Sweet peas – from Kelso to the Crystal Palace, a story of one gardener’s glory. Country Life with Rosemary Goring

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BLACKBIRDS were hopping in the trees as daylight arrived. From the bedroom window I could see nine of them, bouncing from branch to branch like children playing up in the classroom. Snow was still thick on the ground, but it seemed the birds had sensed the end of the big freeze, and were marshalling themselves for a fruitful foraging shift.

Two days later and, apart from stubborn patches on the hills and roadsides, it was as if the snow had never been. For one bird of prey, the pickings that morning were particularly rich. I was about to brush my teeth when my eye was caught by a flock of tiny finches in the whitebeam tree. Suddenly, from nowhere, a sharp-winged speckled brown bird rushed at them, sending the flock hurtling in the opposite direction, one fewer than a moment before. This was the work of the sparrowhawk, for whom our garden is Waitrose. The operation was sinister in its speed, stealth and surgical precision. Seconds later there was no sign of the killing, but the finches did not return.

After their baptism by ice, the first crocuses are making an appearance, but despite their glimmer of colour, the garden looks dank and dreary. Buds and shoots are lying in wait and will doubtless soon burst into life. Until then, however, I like to think ahead to the height of summer, and picture what will be blooming then.

I can’t see beyond roses for beauty and scent, but several friends are expert at sweet peas, and one is so in thrall, he has devoted his city allotment almost entirely to them. You can understand why. They don’t just add a profusion of gentle, ever-repeating colour, but turn plots into a perfumier’s paradise. My own half-hearted attempts have so far proved unsuccessful, but if there is anywhere in this country where this most delicate-looking yet resilient plant could flourish, this is it.

I know this because 110 years ago this weekend, on 20 February 1911, the Daily Mail announced a competition for the best bunch of sweet peas in Britain. First prize was £1000, second £100 and third £50. Entrants had to be amateurs, with no more than one person assisting them in their garden, and could send one bunch per family member. Entries had to reach London by July 27 which, for anyone competing from these parts, meant a 300-mile train journey from Berwick-Upon-Tweed, during which something so exquisite and delicate would surely wilt.

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That, at least, was the first thought of Mr Denholm Fraser, the minister at Sprouston, a clachan a few miles from Kelso. It was his enthusiastic young gardener, Alec White, who told him about the prize, and persuaded him to think bigger than the Kelso Society Show, where he had previously had some success with his carnations.

What follows, as recounted in Henry Donald’s delightful cameo of events, A Bunch of Sweet Peas (published years ago by Canongate), was the horticultural equivalent of a Jason Bourne movie: filled with plot twists, unexpected hazards and obstacles, and with a tender love story at its heart.

Showing an almost industrial level of commitment, Mr Fraser dug two 20-yard-long and six-feet deep trenches in the manse’s sheltered walled garden. He filled them with leaf mould and fertiliser, and in early spring planted out his sweet peas. As Henry Donald writes: ‘Now in the shelter of the kitchen-garden, the little seedlings began to reach down exploratory roots into the rich darkness below.’

The story’s tension mounts, showing the penury of the minister and his wife, with their second child arriving while the flowers were starting to grow. At this stage of Mr Fraser’s career the couple couldn’t afford to furnish the manse and were beginning to wonder if they might have to leave for a better-paid post, even though they were both so happy here.

A century later, Sprouston is still attractive and rural, a scattering of stone cottages and houses around a village green. It is surrounded by lush fields, and the River Tweed runs past it. Sitting on a steep hill, the church looks down over the people. When I visited last autumn, a badger had dug a set amid the old graveyard by the church walls. The headstones offer a snapshot of the area’s deep agricultural heritage, along with a glimpse of too many tragically early deaths.

Back in 1911, however, the story was about to have a happy ending. At one point disaster appeared to have struck, when drought set in across all of Britain two weeks before the closing date for entries. Despite constant watering, Mr Fraser and his gardener were struggling to keep the flowers alive. Then, as Henry Donald laconically writes, ‘A small depression made an unexpected and completely unheralded appearance just to the east of Iceland.’ Rain fell between Coldstream and Kelso for just a few days, followed by sun, while the rest of Britain roasted. On the day before the closing date, Mr Fraser packed up two bunches of sweet peas – one of rich purple, crimson and pink, which he sent in his wife’s name (knowing it was the better of the two), the other of delicate rose, lilac and white stems – and cycled to the post office in Kelso.

Needless to say, of the 38,000 entries received at the Crystal Palace – the only place big enough to hold them – and despite the long train journey, Mrs Fraser’s bunch won first prize, and Mr Fraser’s came third. The post mistress, running across to the manse to deliver the news, fainted with excitement.

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All these years later, a banner outside Sprouston church proclaims it The Sweet Pea Kirk. This heart-lifting story became all the more memorable since Mr Fraser used the money to build a chancel onto the church, a long-held dream to brighten its Calvinist dourness. He and his wife remained in Sprouston all their days, and now lie in the churchyard.

Sweet peas are the essence of floral fragility, a triumph of nature over whatever adversity a Scottish summer can throw at them. At the moment, when rain and wind batter the windows and dreichness lies all around, it lifts the spirits to imagine the day when sweet peas might put out their tendrils and climb trellis or canes, before bursting into bloom like a bridal bouquet.

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