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….

  

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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!

The Great Project – half way point

We have just reached the end of week 7 of our extension. July seems a very, very long time ago, back when we had a working kitchen and a washing machine and a house not covered in layers of dust. 7 weeks since I was last able to get into my garden and do some proper weeding and pruning, or even just sit in the sunshine and enjoy my garden.

There have been some blips along the way – we learned that living without a boiler and only having an immersion heater does not mean guaranteed hot water on tap; the plumber who assured us immersions could be left on all the time was proved wrong after about 4 days.

Then there was the issue of trying to fit a skip and a portaloo on our drive, meaning all the useful stuff in the garage we thought we’d be able to get at, we can’t – until the garage door button was accidentally pressed, it opened against the portaloo and we now have a buckled garage door. Oops. (Here’s a picture of the skip being emptied, earlier this week).

Skip in action!

Skip in action!

The actual new room itself is starting to take shape – roof and three Velux windows, electrics going in, and walls for the cloakroom and teeny tiny utility room (more like a utility corridor with an alcove) are going up.

New room

New room – kitchen window on left, bi-fold door on right

There are two big things we’re waiting on now, one is the kitchen window and bi-fold doors which have to come from (where else?) Germany, and although we were given a 6 week lead time, we are told they’re already ahead of schedule (hurrah!). My well-worn joke is that wouldn’t it be great if the big truck arrived from Germany and we found we’d actually had a Huf Haus delivered? I can dream, anyway…

Then we are also waiting on the kitchen itself. This is also a 6 week wait, more or less, and whilst the room is beginning to feel like a real room, I can’t quite visualise the kitchen in the space we’ve created, and am still slightly worried there won’t be room for everything. We’ve already lost the space where the boiler was going to go, and it’s been relegated to the utility, but thankfully this does mean we gain a cupboard.

In lieu of being able to do anything really constructive with the kitchen yet, we have been planning out the rest of the room in our heads. The two things we decided we really needed were a new dining table and chairs – the old ones are well past their best – and a new sofa, as we’ll have space for a bigger one and my well-loved but battered red Sofa Workshop model won’t really suit the colours in the new room.

We are both keen on having a corner sofa, for the full relaxation potential of sitting overlooking the garden with feet up and a cup of tea (though which adult exactly gets the prime feet-up position is still up for debate…) and we liked the Finlay sofa from John Lewis…until we saw the price, so we are now on the look out for a cheaper alternative to that, although of course the other key criteria is that it must be comfortable.

I was amazed to discover when plonking down on many, many sofas, how some of them are far too soft – just like Mummy Bear’s bed, you sink down and wonder how you are ever going to get up again. On the other hand, neither do you want a sofa that’s too firm, in the ‘dentist’s waiting room’ style.

Then we come to the dining table – my original goal was a proper family table, made of good solid wood, no MDF or veneers, thank you very much! On the other hand, it’s not a country kitchen with Aga and chocolate retriever, so I can’t have a lovely Victorian pine table, as much as I’d like one, and nor do I want something too bland and modern. (I dutifully looked at Oak Furniture Village, seeing as they are so keen to sell me something on their adverts, but that’s definitely not my taste).

On the John Lewis site, I really, really liked the Harmony table, until I realised it didn’t come with any dining chairs as standard, just benches with high backs which remind me a bit too much of school or church, and are not very practical compared to a bench that can slide under the table.

John Lewis recommended the chairs to go with this table were the Eames moulded plastic chairs – well, I know, it’s Eames, you can’t really go wrong, can you? That is until I tried sitting on one, and discovered that although it’s comfortable, it’s not what I’d call £328 comfortable.

And as a friend pointed out, why buy Eames chairs when they are going to be scribbled over and dribbled on with bolognese sauce for the next few years? – you can always by designer furniture later on. Then we discovered that the bog-standard moulded plastic chairs in the John Lewis cafe were just as comfortable for a fraction of the price…so those are now on the ‘maybe’ list.

Whilst in JL, we also spotted a table that seemed to answer everything we needed – Mira has a sleek, unfussy style that would go perfectly with our kitchen without veering too much into the retro 50s style (e.g. Ercol) which I like very much but am not sure I could live with. The Mira range also has a bench without a back which would slide perfectly under the table and be great functional seating for children.

We were quite happily decided that this was the table for us, until I checked the website and saw some of the reviews: “The only thing to be aware of is that the table top stains very easily…currently looking for a product to protect without effecting [sic] the matt/untreated-style finish”, and “Secondly, the table stains so easily, every mark shows. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of protective coating on the wood. It’s a great table for short-term use but we have now had ours for less than 6 months and it is starting to look worn and tired. Such a shame”.

That threw up a big red flag – sure, we have an oilcloth we could put over the table, but the legs and the bench would still be vulnerable, and at the moment we are going through a stage of a *lot* of toddler scribbling, on floors, the sofa, her own clothes, whatever she can get her hands on. We need a heavy duty table that can take a lot of knocks, and I’m not sure Mira is that table.

So we are back at square one with the table. I’ve looked at M&S, Debenhams, Ikea, House of Fraser etc, and can’t see anything else I like as much as the ones in John Lewis. I’d happily go for the Harmony table if I could decide I liked the benches with backs after all – but then, that table wasn’t actually on show in either of the shops we visited, and do I really want to order a table without seeing it for real?

We do have a back-up table, my old kitchen table from the old house, which seats 4 comfortably, but we really want a proper table sitting at least 6 or 8 in time for Christmas. With that deadline in mind, I need to keep hunting!

A walk around…Oxford Botanic Garden

I am not sure quite why I am bothering to write anything for this blog now there’s a great opening line, as I could just upload all my photos from this trip and it still wouldn’t do justice to how much I loved the Oxford Botanic Gardens.

We had a long weekend planned in Oxford as the Mr was at a conference – and the Botanic Gardens was top of my list of places to visit. The colleges all look lovely but not the kind of place you can snoop on a weekday (especially not in exam season), climbing church towers not really toddler-friendly, and the museums I suspect she will enjoy much more in a few years.

So I had the rare luxury of going somewhere I wanted to go – and why not Britain’s oldest botanic garden?

Oxford Botanic Garden

Oxford Botanic Gardens – view across the walled garden

I was completely out of my depth identifying the trees, though many were clearly very old, but idling around the flower beds I spotted a few favourite plants – alliums, irises, columbines.

Irises

Irises

Allium

Allium

A new one to me was (what appeared to be) a white version of a verbena. I love purple verbena but the alba variety is gorgeous…one to try and get hold of one day, if I can find it.

Verbena alba

Verbena alba

The gardens spill out from a formal walled area into lawns which end abruptly at the river’s edge – a sheer (unfenced) drop which the toddler teetered on the brink of, terrifyingly, to watch ducks and punts going by.

River Cherwell

River Cherwell

Along the river side of the gardens we also found the glasshouses, not on the Kew scale but still very impressive. Lilies, cacti, carnivorous plants.

Water lilies

Water lilies – Nymphaea

Golden Barrel Cactus

Echinocactus grusonii – commonly known as Golden Barrel Cactus

Finally, and most importantly of all, there was a bench I needed to find. I had done my research, read up on other blogs, looked at Google Image Search, and I was determined to find Lyra and Will’s bench.

It really was the loveliest place I could have imagined – under a spreading tree, with its back to the river, and a view of flower beds stretching away towards the church towers and college walls.

Will and Lyra's bench

Will and Lyra’s bench

View from Will and Lyra's bench, Oxford

View from Will and Lyra’s bench – toddler in foreground

We found the names Will and Lyra scratched into the wood, and I wondered how many people will fight to sit there on Midsummer Day, and dream of lost loves?

His Dark Materials is one of those books I wish had been written when I was younger – I can take or leave Harry Potter, I haven’t tackled the Hunger Games or A Song of Ice and Fire (and I don’t intend to), but if only, if only I had been 14 or so when I first encountered Lyra and Will, it would have been a life-moulding experience.

As it is, I love the books and I re-read them religiously every year, but I know they won’t quite bind themselves to my heart the way they would have if I’d read them in the crucible of teenage angst and fury. As it is, I feel a kind of nostalgia for that white-hot intensity, but mainly a relief that it has passed.

Instead, I grow my garden, I water, I nurture and plant and weed and dead-head and prune – gentle, grown-up, non-threatening pursuits – but just for a moment, I got to be Lyra sitting on her bench, and it was just perfect.

Sitting on Lyra's bench

Sitting on Lyra’s bench

Front garden snooping: the uniformity of suburbia

One thing I’ve noticed about the time I spend traipsing back and forth with a toddler to various playgroups, crèches and parks is…how *little* I notice, relatively speaking.

We’d been retracing our steps along one particular road for several weeks, in the slightly ‘naicer’ part of town, and I’d been enjoying the general ambience of attractive suburban houses with well-kept gardens – houses like mine, but slightly smarter, with slightly posher cars outside – but without dawdling, as we’re usually on our way home and have other things on our mind, namely how soon the toddler can get to her milk and CBeebies.

Last week, however, was the last walk in that direction for a while, as a particular playgroup is coming to an end and our routine is changing. So I decided, for a change, to dawdle, and take some pictures on the way.

First of all, I saw a flower you don’t often see in the city, and a real harbinger of spring for me, Lesser Celandine. Nothing quite so heart-lifting as these lovely yellow starry flowers.

Lesser Celandine

Further along the road, though, I suddenly started noticing a rather depressing uniformity – rockery after rockery, and in virtually every garden, this rather garish lime-green plant.

I have no idea what it is, but the ubiquity of it reminded me of elephant’s ear, which I was seeing in front gardens everywhere last year (including my own, though I can’t quite face the epic task of digging it out and am reluctantly letting it thrive there).

Unknown lime-green plant

Granted, perhaps this lime green Triffid has self-seeded across various gardens, (in which case, I wonder why they haven’t dug it out…) and perhaps these people actually like it, in which case, good luck to them, but it won’t be welcomed in my garden I’m afraid.

I then spotted a slightly more subtle pleasure – beautiful lichen on a wooden gate post. They always say lichen can only flourish in good air conditions – the more lichen, the lower the air pollution – so I hope that’s a good sign…

Lichen

I was just ready to push on home when I spotted another garden I had walked past many times on the other side of the road, and never noticed – which just shows that hidden gems can be there amongst suburban uniformity.

This one had evidently drawn inspiration from Sissinghurst, as there was a beautiful white floral theme – including hyacinths and (new to me), a really lovely white forget-me-not, which I would love to have in my garden if I can find it somewhere!

White forget-me-not

Beyond that, though, what struck me about this garden was the variety of shrubs and trees used to form a backdrop for the white planting – a perfect contrast of green and white.

They even had topiary dotted around, rather than in a formal hedge – very random and apparently disorganised, but SO pleasing to the eye compared to all those other identikit gardens. So many different shades of green, and a variety of heights and textures which helps offset the otherwise basic colour scheme.

White garden

I would just like to salute those people, whoever they are, for their fine front garden. The all-white colour scheme is such a classic, and it makes me wonder what I could do with my front garden if it wasn’t already full of pink, blue, yellow, orange, red and purple flowers? (Yes, it currently resembles an explosion in a paint factory, but what can I say, I rather like it…)

Our front garden

Our front garden, spring 2014

 

The Tale of an Enormous Cabbage

In September, Brockwell Park hosted one of my favourite events of the year – the Lambeth Country Show. Imagine a funfair combined with live music, sheep shearing, goat milking, petting zoo and an amazingly diverse food market, and you have an idea – but that’s not even half of it.

Cake display

All the cakes!

The show is usually held in July, and I’d missed the previous two as I’d been on holiday (and was seriously considering planning my holidays more carefully in 2012 so that I didn’t miss it a third year in a row, it’s that good!), but this year Lambeth Council announced thanks to a lack of security staff and portaloos, due to the Olympics (yes, because there were LOADS of security staff and portaloos there…), the show would be cancelled.

Following protests from the local community, the council relented, and in a improbably gracious and considerate decision, announced that the show would be held in September instead.

I applaud the move to early autumn for two reasons and hope Lambeth keep it in September from now on – selfishly so that it doesn’t clash with my holidays again, but more importantly, the show becomes in effect a Harvest Festival, and means fruit, flowers and vegetables can be shown off at their very best.

My highlight of the weekend, apart from admiring Vauxhall City Farm’s guinea pigs, was the visit to the marquee which contains all the traditional Country Show goodies – jars of jam, perfectly round onions, cakes, crocheted loo-roll dollies (yes, they still exist…) and flower displays.

Loo roll crochet dolly

The 70s called, it wants its loo roll dolly back…

By the time I went round, the prizes had already been awarded, so cakes were missing slices and some of the wares were a little past their best, but there was still plenty to admire, including these simple and attractive displays of fresh herbs in vases…

Herbs in vases

Herbs in vases

…alongside these rather more dramatic flower arrangements – again, the change of season meant autumnal colours and Michaelmas daisies could be incorporated to pleasing effect.

Autumnal flowers

Autumnal flowers

This vase of wheatfield flowers, including ox-eye daisies and cornflowers was perhaps my favourite piece, although the worthies had only awarded it second prize.

Wheatfield flowers

Wheatfield flowers

Finally, the most impressive thing of all – the most enormous cabbage you’ve ever seen, outside a fairy tale. Lovely.

Cabbages

The most enormous cabbage!

I was pleased to see the show was as big as I’ve ever seen it, and very busy – I do hope, budget cuts notwithstanding, Lambeth keep the show going and consider holding it permanently in September from now on, and next year I will make a point of not going on holiday that weekend.

A walk around…Box Hill

This blog dates back to the beginning of September which just shows how far behind I am…we are already well into autumn and these pictures feel like the very last hurrah of summer.

Box Hill is another place I’d been wanting to visit for a while, having first encountered it in Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ (although I have always wondered if the Box Hill mentioned there was the one in Bath, which I now associate with the rather more gory Box Tunnel events of ‘Being Human’), and more recently watched it as the site of the Olympics cycle road race. I also knew it was a famous spot for chalk downland flower meadows and orchids, although I realised we were in the wrong season for those.

I suspect late August/early September is probably when most things are past their best, but I still managed to spot a few interesting plants – firstly, a wild campanula which was so similar to the garden varieties it looked very incongruous in a flower meadow.

Wild campanula

Wild campanula

Besides a few usual suspects like ragwort, knapweed and scabious, amongst some dried thistle-heads was this example which had lost its fluffy seeds and, dried out, had a amazing metallic sheen to it – looking just like a child’s drawing of the sun, or some expensive piece of jewellery.

Thistle head

Thistle head

Apart from wandering across the flower meadows, we tried to follow a trail through the wooded part of the hill but got thoroughly lost – no 3G signal meant no blue dot to help us on Google maps, and the signposts for the various trail options were either missing or rather confusing. The paths through the undergrowth are so labyrinthine they had me in mind of Hansel and Gretel – we should have been dropping white pebbles or unwinding a thread like Theseus to find our way back!

We eventually emerged from the woods near Broadwood’s Folly, a ruined tower built by Broadwood of the pianos fame, and managed to work out from there a route which eventually brought us back to the car park.

Broadwood's Folly

Broadwood’s Folly

I’m pleased to report, though, that mentioning the lack of signposting on Twitter got me a friendly response from the National Trust acknowledging that they needed to do some work on this. Always good to see an organisation with a social media team on the ball! Hopefully if we go back in spring for the orchid season, we might be able to find our way round a little better.

Either way, we couldn’t miss the main viewpoint looking out over the valley – still sporting the Olympic rings – and from there it was a quick walk, fortunately, to the tea room.

Olympic rings at Box Hill

Olympic rings at Box Hill

Definitely a place I want to revisit in the spring, and next time, be prepared with a proper map, baby carrier and walking boots to do a serious hike.