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).

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A walk around…Kew Gardens

I have mixed experiences, shall we say, of visiting Kew.

The first time I went, in 2001, I had a lovely day there with my mum, but the memory is tainted by the fact I got mugged the next day. The photos from our day at Kew are the last ones, unknowingly, I had of my nice burgundy bowling ball style handbag which I was about to be relieved of. Grrr.

The next time was a much bigger success – it was during an exhibition of work by Dale Chihuly, the glass sculptor, and his work was, to me, the perfect match for the setting. Elegant spirals and globes of coloured glass floating on the lake in front of the great Palm House was really quite special.

The most recent visits have had their up moments, but have been hampered by rain. We went in January, when everyone was on the verge of being ill, and it was a struggle to have the energy to do anything much. Then we went again at the start of the summer holidays, on a day which had started out lovely, but clouded over within minutes of getting in the car.

Now, there are plus points of a wet day at Kew – the greenhouses are good whatever the weather, and there is an acceptable indoor play area for children which tries to shoehorn in some plant facts, but is mostly just fun.

The other plus side is, in between the showers, you get to see everything looking lush and green with raindrops on roses everywhere you look.

The downside is, there is a lot of ground to cover between the different indoor areas, and surprisingly little tree cover along the main paths, as they are such broad walks with flower borders, the trees are set far back from the path.

Still, we found plenty to explore in the middle of the day before the rain set in – we went to the Hive, a light and sound installation which mimics the activity of bees.

We'd seen it back in January in a fairly dormant state, but now it was in full flow with lights flashing on and off continually, and very restful ambient music playing. If this is a bee's life, I like it.

(Photos show the exterior and interior of the Hive).

From there it's a short hop through the rain to the Princess of Wales greenhouse where the lily pads (see picture near the top) and a real actual iguana were the big draws.

Then, with rain getting harder, we slogged around the lake and through the Alpine garden to get to a toilet stop, (this is another pacing problem, toilets all seem rather awkwardly located, too close to each other and not very close to the big greenhouses).

Then on to the Palm House for a bit of respite from the cold rain – of course we didn't really dry off, just steamed in the humid air – and a final trek back to the car, wishing for a little sunshine so we could have stayed another hour.

Plenty of nice borders and details to snap on the way back, though….(love the giant ornamental thistles, I keep seeing these everywhere at the moment).

I cannot say these wet days out at Kew have been a disappointment when we have still managed to see and do so much, it is just a shame to leave with so much more unseen! I would love to take the children to the pagoda and the treetop walk, and down one of the long avenues which leads to the river, but it's just not doable on a wet day.

Plus the map indicates all sorts of hidden gardens and less well-visited areas I'd love to explore properly.

None of that matters to the children, of course; the indoor play and the very good outside playground next to it would be enough for them, but I hope they'll get more out of it as they get older. One of them may still have an inner botanist yearning to get out. Just a botanist that needs a good sunny day to really appreciate the best that Kew has to offer.

Summer snooping, and assorted chaos

Well, it’s been a funny couple of months. No photos from attractive country locations to share, because we’ve been minus one driving husband for the past 6 weeks, and minus the car for half of that too.

Way back in May some time (I think?) the Mr tripped over a kerb coming out of the station, and several painful hours later decided he’d better take it to A&E. It was apparently only a minor chip to the bone, so he was wearing a boot for 2 weeks. Fine. 

Two weeks later, they realised the X-ray had missed a more serious fracture and the boot would be on for another 4 weeks. Damn.

He was managing alright with the boot outdoors and hobbling round at home, commuting the shortest possible journey in terms of walking distance – bus to the damn Northern Line, my nemesis for many years, but driving was out of the question.

Then we came downstairs one morning to find we’d been burgled and the car had gone anyway – this was at the end of May. We were dazed, but relieved that more hadn’t been taken from the house (just laptops and iPads, all backed up so nothing personal lost – always back up, folks!) but getting a new car was going to be an almighty great hassle.

It was a week later – 1.30am on the night of Bank Holiday Monday, we had the call – Police, we’ve found your car, can we come and collect the spare key in 10 minutes so we can move it? To be woken in the night with amazingly good news was, well, good, but befuddling. I was very sleepy but remember insisting to the Mr ‘check before you open the door, check it really is a policeman’.

Waiting for forensics, and insurers to sort out changing the locks took another few weeks, but the car is back, the door which was forced has new bolts top and bottom and we are throughly relieved all round. 

It has felt very strange not zooming out and about at weekends as we are used to doing, but then it was also the season of birthday parties so we’ve had that to keep us busy, plus the local paddling pool and trips to Greenwich and the Horniman at half term.

I’ve had to fall back on my local patch for admiring flowers – a few favourite houses I like to pass by, and a few new spots as well.


These were spotted in the garden of flats just by Streatham Common – amazing pink daisies, the bees loved them, and the gorgeous colour combination of orange poppies with white nigella.


A view of my very favourite local garden (featured before, I’m sure) – house painted strawberry ice cream pink, which always reminds me of the ‘strawberry pink villa’ in My Family and Other Animals, although SE London does not resemble Corfu in many other ways, I imagine. 

The planting is always beautifully done in purples, reds, and pinks to complement  the house, and the big girl decided she loved the ‘umbrella flowers’ – striped petunias really do look a bit like beach parasols! So I hunted the local garden centres until I found a striped petunia for her. 

A riot of even more purples and pinks: hydrangea, geranium, hollyhocks, clematis. Particularly love that shade of hydrangea – none of mine are flowering yet and one of the front garden ones has barely got going this year at all. Like most of the front garden, it’s rather a mess, but that’s another story.


Something from my own garden I can be proud of, our lovely white rose in the back garden (sadly scentless, but otherwise one of my favourites). I spent a good half hour this morning dead-heading it, so it’s now looking much more sparse, but it always grows back so vigorously I never worry too much about it. 

On the other hand, one of the other roses which was still flowering, I noticed was looking a bit bare in places – so I looked a bit closer…


See those little critters? Here’s a closer look.


It must be the Very Hungry Caterpillar and his friends! Luckily we have enough rose leaves to go round, and we are enjoying doing 30 Days Wild, so this was our ‘wild thing’ for the day. Quite thrilling for small children and me too.


The car/broken foot curfew is almost up, but next few weekends are busy with the school fair and other fixtures – Lambeth Country Show of course – but we will be back to days in the country soon, I hope.

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!

A walk around…Helmingham Hall

As promised in the last blog, there was one more place we visited in Suffolk which deserved a blog entry all of its own – a garden so stunning I am still not quite sure it was real.

Just a few miles from where we were staying is Helmingham Hall. The house itself is an impressive moated Elizabethan pile, but is not open to visitors – in any case, the Chelsea-medal winning gardens are what people (by people, meaning ‘me’) come to see. 

  
You approach the main garden down an avenue of fruit trees, and then wind through a wild flower meadow and woodland area before crossing a bridge into the walled garden – all the while getting tantalising glimpses, Secret Garden-style, of the treasures within. 

  
It was well worth the wait to see what was inside….

   
   
What seemed like miles and miles of borders, all fully packed from front to back with flowers in bloom. Not a weed in sight, not a plant out of place, everything so tightly packed you could barely see a patch of soil.

The amount of effort that goes into making gardens like this, I can scarcely imagine. The planning required to get the right heights of plants in the right places, the seasonal planting, the colour schemes, just seems exhausting to me – who can’t even keep one raised bed consistently planted and looking anything other than patchy and shambolic!

Of course this garden has its peaks and troughs too – the wild flower meadow was past its best when we saw it, and the sweet peas were all but done, but we saw the ‘late summer’ borders just coming to their peak.

  
This border particularly impressed me with its composition – the contrast of light and dark foliage, the ivy providing a uniform backdrop to the sharp oranges and yellows of the flowers – but all offset by the graceful verbena providing height and a restful purple hint after all that citrus.

Now, I’d never think of planting a bed like this. I don’t know my shrubs well enough to know what background foliage to put in, I prefer blues and purples and pinks so I avoid yellow and orange flowers – so I miss out on the striking contrasts a display like this can give you. 

Well obviously I don’t also have years of experience or a fleet of gardeners helping me, either, but this picture does give me some sense of what I’d like my raised bed to be like – lots of different shapes and heights, no gaps or bare earth, lots of contrast, a sense of there being waves of colour laid over darker foliage. Well, it’s something to work towards.

Besides the borders, there were avenues of runner beans and squash, lavender in full bloom, beds of globe artichoke, sweet corn and courgette, and lovely flowers everywhere you looked.

    

  

   
 
Lots of mental notes of plants I’d like in the garden one day…alliums, more poppies, ornamental thistles…plus, the bare bones of the garden structure itself was beautiful, too – the gates, the statues and urns all looking exactly the part.

   
    
 
There was even space for a little topiary of the less conventional kind.

   
 
On the other side of the house was a smaller garden holding a traditional knot garden, mainly planted with herbs.

 

There was also, I was relieved to see, what appeared to be a bit of private fenced-off garden for the family to be away from prying eyes (where else to put your swing ball or hang out your washing?)

I can’t imagine what it’s like to have this as your real, actual everyday garden – I wonder if the owners do go and sit in the main walled garden when all the visitors are gone, or do they see it as more of a stage set for the glorious flowers, rather than somewhere to actually live in, to belong?  
Truth be told, I don’t spend much time sitting in my garden, either – sitting in the house looking at it, yes, but not in it. That is something I’d like to change next year if we can sort some better garden furniture.

I would recommend Helmingham to anyone who even slightly likes gardens – though be prepared to come away with serious envy of all the plants you’ll never have time or space to grow.
Plus the pretty, rather shabby  stables courtyard cafe gave us a chance to watch baby house martins being fed in their nests while we ate our lunch – how lovely is that? 

I’ll be making a plan to come back to Helmingham one day -maybe next time a guided tour….

  

A walk around Polesden Lacey

Our efforts to find another buggy friendly walk took us on a rare spring day, that actually felt springlike, to Polesden Lacey, a National Trust property I had never heard of before. It was in the direction of Box Hill, so having been there and knowing how lovely the scenery was round there, I was keen to explore more. 

As I grew up in flat-as-a-pancake Essex, I am always surprised to find rolling, proper hilly countryside only a short drive from London – there is even the odd bit of heathland in *Croydon*! The countryside round the village I grew up in has its own charm and will always be dear to me, but nothing can quite beat the drama and beauty of the North Downs (by Home Counties standards at any rate) – and Polesden Lacey turned out to be a bit of a hidden gem.

  

The house itself is probably not remembered for any great architectural significance, nor is it particularly ancient, and the historical connections are mainly of interest due to the Royal Family (George VI and the Queen Mother honeymooned there, but no great scandal or drama associated with the place as far as I could see). 

It’s the setting, on the edge of a valley, which really makes Polesden Lacey special. What struck me first as unusual was that the main facade of the house looked out along the gardens rather than down into the valley – the ground slopes away so steeply to one side that the gardens are mainly in front and behind the house, creating a very linear structure. This lends itself nicely to creating various garden ‘zones’, some more wild and some more formal, with hedging and walls to divide up the different areas.

  

The buggy-friendly walk takes you along a sandy track away from the house, past a woodland play area, (nicely done, but not wildly adventurous for our mountain goat of a girl) and then doubles back on itself to take in the Long Walk, a level terrace path hidden behind a tall hedge which gives you amazing views across the valley. (See above)

Of course the land across the valley is all part of the estate so it was a beautifully managed vista with what looked like a Wealden-style rustic cottage folly nestled among the trees, a farm in the valley bottom and sheep dotting the landscape in all directions. It was all too perfect not to feel like you were being stage-managed, but when the views are this lovely, who cares, frankly?

There were several longer trails that took you down into the valley – even one that would have been accessible for buggies and wheelchairs assuming you had enough spare hands to help open gates – but we decided to stay inside the grounds themselves, and went on next to the kitchen gardens.

 

This was a scene straight out of Mr MacGregor’s garden, from the rows of lettuces and radishes to the potting shed – the perfect place for Peter Rabbit to hide. The gardens actually grow food that is used in the kitchens and cut flowers for displays in the house – not only sustainable and zero food miles, but actually using the gardens for the purpose they were designed for – awesome and very sensible at the same time.

The other decorative walled gardens weren’t quite at their best when we visited – no roses out yet – but there was a great wilderness area to explore, across a little footbridge from the main garden, and a rockery that was full of interest for a 3-year-old, with little paths winding up and down it to have a proper explore, and lots of ferns and alpine flowers to admire.
  

After lunch, we went inside the house, which had not nearly so much to amuse a small child, although there was a suitcase of costumes to ‘dress up like an Edwardian child’ and a few other hands-on exhibits – more of this, please, is what I’d say! The lavish interior of the house – gold, embossed wallpaper, Faberge, more gold – is a sharp contrast to the more simple pleasures of the gardens outside, but it was certainly worth looking around (and more of the interior will be opened up in future years, they say).

There was a good bit more to the estate than this – an orchard, another woodland area and huge open lawns where families were picnicking, plus the cafe and enormous gift shop with its ubiquitous plant sale. (That is, plant sales seem to be ubiquitous at National Trust properties now, and I ain’t complaining, I thoroughly approve!)

I hadn’t been to a National Trust stately pile for years, I don’t think, and I’m sure this one during the week is full of coach parties trekking round the house- but it was lovely at a weekend to see it full of families enjoying the gardens too. 

Best of all, I discovered later that the cottage across the valley is actually a youth hostel, Tanner’s Hatch. It is inaccessible by car, so you have to walk or cycle from Box Hill station, or leave your car in a lay-by up the lane. You can cook outside on a fire pit, and with no permanent warden I reckon if you struck lucky you could have the place to yourself. 

We aren’t yet at the stage of planning a weekend away without children, but when we do, it’s this place I want to go to, it’s gone straight to the top of my list of most-wanted places to stay. We will definitely be back!