Changing Rooms, Changing Times

I had a very bad first Monday back from October half term – Mondays are always long days, and this was the first back after the clocks change, the first school run for a week, and we have swimming after school on a Monday – all perfectly set up to be a day of maximum stress for me.

We’d had an idyllic half term in Norfolk and Suffolk – nearly all sunny, just one wet day – and the fresh air, sunlight and time away from the city all badly needed.

The autumn term is definitely the longest slog of the year for me – another mum recently argued (good-naturedly) that she thought half term was too disruptive when children were just settling in to the school routine, she thought they should have an extra week in summer or Easter and lose autumn half term.

Hah! I responded that for me, October was the last chance for us to get a good chunk of daylight and time outdoors until probably March – I couldn’t get through to December without it. And bearing in mind February half term is often disrupted by illness and Easter often a washout – October has become the one reliable short break of the year. The idea that disruption to childrens’ learning should take priority over their access to the outdoors, I just can’t get on board with.

Anyway, back to Monday. We’d come home on Saturday, I had to work on Sunday and be prepared for a big work event happening midweek that still wasn’t quite ironed out. Monday morning spent chasing up all the small tasks that hadn’t been done while I was away, and a few frantic phone calls still to do.

I could have said, let’s not do swimming. Let’s write it off for one week. But I try not to do that. Lessons get missed often enough with holidays and illness, why skip it just because you’re busy and tired? So off we went, via the school office to deliver a message which added 10 minutes, pausing on the walk so I could make a phone call which needed to be done at that moment – we ran late, and made it into the pool just as lessons began.

Now, two children swimming on the same day means two bags and two big puffy new winter coats and way too many things to carry. Plus PE kit as it was PE on a Monday too (thankfully, since been switched to another day). I did on this occasion have a pound, so rather than lug the bags all upstairs to the viewing area, I threw it into a locker, feeling smug that I had at least got one part of the day right. (You can tell this is going to all fall apart horribly, right?)

Lessons over, I retrieved two children and got them dried and dressed with the usual banshee levels of screaming at them. Left changing rooms still with huge puffy coats under my arm (of course it’s hot as an oven in there), and in manoeuvring the door open to let the little one out, smacked the big one in the face with my elbow. Argh.

Sat down in the foyer comforting her (she bravely saying ‘I knew you didn’t mean to do it, Mummy’), I then began to sort out coats and bags for the walk home. Then realised, oh crap, no school jumper.

New school jumper could easily be bought the next day, you might think – but this one had the new and very proudly worn School Councillor badge – which she’d already been told the school would not replace if lost. We went back to the changing room. We went back to lost property. No jumper.

I felt terrible. My errands and phone calls had made us late for swimming, which had led to the rush in the changing room, which had led to me missing the jumper when piling everything into a locker. One of those horrible bleak moments where you question everything you’ve achieved as a parent and conclude that frankly you don’t come up to scratch.

She had been so proud of that badge, and we so proud of her – and I hadn’t taken care of something that mattered to her, one of my golden personal rules always being to take good care of others property, as I still remember the bitterness of favourite mugs being broken at my student flat (note for future self – don’t let kids take their favourite mug to uni in the first place, dumbass)..

Anyway – we went our sorry way home, but with a glimmer of hope – the jumper hadn’t been handed in to the lost property, so perhaps another parent had seen the name tag and was going to drop it to school instead. It’s what I would do (and have done in the past), so fingers crossed.

Next day after school, we tried the lost property box – and there it was, right on top, with the badge still there. There’s you good jumper karma and your happy ending to a bad Monday.

But it would be nothing without a ‘what have we learnt?’ moment – I realised how much times had changed: before, all I had to think about was getting everyone home from swimming in one piece, dry and warm and fed and to bed. Now, I was half distracted by work, and lost my focus.

Stuff happens, stuff gets lost – I’ve always been a bad loser (in that sense); I’ve never lost a favourite toy, fortunately, but I still mourn the loss of little trinkets disappeared along the way, photo albums, momentos, the stuff which endless flat moves seem destined to relieve you of.

Even worse with kids stuff – I can’t bear lost jigsaw pieces, or families of dolls with one missing, or incomplete tea sets – I will tear the house apart to find a missing item, but I try not to get so wound up by these things. The badge, though, mattered because of what it represented to her – chosen by her classmates to be school councillor, how awesome is that? How fondly will she look back on that, years from now, and how sad would she be if she thought I was the sort of parent who didn’t care about a thing like that?

Some things are worth hanging on to, after all.

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Breton Stripes & Gripes

Summer feels a long time off, but I was determined to get another blog under the belt this month, and I didn’t want to let our summer holiday go by unnoticed.

It was a first time abroad for the smaller girl, a proud holder of an EU passport for a while longer, the first time we’d been on Eurotunnel since 2014, and a different kind of holiday in many ways – the first buggy-free, but at the height of a heatwave, the idea of doing the kind of hikes we are used to in UK holidays was off the table. Oh and there was going to be camping. That was new.

We got stuck in a horrible tailback at the tunnel – the hot weather meant it couldn’t run at full capacity, but after a few hours hanging around we were across the channel and heading to our first stop in Rouen.

I remember being very impressed by Rouen as a teenager, and the cathedral is certainly epic. It didn’t quite have the romance I remembered, but then that’s probably what 25 years difference makes. The hotel was outside the old town and was fairly unglamorous, but if I’d known it was one of the better nights sleep of the holiday, I would have given it more credit!

The next day certainly delivered on romance and drama, as we drove to Mont St Michel – somewhere I hadn’t been for even longer, a holiday when I was 4 or 5. I knew it was a tourist trap and crowded and on a full-on heatwave day, likely to be hellish, and yet, and yet, how could you not want to go into a place like that?

The winding lane up through the ‘town’ was not quite as I remembered it – it had become my childhood blueprint for ‘medieval citadel’ and I’d forgotten how much of it was actually tourist tat shops, and restaurants that were all full (we had lunch in a place a bit like a French version of Upper Crust – although of course the baguettes were much better – as it was the only place not turning people away).

It was still ridiculously pretty, and thanks to the narrow streets and high walls, there was some welcome shade. Plus, I’d worried the girls would find it dull and too hot to enjoy themselves, but luckily they loved it as much as I had at the same age. (Phew!)

I failed to take any photos of the winding lane or the cute alleyways – minus points to me, it must have been the heat- but I did take one of the view across the sands which was rather impressive:

From there we went to the campsite – one of those sprawling enormous ones which the Eurocamp brochure would have praised for its family-friendly facilities and fabulous entertainment, whereas my parents would have gone for the ‘quiet, shady sites with larger than average pitch size’ and given this one a big swerve.

Luckily, our tent was on the very edge of the site and a long way from the night time fireworks and open-air live music – although a bit dwarfed by an enormous hedge around the perimeter which made it feel a bit like we were next door to an angry Leylandii neighbour.

We were also cheek-by-jowl with some very tiny shoddy-looking caravans, though with a sunset and rainbow like the ones below, you can’t really complain, can you?

Well, of course you can complain, and we are born middle-class grumblers who would like to be well away from other people and not have to use toilet blocks, but the girls loved the water slides and sleeping in the tent.

Eurocamp give you proper beds rather than camp beds these days, but beds that have sat in a tent for a while get a bit rickety and creaky, and over-excited children take a long while to get to sleep, so we all slept badly the first night, and as we were so shattered, fairly well the second night – that was the second good nights sleep of the holiday.

Then it was on to the gîte, the bit we’d been really looking forward to after the camping – proper beds, proper showers, a hot tub – and it really was idyllic. (First photo is the instagram moment, a moss and fern-covered staircase leading to nowhere).

It was also the place to go if you like hydrangea (luckily, I do).

At this point, the heatwave receded for a few days, in Brittany at least, but if you’re staying in a thick-walled farm building with bedrooms in the attic with tiny velux windows, at night it’s beautifully cool downstairs but hot as an oven upstairs.

It felt like a terrible con to be staying somewhere so lovely and to sleep so badly every night.

We managed to make the most of our days, despite the disturbed nights – the most memorable place for me was Huelgoat – probably because it was most like our typical British holidays – and it was shady.

It’s an amazing wooded gorge which is full of weird rock formations, including one of those mythical rocking stones you can supposedly move with one hand (you can’t). This was probably the longest walk we did the entire holiday, very different from previous years.

Our other major day trips included Carnac – amazing to see the standing stones and very doable with small children, despite the heat, thanks to being able to go round the site on a small train. You can also get off and walk, though as at Stonehenge, you can’t get too near the stones.

Then we did the afternoon on the beach at Carnac, but the lack of shade made it a bit of a struggle – the same with Le Pouldu which had been recommended as a good beach. Found myself wishing for a good old British windbreak…

On the last day in Brittany, we found the perfect balance – another scorching day, but we went to Lac le Guerledan, where you can hire pedalos, and swim, and afterwards (oh joy!) sit under a tree in blissful SHADE to eat ice creams.

Then we stopped for one night en route home in lovely Honfleur….

– if there is a more chocolate-box perfect (or Normandy biscuit-tin perfect) place, I don’t want to hear about it.

And the B&B place we’d booked rather uncertainly after failing to find a ‘family friendly hotel’, turned out to be an amazing apartment to which we had our own private entrance, and beds which delivered a final heavenly night’s sleep, followed by breakfast cooked by the owners in a courtyard garden below.

That was the point I started to wish we’d booked another night or two – but it was time to go home. À bientôt, Bretagne.

How Summer slipped by

I managed to lapse into a whole month with no blog, more by accident than design to start with – I had all sorts of ideas of things I was going to write about, but I seem to have spent August letting all sorts of things slip.

Fitbit targets have gone out of the window, I haven’t had my eyebrows threaded for months, or hair cut since May, summer holiday tasks and clear-outs I’d planned have not even begun, and the garden was looking, frankly, its worst ever by the time we went on holiday.

This was the dismal, withered state of the raised bed at the time we went away – thankfully now much recovered after the August rain.

What water we could spare went on the vegetables, though I felt like I was betraying my poor flowers – though the tomatoes were worth the effort, I must say.

The heatwave was, to start with, unbearable, but it’s amazing what you can put up with when there’s no choice.

You go everywhere slowly, you rest in the shade, you carry tons of water everywhere, you save every saucepan of water and ‘grey’ washing up water for the garden, you buy inappropriately thin clothes you’ll maybe never need again – and you adapt to the new conditions. It got to the point where I didn’t really care how hot it was in terms of my own personal comfort – I’d acclimatised to it – I just wanted rain for the sake of the poor brown garden.

For a really shocking contrast, here’s Greenwich Park taken in late July, the main open area (unwatered) below vs the Queens House/Maritime Museum side above, which was still being looked after. These two photos were taken literally on opposite sides of the same path. Just unbelievable.

BUT a great deal more has happened this summer, more than will fit in a single blog. Holidays and other new projects will wait for the next one, but the big double win for this summer was a girl finally out of nappies (except at night, obvs) and going buggy free.

Pictured here with the sunflower she grew herself at preschool – back in July when we were changing pants many, many times a day and I thought it would never end (and that my poor sofa would never recover).

People say ‘if they don’t get it straight away, it clicks after two weeks’ but 3 weeks in and we were still struggling. No going back, though, as she was nearly 3 and a half, and I was determined to be out of nappies for the summer holiday. By a miracle, we managed it, with just a couple of dodgy tummy incidents on holiday leading to ‘accidents’, and life without nappies has been marvellous.

The buggy-free thing came about because our first trip into town after the holiday was to see The Tiger who Came to Tea, going via Brixton where the lifts are out of order. I said ‘we’ll go without the buggy this time’ and since then she’s just got on with it.

Of course everything goes more slowly and we don’t cover the distance we used to – hence those lost Fitbit goals – but she doesn’t grumble or ask for the buggy and I am so glad to have my hands free instead of always pushing something.

I do obviously have to carry everything that used to go under the buggy, but I am learning to travel as light as possible (though still carrying tons of water bottles weighs me down a bit). Not carrying nappies now helps with the bulkiness, but spare outfits, wipes and nappy bags still needed for emergencies.

Compared to how emotional I felt at Easter saying goodbye to her old playgroup, losing the buggy and nappies has been a liberating experience; not a tear has been shed. She’s a big girl delighted at how grown up she is, and I’ve seemingly managed to let go of the physical baggage without any emotional baggage attached.

Mind you, if we actually dispose of the buggy I might feel differently, but it’s folded in the porch now awaiting its fate. I dare say on a rainy school run morning it may get used again, so we’re not quite ready to let it go yet.

The One That Got Away

Every so often, I play fantasy Rightmove…don’t we all play fantasy Rightmove? Pick a place at random, plug in our budget (plus a bit more) and number of bedrooms, and see what our money gets us.

I’ve seen all sorts of dreamy but unsuitable places, places where the house was right but the schools weren’t, or there was a bypass thundering by, or the trains were the wrong line, or any number of other reasons not to buy it.

But even more fun for me is to play fantasy house move with an actual real house which we looked at but didn’t buy. I walk past it several times a week, and I’ve just noticed it’s back on Rightmove. Again.

The fact it’s back on the market again, and has failed to sell after repeated attempts, tells you there is something seriously amiss there – we heard a rumour about Japanese knotweed, and that several previous buyers had found they couldn’t get mortgages on it – so if we had tried to pursue it, undoubtedly it would have fallen through and we’d be left a lot worse off and back at square one.

Going for the safe option, then, the house which didn’t appear to be such a money pit, was the better choice, and all sorts of other reasons occur to me now why that house wouldn’t have been so suitable. It’s on one of the most ‘premium’ local streets, but which is also a rat-run choked with cars, and a constant jostling for parking spaces, and we wouldn’t have the advantage of the garage and drive we have at home.

But I still walk past the flaky garden wall with its straggling roses, and the tired old front porch (setting aside my own crumbling front wall and straggling roses for the time being), and think ‘I could have done wonders with that house. I could have turned it around’.

Having another chance to sneak a look on Rightmove, I can see all the things I liked at the time – high ceilings, an impressive Victorian staircase far grander than ours, two enormous double bedrooms upstairs – and the things I would have done to improve it.

There was a bizarre downstairs bathroom opening off a split-level dining room-garden room, which I would have turned into a kitchen cum family room like we have now. It was a fairly shoddy looking extension so I imagine we’d have had the whole thing demolished and redone.

The kitchen on a raised ground floor level would have become a study with cloakroom or utility opening off it – the room having two windows made it an easy option to split into two. If that didn’t work, the basement could have become a utility room or shower room.

Upstairs, besides the two large bedrooms there was a third bedroom split into two as a bedroom-study or dressing room – again, each with a window. This would have been a perfect nursery and bedroom for the girls when they were small, becoming a shared space (bedroom and playroom) when they were older, or eventually having the dividing wall removed to make one room.

Losing the downstairs bathroom would mean only one bathroom upstairs, but I imagine we could have squeezed a shower room in somewhere (when it’s fantasy Rightmove you can do what you like, hey?) and we could one day have converted the attic too, once the girls needed their own rooms, with a bathroom of its own.

We’d also have to paint the entire outside, lose the nasty 80s style aluminium windows, and get rid of that horrid porch. And do whatever I liked with the back garden – mainly just grass, 60 foot of it, a real blank canvas.

So I can daydream quite happily about what I would have done with the house that got away, without regretting it in the least. It would have been a bad mistake to try and buy it, we probably would have had to give up on it anyway, and if we had managed to buy it, it would have swallowed every penny we have – but I feel sad for the house itself.

Six years on, still shabby and unloved, and back on the market again. Somebody somewhere will take pity on it, I hope – but for better or worse, it won’t be me. Sorry, fantasy house. You are much easier to renovate in my imagination than in reality.

A Prickly Problem

We are no nearer to solving the challenge (?) problem (?) dilemma (?) of our front garden.

Every time I approach our house I feel a little sag of the shoulders at the sorry, weedy, shabby state of it – the house, far nicer now than a few years back, but the thing in front of it, not so nice.

This is the big prickly problem which bothers me the most – the holly. Now, once upon a time I thought I liked holly. Christmas, red berries, wreaths, jolliness, The Holly and the Ivy, all nice warm cosy things, and when we moved into the house, it wasn’t an overwhelmingly large amount of holly, so it stayed.

And then grew, and grew, and spread – I keep finding seedlings everywhere – and never had a single berry. The wrong kind of holly, apparently. Now it has taken over half the main flowerbed and trying to cut it back, even with long sleeves and heavy-duty gardening gloves, is like wrestling with a herd of angry scratching cats.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to find that holly is prickly – right? – but our holly just seems to inflict pain beyond a point that I find reasonable, and now I just want it gone, the whole lot. Humbug!

Apart from the objectionable holly, there is lots I DO like about the front garden. On the other holly-free bed, across the path, we have Mexican daisies which I adore, mingling with lavender and spilling across the path in proper cottage garden style.

Behind, a red-pink (I want to say scarlet, but I don’t know for sure) hydrangea which at this time of year is reminding me why I like it so much (the one on the other bed having died last winter).

In between the daisies and hydrangea is one of the front garden’s many roses – most of them all old, gnarled, straggling and ridden with black spot, but this one I can’t bear to part with as the flowers are so gorgeous – very pale pink with a hint of yellow at the heart.

How could I banish something as lovely as this from the garden?

Then I have Japanese anemones, which seemed to be in everyone’s front gardens a few years back, so I followed suit and planted some, which seem to have settled in after a few uncertain years (no photos as they haven’t flowered yet), and the bliss of Canterbury Bells which I bought discounted somewhere last summer, planted out very late and they came back up triumphantly this year.

Besides the holly, though, there are some things which are either simply not to my taste – arum lilies, too funereal – or right plant, wrong place, the wretched camellia which looks lovely for a week or so and then drops rotting brown flowers everywhere.

There are also several fuchsia which I want to love, but behave so unpredictably that I distrust them. Every winter they leave a mess of dried sticks when the leaves drop and I never know whether to leave or cut back – will there be fresh growth or have they given up? Which branch to cut and which not to? The plant gives me no clues, so I get annoyed with it.

The real problem zone, though, is the drive and accompanying wall and gatepost. It has crumbled slowly over 5 years and now has a crack on the wall and a loose top to the gatepost (we suspect a neighbour clipped it going into the side return).

It looks shabby, it IS shabby, and the drive with herringbone brick paving is just as bad – ridden with weeds, despite my efforts with a fancy weeding tool.

We need a wider drive to fit the car on properly, and a better surface than paving so I’m not constantly battling weeds, we want the ancient old gates gone, we’d like a bin shed rather than having the bins up by the front door; I’d like a fancy bin shed with a sedum roof, but now we’re getting into pie-in-the-sky territory.

What I’d really love, too, is to replace the weeds in the drive with some proper planting along the edge – a soak- away with gravel and mesh so that we can have something low-growing like thyme or more sedums as a feature. We’ve already had Mexican daisies and violets self-seeding there, and I’d love to encourage them but lose the weeds.

Widening the drive and creating a bin store would also mean losing some of the problem plants, killing two birds with one stone – but doing one half of the garden and leaving the other half (the less troublesome flowerbed) untouched would look a bit odd and unbalanced. I can’t bear the thought, though, of losing plants I do want to keep and have taken time and effort to nurture!

And let’s be honest, this job, when it finally happens, is really about the practical task of getting rid of the wretched wall and sorting out the drive; any actually landscaping or replanting will be a byproduct of the building work, not the main event.

I can definitely say what I’d have if I was doing the whole thing from scratch, though – my inspiration is a house round the corner which went for the gravel-and-mesh look, done a year or so ago, and it looks amazing now, with a really stylish wooden fence too.

It’s got taller plants like red hot pokers and alliums towards the back, and things like sedums, daisies and thrift at the front, which have spread to virtually cover the gravel completely.

This front area is even used as an occasional parking space and it doesn’t seem to affect the plants at all. And it looks like the perfect choice for a sloping urban garden – Mediterranean-style plants which cope well with poor soil and drought seem to be thriving. I walk past it every day and drool for a front garden as impressive as this one. At this rate, it *might* not be this year…but maybe next.

All For the Want of a Horseshoe Nail

I am sure I have mentioned this before, but there is something about having done a big building project which puts you off wanting to tackle the little things.

To begin with, there’s no money left, and then the need to have a break from endless workmen in the house, and the feeling that as long as most of the house is nice, you can live with the rest.

The thought of kicking off the whole recommendations – quotes – comparisons – appointments process to get one small thing fixed is heart-sinking enough, let alone the actual reality of having workmen in again.

And then after the big renovations in 2014 and a couple of smaller projects in 2015, we financially ground to a halt in 2016/2017, so nothing was going to happen then anyway (thanks, Brexit).

After a while, though, the little things begin to gnaw away at you, and there is a satisfaction in being able to tick off the small jobs one by one. For example, £90 got me pigeon spikes fitted above the bay window in the spare room = result, no more pigeon poo on the drive. It’s a small victory, but I’ll take it.

However, the thing that has bothered me is trying to get one small problem fixed and discovering it hasn’t been fixed at all, and the one small problem is symptomatic of all sorts of other things you weren’t even aware of. It always reminds me of the old poem about the horseshoe nail.

For instance, this is a patch of rising damp by the front door. Back in the old days it was hidden under a thick layer of woodchip, out of sight, out of mind. When we had the wall replastered and painted, it began to flake, so we had it stripped back and a new damp proof course inserted.

It held up for a while but started to peel and crack again – damp proof course had failed, and the trader (who we tried to contact within the warranty period) had mysteriously vanished from Rated People, damn him.

So we are back to square one with the rising damp, but we had other signs of mould appearing – in our bedroom and the spare room, and a patch on the bathroom ceiling.

It turns out, frustratingly, there is no one simple fix for all these things, they all need different solutions and to be tackled separately…frustrating, but ultimately, like the horseshoe nail, fixing one thing may have positive knock-on effects elsewhere.

The mould patch in the bathroom, we now realise, appears because it’s alongside the void of a blocked up chimney, which means there is a cavity of cold air stuck there in winter. A stronger bathroom fan should help improve ventilation in the room overall which should also help with condensation in the bedrooms.

Ah, the bedrooms. What should be the tranquil retreat from family life is a dismal gloomy room with an awkward bay window, horrid curtains and an even more horrid mustard carpet.

The worst thing about our bedroom was the mould behind the curtains. We had kept the net curtains up in our room for privacy, but they got more and more filthy and in the end I couldn’t take any more – I took down the nets one day back in Feb some time, and gave the wall and windowsill area around the bay a good scrub (baking soda is the thing to use, apparently).

The difference straight away was amazing – the room so much brighter, and of course I wondered why I hadn’t done it before.

There was a secondary motive – we had in the end decided to get new windows fitted in the living room and upstairs front rooms, (thanks, PPI payout) as we’d been debating back at the start of the year, so I’d been wanting to get rid of the nets before the new window came.

The windows were fitted in the spring and already our room is so much more pleasant – the black mould hasn’t come back and I don’t feel my heart sink when I set foot in there like I used to.

The spare room is a conundrum, though – the mould there is not under the window, the room is warm and south-east facing, (so it doesn’t get the prevailing weather) well-ventilated and only occasionally slept in, (so it’s not due to heavy night-time breathers). It is, admittedly, used for drying clothes, so that could be where all the condensation comes from.

The black mould doesn’t seem to be disappearing from the spare room, whereas in our room where we breathe all night, it isn’t coming back so far. The whole room is a mystery – it’s an odd shape with all sorts of awkward angles – and as it’s ‘only’ the guest room it probably matters the least, but I don’t want guests to have to sleep in a mouldy room!

But I’ve reluctantly admitted there is no point trying to do anything more to those rooms (when we can afford to) – redecorating, fitting new storage or tearing up those awful carpets – if the mould isn’t gone. I can’t bear the thought of having it fixed up once and then having the mould come back, like the rising damp did.

So we go back to the original suggestion – fit a more powerful bathroom fan and see if that helps reduce condensation overall. We’ve also been recommended to try dehumidifiers. Two small fixes, wait another winter to see what happens to the mouldy walls, and perhaps then we tackle the next project.

That’s without even getting on to the massive potential work to be done in the front garden where we have a wall crumbling away and a drive we can barely fit the car onto – again, no point doing a quick fix, it needs to be the whole job or nothing.

Meanwhile, I can make the most of the other investment we made this spring, new sofa and armchairs in the living room.

This is finally a room we can go to in the evening and feel we’ve left the chaos of everyday life behind. The battered old leather sofas and even more battered beige rug gone – it feels like a proper grown-up, reasonably clutter-free room. And that feeling is worth every penny!

A walk around…Wakehurst Place

In between the dismal weather, we have had a few nice days out in the country recently, but a couple of trips to Kent have reminded me that, no matter how lovely the countryside, the hum of a motorway is never far away. When your own back garden in inner London is quieter than an idyllic Kent valley, you know something isn’t quite right.

That isn’t a criticism you could level at Wakehurst Place, where we went a few weekends ago. It wasn’t a particularly nice day, but neither was it cold or wet, and the place has an atmosphere no grey skies could dampen.

For a start, there was colour:

I hadn’t known really what to expect – I knew it was an RHS site as well as a National Trust one, and I knew it had the Millennium Seed Bank, but beyond that, I went in with no preconceptions. To start with, it was country house landscaping of the kind I’ve come to expect – then to turn a corner and find the huge banks of colour, almost took my breath away.

The bright pink swathe of whatever it was in the top picture (not a rhododendron, maybe an azalea?) was the most impressive, I nearly missed it as the path had snaked down and round the pond – I happened to turn and look back, and saw the flowers looking like a fuchsia pink waterfall tumbling into the water.

From the landscaped areas around the mansion, we took a path which dropped steeply down a valley and into proper woodland (though being RHS woodland, there were still flowering shrubs popping up everywhere, and of course bluebells).

As the path dropped further down towards a lake, I began to appreciate the calm even more – though also began to worry about the walk back UP and the likelihood of one child doing a face plant and the other needing a wild wee (yes, both happened). The site is HUGE – we saw maybe less than half of it, and we never made it into the Seed Bank either.

It was the Mr who pointed out, though, how quiet it was. I had felt the difference, but I hadn’t been able to put my finger on it. No aeroplanes, though we weren’t far from Gatwick, no motorway drone, no screaming kids except our own.

Deep in that valley, we felt completely cut off – not in an oppressive ‘in space no one can hear you scream’ way, but in a peaceful, ‘Lake Isle of Inisfree‘ way. Give me a little cabin there by the lakeshore and I’d have been quite happy (provided there were no mozzies).

The climb back up to the mansion was much slower, with grumbling children in tow – we are well out of the days of buggy walks now, though much of the site could have been negotiated with a buggy. I stopped to admire raindrops on Alchemilla, one of my favourite plants, late flowering narcissus, and those gorgeous red unidentified leaves. There was more gorgeousness to come – a walled garden full of tulips. I must forget there was ever a time I didn’t really like tulips (did I ever really think they were too garish? Look at these lovely subtle colours!)

We also found a well-stocked mud kitchen, where a t-shirt got irrevocably ruined, and a potting shed where children could plant sunflower seeds.

Plus I haven’t even mentioned yet the impressive nature-inspired sculptures dotted around. I liked these ones in the bee-friendly garden which looked like giant seed-heads, and also a bit like (now I come to think of it), the 2012 Olympic torch.

And I nearly forgot to include the troop of goslings we encountered, and the very tame pheasants wandering around.

Looking back at the photos, I am amazed we packed so much in – and still so much more to see when we next go back.

Definitely adding to the list of favourite places, and when I need to escape the pavements grey, I’ll think myself back into that valley where the rest of the world seemed to drop away.