“Serene, melodic and as refreshing as the breeze… complete with looped lambs’ cries”: How prog is Virginia Astley’s From Gardens Where We Feel Secure?

Virginia Astley
(Image credit: Getty Images)

In an increasingly tumultuous world, it’s important to seek mental solace from time to time. What better chance to consider this uplifting, pastoral ambient work from British singer-songwriter Virginia Astley, which recently – softly – celebrated its 40th birthday?

Even Astley’s name conjures up a watercoloured, bygone era. Perhaps the days of Edith Holden’s 1906 Nature Notes – which became a hugely successful 1977 book, The Country Diary Of An Edwardian Lady – comprising the art teacher’s outdoor observations over a year?

If only field recordings had been available to fit that landmark work... For centuries composers invoked the natural world: birdcalls, weather, rivers, sunrise. It was only a matter of time before Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending and its ilk – alongside emerging technology to capture found sounds and foley – would inspire myriad 20th-century musicians such as The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Brian Eno.

Astley was born in Hertfordshire. Her father Edwin was the TV theme composer for Department S, The Saint, Danger Man and Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased) among many others. Skilled in piano and flute, she briefly became a busker while studying at Guildhall Academy in the 70s, and even more briefly joined a romantic, post-punk classical-electronic trio, The Ravishing Beauties. The line-up included future Dream Academy member Kate St John along with Nicky Holland, who would go on to play with Ryuichi Sakamoto, as well as recording and writing for Tears For Fears’ 1989 album The Seeds Of Love.

All the while Astley planned a debut record, She Sat Down And Cried. But she was also dreaming up an instrumental album on a theme of a summer’s day. She spent two months in the Oxfordshire countryside with co-producer Russell Webb, making field recordings on a portable unit to add to From Gardens Where We Feel Secure.

She recorded piano and flute on her dad’s eight-track in his rural shed, with Webb on acoustic guitar, while guests contributed clarinet and backing vocals. Inspiration came from poet WH Auden – a line from The Summer Night provided the album title.

The record is serene, melodic and as refreshing as the breeze. Piano, flute and birdsong start the day on With My Eyes Open. Church bells herald the swift piano and choir of A Summer Long Since Passed, then the title track takes a sedate, Eno-esque stroll.

Hiding The Ha Ha is gently playful, leading to the sleepy, snorey swing of Out On The Lawn I Lie In Bed and Summer Of Their Dreams. Too Bright For Peacocks is hypnotically Einaudi–like, complete with looped lambs’ cries.

When The Fields Were On Fire turns experimental/folk horror – referencing a nightmare Astley’s mother had – but it’s all rounded off by the sultry, cricket-buzzing, owl-hooting It’s Too Hot To Sleep. Under a parasol with Sylvian, Sakamoto and XTC’s Summer’s Cauldron, these Gardens are certainly worth a visit.

Jo Kendall

Jo is a journalist, podcaster, event host and music industry lecturer with 23 years in music magazines since joining Kerrang! as office manager in 1999. But before that Jo had 10 years as a London-based gig promoter and DJ, also working in various vintage record shops and for the UK arm of the Sub Pop label as a warehouse and press assistant. Jo's had tea with Robert Fripp, touched Ian Anderson's favourite flute (!), asked Suzi Quatro what one wears under a leather catsuit, and invented several ridiculous editorial ideas such as the regular celebrity cooking column for Prog, Supper's Ready. After being Deputy Editor for Prog for five years and Managing Editor of Classic Rock for three, Jo is now Associate Editor of Prog, where she's been since its inception in 2009, and a regular contributor to Classic Rock. She continues to spread the experimental and psychedelic music-based word amid unsuspecting students at BIMM Institute London, hoping to inspire the next gen of rock, metal, prog and indie creators and appreciators.