One thousand square metres of overgrown wilderness came free with the house I bought here in the Republic of Bulgaria. This pales into insignificance the bottle of Morrison’s own brand champagne and the bunch of half dead flowers we got from the estate agent when I moved with my family into a house we bought in the North of England nearly thirty years ago. It just goes to show how great a work ethic East European people demonstrate when going about their business. The Harrogate estate agent, however, did show at the time a positive side in claiming that the flowers were half alive rather than half dead.
Although officially my property, this chunk of extra land is not my garden but an unruly patch of land that lies beyond. The large, partly paved and partly terraced, cultivated garden enclosed in a white painted stone wall topped with terracotta tiles looks all prim and proper as it basks in the lovey Balkan sunshine, as I suspect I do myself.
The tidy garden with its fruit trees, grapevines, lush hostas and tall, spikey, tropical-looking plants that make your arm bleed and rude words spill from your mouth if you catch yourself on them is lovely and fairly easy to look after. Even the empty beer bottles are neatly stacked away in crates. But the bit at the other side of the wall is mad. It’s like a jungle, sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from going under. At least it was like a jungle when I first got here but I’ve been grappling away with it for months and recently my labours have brought me to a point where it could be loosely described as being under control.
The entire population of Bulgaria told me that I needed to buy a strimmer with a petrol motor to carry out this task. I ignored them initially because I knew that if I did it would be noisy and smelly, it wouldn’t be able to deal with the small boulders strewn across my land and it would deal far too efficiently with the reptilian wildlife that has lived happily for years in the vegetation between the boulders. I can boast that I used only precision instruments, although a little primitive, and no reptiles were harmed in this operation.
Last October I noticed that the sting had gone out of the sun’s rays and a billion flesh eating insects (not to mention arthropods and arachnids, who can also be little buggers when they’re a bit peckish) had packed up and toddled off on their winter holidays, so working outside in daylight hours became possible for the first time since my arrival in this land. In true Soviet satellite state tradition, I bought myself a sickle and set about thrashing at my thicket.
The constant need to sharpen my instrument, rake up and burn the debris and scratch my insect-ravaged arms and legs down to the bone was hard work. Even in the autumn the weather was still quite warm. In fact, even on a Sunday afternoon early in November I had to down tools and down beer because the weather was too hot to work in without fear of being labelled a mad dog or an Englishman.
The hard work turned out to be very rewarding as ground that probably hadn’t been seen for six or seven years by any creature with two legs was gradually exposed. As I laboured away I was joined by wild birds of all sizes and colours, gay fluttering butterflies, lizards, slow worms, frogs, enough exotic looking insect life to make it worthwhile for David Attenborough and his film crew to pay me a visit, and the man who drinks a lot of rakia as he wanders aimlessly around the village. The sounds around me were only of nature at its finest, dogs barking and cocks crowing in nearby farmyards and neighbours with petrol powered strimming machines; but mostly of the buzz of insects, shrill and vibrant birdsong and woodpeckers tapping at the lofty boughs of trees around me. The smells of freshly cut vegetation, wood smoke from freshly felled saplings burning on my bonfire and freshly dropped droppings from the goats and cattle that are lead in procession along the lane by my house a couple of times a day.
I didn’t think that cultivating with a blade until every muscle in my body ached and every joint creaked could bring me so much pleasure, but it did. Consequently, as I was enjoying my labour of love so much, I spent a bit too long each day beavering away with my simple tool in the undergrowth. Exercise and fresh air are all well and good until you get to the point where you feel so exhausted that vultures start to circle overhead and the rakia man drools from the corner of his mouth as he stares expectantly through a gap in the fence at your not quite exhausted supply of drink.
Probably the most interesting aspect of this massive defoliation exercise was the quantity and variety of things that I found. Admittedly, some of these were in my derelict barn rather than my lush brush, but it was all part of the same tidying up job. They included an antique wooden bow saw, an almost limbless plastic model of Pinocchio, three unlabelled bottles of what I suspect is homemade rakia but might not be, the remains of domestic animals, a gothic gold censer of Christian Orthodox design (though I suspect it may really be made from 1960s Bulgarian brass), enough scorpions to fill the Old Trafford football stadium, a 1981 calendar, a framed black and white photograph of a man and a woman dating back several decades, an old oil can, a fondue set, a cuddly toy, a hundred jars of pickle that had turned black with age and an overwhelming feeling of peace, tranquillity and solitude.
My horticultural endeavours halted temporarily when a thick blanket of snow forced an unwanted winter break on me. For three icy months I lay in my bed dreaming of my sickle. Thankfully the spring is here now and in the last few weeks I have cleared a lot more land and bought the petrol strimmer that I need to keep on top of the nettles and wild roses that are already threatening me with a hostile return and to hush up all the people who keep telling me I need a petrol strimmer. To improve the scene even more, I demolished a dangerously decrepit outhouse with a sturdy hammer, my bare hands and a winter’s worth of pent up energy and frustration.
So what was once a jungle now looks more like a meadow. Sometimes I imagine that I can see Julie Andrews running down the grassy bank from my back gate, arms outstretched as she sings, ‘the hills are alive with the sound of music’. I can’t wait for the full swing of spring and to see the vast profusion of wild plants making the whole place green again, and hopefully with a splash of a few more colours besides.
I lost myself on that bit of overgrown land but while I was there I realised that I had found the place I have always been looking for. It’s in a field in the middle of Bulgaria. Who’d have thought?
The tools of my thicket thrashing.