring Poem

“The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another. The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month.” – Henry Van Dyke

A Haiku and Thank You

Dear Master Gardener Editors,

Thank you for all your hard work! I enjoyed the Jan/Feb/Mar issue. I have passed on your information about growing broccoli sprouts to several people.

Thank you, Julie Osslund

I am submitting a haiku for your consideration;

Black capped chickadee
Calls out a cheerful greeting
from a peaceful tree.

haiku bird

Rules from ‘In Defense of Food’ by Michael Pollan

Don‘t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn‘t recog-nize as food.

Don‘t eat anything incapable of rotting.

Avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamil-iar, b) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number, or that include d) high-fructose corn syrup.

Avoid food products that make health claims.

Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.

Get out of the supermarket whenever possible.

Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.

You are what you eat eats too.

If you have space, buy a freezer.

Eat like an omnivore.

Eat well-grown foods from healthy soils.

Eat wild foods when you can.

Be the kind of person who takes supplements (but don‘t).

Eat more like the French or the Italians or the Japanese or the Indians or the Greeks.

Regard nontraditional foods with skepticism.

Don‘t look for the magic bullet in the traditional diet.

Have a glass of wine with dinner.

Pay more, eat less.

Eat meals.

Do all your eating at a table.

Don‘t get your fuel from the same place your car does.

Try not to eat alone.

Consult your gut.

Eat slowly.

Cook, and, if you can, plant a garden.

Rules from In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan


Winter Poems

Winter Trees

All the complicated details

of the attiring and

the disattiring are completed!

A liquid moon

moves gently among

the long branches.

Thus having prepared their buds

against a sure winter

the wise trees

stand sleeping in the cold.

Poem by William Carlos Williams

One kind word can warm three winter months. » Japanese Proverb

I prefer Winter and Fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape – the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of Winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show. » Andrew Wyeth

Winter is not a season, it’s a celebration. » Anamika Mishra

No winter lasts forever; no spring skips its turn.

A snowdrift is a beautiful thing – if it doesn’t lie across the path you have to shovel or block the road that leads to your destination. ~ Hal Borland


Winter’s Garden

I must go into the garden again

to find the limestone and clay

Be waiting by the morning rise

amongst its sleepy decay

but I need no garden to soothe

nor right as would be believed

I need no foot on buried steel

Nor flowers or such conceived

I must paint a canvas filled

with ochre, orange and green

My brush may still hard fabric

As I imagine what I had seen

Or my colours could be dark water

like the rivers of Arcadian deep

Careless what my mind perceives

what it sows or what it reaps

I might write sad tearful verse

words might as hammers fall

Roar and blow like creaking bellows

in the dark of my minds thrall

Or I could sit and watch a while

raise my head close my eyes

Beautiful words nature has spoken

and wonders in earth and sky

Copyright © Declan Molloy | Year Posted 2015