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).

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 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.

Tale of a Tree

As I wrote towards the end of last year, one of the garden plans for 2016 was to do something about our scruffy old shrubbery, and plant a tree. 

It took a few months to get going with this project, but I can now safely say, we have begun. Our first task was to remove the gnarled old buddleia stump – I sawed back what I could manage of the trunk, the Mr did the rest, and we discovered the underneath of the stump was completely rotten anyway, so it all came out with a few hefty kicks and levering from him. 

Here’s how it looked at the end of Feb:   

And once the stump was all gone we were left with this:    

I spent a few hours raking up twigs, digging out roots and pulling up ivy till we had a nice clear patch of bare earth, uncovered properly for the first time in years. 

(This was the remains of the buddleia stump, or rather about half of it!):   

I had canvassed opinions from various gardening friends and we had decided – as anticipated – to buy a silver birch

One recommendation had been to buy a multi-stemmed tree, which would give the appearance of being a fully-formed mini grove of trees rather than a solitary trunk. This would fill out the empty corner very well, we thought, and also mean the tree would not grow as tall as a single trunked one would – as we already have a tall cherry tree in the garden we didn’t want anything to have to compete with that too much.

My only worry was that a multi-stemmed tree would be three times the price – 3 trunks meant 3 trees, right? – but luckily that was not the case, and my favourite local garden centre sold us a lovely multi-stemmed tree for the same price as a single stem.

They also sold us a wooden stake and gave us some helpful advice about positioning it, but we are certainly not experts and when the tree arrived on Easter Saturday, the tree itself went happily into the ground but the stake snapped in half when it was hammered in.

One return trip to the garden centre a few days later, a bit more explanation needed about correct staking procedure, replacement stake given free of charge (hurrah!) and we were in business!

(Staking tips: apparently you need to angle the stake so that it’s outside the tree root system, and also the stake must not rub against the wood of the trunk, so you need a rubber tie thing which goes around stake and tree in a figure of 8. So now you know).

The leaves were just coming out on the tree when we planted it, and it has had plenty of good soakings since then (thank you April showers), so now in full leaf, it really shows what a good choice it was to fill that dull spot:

  
The broad, generous shape of the three trunks already feels like it was made to go in a corner, and the dancing golden green leaves bring the whole area to life. What was a particularly dark and gloomy corner of the garden is now full of movement, interest and colour. What a joy!

  
From a distance looking down the garden it really shows how well it has filled the empty gap:

  
In a word, I am thrilled with it. Less thrilled that the poor Mr has damaged a shoulder from all the digging, but he seems to be on the mend now, and I won’t ask him to plant any more trees for me for a while…I promise. 

Too much else to plan now, that I have a mini woodland glade at the bottom of the garden, I don’t need more trees, the question is what else to plant around and under it? And what about the children’s play area? (When are we going to get a chance to do that, exactly?)

We are not going to plant anything too near the tree yet – let it get established first – but there are plenty of other gaps in the shrubbery that need filling now that I’ve thinned out a bit of the dull stuff, and lots more inspiration to seek out first before I make any decisions!

A trail of mud behind us…

We have had cold springs before, we have had wetter springs, we have had snow in March not so long ago (in the spring of 2013 I swear it snowed every Monday for weeks on end). But I can’t remember a spring that has been as muddy as this one.

It’s not as if there has been *that* much rain, no worse than last year’s winter/early spring – but somehow the quantity of mud has increased, as if there are underground pipes somewhere constantly manufacturing mud and churning it out every night, even at times when it hasn’t rained much at all. The parks are all waterlogged, the buggy is mud-spattered, and still we plod on hoping for better weather and better walking conditions.

Just like last year, I had a yearning to see snowdrops – lots of snowdrops, not just the handful in my garden – and I’d read this blog about the art of photographing snowdrops. So with our National Trust app to hand, we decided to visit Nymans, a property with gardens famous for their spring flowers. 

As the blog had warned me, it’s actually quite hard to take a good picture of snowdrops en masse – where to the naked eye they look like a lovely drift of white against the grass or soil, on a camera screen it suddenly becomes a few white dots against a dark background – rather disappointing. 

  
So, close-ups are the way to go – and this means getting low down to the ground, quite a challenge in winter.

You can make a single flower your focus:

 

Or a clump:

 

And I tried them against a grassy background and then a soil background to see which I preferred: 

   
To be honest, I don’t really have a favourite, but they all capture the spirit of how lovely it is there. The house itself is a semi-ruin following a fire in the 40s, and provides a rather Gothic, Thornfield Hall-style backdrop to the gardens.  


My favourite part of the grounds was the walled garden, which, rather than being a very formal tidy place, was a rambling old orchard with swathes of snowdrops under the trees and this rather ornate (and larger than life-size) bench – I imagined it might be the perfect place for the Selfish Giant to sit and admire the blossom on his trees.  
  
We’d had a very relaxed morning exploring the gardens – but our big mistake was venturing off-road after lunch to the woodland footpath which was a hideous sea of mud like I’ve never seen before – and I was at Glastonbury in 2005

The buggy barely survived what should only have been a short woodland walk – we should never have attempted it, sure, but for people without buggies, a bit of bark chipping over the really muddy bits would have helped a lot. 

 
It was a slightly frustrating end to the day, with the prospect of some major welly boot and buggy cleaning awaiting me when I got home.

My hope of finding another good buggy-friendly walk thwarted by mud; the rest of the grounds were fine for a gentle wander but not enough to be considered a serious weekend walk. 

By the time I’ve got round to writing this blog, the snowdrops are long gone, but the mud is not. To get back into proper hikes with a buggy, we need some of that mud to dry up, and quickly too, please!

Howling gales do not a happy gardener make

There’s not been much gardening done yet this year, and it’s been getting on my nerves – a wet and windy January has been followed by a wet and windy February, and the garden feels like a remote foreign land to me. 

I’ve seen it under snow, and much more waterlogged and neglected than it is now, but somehow the past month has made me feel much more cut off from it than ever before, and it has never looked as bleak and empty as it has done recently. 

I’ve only really been out the back lately to put out crumbs for the birds – I feel like I’m venturing into someone else’s territory, the domain of the cats, squirrels and foxes, not my back yard at all.

I suspect it’s because this time last year, I had a new baby on my hands and I wasn’t paying much attention to the garden – by the time March rolled around I was ready to get back out there and start gardening. 

This year, on the other hand, I’ve had time to notice how folorn the garden looks, every time I look outside, but the endless rain and howling winds have put me off wanting to actually go out there. It has not even been very cold, but everything has looked so dreary that I’ve felt rather uninspired. 

Perhaps I ought to have a baby every February to distract me from the lack of satisfying gardening I get done – rather extreme, I know – I suppose proper grown up gardeners use the time to read up on new plants and do their planning for spring, but that’s unlikely to be me being that organised any time soon.

We did have a mild-ish Sunday in January when I got into the front garden and did some tidying up – weeding and pruning back the roses, holly and hydrangea made me at least feel the public face of the garden was a bit more respectable. A quick bit of work that gives very satisfying results – every time I come in and out of the house I look at the fresh green hydrangea leaves just opening and the sprawling mass of holly now wrestled under control and feel quietly pleased.

Then of course the bulbs start to come up and again there is a quiet spike of joy – snowdrops back again in the exact same week! And there do seem to be more every year (I know that shouldn’t be a surprise, but it is so delightful to see!)

  
Plus we have grape hyacinth and crocuses…

   
 
My only regret is that I didn’t do a serious attempt at planting some more bulbs back in the autumn, to give us even more to enjoy now – but I’ve plugged a few gaps with some potted bulbs which should come up a bit later in spring, and I can at least be pleased that what I have put in already is spreading nicely and well-established – the snowdrops were all planted since we’ve moved here, as far as I remember, though the other bulbs were mostly there already.

One new treat which I’ve been delighted to see is some lovely pale primroses which my mum planted last spring – they were tiny seedlings from her garden, so wee and easy to miss last year I was constantly worried I’d pull them up as weeds by mistake, but one year on they are suddenly huge and in full bloom already – just lovely.

  
These two are on the north facing bed and seem to be thriving there under the kerria – some others she planted in the south facing bed shrivelled up completely, as have several other plants there which I’ve tried to keep an eye on. The ground on that side of the garden seems much poorer quality, dry and rock hard even in winter, and I wonder what I can find that will do well there? Something to ponder as we head into spring.

Four Seasons in Morden Hall Park

There’s been a bit of a blogging hiatus – every time this happens, I feel I have to justify it beyond simply ‘life got busy’, but this time there was an amusing excuse, involving a mobile phone dropped by a 3 year old whilst taking a photo on the meridian line at Greenwich. 

At least I can irritate her for years to come by reminding her ‘and then you dropped mummy’s phone on the meridian…’.

Luckily the phone was repaired within a couple of weeks, but various ideas for blogs I’ve been nurturing slipped by the wayside in that time, and I’ve got a bit behind schedule.

A place I’ve been wanting to write about is a favourite park of ours, Morden Hall Park. It’s a bit further afield than our local parks, but it has several exciting things that set it apart from the rest, and make it worth the trip – a really good adventure playground for climbing and scrambling, the river Wandle running right through the park with a mill-race, and a bridge so popular it has been rated one of the best Pooh-sticks bridges in the country, a rose garden, great paths for scooting, a National Trust cafe and a garden centre. Something for all the family, there…(well, provided you like gardens and cake).

What I particularly love about it, though, besides how child friendly and accessible it is, is an otherworldly quality that I don’t quite get in any of our other favourite parks.

We’ve seen it in all four seasons this year – it has been fascinating to see how it changes over the year.

It is still a very urban space – you can hear traffic humming most of the of the time, and pylons march across one edge of the site, and yet as you meander along the river, it feels utterly peaceful.

  
We visited in late winter, hoping to see snowdrops, and I noticed for the first time that what I thought was the far bank of the river was actually an island, with a statue in the middle – I immediately thought of ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn‘, and the mystery of it all was very pleasing. How did the statue get there? I don’t know, and it’s quite nice to not know.

Then we went back when spring was in full bloom, and I photographed this glorious display of wild flowers up against one of the old mill buildings – not there by accident, planted on purpose I’m sure, but still appealingly sprawling and wild, and a lacy white cloud of cow parsley by the river.

   
 
At the height of summer, the rose garden was tranquil (though I’m not sure how I managed to take a photo of it without any people there – it was actually full of picnickers and children paddling in the little stream), and the river in full Wind in the Willows mode. 

I left the big girl being entertained by (or with?) her dad in the adventure playground and had a little quiet walk along the river with the buggy, in total peace and silence a few paces away from where all the kids were charging around – I am convinced if I watch long enough there, I will see a kingfisher one day. It feels exactly the sort of place a kingfisher *should* be.

    
 
Then we came back in early autumn – not quite late enough for full autumnal colour, but everything was just beginning to turn, and it was lovely then, too.

  
Finally (in a rather back to front way), here is another of the views I love – the entrance to the park is through an unobtrusive archway in a brick wall, with roses climbing romantically over the door, a real Secret Garden feel, but no sense when you slip through this small archway of the large park lying beyond. 

I love that it reveals itself slowly, little by little, like a series of rooms opening up beyond that little door – and we haven’t finished exploring the whole place yet.

  
A place full of surprises and delights, and I hope we’ll be back to enjoy it for all seasons next year, too.