Buried Treasure

Antony Woodward long dreamt of escaping to the country. He needed his Camusfearna (Gavin Maxwell’s cottage on the West coast of Scotland that he wrote about in Ring of Bright Water) or Uncle Monty’s infamous Lake District hideaway in Withnail and I.

Words: Anthony Woodward

In 2002 he bought Tair-Ffynnon, high on the Hatterrell Ridge in the Black Mountains. There followed a battle against the bracken, the wind and most of the other elements Nature throws at Man. And then, at last and against all odds, came a book and a garden that opens for the NGS……

While digging in our rocky smallholding in the Black Mountains some years ago, the spade struck something hard. It felt like a stone, and, as I levered and sweated, it became plain it was a big one. When at last we heaved it, it was a boulder the size and weight of a garage car jack, though rounded and smooth. Then we rolled it over and, on the other side was a rectangular hollow carefully hewn out (about 20cm long x 14cm wide x 10 cm deep). Treasure! But what? Manger? Water bowl? Basin? (The obvious answer, bird bath, seemed to lack credibility.) It felt vaguely to do with animal-keeping, but there was also a hint of the sacred, of the holy water stoup once found in every medieval church.

It was such a splendid item it was hard to know what to do with it. The wonder of buried treasure from one’s very own plot is that it’s such an emphatic link to the past. You don’t need to be Tony Robinson and the Time Team to get a tingle from so direct a connection. We still, years later, haven’t the faintest idea what it is (best suggestion: ‘gorse grinder’, for softening the prickly leaves of that ubiquitous local bush for animal feed), but we set it into the wall of the porch, like a stoup. And there it sits, invoking divine help in the struggle of hill-top life.

It’s one of countless finds. The biggest have been whole farm implements, half-buried or overgrown in field corners—rusty ploughs, harrows, finger bar mowers, hay rakes, even a baler. (Hill farmers deliberately leave these sharp-edged items out for stock to rub against, thus saving the dry stone walls.) Most we’ve left in situ. They lie there, rusting majestically, radiating pastoral bliss and lost Golden Ages, as they gather moss and birds’ nests and the foxgloves grow through them.

Mostly, of course, our treasure trove has been smaller: nuts and bolts, odd-shaped spanners and files, axe and hammer-heads, tractor parts, old jars and linament bottles. Plus, of course, the obligatory horse shoes and mill-stone. We have competitions with the children to see who can identify, out of context, a chainsaw blade, a mattock head, a door bolt. Each new find is added to a mounting trophy heap in front of our cottage, which has become a larder to raid for stakes, wind chimes, bird-scarers or flower containers.

While the excitement of finding something never diminishes, it’s what is done with an object that counts. It’s a delicate balance. Present something too proudly, make a ‘feature’ of it, and the wonder all too easily melts away. Make too little, and it goes unnoticed. On the whole, some new purpose helps. The Grand Panjandrum in this area was Derek Jarman. His genius at seeing the beauty in otherwise ordinary objets trouvés helped him grab for his tiny patch of Dungeness shingle a sense of place rarely matched by other gardens. Indeed, that’s how he started: ‘One day, walking on the beach at low tide, I noticed a magnificent flint’ he wrote in his garden book. ‘I brought it back and pulled out one of the bricks [in the rubble rockery]. Soon I had replaced all the rubble with flints… At the back I planted a dog rose. Then I found a curious piece of driftwood and used this, and one of the necklaces of holey stones that I hung up on the wall, to stake the rose. The garden had begun …’

That was the lesson we learned from Jarman: a garden can be brought to life as much by things unearthed beneath the soil as anything planted above it. Happy treasure-hunting …