I see a circle of light in front of me, the distant lip of the tunnel. I feel a tell-tale drumming in my veins as my heart-rate quickens. I’m holding my breath, aware of my body cutting calmly through the water, of the current starting to gather. The river starts to race, the circle of light is suddenly twice, three, four times the size. The water is singing around my ears, I can’t tell where the edges of me are, and I’m spat out into the light.
The waterway is huge, heaving and rolling, confined by curving concrete walls. I crest a liquid mountain and gasp. I’m in the Orangerie, swimming through the large subterranean Nymphéas in the space built to house them. I have a heartbeat to process what is happening before I wake myself up, slapping a forearm on my forehead in a clumsy dream-swim.
I’ve had this recurrent dream about swimming in these central Paris galleries for most of this decade, since I lost my beloved early generation iPhone to Monet’s lily pond. It rang for a few seconds and then was disconnected forever. I cling on to a foolish but hopeful notion that the dreams are my phone trying to contact me from deep below the waterlilies. I’m filled with unutterable joy when the waterlilies in my own pond flash their pink and yellow petals at me.
When we moved to Sunnyside in the spring of 2016, the pond was surrounded by a 1960s brick pergola (steel-reinforced) which held up some rather sickly roses, and a proud, smothering honeysuckle. Dead rushes obfuscated the hidden treasure, but also hosted a huge extended family of newts and dragonflies. We knew from the beginning that we wanted to keep the basic structure, though I hankered after draining the water and painting the base Hockney blue.
In 2017, Doc performed surgery on the pergola with an angle-grinder, and that’s when we discovered the steel-reinforcements. There was much swearing. We bought an old fibre-glass pond liner from eBay, and Doc dug that into the bed we started to make around the bottom right hand corner of the pond. We banked up soil around it, and by this summer, it has become the Peony Bend and the Firework Border. From the original stone-edged pond (all a bit rustic for us) we cleared a section of rushes, made a scuttle-bridge for any visiting fauna, laid in some water-iris. Doc built some decking and seating at the left, where the greengage tree stretches out towards the water. The seating has soil banked up behind it, and woodland plants (ammi majus, foxgloves) nestled in.
At the far side of the seating (I won’t bore you with the story of steaming and bending the wood into the desired curve) is the scuttle-bridge and an arrangement of stones that I teasingly call Doc’s Rockery. Cutting across the pond is a wooden bridge, which apparently floats. This bears our crimson-leaved Japanese maple, some large pots of hostas and is my favourite place to drink my morning coffee.
There’s a tiny bed on the far side of the big pond, between it and the pigeonnière, that needs filling before the concreting is done and the replacement glasshouse is installed. It currently houses one of two remaining original roses, a heavily-scented deep crimson hybrid tea and a honeysuckle that rambles all over the ground. I’m planning to wind the honeysuckle onto a tripod to give some temporary height, and to take some clippings. We are planning a curving steel structure to bend around the path to the glasshouse (winter jobs!) and in the interests of thrift and heady scent, I’d like to plant it with home-propagated honeysuckle. I’m often thinking about what will happen in the kitchen when I’m working on the garden, and this means honeysuckle syrup, summer in a bottle.
The fine line between parsimony and glamour is an eternal theme so we squirrel and splurge alternately, we wait and we try to stick strictly to the plan. I’m currently filling in my wish list at a well-known Dutch bulb retailer without any restraint whatsoever, though I baulk slightly at the implied autumn-planting schedule, let alone the bill. There are fancy tulips in the darkest purples, the most vivid viral splits, tall cool sorbet-faced beauties; cyclamen and single-flowered snowdrops (I’m no longer planting doubles, beautiful as they are); white corona wind-flowers; pale grape hyacinths in sky and peppermint; stripy crocus; tall pink Summer Drummer allium; dark red Imperial fritillaries and an immodest number of Narcissus paperwhite for table flowers throughout December and January.
But before they all arrive in September, I’ll have a handful of Giverny days, dreaming of nymphéas, and the more extensive water-garden plans for what Doc is already calling ‘the next garden’.
Isabella Streffen is an artist. She has illuminated Hadrian’s Wall from end to end, flown prototype drones inside the Library of Congress, camouflaged tourists in Monet’s garden, performed in cabaret en unicorne and gifted golden fairy-tale fruit to the deserving. She lectures in Fine Art at the University of Lincoln. She is a keen gardener with an obsession for dahlias.