Most tennis players – including me – at Elmwood Tennis Club (opened in 1898 as part of the Oxford All Souls’ dominion in Kensal Green) will have noticed the quiet, bearded man who appears with hedge cutters quite regularly and mysteriously as we attempt to send balls flying low and hard over the net. Patrick (ever reclusive, he won’t tell me his surname) ‘reigns’ over the wild flowers and trees in the amazing green space that surrounds the tennis courts. Surely, one of the unexpected wonders of West London.
Today, I’ve invited Patrick to give me a plant and tree tour. In residence – as it were – for the past fifteen years, he is ever-present and yet almost invisible. This is the day when I will try to urge him into visibility.
As we’re walking towards the Club, Sarah (the former social secretary who also runs groovy vintage online shop, mensahvintage.com) shouts across the road: “Patrick’s a legend.” And I know what she means.
I must say he sounds posh in a kind of aristo way. He could be the Marquis of Bath’s little brother but he isn’t. He admits warily to having formerly worked in ‘heritage’ as a clerk. Which seems a rather strange, lowly position for such an intelligent man. He’s probably too much of an eccentric when it comes to employers. Which is good news for Elmwood.
He’s also a poet. As we sit down on one of the benches overlooking the tennis players in the late afternoon sun, he hands me an amusing poem, The Song of Alfred Lawn Tennison and an illustration of a horn player sitting on an emu’s back. Apparently, he has also written a children’s book.
The Song Of Alfred Lawn Tennison
Lord Tennison of yesteryear
Sat down by the Sibilantic Sea,
And he did speak of tennis there:
“Lawn tennis is,” said he,
“A game that’s played with rime-white bcll
On a straight and level court
Twixt players not too immensely tall
Nor yet absurdly short.
The spheric ball flies end to end,
Emitting soft percussant sound,
End to end in the ambient air
Some distance from the ground.
Marks are awarded fairly,
And according to the score,
One player getting sometimes less,
The other sometimes more.
And so the one who tries the most,
Nor yet betrays his natural skill.
Why, he’s the winner of the game!
Good triumphs over ill!
From tennis to philosophy
A small step to traverse.
I postulate man’s station
In an ordered universe!
The gulls boomed in that desert spot,
And the tallonned waves did cry,
But I had had a sudden thought,
“Supposing this,” said I.
Suppose one played with coloured balls
of every rainbow hue?
Or shades so intermediate
they’re almost lost to view?
“What of your model then?” he smirked.
The poet spake no more,
He faded on the sepia air
and silent fell the shore.
An awful stillness gripped the cove,
No further wave did fall.
I stooped and picked up from the shingle bright
A rime-white tennis ball.
Why did he decide to give his valuable time to Elmwood, I wondered. “I kind of adopted the place,” he smiles, “I saw it as a bit of the country in the city. This is called Elmwood Green by the mayor’s office who have listed it as a site of importance for nature conservation, did you know?” I didn’t.
How does he see his role here? “I try to improve the biodiversity by re-introducing wild flowers into the land here. I grew up in the countryside in Herefordshire so I learnt all about them there. I’ve planted alder buckthorn here because they encourage fritillary butterflies. We have an amazing variety of butterflies and moths here. I’m rather proud of that.”
All done without any fuss. In fact, he operates so invisibly, the tennis players – if I’m anything to go by – don’t realise what this unassuming man is doing. Although I have noticed that he has tackled the privet hedges that surround the club.
“Privet is a horrible shrub,” he says unexpectedly, “you can’t compost it, it’s so poisonous. As a boy, I got to know Henry Williams who wrote Tarka The Otter. He had some strange views, notably re supporting Hitler, but he encouraged me to learn about plants.”
And off we go on our tour. There’s yellow toadflax under the hedge which I remember from walks with my grandfather in Yorkshire. It always used to grow prolifically beside the train tracks in Otley. Like petticoat frills. Delicate and intimating future pleasure.
There’s the majestic sight of verbascum which has a central stem of yellow flowers. “I can’t watch on Friday evenings when all the kids come down. The boys attack them,” says Patrick. Is that because they’re phallic? “I’d never thought of that,” he declares in a rather puritanical tone.
Then he confesses. About the huge-leafed burdocks under the hedge. As in the drink – dandelion and burdock. “I put them there when no-one was looking,” he laughs at his own furtiveness, “I’ve always got a few seeds in my pockets.”
That’s what I like to hear. A man with seeds in his pockets is irresistible. Then, there’s feverfew – “listed in old herbalist books as a cure for fevers and migraines” – with their white daisy-like flowers, and yellow tansy – “a tonic for well-being” – and the dandelion-related but nobler and taller hawks tail. There’s something I thought was deadly nightshade but turns out to be woody nightshade, plus wild carrot and silver weed.
Then an exciting rarity. “Haresfoot clover,” declares Patrick about a bigger, hairier clover that dares to reside here.
Is it the same every year in this meadow area that is no longer mown? “No,” he says, “last year it was full of red poppies which haven’t come up at all this year.”
Less thrillingly, there are the blue, blue plastic bags brought in by foxes. And the neighbourhood dog shit which has been put in a blue plastic bag and hurled over the hedge. That is so much better than dogs shitting in the street! I don’t think so. My father had a thing about dog shit (although he would never have called it that) and I think I’m carrying it on.
The corner of this meadow triangle used to be a nightmare. Old bedsteads, the remains of the wooden shed that used to be at the end of one of the courts, any old rubbish people fancied throwing over the hedge – and the magnificent Patrick has slowly but surely (and invisibly) cleared it all away.
Has he ever observed anyone having sex or taking drugs in the grounds, I enquire provocatively? “No, never,” he says anticipating my disappointment, “I’m innocent like that, I never notice.”
Changing the subject to a more comfortable one, he points out the young chestnut tree behind me. “I noticed some kids who had these matt black conkers. Nothing like the usual ones. I managed to get one of them and plant it. This is the result,” he grins at his biodiversity cunning.
Then, there’s the sweet smelling, delicate meadow sweet, (also sewn by Patrick), the tall but not giant hog weed and the blackthorn bushes. And the pond. Patrick re-instated the pond when workers renewing the courts destroyed it. “The frogs found this area first,” he says, “then I dug a pond out.”
Whilst balls whizz back and forth, we squeeze our way down a narrow path at the back of the courts. It’s heavy with ripe, succulent blackberries. We try a few and they are almost ready. I must return with a bag. One of my playing partners, Richard, has been known to make elderflower cordial earlier in the year from the elders down here.
Patrick calls the corner next to All Souls Avenue and Buchanan Gardens, the tree corner. And there certainly are a lot. “It has awfully poor soil,” he explains, “and new trees often dry up and die. The houses opposite were bombed in the second world war and all their bricks and waste ended up being dumped here. That’s what made it such bad quality.”
I had heard that there used to be a chapel over here. “Apparently there was but I’m not sure where,” he says, “but there was a wardens’ shelter just over there, “ he says pointing at a concrete bunker that I’ve never noticed before. “Air raid wardens with rifles and whistles would patrol the streets.”
Cherry, silver birch, plum, rowan, buddleia and elder trees abound. As do the exuberant staghorns that look as though they have strayed from Kew Gardens. With their fan-like leaves and beaky buds. Finally, we pass the noble red oak which is flamboyant in autumn like a tree bonfire.
Our walk is coming to a close but Patrick is eager to mention a different discovery. Neither plant nor tree, this is the British 19th century composer, Algernon Ashton. Classic music is not one of my strong points but Patrick is obviously impassioned. Algernon brings the sparkle to his eye even more than those burdock seeds that he sneaked in.
“His music never received public performance in his lifetime,” he explains, “I want to change that. He lived in Maida Vale.” Patrick seems to have been inspired by an article he read online, which was originally written in 1912. Single-handedly, Patrick is attempting to bring Ashton back into the public eye.
“His work has been scattered to the winds,” he explains, “ I’ve had to search libraries for the individual scores. His work is very English. It has wonderful melodies, some of which are actually based on street sellers’ cries. A Parisian chamber music group have actually recorded some of his work now and there is a demo CD. I’m gradually listing all his compositions. Sadly, all his diaries except for one perished in a house fire but I managed to meet someone who had the remaining one and in it, Ashton wrote about the creation of the Second Piano Trio which happens to the one I’m really interested in. That seemed a strange bit of synchronicity. Now you can actually find his music in record shops.”
Patrick has also found Ashton’s grave in the Old Paddington Cemetery. He wrote a melody called Buy My Lavender so it is no surprise that the ever-sensitive Patrick has planted lavender there. That’s the sort of man he is.