Of mazes and fishing cats

I haven’t spent any time in the garden for the last week or so – I caught a cold and spent a lot of time lying around watching back episodes of Tabletop and Critical Role as I recovered. Once I started to feel better, I started re-reading Mary Stewart’s Touch Not The Cat (in between catching up on my work). 

Mary Stewart is one of my favourite fiction authors – I was introduced to her books as a teenager and fell in love with both the romantic suspense plots and the vivid descriptions of the varied landscapes they took place in, including the White Mountains of Crete, the Isle of Skye, the Austrian Alps and Westermain Woods in Wiltshire.

The rather battered (much loved) cover of my second-hand copy of Touch Not The Cat. Published by Hodder and Stoughton.

I always wanted to go and visit these places, even though some parts of them, such as the crumbling palace of Dar Ibrahim in The Gabriel Hounds or the old moated house of Ashley Court in Touch Not The Cat, are fictional. I loved the descriptions of the mountains and the coastlines in these settings, but I also wanted to see the wildflowers that were sprinkled amongst them or, in some cases, the gardens that had been created within them.

Touch Not The Cat doesn’t feature mountains or coastlines; it’s mostly set in Herefordshire at Ashley Court and the neglected gardens around it. It’s full of descriptions of the gardens – making me want to visit it all the more – with an overgrown maze with a summer pavilion in the centre and Lilies of the valley flowering below the hedges, Mistress Nancy’s Pool, walled garden, the scent of lilac and clematis petals falling.

However, there are several sections that always stay with me after I finish reading:

The description of yew trees on page 43 of my copy: they ‘flowed upwards through the breeze like smoke’.

The rather battered (much loved) back cover of my second-hand copy of Touch Not The Cat. Published by Hodder and Stoughton.

When Bryony and Cathy Underhill walk back from the maze via the Overflow and see the water stairs, which are a cascade of rock, planted with ferns and trailing plants, that guides the water into the lower pool. On a bigger rock, a stone cat used to sit with a paw reaching towards the water… but the girls see that it has fallen into the pool.

The descriptions of the tomato plants, with their ‘musky scent’ and ‘furred leaves’, and the scene of Bryony and the vicar tying the young tomato plants up as they have a serious conversation about her ‘Ashley Sight’ and her ‘friend’ who has the same talents.

And finally, from right at the beginning of the book (which starts in Funchal, Madeira), the description of the plants (on pages 8 and 9 of my copy) growing around the garden house where Byrony is living while she works at a hotel in Funchal. The camellias have finished flowering, but there are blue and white agapanthus against pine woods, Judas Trees, Angel’s Trumpets, wisteria, small pale roses… and the smell of ‘sunburned pines and lemon blossom’.

I’m happy to visit in my imagination and find some inspiration for my own garden.


3 thoughts on “Of mazes and fishing cats

  1. Hi, this is a wonderful post!

    I love Mary Stewart’s settings too and am part-way through blogging about places we visited in Provençe last week that tie in with her book Madam, Will You Talk?. Your mention of Judas trees makes me think of Avignon where they are in bloom right now, along with fields of cherry trees, plus irises everywhere and some poppies. And the wonder of walking through a ‘snow flurry’ of fluffy plane seeds…

    And in Touch Not the Cat, the moated estate is written about so authentically, the fallen statue you mention lives on in my mind long after reading the book, almost as though I’d been there and seen it for myself.

    I am looking forward to reading more of your posts, this one is lovely!


    1. Laura

      Hi, thanks very much! I love the settings in Madam, Will You Talk as well – I have to re-read it (and I’m planning to visit that area as well one day), but next on my list is Nine Coaches Waiting 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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