When Captain Ken blew into the Tatler’s Waste-bin whistling that air from A.E. Housman – he has a light tenor and a way with a rousing chorus, in this case ‘‘We’ll to the woods no more/The laurels are all cut’
– at any rate, Mr Honey, bending to bowl in the skittle alley, and somehow pricked by the tune, retorted that it was a jolly good thing too and that cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) is the most wretched of plants and couldn’t be cut enough for his liking, and that he himself favoured the equally hardy Portugal laurel (P. lusitanica). Mr Honey’s bowl hit the gutter. I fear he has had his rod out again and caught nothing and it has put him out of sorts.
Mrs F of Egham might have found this an engaging altercation, for she has been expressing to me her concern over the management of the cherry laurels of Claremont, and she asks whether or not they were planted by planted by our hero, Capability Brown. These are the ones between the amphitheatre and the Portsmouth Road, planted en masse and undoubtedly intended for laurel lawn, where every plant is clipped at about three feet off the ground so as to present a dark green, smooth sward to the distant eye.
I call to mind that letter of Thomas Rundle’s, when he wrote to Mrs Barbara Sandys in 1729 that `A friend indeed might be patient to cut and prune his laurels to make them shoot the faster, and grow, hereafter, in less disordered beauty.’ Was this an appeal for laurel lawn? Well, perhaps Mrs F., and perhaps also Brown would have been interested to use the technique, but essentially it is a thing of the 19th century.
He will have been more familiar with Philip Miller’s recommendation that laurel ‘is very proper to place in Clumps of Ever-greens, where it may be suffer’d to grow rude’, and I am with Mr Honey on this one. The way to treat cherry laurel is to cut it often, that way you get the flashing green of its new growth, that way the leading shoots show their natural form. Of course Brown’s acquaintance and admirer the Rev. William Gilpin has his point to make, and makes it well with his comment on Valentine Morris’ use of laurel at Piercefield: `It is not the shrub which offends: it is the formal introduction of it. Wild underwood may be an appendage of the grandest scene. It is a beautiful appendage. A bed of violets, or lilies may enamel the ground, with propriety, at the root of an oak; but if you introduce them artificially as a border, you introduce a trifling formality; and disgrace the noble object, you wish to adorn’. The fact is that it is obviously not a native, and I’m not sure why Housman should have regarded the cutting of it in English woodland as such a loss to Albion. However I am with his friend William Mason:
‘But chief, with willing aid, her glittering green
Shall England’s Laurel bring; swift shall she spread
Her broad-leav’d shade, and float it fair, and wide,
Proud to be call`d an inmate of the soil.
Let England prize this daughter of the East
Beyond that Latian plant, of kindred name,
That wreath`d the head of Julius…’
It is the plant that replaced bay (Laurus nobilis, whence came its name) in the modish gardens of the 17th century restoration. It is a plant for the wooded edge of the pleasure ground and for the theatrical shrubbery where it usually finds its place in the second row, between the box and the yew. If you happen upon it – as on the opposite side of the amphitheatre at Claremont – and chase its layered branches back to the mother plant, you will find it in rows and spreads, and it will still show you the form of the first planting.