I’ve always been fascinated by glimpses of green spaces – those seen fleetingly, through a gate, caught briefly from the road as the car swings past, seen for a moment over the top of hedges and walls that keep them out of sight. Clearings in the forest when the sun fills them with light (could I live there? Or ride a horse through the glade?), a sprinkler glittering as it turns (how big could the garden be?), swaying trees only seen as the tops of their leaves…
The wonder is in the unknowing. The magic so often fades once the space is entered and seen and disappointment is inevitable. Fantasies made reality lose all their power. The beauty is in its briefness, the untouchable, unknowable space that exists as the most fantastical of places only in the mind – like the garden Alice glimpses through the keyhole. Like the myths of Eden and Elysium.
When I was a child, we lived just a few streets away from Wimbledon Park that we visited so often. Poplar trees still hold endless magic for me because those tall trees were always there to greet me from the far end of the park – silvery in the autumn mists or glowing yellow in the summer heat. And there was a small privet hedge that ran around – still runs around – an unknowable space for me because I was much too small to see over it. I would step on the tiny wall in front of it and desperately try to stretch tall enough to see what lay beyond – a garden, a pond, a fountain – who knew?
As I grew taller and the park grew smaller, I was finally able to see over the hedge. I discovered that my mystical garden was in fact just a bowling green – had always been a bowling green - with a clipped lawn where elderly men in white solemnly rolled wooden balls. It was a formative discovery. So disappointing. Still, I thought, there was always more magic to imagine beyond the many walls and hedgerows and fences I would never be tall enough to see beyond.
On our first day in Venice – in November, a time of year I’d read the city often floods and is miserably cold – we arrived to a city filled with warmth and light. It was too hot to wear a jacket and I lamented forgetting my sunglasses. Our host lead us through the scattered streets of Dorsoduro (the university district) and over the tiny bridges on the canals, so peaceful, so blissfully quiet and calm. From the windows of our apartment we could see a beautiful garden. I leaned out of the kitchen window to breathe it in, to hear its rhythmic sounds. The trees, their leaves now dry and rustling, sighed in the gentle wind, in the glow of the autumn sunlight, not a soul stepped, and the birds were singing. But the garden was unreachable. We left the apartment and tried to find our way round to the garden but found only houses and churches and the fading grandeur of the university buildings. We supposed it must be a private garden.
The next morning the garden had been transformed with the autumn mists and a held a different, eerie, beauty as the cold set in.
Over the next few days walking round this impossibly beautiful city, I saw glimpses of many more gardens – some we could enter, some we could not. We were able to sit in Giardini Papadopoli and ate arancini and pizzette, watching a lizard warming itself on a wall and tortoiseshell butterflies dancing in the afternoon sun. Other times I saw trees rising over crumbling walls, or glimpsed down a path, the entrance barred by an iron gate. They seem to call to me – those whispering trees.
We found a garden at the edges of the deserted Cannaregio district (the Jewish quarter), the mists rolling in from the sea. At first it too was a glimpsed garden with autumn leaves strewn over its paths and a gate locking its secrets away. But then we found the entrance further down in the wall and stepped inside. And then it transformed. It had given up its magic at the moment we walked into it, becoming strange and unsettling, its twisted trees watching us as they stood still in the fog. There was nothing left to discover. I wish the entrances had been locked to keep us out, and a thousand possibilities remaining true, in a moment.
We were unable to visit Venice’s cemetery island of San Michele as it’s doors were closed when we arrived by vaporetto, and in a way I’m glad. I’m told that it is a wonderous, peaceful place (no photographs are allowed in the sacred space), and I hear there are many other beautiful gardens in Venice that can be visited and enjoyed. But perhaps there’s still a part of me - that little girl too small to see over the privet hedge, the one who watched the forests pass by the car window - that prefers the magic and the mystery. That wants these spaces to remain - a little fantastic, and fleeting, and out of reach.