We were even shown a bloom called the Phoebus, about as like to our Phoebus “as I to Hercules.” But the true Phoebus, “the real Simon Pure,” was as far to seek as ever.
Learnedly did I descant with the learned in dahlias over the merits of my lost beauty. “It was a cupped flower, Mr. Sutton,” quoth I, to my agreeable and sympathising listener; (gardeners are a most cultivated and gentlemanly race;) “a cupped dahlia, of the genuine metropolitan shape; large as the Criterion, regular as the Springfield Rival, perfect as Dodd’s Mary, with a long bloom stalk like those good old flowers, the Countess of Liverpool and the Widnall’s Perfection. And such a free blower, and so true! I am quite sure that there is not so good a dahlia this year. I prefer it to ‘Corinne,’ over and over.” And Mr. Sutton assented and condoled, and I was as near to being comforted as anybody could be, who had lost such a flower as the Phoebus.
After so many vain researches, most persons would have abandoned the pursuit in despair. But despair is not in my nature. I have a comfortable share of the quality which the possessor is wont to call perseverance–whilst the uncivil world is apt to designate it by the name of obstinacy–and do not easily give in. Then the chase, however fruitless, led, like other chases, into beautiful scenery, and formed an excuse for my visiting or revisiting many of the prettiest places in the county.
Two of the most remarkable spots in the neighbourhood are, as it happens, famous for their collections of dahlias–Strathfield-saye, the seat of the Duke of Wellington, and the ruins of Reading Abbey.
Nothing can well be prettier than the drive to Strathfield-saye, passing, as we do, through a great part of Heckfield Heath,* a tract of wild woodland, a forest, or rather a chase, full of fine sylvan beauty–thickets of fern and holly, and hawthorn and birch, surmounted by oaks and beeches, and interspersed with lawny glades and deep pools, letting light into the picture. Nothing can be prettier than the approach to the duke’s lodge. And the entrance to the demesne, through a deep dell dark with magnificent firs, from which we emerge into a finely wooded park of the richest verdure, is also striking and impressive. But the distinctive feature of the place (for the mansion, merely a comfortable and convenient nobleman’s house, hardly responds to the fame of its owner) is the grand avenue of noble elms, three quarters of a mile long, which leads to the front door.
* It may be interesting to the lovers of literature to hear that my accomplished friend Mrs. Trollope was “raised,” as her friends the Americans would say, upon this spot. Her father, the Rev. William Milton, himself a very clever man, and an able mechanician and engineer, held the living of Heckfield for many years.
It is difficult to imagine anything which more completely realises the poetical fancy, that the pillars and arches of a Gothic cathedral were borrowed from the interlacing of the branches of trees planted at stated intervals, than this avenue, in which Nature has so completely succeeded in outrivalling her handmaiden Art, that not a single trunk, hardly even a bough or a twig, appears to mar the grand regularity of the design as a piece of perspective. No cathedral aisle was ever more perfect; and the effect, under every variety of aspect, the magical light and shadow of the cold white moonshine, the cool green light of a cloudy day, and the glancing sunbeams which pierce through the leafy umbrage in the bright summer noon, are such as no words can convey. Separately considered, each tree (and the north of Hampshire is celebrated for the size and shape of its elms) is a model of stately growth, and they are now just at perfection, probably about a hundred and thirty years old. There is scarcely perhaps in the kingdom such another avenue.