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Accidental writer blooms

A LOVE of the outdoors has been captured in book form by a 33-year-old who is the youngest person to edit a Faber anthology.

Barbara Hodgson meets a former gardener who is developing another flourishing career.

Philip Robinson

A LOVE of the outdoors has been captured in book form by a 33-year-old who is the youngest person to edit a Faber anthology.

Philip Robinson has compiled The Faber Book of Gardens – the latest in the prestigious series. And the newly-published work has plunged him into a whirlwind round of interviews and book launches.

Philip, who enjoys the peace of living in the Simonside Hills in Northumberland, has hardly drawn breath when we meet at the Literary & Philosophical Society in Newcastle, where he did much of his research for the book.

He said: “I’ve put an acknowledgement to the Lit & Phil in the front of the book and I’d really like to support them if I can.

“The desk staff were great and never blinked when I would ask for obscure books from the 1720s.”

While he’s finding it strange being the focus of attention, Philip, a former full-time gardener at Cragside in Northumberland, thoroughly enjoyed the two years of research which went into the literary anthology.

He was as interested in researching the small, private plot as the grand aristocratic and imperial gardens he includes from medieval Japan to suburban New Mexico and, fascinated by motivations behind gardens, he believes they can reveal more about people than they would admit.

His book spans centuries and cultures and includes creative writing about gardens and garden design as well as “garden philosophy”.

He says: “It’s a collection of other people’s garden writing – fiction, prose and poetry, but also travel and design writing. I compiled and edited it.”

Some of his research involved people he had already heard of, but there was also quite a journey of discovery. “Others were like following a trail and one thing led to another,” he says.

He found gems, ranging from local authors to gardens in Afghanistan contradicting its dry and dusty image; from garden practice in Roman times to plant fashions of the Victorian age.

“It’s wonderful, just so surprising, to find such a range of texts,” says Philip.

“And I’ve included a piece about the poison garden at Alnwick because it is bang up to date and because it’s a garden built for public access – that and The Eden Project are the first like that built inside of 100 years.”

It was a fascinating process for a garden lover – his favourite is Herterton House, near Cambo in Northumberland. “It was created by a couple over 30 years – the sheer effort and love put into that place!”

He has loved the outdoors ever since he was a child – he was born in Northern Ireland and grew up in Hampshire – when
pastimes such as trumpet lessons fell victim to his passion.

“I was far too interested in running around outside. I never did play the trumpet,” he says.

He studied at Oxford and a “happy accident” brought him to Cragside, when he was transferred north through his gardener training scheme with the National Trust, and a job then came up.

“Like many people, my experience of Northumberland was pretty much Hadrian’s Wall,” he says. But he soon found he loved the whole area.

Then a back injury, a prolapsed disc as a result of his work, largely put paid to his career.

“I was invalided out,” he says. “It was awful. I was not only losing something I loved, but I was also losing my career.”

While still at Cragside, he had already tried his hand at writing. He penned a novel in 2005 after a neighbour challenged him to see if he could. That We Might Never Meet Again, “a little tale of jealousy” set in a garden estate, was published by Faber and
Faber.

“I fell into writing quite accidentally,” he says. “I didn’t know if I could write a book, but I discovered I could.”

He was contacted about this new project when his publishers recalled his horticultural background and called his agent.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

“It’s bizarre really,” he says. “I’d had this quiet, physical life and suddenly I was in London, being interviewed for The Independent on Sunday.”

But you get the feeling he’ll be quite relieved when the publicity has blown over and he can return to the peace of his home, 1,000ft up in the hills.

While he does not see writing as permanently filling the gardening-size hole in his life, he finds it “quite an introspective thing” and is finishing a second novel, called The Gyle, set in the Cheviot Hills.

Mostly he enjoys working outside at his home, where he grows vegetables and has a herb garden.

“I think after the time spent working in large flower gardens, I always grow vegetables at home – I didn’t want to see another dahlia!”

The Faber Book of Gardens, is available now, priced at £20. Its northern launch will take place at The Garden Station, Langley, near Hexham, on October 27. Details are available from New Writing North. Phil Robinson will be taking part in a Gardeners’ Question Time at The Alnwick Garden on October 25.

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