‘So, um, how long do you think you’ll spend in the shop?’ a chap with a clipboard and a questionnaire at Petersham Nurseries just outside Richmond asked us on Saturday. My fella and I paused for a second or two before answering simultaneously:
‘About half an hour.’
No prizes for guessing who said what. We had planned a long, muddy walk through Richmond Park but I’m afraid one of my weaknesses is that it’s almost impossible to pass a good nursery by – and Petersham was no exception. So instead of heading up Richmond Hill immediately, we ambled down it, strolled along the river for a little while and then nosed our way through an alley before arriving at one of the smartest garden centres in London.
The last time I was there was a little less than a year ago. I’d visited on my own and was happy to wander between plants and benches, and admire the carefully chosen garden accessories inside one of two large glasshouses. At the time it reminded me a little of Saint Verde, a South African shop started by trend consultant Neville Trickett. Perhaps Trickett and the owners of Petersham are friends. Perhaps they just visit the same design shows.
This visit, however, was less satisfying and I found the whole tasteful affair rather too contrived. There were designer Wellington boots and designer allotment accessories, designer cloches and pots and aprons as well as countless numbers of heirloom seeds which are, understandably perhaps, de rigueur these days. I realised that I’m certainly not Petersham Nurseries’ intended customer, having grown up in a family that has turned ‘make do and mend’ into a belief system.
Our moment of departure came when a well-to-do customer huffed and puffed about being ignored by a poor shop assistant. My fella looked at me, exasperated by the imperious tone. ‘Shall we go?’ he suggested, his voice carrying a note of pleading that I’ve not heard before.
Outside and back among the plants we stopped to admire another tasteful, weatherbeaten bench.
‘See that!’ he said, pointing to the price tag with righteous indignation. ‘A thousand pounds for a bench. A thousand pounds!’
‘Mmm,’ I said. ‘Could probably find the same kind of thing at the Battersea car-boot market.’
We left, quickly, before the security guards and the man with the clipboard came to hustle us out, and made for the quiet of the park instead.
Pondering our visit on the train home, I began to feel that the Petershams and the car-boot markets of the world each have their place, and one would certainly be poorer without the other. I mean, if we couldn’t be inspired to scrounge a similar old bench from an auction or market, we’d never be able to say, ‘Ha! Got it for twenty quid: just stripped it, replaced the seat and backrest, fixed and balanced the legs – there were two missing, you know – repainted and finished it. Bargain, I tell you!’
If you are thinking of paying Petersham Nurseries a visit, note that Ursula Buchan will be promoting her new book Back to the Garden there on April 24. I’ve been dipping this collection of newspaper columns during the past few weeks and have found her quite enjoyable.