By Sophie Atkinson
Mary Lennox is English and she is not. Born in England to English parents, Mary moves to India when still very young and spends most of her childhood there. When her parents die of cholera, she returns to her country of birth, seeing it through immigrant eyes: and what she sees, she dislikes. There’s a desolate old mansion, a rude housekeeper, a mostly-absent uncle. When embarking on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 book The Secret Garden, it’s easy to do both: dislike Mary, who really is quite contrary, and dislike England as viewed through the lens of the novel — draughty, unwelcoming.
England is usually dislikable by the tail end of winter, as unsympathetic a protagonist as Mary starts the book being: the grey is unrelenting, the ground sodden. The Secret Garden is normally pulled from my bookshelf by the beginning of March. It is a children’s book but it’s also a potent antidepressant and a reminder of the joy of the Northern countryside. It’s a decent candidate for a spring re-read: for one, it’s all about the ways the seeming greyness of England conceals a beauty only visible to the attentive. For another, it’s the perfect length to consume in one, maybe two sittings, in your garden or a nearby park.
The novel tells the story of Mary moving into Misselthwaite Manor, “A house with a hundred rooms, nearly all shut up and with their doors locked—a house on the edge of a moor.” The Yorkshire stately home is surrounded by sprawling grounds and gardens, and over the course of the book, Mary stumbles across (I’m not sure this counts as a spoiler, given the book’s title) a key to the locked garden concealed at its heart.
The Secret Garden is eloquent on nature in a way that few adult novels manage to be. Here’s Mary’s definition of spring, delivered to an invalid who hasn’t been outdoors in years: “It is the sun shining on the rain and the rain falling on the sunshine, and things pushing up and working under the earth.” Or maybe you’d prefer the maid Martha on the joy of the moors: “It’s fair lovely in spring an’ summer when th’ gorse an’ broom an’ heather’s in flower. It smells o’ honey an’ there’s such a lot o’ fresh air — an’ th’ sky looks so high an’ th’ bees an’ skylarks makes such a nice noise hummin’ an’ singin’.” The book has a curious effect — instead of wanting to spend all day curled up on the sofa reading it, it makes you want to get outside, huff the blossomed air.
Perhaps this is why, not long after the re-read, I start to wonder if the garden has a real life counterpart that I could visit. One garden often acknowledged as the inspiration behind the novel is in Kent — the grounds around Great Maytham Hall. However, Hodgson Burnett was born in Manchester and spent her childhood and some of her teenage years in the city. As such, perhaps unsurprisingly, a second possible source of inspiration lies closer by. In the introduction to The Complete Novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett, we learn that “an overgrown and mysterious garden Burnett had encountered as a child in Salford was never forgotten and much of the novel was written at Buile Hill Park in Pendleton (Salford).”
Recently, I took the bus up to Salford to see the possible inspiration for myself. The entrance to the park is book-ended by art-deco lampposts and two grassy banks, bristling with dandelions and tulips: it feels a long way from the forbidding Yorkshire moor of the early pages of the novel. In the fictional version, the stately home is full of locked rooms. In real life, Buile Hill Mansion is itself one big locked room — the striking toffee-coloured building is cordoned off and, as it turns out, has been for over 20 years.
Even from a distance, it’s a notably beautiful building. Buile Hill Mansion was built in the Anglo-Greek style between 1825 and 1827 for Thomas Potter, the first Mayor of Manchester. It was designed by architect Charles Barry, who you might know better as the man behind Manchester Art Gallery — or the building the gallery is housed in.
I stumble across some offices and am told that the building is currently closed for restoration and that when reopened, it will provide a space for conferences, functions and community meetings. It will also be home to Salford’s registry office, which will re-locate there from the Civic Centre in Swinton. I lurk at the perimeters of the mansion, trying to make out the writing on a blackboard hung on its exterior, which lists key dates (1975 — when a mining museum opened inside it, 2000 — when the mansion closed).
A car comes by, hovers. A man asks me what I’m doing there: “Just looking,” I say and explain about the novel. He gets out of the car and proffers a hand — he’s Paul Worsley, originally from Swinton, still based there. He’s stopped by on his lunch break because he remembers going to a friend’s 21st in the late ‘60s in the mansion and enjoying the elegant interiors — he wanted to see what became of the building. “It’s a crying shame,” he says, nodding at the enclosure. When I tell him I’m going to explore the grounds, possibly try and locate some people to interview about the novel (he’s never read it), Paul regards me as if from a great distance. “More dogs than people in this park,” he points out. He’s not wrong.
Despite the brightness of the day, the park is nearly deserted, apart from a few dog walkers. It’s undeniably beautiful: there are cherry blossom trees, branches heavy with flowers and as I walk deeper into the park, I find some bedraggled bluebells left over from earlier in the year, some white daffodils. The plan was to do a couple of circumferences of the grounds, but it turns out to be so vast that I — slowed down by taking pictures — don’t even manage to get round the whole park once in 45 minutes. Eventually, I stop rushing and put my phone and notebook away. I tip my face towards the sun and enjoy it.
If tweeness turns your stomach, The Secret Garden won’t be for you. One of the main characters is, of all things, a robin, and Hogdson Burnett can’t quite resist describing him as “scarlet-waistcoated” on a couple of occasions and then there’s Dickon, a boy who talks to animals. Despite this, the prose still somehow swerves clear of being cloying. This is probably because it cuts at something true. After a long Northern winter, spring feels like something close to a miracle. As such, it’s hard to respond to the change of season with anything but emotion which might seem disproportionate: to be a bit soppy, a bit fawning about it.
The grounds are full of possible candidates for the secret garden, replete with nooks and crannies. There is a boarded up section of land between two squat white houses, with ivy peeking out above the board. There’s an enormous fenced-off pond (not a garden, admittedly, but its surface is lacquered with leaves and greenery); a fenced-off series of allotments. There is a sensory garden, cordoned off from public access apart from Sundays from 10am to 12pm, when you’re welcome to stop by. It’s currently being returned to its former glory by a 20-person strong team of volunteers and boasts four raised flowerbeds, each designed to appeal to each of the senses (sight, sound, scent, touch — taste was ruled out, co-founder of The Buile Hill Mansion Association Committee, Marketa Crehan Lazova, tells me by phone later).
By and large, though, the grounds are well cared for, manicured, which rules out an affiliation with the concealed garden. For the secret garden is characterised by being tangled and wild, as we learn when Dickon sees it for the first time:
‘“I wouldn’t want to make it look like a gardener’s garden, all clipped an’ spick an’ span, would you?” he said. “It’s nicer like this with things runnin’ wild, an’ swingin’ an’ catchin’ hold of each other.”
“Don’t let us make it tidy,” said Mary anxiously. “It wouldn’t seem like a secret garden if it was tidy.”’
But there are echoes of the book anyway as I wend my way round the enormous park. Dickon rescues a “half-drowned young crow” during a rainstorm and this bird becomes a great friend of his. So it feels of a piece with the novel when a crow hops up to me at a tree-lined path and accompanies me for a while, bobbing peaceably next to me. After a while, a couple of ducks join us and Dickon’s proximity to animals stops seeming so whimsical and far-fetched. The sheer enormity of the grounds also mirrors Misselthwaite Manor, in which Mary explores small fractions of the land surrounding her new home each day.
Checking my watch, I realise it’s time to head back to the office. On the walk back to the bus stop, something happens which is patently and undeniably too good to be true. I am a little way down Eccles Old Road when, just opposite the turn-off for Sandy Grove, I come across a cast iron gate that’s half open, spilling over with ivy, leading into a plot of woodlands. The strange thing is, when I glance down at Google Maps, there’s no sign of green space at all in the digital rendition of the area.
I step inside the gate and get a rush: this is it. It’s a stretch of semi-deserted land, grown over and tangled with ivy and bushes and blossoms. The birdsong is very loud here and as I make my way deeper into the trees, I hear the rustle of — I’m not sure, rabbits? Mice? — in the undergrowth. There’s half-hearted traces of human intervention — a grown-over path, an abandoned leather stool — but largely, it feels like a place where nature gets to call the shots.
It smells, as Mary puts it about the outdoors, “nice and fresh and damp.” This is obviously not it, the garden which Hodgson Burnett took inspiration from for The Secret Garden. But this feels as close to a secret garden as you’ll probably find in Salford these days. For a moment I stand and breathe in. I am not usually huge on nature, but there is something soothing about being entirely alone in a patch of deserted greenery, my own personal oasis.
Over the course of the book, Mary becomes physically and emotionally healthier from daily contact with the outdoors. The garden and the moors put colour in her cheeks and meat on her bones. Despite starting off as perhaps the novel’s sourest character, the outdoors exercises a mellowing influence: she starts to like both the people and the world around her.
I cannot claim a similar transformation of body and soul, nor would such a transformation be likely: instead of months romping in the Yorkshire outdoors, this is, of course, just one morning out. But I take the stairs to the office, not the lift, and find myself whistling as I do so. A mysterious good mood descends and refuses to be shaken. I make plans to return to the garden that weekend, take a friend with me. Finally, spring feels well and truly here.