All the Colours of the Rainbow* (and Joy)

*except possibly blue, green and violet.

It’s tulip season, and it has become a season of joy and colour, unexpectedly for me – I’d always usually say I prefer the earlier, paler spring flowers – narcissus and hyacinth, snowdrops, primroses: all the pastels, the more dainty and lovely the better.

I make an exception for bright yellow daffodils – my Welsh heritage for one reason – but bizarrely, ours didn’t flower this year – the leaves came up but no flower buds formed, and I’m sure it’s not the first time that’s happened with my daffs, I seem to remember the same happening a few years back.

Perhaps my bulbs are old and tired and have given up the ghost – not enough energy stored to make a flower? Is that a thing? Every year I plan to plant more bulbs for the next spring and every year I fail to – though I did successfully split a bunch of snowdrops last year which survived the experience, so that’s one small triumph.

However, when the girls noticed tulips in the back garden had flowered, I realised we’d gone straight into tulip season without even having daffodils, which felt very odd – but then I saw the glory of this front garden display while we were out and about:

and decided tulips deserved a blog post all to themselves – I mean, look at them! I dream of being able to maintain a front garden so well-ordered and full of colour, instead of the mishmash of gnarly old roses, sad-looking fuchsia and bluebell chaos in mine.

Then at Easter we went to Wimpole Hall (also the top picture) and saw all this riot of colour in their walled garden. I can’t decide whether I prefer the variegated ones or the single colours – the plain block of yellow is hard to argue with, though I’d never have believed a few years back I’d be drooling over plain yellow tulips!

Orange and dark pink together makes a pretty special show as well.

But also shades of pink and scarlet with white thrown in – somehow, whatever you put together with tulips, it all works.

Also in the orchard at Wimpole were these lovely white, yellow and lilac tulip-like flowers – I thought perhaps pasqueflower or something related to tulip, but Google doesn’t seem to think so – anyway they were dotted throughout the meadow and looked quite beautiful under the apple trees.

Back home and back to the school run – first day back was a shocker, raging hormones, preschooler and I winding each other up without the chilled-our big sister to act as a buffer, and the shock of returning to the routine made me a very grumpy bear – so on the second day, I tried to seek out a bit of calm.

This front garden (above) with cream and orange/yellow tulips against a beautiful range of greens and darker shrubs works a treat – the different heights make it look like a vista down a tiny rainforest valley.

This one with bright oranges, pinks and reds amongst the bluebells is another little window into a world of joy. These are the front gardens of dreams for me – the challenge is to actually put it into practice and plant the damn bulbs this year!

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Something About Knockers

Resisting the urge to make this blog title an innuendo. I love a good pun as much as the next person, but there’s a time and place for smut and this ain’t it.

This blog post was planned for early January, meant to come straight off the back of my Christmas wreath lecture – as the two were connected, as you’ll see – but well, January got in the way of my plans, with its god-damned sheer Januaryness.

We got through it all, more or less in one piece, but it’s only now that temperatures have begun to climb and snowdrops peep out, that I have had enough mental energy to think about writing – there are plenty more real-life doings and happenings to talk about, but I did want to start the year with the post I had originally planned, even if it is a month late.

Back, then, to the knockers – when I was scouting around for my favourite wreaths at Christmas, I noticed a rather fine door knocker in the shape of a bee.

A few doors down, a lovely dragonfly –

And on the same street, another bee, but this time in gold (no photo of that one, sorry) – all three within the same half dozen row of houses. Clearly two of the neighbours must all have admired the original bee and been inspired to copy it, I do wonder if they are all friends or if the original adopter of a quirky knocker resents being imitated? Either way, the fun of spotting unusual knockers became a new game.

It had never really occurred to me that there were options beyond the typical D-shape knocker, circle or vertical strip – and I’d never really looked closely at them, since our door doesn’t have one, it’s never been on my radar. (Though I did have one at the old house, a boring D-shape one, I can’t even remember if I considered other options, or gave it more than minimal thought).

On New Year’s Day we went to Greenwich – lots of character in some of the little grids of terraced streets around the Park and river frontage, and I bet there would be even more unusual knockers if I had a proper explore around the grander streets, but I found the cheeky frog (above), and Romanesque-looking lion with a mane like a Medusa’s locks (below).

Closer to home, I found another, more conventional lion, and a handsome fox:

This was my last quirky knocker for a while – I have been keeping an eye out, but the standard styles are so universal, at least on our regular suburban streets, it’s really hard to spot anything different. Then today, just a stones throw from preschool, I saw perhaps my favourite yet:

Is it an eagle or a Phoenix? Whichever it is, I love it. It’s got a very Hogwarts feel to it.

My architectural excitement for the day was not over yet, though, as looking at that particular house got me looking higher up at the frontages of the row as a whole, and saw something I’d never noticed before, a beautiful decorative portico:

And the house next door had one too

I must have walked past these houses a hundred times and never noticed how ornate they were. It just goes to show, wherever you go – remember to look up!

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UPDATE

Unprecedented, I know. I’ve never revisited a blog before – but this time, I feel I should have waited a bit longer before writing this. Just a few weekends later, we visited Cambridge for the first time in years, and spent a Sunday morning wandering round in glorious sunshine.

I should have guessed Cambridge would deliver good knockers, and it didn’t let me down.

Scallop shell designs seemed to be popular.

Bird knocking on wood (though not a woodpecker, surely a missed opportunity there!)

Definitely a favourite – a growing seed? Tree? Flames of a fire? Whatever it is, I like it.

Finally, a rather surreal disembodied horse.

Thank you, Cambridge, for giving me a chance to return to the subject (aka pad out a blog that was rather thin on content, you decide…)

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.

The Wreath Lectures, 2017

Another year has rolled round and I’ve been sneaking up to front doors and admiring wreaths yet again. Last year was all about the mistletoe and silvery wreaths, this year what I’ve been noticing were cones. Big cones, little cones, it’s all about the cones.

First of all, cones with cinnamon sticks, a huge red ribbon and what looks like the contents of the fruit bowl.

Big cones, small cones and fake shiny fruit including cherries. I saw this wreath on quite a few doors locally and was slightly bemused by the apparent introduction of cherries to the festive fruit canon.

Cones with silvery leaves. Lovely.

And more cones with more silvery leaves and big silver baubles. This was perhaps the point at which I decided cones were the ‘thing’ this year.

What looks like a home-made wreath, I always like a low-hanging wreath (or perhaps I should call it a sub-letterbox? Or a below the fold?) I particularly liked this one because of the slightly wonky Easter-eggish shape.

This one appears to be coneless, but I liked the asymmetric gold leaves against the yellow door. (Poor photo, as it was a big house with steps up to the front door so I couldn’t get any closer, but I didn’t want to leave this one out).

Another yellow door and a really spectacular display – wreath PLUS ivy PLUS holly PLUS a big offcut of the Christmas tree. If you have a big grand yellow door, why the hell wouldn’t you? I would.

And in contrast, a plain green wreath not even hung up, just dropped straight on the doorknob, against an austere black door. Classy.

Another plain black door, this time with a twiggy wreath with a hint of sparkle underneath. Endorsed.

Finally, a poinsettia wreath not on a door but simply propped casually on a windowsill. Audacious, but it works beautifully.

Those are my best finds of the year, with no repeats – and finishes off a very happy Christmas. Hello to 2018 (in 20 minutes) and a big far off wave to Spring. I have a big pile of gardening jobs with my name on and I am looking forward to getting started!

Christmas Trees, and letting go…

This year feels like the first time I have properly relinquished control of the Christmas tree.

I was well aware it was bound to happen, and that as children grow older, letting them take charge of Christmas decorating is all part of the fun (for them). For me, I knew I would have to rein in my Monica Geller-style tendencies, and not fret too much if a favourite decoration of mine was not hung in an optimum place, or the two snowmen ornaments were hung side by side, rather than placed well away from each other, to create a properly balanced tree.

There are limits to what one tree-obsessed mum can take, of course – you have to apply some control over distribution of decorations, otherwise they will all end up on the lower half of the tree, and limit the number of times a particular item is fiddled with and taken off and put back on, or risk setting off a flood of needle-drop.

Apart from that, (and a little bit of rearranging after they’d gone to bed), the tree is entirely mostly their own work, and I am pretty pleased with the communal effort. It helps that the tree is a nice shaped one, and for once, not on a wonk.

I’ve also given them free rein with decorations in other areas – the Mr has helped them with paper chains (I don’t get involved, all that rustling paper drives me mad) and we’ve made some ‘stained glass’ tissue-paper window decorations which were great fun to do – and look nice against the glass no matter how scruffily they’ve been made. (See below – I rather like the freestyle approach to what colour a reindeer ought to be).

I even encouraged the use of cotton wool balls to try and make a snow picture; I can’t say the results were outstanding, but it kept the big girl happily occupied for a while.

One thing I noticed after the tree was finished was the lack of baubles, and I realised we now have so many ‘good’ decorations we don’t need to fall back on the non-breakable red or gold baubles which were formerly used to fill in gaps, and are so basic they live in a plastic bag in the garage, because there is no room for them in the Christmas decoration boxes. (Poor basic baubles, now I feel like they are Mary and Joseph in the stable and I should invite them in out of pity, but there is simply no space on the tree!)

The lack of space doesn’t mean there are no new decorations on the tree, though – I had resisted buying anything new, but still seem to have acquired things – the children each chose a decoration from a craft stall and the big girl embellished hers with a few extra sparklies (could I ever have imagined the day I’d allow bright acid yellow on to my tree? Reader, it happened).

Then the toddler came home from preschool with a salt dough tree decorated by her – she insisted on holding it all the way home, so more glitter ended up on her and the buggy than the decoration – but still it is pretty well glittered.

There is also a rather jaunty snowman made by the big girl at school, and another salt dough star which came from somewhere or other.

Finally, I succumbed to temptation (in a church, of all places!) and bought two olive wood fair trade guilt-free decorations made in Bethlehem. (Bought at the St Martins in the Fields gift shop).

I have not had much time for making decorations this year, as I’ve been making a mobile as a present for the toddler instead (pictures will follow). At my current pace, perhaps it should be set aside for her birthday in Feb to give me time to make a few more decorations, if I can squeeze them on the tree.

For yet another year, I’ve also contemplated my very tiny and drab wreath and wondered if I could or should do something better, but time has run away with me and I’ve put that on the mental to-do list for next year. No shortage of good wreaths out there to nick ideas from, though: I have a very long list already to whittle down for my annual wreath round-up!

Even Further West

This is a post I’ve been looking forward to writing, but also putting off – because I’m going back to one of my favourite places, but I’m also not sure I can do it justice.

When I went to Cornwall in 2002, I stayed right at the very end. Ok, not the very end, but in one of the last villages before Land’s End.

It was one of those holidays memorable not solely for idyllic and relaxing moments – I remember a lot of mist, fog and rain – and a holiday barn which you might call bijou and atmospheric, but could also have accurately been called basic and somewhat uncomfortable.

But something about the far west of Cornwall got under my skin, and it hasn’t ever really left me. This time round, when we stayed squarely in the centre of the county, I noticed a difference – we were surrounded by cornfields, not to mention acres of cauliflowers (if we’d got cut off from Truro and Waitrose by a flash flood, we could have survived quite well on caulis).

It was charming and scenic and bucolic and so on, but it wasn’t the wild, rugged Cornwall I remembered – where the recall of magical names like Sennen, St Buryan, St Just, Lamorna, Treen and Mousehole can still cast a spell over me.

So, with only a couple of days left in Cornwall, I wanted to go back to my favourite place. The weather didn’t look promising, but crucially it did look like it would improve the further west we went – so we set off, and as we passed St Michael’s Mount and Penzance, I felt my spirits rising (and the sun did come out!)

It is impossible to put my finger on it, but beyond Penzance, the landscape did change subtly. Narrower lanes, definitely, less trees, (and those there were more obviously shaped by the wind). Houses seemed to get smaller and more hunched into the ground.

Everything slightly less lush and green, as if all the vegetation had been scorched by salt. We drove slower, the roads got narrower. I was convinced we’d missed a turning: it didn’t feel like a place I ought to be using a smartphone. Back in the day, I would have had a road atlas on my lap, but some of these lanes were too tiny to be on an atlas.

Then, finally, the lane turned abruptly downhill and we got a glimpse of the beach I lost my heart to all those years back – Porthcurno, home of the famous Minack theatre.

I hadn’t visited the theatre last time, and we didn’t plan ahead well enough to arrange to see a play this time, but we could pay to look around, so this is what we did first. The cliff top location is every bit as dramatic as I imagined, the sheer scale of it impressive – and quite terrifying if you have any problem with heights or cliff edges.

Quite how you’d manage to watch a play there without being completely distracted by the surroundings – let alone the issue of audibility, which is often a challenge for me – but there was a fascinating exhibition on the site explaining how theatre companies deal with the, um, unique performance conditions.

Then, we went to the beach. I’m not sure I can quite explain why I love Porthcurno beach so much, but these things probably contribute:

– it’s a perfect horseshoe curve of a bay with the dramatic Logan Rock (see far right in the picture above) at one end, and towering cliffs on either side.

– the sea is the colour above (ok probably not in February) and the clearest water I’ve ever seen in Britain.

– it is simply the best beach for swimming outside of the Caribbean I’ve ever been.

The waves are not so huge that you can’t get into the water easily, but once you’re in, the ground shelves away quickly and you’re comfortably out of your depth (just enough for it to feel slightly thrilling, but not dangerous, provided you’re a confident swimmer).

I must have spent a good hour, on and off, with my feet up, sculling with my hands, bobbing up and down in the waves and feeling in complete heaven. (Btw the last time I was there, a shark swam into the bay. It was exactly like Jaws, the speed with which everyone got out of the water. This time, fortunately, no shark).

The other joyful moment was taking the big girl for her first proper swim in the sea. (The toddler’s verdict was that the waves were ‘too scratchy’).

The big girl loved it, though, and I hope that she remembers the first proper time she went in the sea was at Porthcurno, the one of the best beaches in the world, and her mum’s favourite place in England. (Not my favourite place in Britain – that can be saved for another day).

A West Country Round-Up

Autumn has blown itself in very promptly, with rain and winds accompanying the return to school, but seeing as we aren’t facing hurricanes here, I am resolving not to grumble too much.

Still, our summer holiday does seem rather long ago now, and I did want to capture a bit of it before I forget too much. This may wind up being a two-parter, though.

This was a fairly different holiday from the last two – we almost exclusively did without the buggy this time round. The scooters didn’t come out of the car boot a single time. This meant, a slower pace, a lot of children carried on shoulders and stopping and starting, but on the plus side, we could now tackle stiles.

Our first proper walk was to try and get down to the beach where we were staying, near Sidmouth in Devon. This was the first bit of sunshine after a morning of rain, so we were determined to make the most of it.

It started easily enough, from the donkey sanctuary (nice cafe), a steep path through the woods which turned into this seemingly idyllic stroll across a field. It looked like another stretch of woodland below us, and the sea not terribly far away.

The reality was quite different though – that lovely green field was actually soaking wet and muddy, and once both children had fallen on their knees, we began to lose hope. Another walker toiling back up the hill warned us that it got a lot more slippery further down, so we turned back at that point.

I did get in a walk by myself that evening, though – down to the nearest hamlet (barely more than 2 farmhouses and one of those was half-ruined), and I got to experience a true deep Devon lane. Plenty more lanes like this were to come, but I think this was the only one I got to walk down blissfully all by myself.

We got a nice sunset that evening, too.

The next day was forecast to be the Good Day of the week, so we decided to go to Lyme Regis. Unfortunately (or otherwise) it was the Lyme Regis carnival with Red Arrows display that evening.

We found a parking space by the skin of our teeth, and headed into town to find it crawling with people, and the beach even busier. I knew that the proper beach – the fossil bit – was further down, so once the kids had paddled and we’d had lunch, I dragged them all down there.

It took quite a lot of hunting, but we found some of the ammonites eventually. Really quite a thing! The looming, crumbling cliffs were slightly terrifying though, especially seeing people scrambling around and excavating bits (why would you??)

We ventured back to the hordes in town, watched the lifeboat launch on what turned out to be a false alarm, and walked out to the end of the Cobb for the views back along the coast.

Lots of people crabbing, but we thought the two year old was much too great a liability to be allowed near any big drops – I warned the children what happened to Louisa Musgrove in Persuasion, not that they were much interested – we just admired other people’s crabs instead.

By then we had pretty much decided it was too hot and exhausting to try and last until the Red Arrows display, so after another paddle, and tea, we headed home. A good move, as it turned out – with so few routes in and out of the town, it was gridlocked trying to leave later on.

Still, crowds or no, Lyme remains one of my very favourite places and I’m very glad we went.

Our last day in Devon was spent at Branscombe, a much cloudier day, but a proper chocolate box place (National Trust of course) and some very impressive cliffs with holiday cabins and mobile homes clinging to the sides in terrifying fashion.

The pebbly beach was quite hard going walking with children, so I abandoned the attempt to get up close to the huge rock pillar at the beach end, but contented myself with hunting out some marine flora.

We ended the day in the neighbouring village of Beer, which if anything I liked even better than Branscombe – it was still a proper fishing village, but with no quay – boats pulled up on the shingle alongside the beach cafe.

Here we were able to buy fresh fish to cook at home – though it didn’t come cheap – and there was a cabin right down by the beach set up as a tiny, free exhibition about all things marine (seemingly so tiny and obscure I can’t even find a reference to it on Google, but it was well worth a visit!).

This was the end of the Devon leg of our holiday – next day, on to Cornwall. To be continued…