The Prospect Magazine writer, Lesley Chamberlain, quotes Seneca as saying: "Is it not living unnaturally to plant orchards on top of towers, or to have a forest waving in the wind on the roofs and ridges of one's mansion? Their roots spring at the height which it would be presumptuous for their crests to reach." Which tends to reinforce my suspicion that Stoic philosophers were a miserable and un-sentimental bunch for whom nature was an inconvenience.
We have neither a tower nor a mansion, but we do have a roof terrace that looks out over London and catches the full force of the west wind during winter and spring every year and a direct sun when the latter deigns to shine. Then, in summer, the terrace blooms with ferns, grasses, geraniums (this year blue geraniums), and fragrant flowering jasmine. In the distance is the roof of a former a department store, famous for its roof garden, and there you can see a small but well-developed wood about four floors up. You can eat among the trees if you wish. Next door our neighbours have created a roof garden with copious plant life - - plants in window boxes, tubs, earthenware pots and wooden crates. They have sweet peas, strawberries, roses and tomatoes and a variety of shrubs, herbs and annuals. Across the way the owners lean towards the mildly exotic, with a spiky tropical palm on their terrace, while on the big Edwardian block nearby there is a lone and unlikely tree high up on the eighth floor. Meanwhile, the massive modern block overlooking the park has a penchant to the sculptured French garden, with ornamental bushes outlined against the sky.
The British love gardening. There is a garden centre every half mile, busy most of the year round with earnest ladies (mostly) discussing the merits of spearmint as opposed to moroccan mint and the over 2,300 different varieties of apple, only a dozen of which ever reach the supermarket. The British never overcame their attachment to the soil. Only two hundred years ago most of them earned a living tilling from that soil or some such activity related to it. Now they have to be content with nightly gardening programmes on one television channel or another.
The roof garden brings the country to the town and the internet allows you to order by mail a mouth-watering assortment of common-or-garden and exotic plants that give you an illusion of stocking a great estate. There is a herb catalogue that lists a host of herbs you've never heard of but, you never know, might be useful to Martha, who will pop her head through the hatch and pick some basil for dinner. There are nurseries for every known temperate and not-so-temperate plant on earth, and most of them can be had by mail order, that is, if you can negotiate with your partner how much space should be taken up by the vegetation and can find the time to tend them.
Much of our summer life in the flat is taken up with the roof terrace, trimming the lilac tree and the decorative bays, planting, watering, repairing or painting the wooden deck, clearing the wind-born debris beneath it, spraying the rose bush,pinning up the new shoots of jasmine or rose and dead-heading the flowers. Between times we sit under a large green umbrella on reclining chairs, watching the clouds scudding by and, every fifty seconds, jumbo jets silently leveling off for their approach to Heathrow.
The traffic rumbles along in the background, the sounds of ambulances, fire engines and police and loud voices from the nearby pub at lunchtime. But on the roof terrace we are semi-detached and they a mild intrusion as we sit under a sometimes blue and summer sky.
The bell-ringers practice on Thursday nights in the nearby church as they have done for decades. I close my eyes and I can easily drift back all those two hundred years, when the rhythm of country life was ordered by church services, the sound of the curfew across the fields and bell-ringing practice on a Thursday.
One year a family of pigeons nested beneath our roof terrace, flying hither and thither with much cooing and apparently wooing, too. They laid some eggs that must have hatched and duly departed to annoy tourists in Trafalgar Square.
This is our hiding place, a space with no telephone and no computer, where you can feel that little bit closer to nature and relax from the busy-ness of the day, the arrangements, the emails, the workmen, the mail and even the social life. A glass of wine, a gently glowing summer evening, an oasis of calm amid the busy city.
Epicurus would be delighted. Here he could sit, walking not being an option, in a comfortable chair commenting on atomic theory, ethics and the laws of human beings, and wondering why everyone didn't have a roof terrace. I would have to tell him that not so long ago such gardens atop houses in London were frowned upon by local governments. "Ah, governments", he would say, and off he would go on a long discourse about power and politics. Meanwhile, the people at the bus stop opposite would be peering anxiously at the corner where the traffic first appears, waiting anxiously for a bus. They would have little time for philosophy.
Yes, our oasis. Epicurus’s garden, although he never mentioned upkeep, which was no doubt handled by slaves. How else could he find the time to philosophise?
If I could keep our plants alive from the ever-prevailing wind I would construct on our roof terrace a jungle of plants of all descriptions and cut out all the noise of the street below and the views of the world outside. A handy slave is to keep the building standing is, however, beyond my reach.