A walk around….Leith Hill

A particular era of this blog (which has passed the 5 year mark!) is drawing to a close – we are no longer seeking out exclusively buggy-friendly walks, and on our trips to local parks, the buggy stays in the car more often than not. 

It isn’t the same at home – the toddler is much too adept at darting away from me  to be allowed to walk too much on the pavement – and I will need the faithful old workhorse of the buggy to get our bags and shopping up the hill for a while yet (what on earth will I do without it when the time comes??), but we can start actively searching out more ambitious walks when we get the chance. 


Leith Hill was a place I remembered visiting as a child – not far from Box Hill, a tower which we climbed up to, and it was in the early days of me owning a camera, as there are photos of me and my brother in various garish 80s outfits on top of the tower (it was the era of my turquoise trousers I think…)

We went back on Mothers Day this year, and it turned out to be a lovely day, though it started out rather chaotically. Having found a parking space in a very full car park, we went downhill rather than up, thinking the neighbouring National Trust property Leith Hill Place would be a good starting point.

It turned out not really to be what was needed, though it is a lovely house in a lovely setting (with a great sloped lawn for rolling down at the front, see picture). 

It is pleasingly unrestored and simply furnished rather than highly polished – but we had forgotten the precious National Trust membership cards, and it didn’t have a proper cafe, just a tea room run by volunteers, which took cash only, so we had to pay rather more than we’d expected to, to eat cheese scones in lieu of lunch. (Being stingy parents we’d come with packed lunch for the kids, obviously, so they were alright). 

I knew there was a kiosk up at the tower, so having depleted our cash supplies, we had to make sure we left enough for ice creams and drinks up there, and after a stop for rolling down the lawn, we set off on the trail which would take us up to the tower. 


We were a bit early for the bluebells, but I found lady’s smock (above) growing beside the path, which started out as a very easy broad, winding trail through the woods. So far, so idyllic.


I was lulling myself into thinking how easy this was, and how we could really tackle more ambitious walks now, when the path began to climb, got less shady, and became stony underfoot – in the picture below you can see the big girl is flagging (the tug on an adult arm always a bad sign that whining is about to start) uand other groups with smaller children started to overtake us, humiliatingly. 


Then the climb up to Leith Hill itself started – a very steep staircase, I took the rucksack and left the Mr to deal with the toddler, but fortunately the big girl perked up and decided a flight of stairs was not quite so arduous as a stony path. There was a handy bench half way up but I could have done with several more stops!

Finally this was the reward:


And this was the view looking the other way:


When we got to the tower, we discovered you had to pay to go up it, so it was a choice between tower or ice creams, and ice creams won out (frustratingly, it turned out the kiosk did sandwiches too, so we could have had a perfectly good lunch up there), but sitting in the sun to enjoy our ice creams didn’t seem such a bad choice. 


It is, it turns out, the highest point in South East England, so pretty good for an almost-5 year old and an only-just-2 year old. 

Unlike Box Hill where you are looking out at other hills not too far away, this was a flat-out view across the Weald to a distant blue horizon; a grey patch off to the left we realised was Gatwick, with planes approaching continually. 

On the other side of the hill was, of course, views north to London, but this side was more heavily wooded and less to see.


I could happily have sat there till the sun went down, but it was a Sunday afternoon and we had to head home – the downhill path to the car park, completing the loop, was much less tricky, though on a muddy day it could have been treacherous.


As our first serious buggy-free walk, it was certainly not stress-free, but it was worth it for that view, and maybe next time we’ll climb the tower. 

Oh and we need to get a better rucksack for holding all the gear which usually goes under the buggy. My old lightweight rucksack was bought for a holiday in South America, and is much too small and narrow for all the tat a family of four requires. I need to do some research before the next day out.

The Wreath Lectures, 2016

We are definitely into the post-Xmas slump, it’s New Years bloody Eve after all, but the decorations are still up, just about, so it’s time for another wreath round-up.

I did worry, again, that I would struggle to find new and interesting wreaths this year, but as with 2015 I tried out a few new roads on my walks and I struck lucky. 

There are definitely a few common trends I spotted this year; last year was all about heart shapes, and while there are still plenty of your classic holly, ivy, evergreen and red ribbon wreaths out there, I just didn’t take so many photos of those traditional types this time round. As ever, the pictures are a bit wonky but I have tried to crop out house numbers where possible.


This year, everything seemed to have gone silver, white and sparkling. The spiky one above was a rather dramatic example, and after spotting that one it seemed everything I saw was sharp-edged, metallic, glittering and monochrome. 


And rather than holly or ivy, what I saw on wreath after wreath was mistletoe. It was definitely a bumper year for mistletoe (if only the artificial kind).


The wreath above on the yellow door with fake pearls for mistletoe berries I thought was particularly glamorous. That one is a favourite, I think.

 

The silver theme continued with these two, one with tinsel and bells and another livened up with a large pink bow.


Another spiky leafy wreath, all cream this time.


And to prove there was some colour out there, a spangly rainbow wreath to cheer things up a bit. (Stop press: I actually had this same wreath on last year’s round up, but it was too good not to include again).

If I was trying to be clever, I might say all these sharp, glittery edges and artificial textures over nature is indicative of the strange modern times we find ourselves in this year. Or maybe it’s adding a bit of sparkle and fun in the face of humdrum harsh reality. 

As I said at the beginning, there were still a lot of natural wreaths, I just didn’t photograph so many of them, but I couldn’t resist a few, as I love a good wreath/ painted door contrast.


Smoky blue door (how I love that colour!) with bright orange accents on the wreath, and pink door with a white and pine cone wreath. 

Finally, from Hatchlands Park just outside Guildford, a natural wreath with a bit more than just plain holly and ivy – look at that old man’s beard, and a gorgeous pine cone detail. Really special.


That brings another year of blogging to an end, and I hope a good 2017 awaits you all. It may not have been a memorable year for all the right reasons, but 2016 has taught me to be grateful for all the good stuff as well as weathering the less good, and I’ll try and make sure the good stuff is what I take with me into 2017.

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.

A visit to…Ashdown Forest

The recent mayoral elections in London may have been a messy and unpleasant affair, but there was an added benefit for us: preschool closed to become a polling station, followed by a bonus inset day, suddenly a glorious four-day weekend beckoned. We won’t get many opportunities like this left once school starts, so we have to grab ’em while we can.

I had been longing to visit Ashdown Forest, the real location which inspired Winnie-the-Pooh, and it being very conveniently a short hop away on the Sussex downs, it was a nice easy long weekend option. 

As it turned out, roadworks in Tonbridge made the ‘nice easy drive’ a nightmare, but we reached our holiday cabin (found via Airbnb, the first time we’d used it since we stayed in in Hastings in 2013) and discovered we were on the edge of a smallholding with views like this: 

– and then we realised it was probably going to all be OK. Going out to see the sheep and chickens in the morning and at bedtime became a fixture, and I felt quite sure I too could easily keep sheep and chickens and live on the side of a valley in Sussex miles from anywhere – well, maybe. There was good 3G reception there and that does count for a lot.

We spent the first afternoon exploring our local patch and only venturing into the nearby town (Heathfield) to pick up food for dinner. The next day, we set out to explore the forest.

My first destination was the legendary, real Poohsticks bridge. We have our own personal favourite Poohsticks places, at Morden Hall Park and in Wales near my parents’, but I’d always dreamed of visiting the real thing.

The bridge is deliberately hard to find – I imagine they don’t want to encourage coach parties – but having missed a turning the first time, we doubled back and found the discreetly signposted car park. 

There were several paths leading into the woods, and again the one leading directly to the bridge only had a very subtle sign indicating that this was the right route. The big girl was keen to have a proper explore, so we took a different path winding in the opposite direction, only to find that it looped back, crossed a field and took us down towards the bridge anyway. 

So we rounded a corner and there it was – 


The stream itself was pretty lazy so playing actual Poohsticks was a rather gentle affair compared to a rushing Welsh stream, but we had a good go at it. Lots of sticks had got stuck, I do wonder if the huge drifts of washed-up sticks get cleared out every so often to avoid a dam building up! 


From there, we drove to the nearby Gill’s Lap, which in the AA Milne books becomes ‘Galleon’s Lap’, Christopher Robin’s Enchanted Place. 

From the signboard at the car park, we could see that there was a circular walk taking in some of the other well-known locations – Roo’s Sandy Pit, Eeyore’s Gloomy Place, etc, but not all these were necessarily accurate to the places Milne had in mind; it was more the case of retro-fitting the key locations from the stories to make a nice child-friendly circular walk.


Unfortunately, we didn’t have the leaflet for the circular walk, and yet again the signposting wasn’t great – plus it was, by then, a very hot day with little shade, so we didn’t go further than the clump of trees on the horizon (above) – the high point of Gill’s Lap.


However even just going this short distance was very satisfying – the atmosphere of Ashdown Forest feels exactly like an EH Shephard illustration come to life. 

It may come as a surprise that so much of the ‘forest’ is actually heathland, but the landscape of gorse, heather, clumps of pine trees and sand beneath the feet is certainly a favourite habitat of mine – nice gentle walking conditions under foot, lovely views, sweet smelling gorse – give me that over a trudge through Forestry Commission plantations any day! 

The lack of shade did deter us from going any further, though, so we beat a retreat to have lunch and in the afternoon went to the Ashdown Forest visitor centre

Here we found the leaflets for guided trails which would have been useful earlier on – and did a circular walk starting from the centre which proved to be a bit of a struggle with the buggy up a steep slope and a big girl increasingly unwilling to walk any further in the heat. As much as I loved it there, I do think Ashdown Forest is somewhere we’d go back to once we’re out of the buggy years – far fewer buggy-friendly trails than we found in the New Forest last year.

The next day was spent in a more leisurely fashion travelling on the beautiful Bluebell Railway – another place of childhood dreams, with dinky little private compartments making you feel you’re on your way to Hogwarts, and if you peer out the window (not too far, boys and girls!) the sight of real steam puffing out of the engine. 


Not to mention all the glorious retro and vintage signs which adorn the stations along the way – 


The line ends (or begins, depending on which way you go), at Sheffield Park, a National Trust garden near Uckfield. We had a few hours to kill after our lunch before the return train, so we explored the grounds laid out by Capability Brown.


To be honest, masses of carefully tended rhododendrons and artfully arranged vistas of trees are not really my thing, although there was a proper wild area with bluebells that had just finished flowering, but there were some undeniably lovely views.


We finished the weekend in the best possible way, by the seaside at dear old Birling Gap which never fails to impress:


The slog of a drive back to London was the only really unpleasant prospect, not to mention returning to a stuffy house which had sweltered for 4 days with the windows shut, but we counted ourselves lucky; based on what’s come since, those 4 days appear to be the main summer we are getting this year! At least we can say, we made the most of them.

The Battle of the Bluebells

You can keep your Wars of the Roses, it’s all been about the battle of the bluebells here. 

I’ve seen plenty of garden bluebells everywhere (more on them, later), but it seems like years since I’d seen proper swathes of woodland bluebells and I longed for them – in spite of the rather muddy time we’d had seeing snowdrops, I didn’t want to miss out on bluebells this year.

So, on an unexpectedly warm day we set off to Emmetts Garden in Kent, described as one of the best places to see bluebells locally. It is a gorgeous spot on the downs – the description of a ‘hillside garden’ doesn’t do it justice, more of a rolling downland meadow and woodland glade which just happens to have a formal garden attached to it too.

We wandered through the shrubberies and past empty rose gardens and rockeries that were clearly not at their best yet – all this the preamble to the main event. 

The bluebell woods were on the far side of the hill, below the tea room and picnic area, and approaching them from above, the full glory wasn’t immediately apparent, then we rounded a corner and finally got the full intensity of blueness I’d been craving. 


Knowing that blue is generally thought to be a calming colour, I wondered if that was why people love bluebell woods so much – a small patch of bluebells in a garden or a roadside may be pleasing, but the full visual effect of blue stretching as far as the eye can see must have a positive effect on the brain, surely? 


The only place I can remember which delivers that same intensity of blueness was the Sanctuary of Dom Bosco, an amazing church in Brasilia with blue stained glass floor to ceiling – a rather exotic comparison, I’ll grant you, but if you like blue as much as I like blue, well, you’d like it there, trust me.

The woods were not only full of blue, though: starry little wood anemone peeped through the bluebells, and here and there we spotted white bluebells, which I’d never seen before – 


The bluebell walk finished at a viewpoint where you could suddenly, out of nowhere, see for miles – here we sat down, with the sun on our faces, and soaked it all in. 

There was a longer trail from that point down into the woods below, and the temptation to just keep walking on and on into the trees was very strong, but on the other hand, if we went back to the cafe we could have tea and cake.


When we got home, I went out to the garden to photograph my own bluebells, and here you can really see the difference between the British (above) and Spanish (below) varieties.


The British flower is a much deeper blue, and bends over daintily – and what the picture can’t capture (and I had quite forgotten) is the heady, intense smell of them. 

The Spanish garden variety are much paler, with more individual florets on the upright flower stalk, and have no scent. In the battle of the bluebells, there’s no comparison, is there, really? Nothing beats that lovely, deep, rich blue, and I’m so glad I had the chance to see it this year.

A couple of weeks on, our garden bluebells are all over, and tonight I had the joyless task of (yet again) pulling up every single one before they become brown mush. 

If I can face it, next week’s task is to dig out as many bulbs as I can to clear some space for new plants, but I know the Spanish bluebells will march on, and maybe increase their territory next year. I will just have to keep going back to the woods to get my fix of the real thing, then.

Let it snow, let it sleet, let it hail…

This weekend, it felt like a door opened just a crack and we got a tiny glimpse of Spring, what a real spring day feels like. I actually sat out in the sunshine for two consecutive days. I can’t think when that last happened!

Up until Saturday, the week had delivered snow and sleet on Tuesday, hail on Wednesday and thunder and lightning too, then more hail on Friday. And yet, thanks in part to all the rain (and the lack of really cold weather, despite the snow flurries), Spring marches on – the leaves are out, flowers are blooming, we’ve seen birds gathering nesting material. It just hasn’t felt like Spring up until now.

On one of the sunny early April days which was much colder and windier than it ought to have been, I had a chance to revisit one of my favourite local open gardens. The site is on one of the loveliest roads in Herne Hill, in fact the very one I walked up many years ago to visit the Velodrome for the first time – and thought to myself ‘some day I’d like to live round here’. 

Well, I never made it as far as moving to Herne Hill, but I’m close enough, and it is certainly a pleasure to be able to return to this particular garden. 


It has a fantastic wild area at the bottom – great inspiration for how my birch tree might look in a few years, if I can persuade anything to grow under it!


And a very palatial looking bug hotel, with child beside it for scale.  This puts me to shame as I have made no attempt to create a bug hotel at home and there is no excuse, I’m sure I can find some way of cobbling one together.


In terms of plant inspiration I was spoilt for choice – gorgeous Yellow Archangel (top) with its deceptively nettle-like leaves, but so much more glamorous than the ordinary varieties of dead-nettle, the dainty fritillaries (bottom) which are probably far too delicate to survive in my garden right now, and in the middle, something I have discovered the name of but promptly forgotten: forget-me-not flowers but with the lovely heart-shaped leaves, very striking and definitely a plant that’s going on my list for the shady garden patch. (They have it in the local garden centre, so at some point I will buy some and hopefully remember the name….).


The garden also has lovely sculptural features – box balls next to a bird bath on a plinth, a rusty wire mesh fox (does it keep away the real ones I wonder?) and stone birds next to, um, a giant egg. 

I also really liked the use of wood and gravel here – another idea I’ve been mulling over is whether to put more gravel around some of my more drought-ridden areas, to try and keep weeds down and help disguise some of the bare patches of soil that plague me.

I have been keeping an eye out for other pretty things, too, and it is possible, if you look only at the pictures taken on nice sunny days, to imagine we really have had a spring after all. 

We had a sunny (but briskly cold) afternoon at the Horniman museum, and I was keen to see how their formal beds had been planted this year – and I wasn’t disappointed! 

The whole series of beds had been planted with pink, blue AND white forget-me-nots (White ones! Who knew?), with dark burgundy tulips dotted like sentinels throughout. 

The effect was charming and haphazard up close, but a seriously spectacular view when you look down the full length of the beds – patchwork of flowers so dense you could hardly see a bare space. And whilst tulips have never been a real favourite of mine, here they add some height and drama to an otherwise very pretty, delicate forget-me-not patchwork.

If the good weather is here to stay for a while, I will keep my eyes peeled for more inspiration – in the mean time, this lot have given me plenty of ideas to be going on with!