The view of the washing in the garden

I am of the clothes line generation. A clothes drier is extremely rarely used here. I have been known to take pride in the fact that I raised three children in cloth nappies and never owned a drier. I bought one cheaply in a garage sale some years ago but old habits die hard and it is banished to an outside shed where it is used maybe once or twice a year, and not at all in the last twelve months. Years of relative poverty taught me to conserve power and old habits die hard.

But I find clothes lines reasonably fascinating and it is an ongoing issue to which many garden openers will relate. The bottom line is that it is not okay for garden visitors to be greeted by the sight of your smalls flapping in the wind. Some things are best kept private. We figured some years ago that we could no longer peg the washing on the line during peak garden visiting times. In our case it is exacerbated by the fact that our washing line is a genuine old fashioned model (none of the new fangled rotary types here) which consists of a long wire strung between two trees in a relatively conspicuous position close to the back door with good air movement for optimum drying and all held up by a bamboo prop which we cut as required from our giant bamboo stand down in the park. I like it. It is old fashioned and suits our situation and has served the house inhabitants here well for coming up to 60 years.

We had an elderly friend visited recently and her companion stayed in the car near my washing line (acquaintances and strangers tend to use the car park which is some way distant) while we made our greetings and she asked if they could look around the garden. The companion hopped out of the car and commented that she had been studying my washing on the line. I looked. Being an old school type of person in some ways, I still wash my whites and pales separately and it was a white and pale day. But arthritic fingers (not great for a gardener) mean that I have delegated the task of pegging out the washing on cold days to the other half and I must say that we agreed he had done a splendid job of it and his pegging out was most creditable.

This is not always the case with many men. Back in my earlier days, I used to do some facilitation (goodness knows what it is called in modern parlance) of women’s discussion groups and one of the most successful icebreakers in my repertoire was to get each participant to talk about pegging out the washing. It probably wouldn’t work these days as the clothes drier has replaced the washing line in many households and maybe domestic tasks are shared more equitably, but 20 years ago women used to light up and talk readily about this routine task that we all performed on a daily basis.

Every group would have participants who bemoaned the dreadful job their husbands did if they pegged out the washing. Untidy, misaligned, disordered, tee shirts stretched and all the rest of a multitude of crimes against laundry. All the participants had their own particular style. Some still adhered to that wonderful suburban value that underwear must always be pegged on the inside rows of a rotary clothesline so that it is not visible to anybody who visited during the day. It is difficult to know what to do with bras and knickers if your line is the classic one wire between trees. I met women who had to colour tone their pegs. Ah, pegs. That is a whole new topic of great concern. What sort of peg you like can be very personal. I recall one whose favoured peg was not available in Taranaki. In fact you had to get up to the King Country to find them so every time she travelled north, she would buy a spare packet.

I don’t recall that I was an isolated case in that I could ignore pegs and groups of like items, but I would often (not always) colour tone the arrangement. I still do on occasion. All the blue items adjacent to the striped or spotted green and blue items leading into the greens, the browns, yellows, reds and so to the blacks at the end. A truly multi coloured item could be a source of angst as to where it best fitted in the chain of colour.

This would never suit the perfectionist who wants to group items by use – all tea towels together, all socks in a row matched in pairs and all tee shirts followed by skirts and trousers.

As he has gained more practice in routine pegging out, I notice my other half tends towards that orderly approach and he has mastered skills which are equal to mine in the pegging stakes. Not only that, but he usually brings the washing in and what is more, he folds it as he takes it off the line. I never fail to be impressed.

With only two of us left at home these days, it is a great deal easier to manage staying up to date with the laundry while hiding all evidence from garden visitors over the busy garden open season. Clothes horses do a fine job and I still don’t use the drier. But it may come as no surprise to those who know the Govett Brewster Art Gallery’s permanent collection to hear that Christine Hellyer’s blue washing line installation is a favourite of mine.

I have seen garden designers struggle with placing washing lines in gardens, banishing them to areas around the back, screened from view. The problem is that around the back is often south facing and lacking in adequate sunshine or air movement so it is not an effective solution for drying. The retractable clothes lines which tuck back neatly into a box attached to a wall look to be a tidy solution if you have a suitable building to anchor them but I doubt that many are large enough for family use. And they are not suitable in our situation where the only location would see it stretched over the driveway. Besides, I am fond of my historic one wire with bamboo prop.

But this issue has been around for a fair while. Readers who knew Mark’s late mother may remember her as a woman not lacking in a sense of humour but definitely strong on propriety. I can recall being here about thirty years ago to help her and Felix with hosting an international coach tour. We farewelled them all after a longish visit and walked back to the house where Mimosa was absolutely mortified to see her washing basket sitting on the door step with her lace and nylon bloomers draped out to dry for all the world to see. She had forgotten to move them out of sight. She did have the grace to laugh at herself.