ISSUE 100  |  Thanksgiving Feast

An English Gardener Abroad: 6 Months, 3 Kids, and 1 Dog on a Tropical Island

December 01, 2013 11:00 AM

BY Clemmie Hambro

This week I wanted to discuss palms as in trees. I recently have a new found respect and admiration for these architecturally mesmerizing creatures but before I start on all that, I feel I should explain why I am looking at palms, and hibiscus, and coconut trees, and bougainvillea, instead of discussing the first frosts, how to protect your tender perennials, and the best plants for winter interest, which is what other self respecting garden writers are turning their minds to as we speak. Well, I can’t, because I am not there. In England that is, where if you don’t have a couple of plants for winter interest, you have a fairly bleak few months ahead of you.

So here’s the thing. Last month I upended everyone, took the children out of school, put the dog in a crate, packed up all our t-shirts, shorts, and swimmers, rented out my house, and rented another one in the Bahamas. For six months. And to be perfectly honest with you, the decision to do such a thing all seems a big hazy and non-specific.

Photographs by Clemmie Hambro.

There is the vague reason that recently my husband has had to do a lot of work in the Caribbean. But it turns out that the British Virgin Islands are nowhere near the Bahamas, and so moving us all to be nearer to him turned out to be a bit of a red herring. However, this remains the official “reason” so that when I discuss it with strangers, they don’t look at me as if I have gone utterly bonkers. Which most people do.

No, the real reason is that somewhere deep down, after seven years of hardcore domesticity, birthing of children, etc., I thought, “Right, that’s it. We all need an adventure, together as a family.” I looked down the periscope of our lives for the next few years, and I suddenly saw no escape. I saw school becoming too important, jobs getting in the way, routines becoming too entrenched, time marching on relentlessly, and I really, desperately wanted out.

Not forever, just for a little bit. I want to come home again with fresh eyes and renewed vigor. But until then I want the children to take off their shoes, and for there to be a loosening, a relaxing, and a bit of “who cares,” and to not always be rushing rushing rushing.

For that space in time when the children are so full of awe and curiosity that for their mother to say, “Guess what, we are going to live on an island and go to a new school, and not wear shoes very much, and make new friends, live a different sort of life, hang out together an awful lot, and generally have as much fun as we can possibly have,” and for this to be a good thing, rather than some madcap idea that gets in the way of their own busy lives. For all that, I had to open the small window of opportunity that flashed before me–and leap.

So, here we are on Harbour Island in the Bahamas, avoiding the Great British Winter. Three miles long and one mile wide, with a beach so beautiful it will knock the very stuffing out of you. Me, the husband, three children, and the dachshund (who was not very impressed by his freight experience at 36,000 feet). The children are in school–where all three girls ages 2 to 6 are taught in the same room, very like the old village schools in England.

They slipped in so seamlessly, and love it so much that it seems to me as if they have always been here. The husband comes and goes with work, and me, well, it is taking time to unwind, get onto island time, and stop panicking about needing to be somewhere–because there is absolutely nowhere to go. Here I am, staring at the ocean, thinking, “Well, we actually did it,” And I am so very, very pleased that we did.

Horticulturally speaking, it was rather a good time to go. I planted my tulip bulbs before I left and they should be at full flower on my return with spring beginning to unfurl. And so while my garden at home sleeps, I look forward to experiencing a different sort of plant; the tropical, the exotic, the fruit laden, and drippingly lush, the brilliantly, wonderfully different. So, next week is palms. This week I just had to explain the reason for palms. In case you thought I’d gone mad…