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.

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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.

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.

The Twelve(ish) Books of Christmas

This blog is rather unapologetically taken over by Christmas at this time of year, and I realise the posts have got rather repetitive (though rest assured I am not missing out on my annual wreath round-up, no siree). 

And then I remembered I had not done a post about my favourite Christmas books. Hurrah! Problem solved. And then in a piece of perfect serendipity, I was reunited with a favourite Christmas book I’d loved and lost years ago: 

 

The Lion Christmas book was a book I poured over for hours, all year round – if I ever wanted to evoke the spirit of Christmas, I simply picked it up and dipped in.

It is the perfect Christmas anthology in that it has a balance of stories, crafts and baking ideas, poems and non-fiction (‘Christmas traditions around the world’, etc).

There is a lot of religious content, but much of it used to explain Christmas traditions – the origins of St Nicholas, the legend of a frosty spiders web inspiring tinsel – and it tells the Christmas story beginning to end, including Herod and the flight to Egypt, so it pulls no punches there.

It is sentimental, terribly naff and much too godly for my tastes now, but I still love it. I was thrilled to find a copy on a charity bookstall and after years of wondering if I’d ever see it again, am delighted to own my own copy once more.

The first Christmas book I remember, though, I have never parted with (and no intention of ever doing so). I was surprised to discover that my copy from 1981 is a first edition, I assumed it was much earlier than that, as the feel of it is more 1950s-60s.

Nevertheless, Lucy and Tom’s Christmas is very reminiscent of my 1980s childhood in lots of ways, but with an added bit of Shirley Hughes magic – look at those lush borders around the edge of the page, hung with gingerbread men and all sorts of other goodies. 

In Shirley Hughes’ world, there are always roaring fires to come home to, snow at Christmas, real candles on the tree, (who ever does that, nobody in 1981 that I knew of) and Salvation Army bands playing in the town centre. 

None of that was really part of my childhood, but the book still takes me back there in other ways, as there is much that reminds me of the Christmas build-up – the home-made cards, the nativity scene, the waking up early on Christmas morning. 

It’s the tiny details that make this book lovely – the cotton wool snow and gold paper star on the Nativity is a particular favourite picture of mine, but it is also famous for acknowledging the times when Christmas isn’t so much fun.

Tom has a meltdown and goes out for a walk with Grandpa. As the book says ‘Just the two of them. The sun is very big and red’.

Simple, beautiful, and instantly brings back the memories of Christmas tantrums or cooking disasters or sickness (and she never ate blackcurrant Fruitella again), but also pitches you into a moment of pure sentiment if you, like me, wish you could have had just one more Christmas with your grandad or granny there.


Moving on from the slightly melancholic to cheerier things, I bring you Mog’s Christmas. This is much more Christmas as I knew it in the 70s/80s – more garish and kitsch, with streamers, balloons, tinsel and paper pom-poms, but rendered in Judith Kerr’s trademark soft pastel shades, it feels very homely and familiar. 

There is still snow, of course, and the story is so slight you could blow it away like a snowflake, but who cares, it’s Mog, and I love her.

That covers the top 3 books from my junior Christmas reading era, and to take it to 12 will mean either a very long blog, or several. 

I’m not sure I can even get to 12 books without more research and digging back into the memory banks, but I can do a quick run-down which hopefully may prompt me to return to this topic next year.

4. The Box of Delights: I loved the celebrated TV series as a child, but the book I’ve read countless times, one of my default comfort reads.

5. The Dark is Rising: such a well-loved fantasy book that it now has a Christmas readathon associated with it. I could write essays about this book, let alone one blog!

6. A Child’s Christmas in Wales: a staple of our family Christmas, especially the lovely edition we had illustrated by Edward Ardizzone. 

7. The ‘Little House’ books: all of them have a Christmas chapter, but my favourite is By the Shores of Silver Lake, where the Ingalls family are left behind in South Dakota when nearly all the other prospective settlers go back East.

8. The Armourer’s House: one of Rosemary Sutcliff’s less well-known books, set during the reign of Henry VIII, but it reaches its climax at Christmas and delivers a supremely happy festive ending.

9. What Katy did at School: for the marvellous scene where Katy and Clover unpack their Christmas boxes and find all kinds of goodies inside. Actually the Christmas chapter in What Katy Did where she plans all kinds of surprises for her siblings is rather sweet.

10, 11 and 12 still remain unclaimed. Not even considered A Christmas Carol yet, as I suspect I’ve read it far less than the number of times I’ve watched A Muppet Christmas Carol. Another 12 months to see if I can think of something to fill in those gaps!

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.