The lazy spring garden

I had a strange realisation about the garden earlier this month – it is the usual time of year when I remark with apparent surprise how the garden is suddenly green and blooming (as if it should be a surprise that spring happens! I always have to remember Larkin said it best: ‘begin afresh, afresh, afresh’).


However, there was something different this year – I was doing my usual pruning back and deadheading and digging up of dandelions and sycamore seedlings, but usually there are also some gaps to fill in, new plants to buy, things on my wish list to be added in here and there.

This year, though – no gaps! For the first time, plants I put in one or more year ago and didn’t necessarily expect to appear, have popped back up and are thriving.


On the raised bed, poppies from the plant stall at the school fair two years ago are sprouting again, a sedum my mum put in as a tiny seedling is now enormous, and my white thrift is thriving too. 

Even the nigella seeds I scattered last year, assuming I’d only get one year’s flowering from, are back.


The woodland garden at the back is also doing well, too, with bugle, periwinkle and lungwort, which I used to have to water all the time and coax back into life every time they drooped, spreading to cover the bare soil, and the one recent new purchase I allowed myself, a couple of hellebores, also settling in nicely.

It is nice not to have to do too much beyond basic maintenance and weeding – nice to see plants which used to struggle now taking care of themselves – and it’s certainly good not to be spending so much money on plants (though I do always hunt out the bargains and half price tables!). It is especially nice to look out over the raised bed and see a continual wave of colour, although I know once the bluebells are over there will be big gaps.


The silver birch tree, now in for a whole year, is also looking good, and with all the leaves out, we have a big improvement in terms of our privacy – looking out from the kitchen window, I can only just see the top roof of the house opposite, not their windows at all.


The question is, where does this leave me? I have two big beds I’ve worked very hard to fill, and now with our fourth summer in the house, they seem to be mature. I do still have two border beds with lots of shrubs, some very overgrown and prickly, and a lot of undergrowth spreading like lemon balm – none of it exactly weeds, but all a bit dull and samey. 

That is probably the next big task to contemplate, but for now, I’m going to enjoy what’s been done so far.


Plus I have a couple of junior gardeners to help me out – they are busy planting nasturtiums in this picture – and the poor old lawn which has become so lush and green, is going to be sacrificed for the new big toy, a trampoline.

A walk around…Hever Castle

I thought I’d written about Hever Castle before – I thought I remembered the blog quite clearly, but when I went back to search for it, no such blog existed. 

Then it came back to me – we went in early March 2015, when the toddler would only have been a month old (looking back, I’m amazed we did such an ambitious trip so early on) and I was at the height of my Wolf Hall obsession, just after the TV adaptation had aired. Baby brain being what it was, I had never got round to writing about it.

I had read Bring Up the Bodies on holiday the previous summer, in the first trimester of pregnancy. I spent a LOT of time in a hammock in the garden of a French gite, reading and sleeping. The heart-wrenching climax, sharpening towards the fate of Anne Boleyn had, in my hormone-addled state, preyed on my mind, and when the same grim scene was replicated on TV I was right back there in that hammock feeling emotionally drained all over again.

So, (despite the emotional trauma) new baby in tow, we went off to see the Boleyn childhood home, (for purposes of admiring spring flowers, as well as the pursuit of history) and almost exactly 2 years later, we came back to do it all over again.


It was a little past the best of the snowdrop season, but there were still plenty of them, plus banks of crocuses and primroses – no surprises, but lovely nevertheless.


The site has good woodland paths to explore – possible with a lightweight buggy, though there are steps;  we barely did any of this last time, so I was evidently still at the stage of shuffling round at that point and the heavy-duty buggy would have held us back a bit. What a difference two years makes!


The part of the gardens we had explored the last time were perhaps not at their best – the formal Italian-style gardens were fairly bare, but I loved this sculptural heavily pruned tree with a splash of purple crocuses beneath.


Closer to the castle, inevitably the gardens get more Elizabethan – the most OTT topiary I’ve ever seen….


And of course there is a maze – thankfully an easy one, I went in with the big girl, let her take the lead and we were in the middle within minutes. Waaay too easy!


And another thing I’d missed on the first trip, an entire chess set in topiary.


What we didn’t do this time was go inside the castle – first time round I was lapping up all the Wolf Hall connections, and there was some fairly interesting history of the house itself alongside all the copies of the familiar Tudor portraits. 

Would be nice to see it all again without the baby brain-fog and take a little more in, but it was cheaper to just go into the gardens and it was a nice enough day to stay outside in any case. By the time we’d taken in the adventure playground, lunch and first ice creams of the year, we certainly felt we’d done it justice.


Now if Hilary Mantel would just hurry up and finish the last part of her trilogy, I will be able to get Wolf Hall fever all over again. (One other place I MUST go is Penshurst Place – very near Hever – which was used  as a filming location for the TV drama).

Snowflakes and snowdrops

Today felt like the first real day of spring, and not before time – January was a long, slow slog and today was one of the days when the fog began to clear (just mental fog, sadly; despite the sunshine I could feel the mouth-coating sensation of London air pollution just the same). This is still going to be quite a rambling blog all the same, as so much happened when we were in the January fog; I can’t quite believe it has only been four weeks.

It was that same week when Londoners were advised to stay indoors because the air quality was so bad, and the global event we’d all been dreading was approaching – the wretched inauguration – that our own minor crisis happened and I found myself calling for an ambulance at 5.30am. 

The Mr, it turned out, had pneumonia and managed to knock himself out getting up in the night to get medicine for the toddler, who was also ill (with tonsillitis, which later turned into an ear infection). Thanks to the awful air quality I had a hacking cough, too, and so we were all lost under a cloud of illness for the next few weeks. Pneumonia, it turns out, takes weeks to recover from, but he is doing much better now, thankfully.

Outside was mostly all gloomy and cold anyway – there were even a few snow flurries, but not enough real snow to excite the children. I certainly learnt that a chilly blast of snowflakes can make a toddler extremely miserable in a very short space of time – so much for the current depreciation of snowflakes as feeble and pathetic!

When I did get to go outdoors in better weather, I at least had something to admire in the back garden – we had a much-needed tidy up of the shrubs and bushes which were beyond my capabilities, by the excellent, and local, Capital Trees

The bay and olive tree we inherited from the previous owners had barely been pruned by us at all, and it’s a huge improvement to see them properly shaped rather than running wild. The cherry tree will also be getting pruned back later in the year once it has bloomed.

Then this week, finally, I was properly cheered when the snowdrops bloomed in our garden, and today with the weather finally improving we went to the Rookery to see what else was out – and to my surprise, lots was already.

Hellebores, crocuses, camellias, more snowdrops and the gorgeous buttercup style flowers I have not yet been able to identify…I was thrilled to see so much out already, and it has only just occurred to me that the entire slope is south-facing, and very sheltered, so no wonder it puts on a good show so early on.

This is, I guess, what we have to keep on doing – put on a good show. I put in a good hour tidying the front garden when I got back home and felt all the better for it – and days are getting longer, the daffodils and hyacinths will be up soon, and if they are putting on a good show, the rest of us can too.

A Christmassy day at Standen House

We got into the Christmas spirit a bit early this year, and we had a good excuse for it – on the first weekend in December we had been given the grave responsibility of looking after the Class Bear. 

We had to find something suitably exciting and festive to do: a country house with a display of Christmas trees through the ages was just the ticket.

It would be fair to say I loved Standen House from first sight – I knew it was an Arts and Crafts era house, but it was far more higgledy piggledy than I expected – the house was extended from a much earlier farmhouse, so with that house, the courtyard, stables and other outbuildings, plus a couple of farm cottages down the lane, it had the feeling of being a tiny hamlet in its own right. 

The sight of so many huge chimneys, gables, archways leading to intriguing places with steps up and down and round corners, was pure catnip to me, so I knew I was going to like it, even without the extra sheen of Christmas.

Our first hint that Standen was somewhere really special, though, was the tree in the courtyard outside the house. Not your typical red and gold baubles and tinsel – 

This day-glo colour scheme with pom-poms and tassels was so incongruous: such a glorious bright sight on a winter day – well, I applaud whoevers’ idea it was.

When we got inside the house, the first few rooms contained more conventional country house trees, but what was really special was the atmosphere of the place. Every room lit by flickering (fake, but good fake) candles, and that unmistakeable feel of a real home lived in by real people.

I particularly liked this huge tree in a stairwell with a vaguely Victorian theme – tassels and paper tartan fans, who knew fans would make such perfect tree decorations?

There was a very tasteful tree all in silver and white, but the last room had the best tree of all, one from the era taste forgot: drenched in the shiny, too-easily-shattered baubles of my childhood, snowflakes and lametta.

There were more delights upstairs as there was an exhibition of work by the textile designer Kaffe Fassett – my idea of patchwork heaven.

All of that without mentioning the Arts & Crafts interior, the artworks and lovely William Morris decor: no time to look at it all properly but there were certainly works by Burne-Jones among others. (Just room to squeeze in a pic of this turquoise pot). 

Outside, it was just as delightful. There was a tiny outbuilding which had been a playroom upstairs for the children, (still kitted out with a nice range of toys – some antique and some that could actually be played with), and downstairs was a little nook with a bench, clad in Dutch tiles.

Then we walked on a footbridge which crossed a ravine (yes, really) and took a path along the edge of the valley until we got a spectacular view across Ashdown Forest in the last of the afternoon sun. The gardens themselves are probably better seen in a return visit in spring, but the walk for this view alone was worth the trip.

 

The class bear was treated to a good day out, and the spirit of adventure he brought out in the children helped – we don’t tend to take favourite toys on days out, in case of disaster, so the bear being with us was a proper novelty.

I could write about Standen House for a LOT longer, and I am delighted that there is more of it to explore another time, but what stayed with me was the unity of the place: not just lovely gardens (usually my main criteria) but an interesting house filled with beautiful things and a magical setting. Top marks all round.

A walk around…Bodnant Garden

Half term already seems aeons ago – I was all set to blog some more about our trip to Wales, then the small matter of the US election (falling on my birthday, in a choice piece of bad timing) plunged me into too much gloom to think about writing much. 

So a month has passed, and I’ve cheered myself up by starting sewing again, which definitely helps, but an unwritten blog nags at the brain and demands to be finished. 

Bodnant Garden had been on my must-visit list in Wales for a long time, and the chance to go at the height of the fall colours was too good to pass up on. (Yes, I know it’s an Americanism but doesn’t ‘fall’ sound so much more evocative than ‘autumn’?)


The first thing that caught my eye was a border packed with verbena and dahlias (well, my mum said they were dahlias, I wouldn’t know one from another, I get them mixed up with chrysanthemums). Despite not being a great admirer of dahlias, I had to gawp in amazement at that shocking red and purple together, how suprising but how effective! (was the planting trying to emulate the much-anthologised poem about the woman suddenly starting to wear purple with a red hat that doesn’t match?)

After traversing a series of formal gardens with trellises and ornamental ponds we came to the start of the really exciting bit, a ravine which suddenly dropped away with steep paths switching back between towering trees. (This was taking the step free route, there were masses of paths and routes criss crossing the site).

It was like stepping from the dainty floral world of, say, Mary Mary Quite Contrary into the Brothers Grimm or Tolkien – I felt a bit like I might be a hobbit on the slow and weary approach to Rivendell. There was a trail of pumpkins leading down the path which was a great trick to keep the children interested – although we had to stop the toddler trying to lift up pumpkins almost as big as her.

At the very bottom of the valley, just to add to the fairytale feel, was an weir and old rustic water mill, with a very welcome bonfire burning outside – plus (the incentive to get the children there), craft activities for Halloween going on inside. Two pipe cleaner spiders later, we headed on down the valley. 


There was a fork in the path, with one route leading to a lake used for skating on the edge of the estate, the other over a bridge and back towards the house, so rather reluctantly we took the sensible route and headed back. The path was not step free in this instance, but luckily with the toddler now quite sturdy on her feet, she acquitted herself well and the buggy was heaved up without too much trouble. Without a buggy altogether would have been better, though.

The real highlight, though, was coming to the acer grove, just where the ground levelled out again. We’d been told this was the best time of year to see it, and boy, were they right. 


Can you believe such colours exist? Aren’t they wonderful?

From the acers it was a short walk across a field back to the main entrance – the cafe is outside the main site and through an underpass where the car park is, so by the time we had gone all the way back through and had lunch, we had a baby in need of sleep and going back into the gardens seemed a bit of a tall order. So we left a good half of the garden unexplored – and there are new trails in the woodlands being opened up all the time. One to add to the list to visit again, though maybe in spring next time.

A walk around….Chatsworth

At the end of our holiday (July – how long ago that seems now!) we broke the journey with a few nights in the Peak District, an area I hadn’t stayed in since I was a Venture Scout, and I was able to fulfil a long-term dream of visiting Chatsworth.


The Great Cascade – looking up

On arriving at the house and considering all the varied and eye-watering prices for entering different parts of the site, we decided to forgo the house and just focus on the gardens and the farm/children’s play area, which could be entered separately. 

I would love to see the art collection – some other time, when not encumbered by a 4 year old and toddler – but the house itself was partly under scaffolding so the visual impact of it was somewhat reduced. In any case, for me it was all about the garden, so we got started by climbing to the top of the Great Cascade – a really impressive piece of engineering.


The Great Cascade – looking down

From there, we walked on to the rock garden, and it was here I began to see the influence of Joseph Paxton, a man I associate with my own dear Crystal Palace park, but of course his link with Chatsworth is perhaps even more enduring than that with the Crystal Palace


Rock Gardens

The tumbledown style of the rocks was very reminiscent of the earth works and rock setting of the dinosaurs at Crystal Palace park – but on a much larger, mountainous scale. It was perfect for scrambling and exploring, and whilst like any sensible parents we exercised caution, you’d be hard pressed to keep a child from climbing up these formations.

The next spectacle was the site of Paxton’s great greenhouse, and here I was surprised and initially disappointed – I had expected to see something like the houses at Kew, but there was nothing there, just a huge walled sunken garden. 


Then, on reading the display boards and recalling dimly something I’d seen on TV years ago, I realised there was no greenhouse. It was demolished, deliberately, after WWI because there were not enough staff to maintain it, and the walled garden was built around the foundations – you can still see the entrances and exits and the stairs. 

It was a beautiful, haunting place, with the ghost of the shape of the greenhouse still there, just like the great terraces at CP park hint at the huge structure that once stood there, albeit in a rather more shabby and unloved way (though the terraces and dinosaurs are getting some long overdue restoration, I’m glad to say).

I could happily have sat there for hours soaking in the atmosphere – and handily there were some outdoor games like Jenga to occupy the kids – but we needed lunch, so we headed back to the stables block via the back of the house. 

This gave us a chance to see a bit more of Chatsworth’s famous outdoor art, including Henry Moore.


Art at Chatsworth 

I also liked the memorial to what must have been a much loved pet, and the horse sculpture in the stable yard was a big hit – no one objected to children being lifted on it for photos (see above) and its back had been well-polished to a shine after years of children climbing up there. 

After lunch we went to the farm and play area – an extremely ambitious adventure playground, with a stream running through it and lots of sand and messy play. Here we came up against one big problem – we had (for the first time in a long while!) forgotten the changing bag, meaning no nappies or spare clothes – the horror! A kind passing mum who saw our plight was able to lend us a spare nappy, so we were safe on that front, but no spare clothes meant neither child was allowed to throw themselves into wet play with abandon. Boo hiss.


There wasn’t much in the way of garden to admire in this area, but there was on one side of the farmyard a beautiful wall, thick with moss, lichens and toadflax – a really gorgeous sight.

From the play area we walked back into the main gardens for me to have a final snoop around the remaining glasshouses (some of which didn’t have public access, in fact, nor did the areas I assumed from the maps to be kitchen gardens – these were all staff access only).

However there was one much earlier glasshouse – one of the first ever purpose built, in fact, housing a collection of camellias and passion flowers…


…and back on the edge of the lawn outside, a wild flower meadow – well, the most manicured, least scruffy wild flower meadow I’ve ever seen – with a range of colours of cornflowers the like of which I’ve never seen before. It may not be strictly as nature intended, but it was impressive.

My lasting impression of Chatsworth will be the sheer epic scale of it. The setting of the house itself was not quite as monumental as I’d been led to believe – I think I was expecting the drama of seeing it for the first time as Elizabeth Bennett sees Pemberley – but the surrounding car parks and the scaffolding detracted from that a bit. However, the impact of the grounds themselves, the scale of what was undertaken in a project like Paxton’s greenhouse, was unforgettable. 

It’s not a warm and cosy garden, not intimate, despite all the secluded glades and winding paths – you are aware all the time that you’re on the film set of some epic family saga, with so many famous names associated with Chatsworth – the Kennedys as well as the Mitfords, Cavendishes and the royal family, Lucian Freud, and the other artists Debo Mitford supported. It was a thrilling experience – and I will be back one day to do the interior.

The Outside Room

This summer, it has felt like we’ve finally got the garden to work, as a part of the home, rather than just the nice green bit which sits behind glass and occasionally gets tended to. It turns out there are a couple of really simple things you can do to help make this happen, and one of them cost only £40, and the other was free. Let me explain…

Last summer, the first when we had the new living space at the back and the bifold doors, I certainly spent a lot of time sat on the sofa looking at the garden but not much time in it, unless I was doing actual gardening. 

Mostly, though, I was sat on the sofa, with a baby rolling around on the rug, drinking tea, and making grand plans for all the things I was going to do in the garden this year

Now, at the end of the summer, I cannot, hand on heart, say that I have created the den at the bottom of the garden, but it hasn’t stopped the Big Girl doing it for herself – round the back of the silver birch tree is her Ice Palace and there is usually some game being played there or story being enacted whenever a friend comes round to play. 

There is a lot I could do – and hopefully still will do – to make it into a proper child friendly play area, but of course what I should have known all along is that a child’s imagination will do all the heavy lifting – they don’t need lots of money spent to enjoy grubbing around in the soil with a stick.

We did still have the challenge of what to offer the baby sister, though, who was crawling at the start of the summer and walking by the end. As I wrote about here, the big thing preventing me from getting out into the garden during daylight hours was her love of climbing, scrambling and balancing on the edge of the raised bed in terrifying fashion. 

I realised we had to find some outdoor toy of some description which could occupy her safely, so that we could all spend time in the garden without having to repeatedly pull her down from the raised bed or patiently re-plant the sedums in my planter which she pulled up over and over again. 

Turns out the solution is very simple. I kept my eye out on Facebook, and when someone local offered a Little Tikes slide – the cube shaped one – for £40, we snapped it up. The first afternoon it was out on the lawn was the first ever I was able to drink a cup of tea while it was still hot, and without having to retrieve a grumbling baby who’d got stuck at the bottom of the garden.


It has been a huge success for her, as she is just the right size to climb up and onto it without help, but even better is how both the children play on it together. The moment the doors are open, they are both out there, sitting on top of it, hauling out trolley loads of toys and setting up tea parties.


I didn’t expect the Big Girl to be interested in it at all, so her willingness to join in has been a great delight. By next summer, I imagine they’ll both be too old for it, but the entertainment that slide has brought them for £40 was money well spent. 

The other thing which helped? Well, that was something we couldn’t have planned or predicted, but one day in early August we spotted a fledgling robin sitting on the garden bench (and using the arm as a pooing post, thanks robin!)

He (or she) was unusually tame and curious for a wild bird, as robins often are, so we started leaving out crumbs, and pretty soon he was a regular visitor.


Over the course of August he’s grown from a speckly, still slightly fluffy fledgling to an almost full-grown bird, and we’ve seen him virtually every day.


Isn’t he a cutie?

Of course he had to have a name, and between us, he was christened Cheerio Bubbles (don’t ask…)

It has been a key element of making the garden feel like a proper part of the house that we live in, knowing there is a friendly small creature interested in us, and busy making our garden his home, too. And of course it’s been a privilege to watch him growing and realise that the children are getting to see wildlife as a daily part of their life. 

Remembering to save some crumbs for him and put them out after breakfast, and looking out to be the first person to spot him that day, have all become part of the daily routine. We hope he’ll be one of the family for a long time to come.