There is no true beauty without decay

Rudbeckia seedheads

One of my very favourite films is Withnail and I. I’ve watched it countless times and often find myself quoting it in everyday situations: screeching “Get in the back of the van!” at my dawdling children; “We’re not from London,” when travelling anywhere in the country; “Fork it!” whenever it seems appropriate; and “I feel like a pig shat in my head,” when hungover. Do tell, please, if you have favourite line from Withnail. There are so many, I find it hard to choose.

If you haven’t seen the film, you really must! It’s hilarious, sweet, sad and bleak. It stars Richard E Grant and Paul McGann, who are both fantastic in it. The actor Richard Griffiths, who played Uncle Monty, sadly died last year. It also features an incredibly brilliant soundtrack that includes ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ by Procul Harum and Jimi Hendrix’s version of ‘All Along The Watchtower’. Need I say more to convince you? I think I might have to watch it again very soon.

But I had forgotten this marvellous line from the film:

“Indeed I often wonder where Norman is now. Probably wintering with his mother in Guildford. A cat, rain, Vim under the sink, and both bars on. But old now, there is no true beauty without decay.”

– Uncle Monty, Withnail and I

I was out in the garden this morning. The plants and grass were heavy with dew, and a little weak sunlight was filtering through the trees. I took lots of photos because somehow all the dead and decaying flowers and leaves around me seemed really quite beautiful. So I googled the phrase “beauty in decay” and this quote was one of the first things that popped up. I must have vaguely remembered it from the film. Monty is suggesting that beauty and decay are intrinsically linked, that you can’t have one without the other. That’s certainly true of gardens, and this season is all about decay.

In the space of just a few days, the freezing weather has stripped the colour from the garden. The hydrangeas look bleached. Some flowers are just about hanging on – the acanthus flower spears and a few tattered roses. And there are a few early spring flowers out that were tricked by the mild weather at the start of the month – primroses and helleborus foetidus. Now that most of the leaves have fallen you can also appreciate stems and trunks more, like the warm pinky-russet, papery bark of my birch tree. The low sun makes gorgeous silhouettes of tree branches and the tall fennel seedheads. There are lots of interesting seedheads in my garden, like the rudbeckia (pictured above) and eryngiums. Without the distraction of colourful petals and leaves, you can really see their structures clearly. And the huge dew drops on my bare acer (stop giggling, I said acer!) looked like glittering jewels in the sunlight this morning.

I thought I’d share some photos of my decaying plants with you. I think these plants still look beautiful, in a lovely, ruined, disheveled sort of way. You just have to look a bit harder to see beauty in the garden at this time of year.

Acer dew drops Helleborus foetidous Hydrangea Hydrangea mop-head Birch bark AcanthusFennel seedheads