Jinny Blom, landscape designer, on a cliff in France
GB Tell me why you chose this.
JB I just think it’s the most amazing object because it’s emerged out of the earth and had water running over it for millions of years. Whenever I’m there, I stand on the top of it and look across a great plateau or stand in the river valley at the bottom where you can see all the strata running all the way through it. It’s the most beautiful colours of white and ochre limestone. It also has Magdalenian [a late culture of the Upper Paleolithic] caves in it. It’s in the Midi-Pyrénées area. I’m half French so I’ve spent a lot of time there.
GB Can you go in the caves?
JB Yes, if you’re prepared to climb down the cliff. There are tiny goat tracks. The Magdalenians lived there in order to be fortified and have a river full of fish and fresh water below them. Then they could graze animals or grow crops on the top. So it’s been inhabited for a really long time. They left cave art behind. We hardly get any tourists and our mayor doesn’t like the idea of it becoming too touristy. My grandfather learned how to knap prehistoric flints and taught me. I saw a programme about the Neolithic period in the famous Gorge du Tarn, which is nearby and the next gorge upriver from this one. They found out that there had been trade with Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, right the way through to Syria and it makes you realize they were so much more sophisticated than people think. The art is so beautiful and sophisticated. It’s strange the way history makes us think that everybody else was stupid.
GB Does knowing that the cave paintings are there add to the natural beauty of the cliff?
JB Yes. Because of my job I always think about the way the land has always been husbanded, so you have the wild and you have our little bits that we’ve always husbanded and looked after. They would have chosen that cliff really carefully and then the Romans stumbled upon the place and called it the Noble Valley, they found it to be so beautiful. The Romans chose such nice places to settle.
GB Do you think part of the beauty is an instinctive evolutionary response to seeing a good place to live, with caves and a river?
JB Yes I do. I think it does appeal on an instinctive level. For example I have a real antipathy to the New Forest. I’ve never liked it at all, without being able to work out why. Then I found out that it’s always been really poor. The people who lived there suffered scraping a living from weak land. Its upsetting to think of. This is a rich, safe beautiful landscape. It’s very old which makes you feel stable. Although I have a friend who grew up in a valley like that near the alps and she absolutely hated it because it was so claustrophobic and the first thing she was going to have to do in her life was literally and metaphorically scramble her way out of the valley. I find it beautiful because it’s my choice to be there. We chucked my mum’s ashes off that cliff after she died. It’s what she wanted. It has that added significance now. I didn’t choose for it to come into my life but I think about it a lot. It changes through the day and the seasons. It has it’s own weather system and people paraglide off it. There are invisible thermals that lift you high up into the sky. I wasn’t looking forward to throwing mum’s ashes off the cliff because I thought it was a really uninteresting experience, but in fact the ashes floated up and up and were mesmerisingly beautiful and I watched it for ages. She loved to travel, so she’s everywhere now.
GB Do you ever think you’d change the landscape, looking at it with your work hat on?
JB Yes, I do a lot of shifting earth about in my work but this landscape needs nothing from me.
GB Do you think that man-made things can be as beautiful as nature?
JB At our best, we can do really nice things with our natural resources. I think we’re living through quite a dark age for architecture in terms of materials. Maybe I’m old fashioned but I love buildings that are made from components that I understand. I like buildings that are a product of the land they’re sitting on, wherever they are in the world. Structures that come up out of the earth and they sink back down into it again. I love that feeling of things passing, of coming up and fading away. It’s sad that there isn’t more cultural beauty going into the things we’re building for ourselves. It’s as though we’re building our own sickness.
GB Do you have a favourite garden in the world?
JB I love Hidcote. I’ve just been away for a week visiting gardens with an American friend. I love Capability Brown because it’s more about space management landscaping and its fascinating to decipher it .
GB Why do you think visiting gardens has increased in popularity so much?
JB I think we’re all desperate for some contact with nature or the planet. In the old days, even in our lifetime, everyone would have had access to a garden and done something with their hands in the earth. The more we live in cities, the more it becomes a grail search for people to get their hands dirty.
GB Do you think it’s important for our mental wellbeing?
JB Yes. That’s how I got into it. I used to be a psychologist and I worked with mentally ill people and it turned out that there was a tangible difference in their health when they were working outside in gardens.
GB Does London need more greenery?
JB Yes. And I think that there are huge tracts of London or any city that don’t need to be hard paved, that could be gravelled. When you walk through most French towns they have a central square that isn’t paved. It’s a compacted limestone gravel that’s very strong, so there’s no reason why some of our back streets couldn’t be deregulated and planted with trees that just have gravel underneath them. The people and the cars would just find their way. So my fantasy is that we deregulate all our surfaces and we’d be like animals again, making our own tracks through them. It would be a beautiful way to live.
GB How long does it take to create your gardens?
JB The ones I do are quite big so they can easily take five years to design and build. Then I think they really settle down after about another five years. I just wrote a book on my work and I had a look at gardens I’d done say 17 years ago. I think after about 11 years, gardens start to breathe and relax and not look like someone just made them. That’s a nice thing about what I do. It’s one of the few art forms that have a very long life.
GB Do you thinkthere’s such a thing as an ugly plant?
JB No, only ones that are in the wrong place or sick because of the wrong soil. But plants are all great really.
GB Do some people have a better connection to plants than others?
JB Yes, I love plants and I know my plants and I find people in my work who might not know the Latin names yet have real connection to plants even so.
GB Do you think plants have feelings?
JB Yes, they do. They need care. I’m a bit erratic for plants because I’m more of an ideas person. They like daily attention and I’m less good at that! I’m a theoretician I suppose.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
JB Beauty is so important to human beings. I can’t vouch for any other animal, but there’s something absolutely vital to our existence in being able to be surrounded by beauty. It’s a hard word to earn. The cliff has earned the word beauty for me by being so possessed of itself. It’s itself.