Cambridge writer Beth Lynch reveals how a garden saved her sanity when she moved abroad in Where the Hornbeam Grows
When Beth Lynch’s husband Shaun got a well paid job in Switzerland, the couple saw it as an opportunity to start an exciting life in a new country.
They both already spoke French and German and thought it would be easy to find work and friends in their adopted home.
But as a garden designer, Beth discovered her skills did not translate to the job market in Switzerland, and it was harder than expected to fit in.
What’s more, there were bizarre laws that meant you could be arrested for mowing the lawn on a Sunday, anti-noise rules so strict men weren’t allowed to use the toilet standing up after 10pm and - finally - neighbours who accused them of poisoning their cat.
Beth sought solace in gardening and has written a memoir - Where the Hornbeam Grows - about how she created a natural hideaway in the Jura to escape to.
“Despite having jumped in with both feet learning the languages, avoiding the whole expat scene and trying to integrate, I just became lonelier and lonelier and realised the people thing was not working out very well,” says Beth.
“At that point, having sold our house in the UK we decided to buy a cottage in the French speaking part of Switzerland, the Jura, which is very green and a bit overlooked by international travellers. We bought a little house with a huge garden and I threw myself into making a garden as a way of trying to put down roots and find a way of belonging.
“I found myself starting to write things down and that coincided with this journey to making the garden. That got me writing about the story of coming to the garden, feeling rootless and nurturing the relationship with the natural world.”
In this remote and unfamiliar place of glow worms and dormice and singing toads, Beth learnt to garden in a new way, taking her cue from the natural world.
As she planted her paradise with hellebores and aquilegias, cornflowers and Japanese anemones, these cherished species forged green and deepening connections: to her new soil, to her old life in England, and to her deceased parents, whose Sussex garden continues to flourish in her heart.
“I have always found gardening gave me a sense of connection and absorption,” says Beth.
“It did help immensely - it was amazing. I learnt so much about myself and the natural world. It as a very wild-edged garden in a beautiful part of the countryside and was a complete immersion for me.
“For quite a long time I believed it had sorted everything. But of course it did not because you can't just be on your own in the garden. I realised I still needed people. I realised for the very long term even the garden couldn't solve everything. That was a very tough lesson.”
Arriving in Switzerland came as a huge culture shock to the couple, who had underestimated the differences in the way of life there compared with the UK.
“The thing that I found most surprising was the ban on activities on Sundays,” says Beth.
“You were not allowed to operate a washing machine or mow the grass on a Sunday and we always assumed that was about noise but you also weren't allowed to hang laundry out, so it was about signs of work, like a religious throwback.
“If you started a lawn mower on a Sunday in the Zurich area a neighbour would call the police and they would come out. A Swiss friend said he has known that happen on several occasions. That is quite a marker of cultural difference - it was bewildering and I didn't get it
“You could very quickly feel that you were being monitored and your life was being regulated and scrutinised. It was made very clear to us that people are aware of what we were doing even though they didn't interact with us.
I found it very striking having moved back to the uk to a little place in Cambridge with a city garden overlooked by lord knows how many houses but i don't feel scrutinised there.”
On the one hand the book is about the garden that Beth created in Switzerland, but it also about the garden of her childhood that she ‘carries in her heart’ which belonged to her parents in Sussex.
“It is always there and I find bits of it in new places. On top of that I have literally taken bits of my parents garden with me - plants and cuttings. It was opposite a bluebell wood filled with hornbeam trees and my parents garden even when i was really tiny i had a strong sense of my parents’ commitment to the garden which was made from the corner of a field where they built a house and enclosed the garden with a beautiful hornbeam hedge.”
The last straw for Beth was when her next door neighbour accused her of poisoning their cat. Beth says: "To be accused in your third language of poisoning someone’s cat is quite complicated so I said come again? She said the cat is not very well and I was racking my brains about what it could be.
She said they had decided we had bought the hedging plants form a supplier who had treated the roots of the plants with rodenticide. I had never heard of that before - even though I was a trained garden designer - I thought it was quite an ingenious idea. She said a mouse must have eaten one of the roots and died and that their cat had then eaten the mouse. It was pretty surreal. It added insult to injury that I had sourced the trees from an organic supplier."
Fortunately the cat survived but after this incident the couple began to think about moving home. However Beth doesn’t harbour any ill feelings about her time in Switzerland and feels that she just couldn’t understand their culture.
“I would never want that to be construed as a criticism because the Swiss have their own culture and their own way of doing things,” she says, “but it was a perpetual sense of incompatibility and that I wasn't ever going to fit in there.”
Where the Hornbeam Grows is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, priced £16.99.
More by this authorAlex Spencer