According to accounts from the late 18th century there were hardly any trees to be seen as you walked the streets and lanes of the City of London. None around St Pauls. Ah, but there was one nearby, at the corner of Wood Street and Cheapside. It grew in the churchyard of St Peter Cheap, a church, one among many, destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and not rebuilt. I’m sorry to note that my 2013 photograph of this tree is out of focus, as though I can’t quite get it to stand in our time and place.
William Wordsworth wrote of this churchyard and tree: At the corner of Wood Street when daylight appears / hangs a thrush that sings loud, and it has sung for three years: / Poor Susan has passed by the spot, and has heard / In the silence of the morning, the song of the bird.
“Reverie of Poor Susan” 1797
Throughout the Victorian era that tree was special, quietly growing on the site of St Peter Cheap. It has survived into our time, but strange tree companions in this little churchyard are now – palm trees.
If we stroll from this site a few steps into Cheapside, we see St Mary le Bow foregrounded by newly planted trees
Then in the other direction towards St Pauls, the trees become a veritable screen.
A little farther on, at Christchurch Greyfriars, we have greenery of a different sort.
A very large church had been built here as part of the monastic holdings of the Grey Friars in the 12th century. It was entirely lost in the fire of 1666. Christopher Wren built a small church on the site of the choir. Unlike St Pauls and St Mary le Bow, Wren’s structure here did not survive the bombing of WW2. Only the tower remains and, for the last few decades, the space has been given over to garden. Where the internal pillars had once been, we see wooden platforms for vines and roses. Initially there was an almost formal rose garden effect but with a change of intention on the part of the designers, we now have a casual profusion of low bush and wild flower planting.
We finish with an image of trees in the old church yard. They stand by the central aisle of the former nave. For a couple of decades now, Merrill Lynch, the financial management company, marks closure at the end of the tree avenue and this is where there had been big wooden doors to enter the earliest church on this site.
Glyndebourne is a famous centre for opera in East Sussex. Every summer, hundreds of Londoners make their way to Glyndebourne from Victoria station. You can recognise them on the afternoon train bound for Lewes because they are beautifully dressed. There’s a man wearing a tuxedo and bow tie and he’s carrying a large Fortnum and Mason wicker box, and the woman with him is in an Antonio Berardi emerald green twist front gown. You know they are headed for Glyndebourne. The convention of wearing evening dress was established from the beginning by the founder, John Christie. He felt it was a way in which the audience could show respect for the performers.
When opera began in 1934 at Glyndebourne, the first troupe of critics arrived in a somewhat annoyed mood. They didn’t like the rule about evening dress and they resented the fact that they had to take a train 50 miles. But something happened at that first performance. The opera was Le nozze di Figaro and all the critics gave it rave reviews.
One reason was the high standard of production. The lead roles were not given to big name stars. Without considering reputations, Christie and his wife, Audrey Mildmay, selected the best singers from all over the world. And the performers had to be young and attractive, and they had to be able to act – the whole opera had to work as ensemble. That was, and still is, the key to the Glyndebourne way.
And there were other factors at work at that first performance. There was a long interval with time for a good dinner and then a stroll through the gardens. This is still part of Glyndebourne. In fact, the custom now is to come early with picnic gear, and establish one’s place in the garden, or under cover if the weather is threatening. I’m sure the champagne before and at the interval has something to do with the warm glow one feels at Glyndebourne.
The opera that we came to see on Tuesday, 23 August, was Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw. And yes, we had consumed a bottle of champagne and had eaten some smoked salmon sandwiches before the start. But that just sharpened our delight. We, Sira and Julia and I, had seats second row from the front, right in the centre.
Young Thomas Parfitt (age 12) was wonderful as Miles. Likewise, Joanna Songi, as Flora. Miah Persson was perfect as the Governess and all the rest, excellent. The production achieved that “ensemble” mode of the early days.
The gardens were particularly beautiful as we strolled. The day was overcast but not raining. In the 1920′s, when John Christie had come to his inheritance here at Glyndebourne, he hired a new head gardener, Mr Harvey, who extended the flower gardens and created surprising combinations of formality and informality. He opened up new vistas. In the following pictures we see how those fine gardens, basically set in place in the 1920′s, are still imparting their magic, almost a century later.