Sunday, June 12, 2011


Pursuing Happiness
Perch Hill 1994-2011
Adam  Nicolson – Harper Press – Hardback - $54.99

Reviewed on Radio NZ National’s Nine to Noon programme with Lynn Freeman today, 13 June 2011

I love the cover of this handsome hardback book, back and front, you can almost smell the summer grass.  Stunning photographs by Jonathan Buckley. And the endpapers too are most appealing, a hand-painted map of Perch Hill the semi-derelict Sussex farm that Nicolson rebuilt and turned into a successful organic farm.

We know Adam Nicolson from his newspaper columns and from nearly 20 other books especially  Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History where he told of the remaking of the home farm at the Kentish Castle where he grew up and where of course his famous grandmother, Vita Sackville-West, created her most admired garden which is now administered by the National Trust and attracts thousands of visitors every year. Just as an aside if you are in the UK anytime do be sure to visit this place. I have been there in all seasons and believe me it is truly spectacular.

This new book starts in 1992 in London at a time of great personal crisis in the author’s life. At the time he was tormented with guilt over the failure of his first marriage, he had also abandoned a business, was in a catastrophic financial state and had failed to complete a book he was working on. Then to cap it all off he was walking on his own one summer night from Mayfair to Hammersmith, where he was living with Sarah Raven, who would become his second wife, and who plays a major role in this book. On the way he was mugged by three youths who sprayed bleach into his eyes to immobilise him. He subsequently experienced a significant breakdown.

As a result of this they decided to leave their metropolitan life and eventually they found Perch Hill Farm and bought it in 1994 for 432,000 pounds. The buildings were pretty awful but they were won over by the breathtaking scenery and the thought they could turn it into something that would support them income-wise. How they did that is what this delightful book is all about. During this time of course everything changed for British small farmers with the foot-and mouth outbreak, the hunting ban, new regulations in the building and health & safety regulations and of course a couple of major economic downturns. He discovers that farming is often muddy and cold and incredibly hard work, plagued by planning regulations and with constant battles against thistles and ragwort. As he says “a farm doesn’t work without rigour.’ An understatement methinks.
In all of this Nicolson writes with disarming honesty, he is often both quite funny and touching too, as he takes us on the journey that he and Sarah share. He introduces her as “the woman for whom, a few months before I left my wife. That is a phrase which leaves me raw.”
Sarah Raven sounds a remarkable woman with her baby daughters, born at their Perch Hill home, the design and development of her stunning gardens which have made her into one of Britain’s celebrated garden experts with several books and a TV programme and a column in the Daily Telegraph to her name. She also runs sought after courses at Perch Hill in a beautifully converted 1940’s cowshed and their open days now attract over a thousand people.

This book then is a charming and delightful read, one that celebrates the importance of holding onto your dreams.
Oh and I should have mentioned that Perch Hill, just in Sussex, is only 15 miles from Sissinghurst, just in Kent.

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