A walk around…Wakehurst Place

In between the dismal weather, we have had a few nice days out in the country recently, but a couple of trips to Kent have reminded me that, no matter how lovely the countryside, the hum of a motorway is never far away. When your own back garden in inner London is quieter than an idyllic Kent valley, you know something isn’t quite right.

That isn’t a criticism you could level at Wakehurst Place, where we went a few weekends ago. It wasn’t a particularly nice day, but neither was it cold or wet, and the place has an atmosphere no grey skies could dampen.

For a start, there was colour:

I hadn’t known really what to expect – I knew it was an RHS site as well as a National Trust one, and I knew it had the Millennium Seed Bank, but beyond that, I went in with no preconceptions. To start with, it was country house landscaping of the kind I’ve come to expect – then to turn a corner and find the huge banks of colour, almost took my breath away.

The bright pink swathe of whatever it was in the top picture (not a rhododendron, maybe an azalea?) was the most impressive, I nearly missed it as the path had snaked down and round the pond – I happened to turn and look back, and saw the flowers looking like a fuchsia pink waterfall tumbling into the water.

From the landscaped areas around the mansion, we took a path which dropped steeply down a valley and into proper woodland (though being RHS woodland, there were still flowering shrubs popping up everywhere, and of course bluebells).

As the path dropped further down towards a lake, I began to appreciate the calm even more – though also began to worry about the walk back UP and the likelihood of one child doing a face plant and the other needing a wild wee (yes, both happened). The site is HUGE – we saw maybe less than half of it, and we never made it into the Seed Bank either.

It was the Mr who pointed out, though, how quiet it was. I had felt the difference, but I hadn’t been able to put my finger on it. No aeroplanes, though we weren’t far from Gatwick, no motorway drone, no screaming kids except our own.

Deep in that valley, we felt completely cut off – not in an oppressive ‘in space no one can hear you scream’ way, but in a peaceful, ‘Lake Isle of Inisfree‘ way. Give me a little cabin there by the lakeshore and I’d have been quite happy (provided there were no mozzies).

The climb back up to the mansion was much slower, with grumbling children in tow – we are well out of the days of buggy walks now, though much of the site could have been negotiated with a buggy. I stopped to admire raindrops on Alchemilla, one of my favourite plants, late flowering narcissus, and those gorgeous red unidentified leaves. There was more gorgeousness to come – a walled garden full of tulips. I must forget there was ever a time I didn’t really like tulips (did I ever really think they were too garish? Look at these lovely subtle colours!)

We also found a well-stocked mud kitchen, where a t-shirt got irrevocably ruined, and a potting shed where children could plant sunflower seeds.

Plus I haven’t even mentioned yet the impressive nature-inspired sculptures dotted around. I liked these ones in the bee-friendly garden which looked like giant seed-heads, and also a bit like (now I come to think of it), the 2012 Olympic torch.

And I nearly forgot to include the troop of goslings we encountered, and the very tame pheasants wandering around.

Looking back at the photos, I am amazed we packed so much in – and still so much more to see when we next go back.

Definitely adding to the list of favourite places, and when I need to escape the pavements grey, I’ll think myself back into that valley where the rest of the world seemed to drop away.

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Struggling into spring

I never quite understood what TS Eliot had against April, or lilacs (mine flowers in May, not April, anyway – the photo below shows its buds still squeezed tightly up in the last week of April), but this spring has certainly proved that April can indeed be the cruellest month.

As the Easter holidays approached, we’d had a few glorious sunny days, when it felt like the year had turned the corner – the clocks had gone forward, the evenings were light, and finally things had begun to grow.

Then, the Easter weekend forecast began to grow worse, and it rained solidly virtually all day on Good Friday. Easter Saturday and Sunday stayed dry, more or less, but there was an iron grey cloud overhead all day; the sun simply vanished. It felt more like February than April.

Spring seemed to give up on us: I can count on one hand how many daffodils grew in the garden this year – it was as if the leaves came up, but the flowers thought ‘nah, can’t be bothered’.

Easter Monday we spent in Greenwich, where the Observatory was a good indoor distraction for a child ‘doing space’ at school next term – but what a dismal sight compared to the normal view across Greenwich Park! I felt sorry for the tourists seeing one of my favourite places at its absolute worst.

Having lost most of February half term to a vomiting bug, I had been banking on the Easter fortnight to be a chance for fresh air, sightseeing and fun, but fitting around work commitments, play dates and the ever worsening weather forecast meant we had little chance for proper outdoorsy exploring anywhere new or exciting.

There was one glorious, perfect sunny day in the first week of the holiday, but various plans already made that day meant we had no time to go further than Streatham Common (when it looks this lovely, though, who’s complaining?)

The next day, which started out grey but got better, we went to Crystal Palace Park, another old favourite, which as luck would have it had a funfair – I felt I was giving the children one unadulterated fun day which didn’t also involve me running errands, making a delivery or doing some other dull adult task en route.

And coming across lesser celandine spreading itself across waste ground in dappled sunlight (just outside the park) will always make my day – so that was, overall, a good day. That was the last sunshine we saw for quite some time, though.

Of course, we’ve had cold, wet and windy weather in April before – looking back at past blogs at this time of year I can see I’m always complaining about the rain and the lack of spring warmth – but there was something about the cold grey spell managing to last exactly the length of the Easter holiday which was relentless in its ability to grind me down.

We did find indoor stuff to do, naturally – the Horniman, Tate Modern, Flip Out, swimming, visits from friends and a thrilling trip to meet Doorkins, the famous Cat of Southwark Cathedral – but the endless grey skies were a monotonous backdrop to all the photos I took.

The day at Tate Modern was eerie and oppressive, with the City gradually disappearing into fog over the course of the afternoon – memorable, certainly, and perhaps a glimpse of London Dickens might recognise – but dismal when compared to past sunny day outings across the Wobbly Bridge and watching the street entertainers.

Into the second week, I felt the weather was beginning to troll me – the forecast when school went back was suddenly lovely, heading up to 24 degrees or more.

This felt like torment – all the fun times we could have been having, but the children will be back at school and preschool and I will be locked into the usual routine racing up and down the hill between them. Not fair!

In the end, it doesn’t really matter. The small ones had a fun time, and the mini heatwave, when it came, was still lovely. (We seem now to have settled back into more typical April showers followed by sunshine with a side serving of brisk winds, but the weather is set to worsen again this weekend – THANKS FOR THAT, APRIL).

Still, after the short intense burst of warmth and sun, the garden has finally caught up with itself, and May bank holiday weekend weather is looking promising – but then I’m spending it in the Lakes, famous for its prolonged dry spells and sunshine….oh well!

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.

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!

It’s raining, it’s pouring…

This spring has given me quite a different perspective on my garden.

Last year, the endless snow and cold spells meant that I didn’t really get to see the garden in its full spring glory…it limped into life, in fits and starts between the frosts and snow, rather than bursting into bloom.

This time round, I feel like I’ve had the chance to appreciate it properly, and after the ground had a good soaking back in early April, it was almost as if – woompf! – it exploded into colour and lush greens overnight. We had some friends over at Easter and one of them commented how good the garden was looking – and I had to admit that most of it really wasn’t our own work.

Clematis

Our lovely, if all-too-brief flowering clematis

As I’ve realised – and what I couldn’t see last spring when the garden was struggling to grow at all – we’ve inherited good ‘bone structure’ from the previous owners. The lilac, clematis, bay tree, rowan, winter jasmine, and so on are all in good shape, and the different colours and textures of background shrubs give us a good baseline to work from. It feels like everything I’ve done so far has just been tinkering round the edges. And to think, shamefully, that I initially thought it was just a load of boring old shrubs when we moved in!

Lilac in foreground, cherry tree in background

Lilac in foreground, cherry tree in background

However, since then there has been some pretty serious work done. The ugly prickly half-dead tree being choked by ivy at the back of the garden has been heavily chopped back, letting light into the most gloomy corner – and not before time, as a skip was backed down the side alley to get to a neighbours building works, and even MORE had to be chopped down, to allow the skip to get past!

I am hoping that by providing a bit of dappled light into a previously fully-shaded area, we can cover some of the bare earth with shade-loving plants and those that are good at spreading to provide ground cover. So far, a vinca, pulmonaria and a harts-tongue fern are all settling in nicely, though the weeds and marigolds that seem to grow everywhere are also creeping in.

Then there has been the issue of the bluebells. I dug out a small patch of them earlier in the spring, and put in forget-me-nots and pansies, my standard springtime go-to blooms, and when the bluebells came up, it briefly created a lovely bed of glowing pinks and blues: up there with the nicest things I’ve ever managed to plant by accident or design, I think.

Perfect combination of bluebells and pink/blue forget-me-nots. My idea of garden heaven.

Perfect combination of bluebells and pink/blue forget-me-nots. My idea of garden heaven.

On the downside, though, it lasted all of a week, and I was confronted with the less pleasant side of an idyllic swathe of bluebells – pulling up hundreds of dead flowers and clearing up the rotting leaves makes me wonder if the week of loveliness is really worth it. So, this afternoon, I stood in the rain and dug out a load more bluebells.

Now, to decide what to put in their place? So far, a very sweet pale pink hydrangea which was a gift from friends, and I’ve just added a few favourite plants which I miss from the old garden – alchemilla, (lady’s mantle) which always looks nice after the rain (a definite plus at the moment), the Alba (white) variety of thrift, and to provide a bit of height at the back, a salvia.

Plus, some of the plants I originally moved from the old garden or saved as seeds are doing much better now – the heucheras are thriving, and snapdragon seeds I saved 2 years ago are putting on a lovely display now.

Pale pink hydrangea loveliness

Pale pink hydrangea loveliness

The next question is when we’ll actually get to enjoy the garden properly. Most of the time lately the toddler and I are standing with our noses pressed up to the window, her intoning ‘Rain pouring! Rain pouring!’, and occasionally ‘Rain pouring STOP!’

Let’s hope so…we only have a couple of months till the builders move in, and the garden becomes out of bounds. We need to make a bit of hay while the sun shines…but for that to happen, the sun would *actually* have to shine!

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