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.


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…


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


A good year for the columbines

If there’s one flower that seems to be everywhere this year, it’s columbines. They are back in fashion, featured on TV at Chelsea, and practically any direction I walk in from my house takes me past a garden bursting with these glorious, cheery plants, and for me it’s been one of the year’s little delights.

Purple and white columbine

Purple and white columbine

There are many reasons I love this flower, but a major one is its multiple names – just as TS Eliot thought cats should, the columbine has three different names, all of which suit it very well.

The elegant Latin name Aquilegia suggests a refined, shapely plant, while the common name Columbine (inspired by the fact the petals resemble the silhouette of a dove, apparently) reflects its tranquility and grace.

Dark burgundy columbine

Dark burgundy columbine

Finally, the colloquial nickname I knew them by as a child, Granny’s Bonnets, captures perfectly their jaunty, sunny attitude.

They grow vigorously, and yet never seem to swamp gardens the way other prolific flowers do – and, as I’ve discovered from seeing them in so many gardens, they are highly promiscuous and cross-breed to produce a huge range of colours and petal shapes.

I’ve already praised the rich purple in an earlier post, but I also love the dark purple-red pictured above, the pretty pastel shades, and perhaps best of all (as it’s the one I grew in my garden a child), I love the pink and white version.

Pink and white columbine with spurs

Pink and white columbine with spurs

The one pictured above I particularly admired because of the long spurs bursting out the back of the petal – the little doves look like they’re about to take off into flight at any moment.

The white and cream varieties are also lovely – like this delicate example I captured in a shady spot.

White columbine

White columbine

To me, they are one of the quintessential cottage garden flowers – their tall shape makes them a perfect plant to slot in at the back of a bed, with attractive shamrock-style leaves massing around the base to help fill in those tricky background gaps – and with their spreading tendencies, you can (hopefully) rely on them to put on a good show every year.

So far, though, my new garden is not exactly bursting with aquilegia – I brought seeds from the old garden, stored them faithfully in the outhouse, and scattered them around liberally earlier this spring, but there are no signs of germination yet.

My seeds having let me down, I succumbed to garden centre temptation and bought a purple and white variety which settled in nicely, although having slung it into the first available gap, I could probably do with moving it somewhere more suitable next year.

The good news is that, at least I know there will always be more aquilegia to be planted, more colours to be sought out, and more hybrids to be made. I may even stoop to pinching a few seeds from my neighbouring gardens – especially that pink one with the spurs, perhaps…

In praise of…purple

If you had asked me, when I was a child, what my favourite colour was, I would have had a very definite answer: purple.

Not just any purple, either; I particularly liked the pastel shade of purple Smarties, and claimed they were my ‘favourite’ Smarties. (How stupid was I? Everyone knows the orange ones are the best).



(Yes, I did buy Smarties just for the purposes of illustrating this blog, and no, I’m not ashamed…)

These days, I can take or leave purple Smarties, but I do have a lasting fondness for that pale shade of purple, especially when I come across it in the garden.

The classic purple spring blossom, for me, has always been lilac – so classic, in fact, that it gave its very name to that delicate, lovely pale shade of purple.

Besides my early interest in Smarties, I can remember that I loved the Lilac variety of the Flower Fairies – indeed, the Flower Fairies can be found at the root of many of my most-loved flowers from childhood – and of course the Lilac Fairy of the Sleeping Beauty is the stuff of many a ballet-mad girl’s daydreams, so there are clearly all sorts of reasons why I’m predisposed to like lilac.

However, as I’ve discovered, not all lilacs are lilac!

Classic pale purple lilac

Classic pale purple lilac

This gorgeous specimen above is on an otherwise rather shabby street corner near me, and as far as I’m concerned is a proper shade of lilac. When I came across it, I had to stop and take a picture straight away, regardless of the fact that the house behind was shrouded in scaffolding and it was otherwise not a great photo opportunity – the lilac simply demanded to be photographed.

Then, I discovered to my delight that we had a lilac in our garden. As it prepared to bloom, I noticed the buds were much darker, closer to the brash, showy colour of buddleia, and was a bit disappointed it wasn’t my favourite pale shade.

Our lilac, a deeper shade of purple

Our lilac, a deeper shade of purple against a perfect blue sky

Looking at it in full bloom, though, I would be seriously churlish not to admire such a magnificent tree – and close up, the smell is wonderful. I’ve noticed, too, that the blossoms seem to get paler as they mature, so I have been able to enjoy a whole range of lilac shades in the last few weeks.

White lilac, raindrop

White lilac, raindrop

Suddenly I began to see lilacs everywhere – even a white variety, above, and one that was so pale it was almost pink.

Another recent purple favourite is wisteria – not a plant I’ve ever appreciated very much before, but I’ve come across it in a couple of local places recently and been blown away by how beautiful it was – and again, the scent is also gorgeous.

It’s one of those plants which impresses with its scale, whether it’s covering the front of a house or along the length of a garden wall. It would never work on our 1930s house, which is far too boxy and lumpish, but on the more elegant proportions of this Georgian style house it looks just right.

Wisteria on a Georgian house

Wisteria on a Georgian house, in late afternoon sun

What with the lilac, and pansies, and sweet peas (hopefully, eventually) and irises, and violets, and lavender, my garden certainly isn’t short on purple, but from my front garden snooping there is one thing I REALLY want…

Purple columbine

Purple columbine

I love columbines in all sizes, shapes and colours anyway, but isn’t this dark purple shade just heavenly? Photographed in a rain shower with raindrops still on it, which somehow made it even better.

Finally, something bizarrely NOT purple, also seen in a local garden: a white lavender.

White lavender

White lavender

I’ve heard of white heather, sure, but white lavender, never. Didn’t get close enough to find out if it smelt properly lavendery, but it certainly looked rather classy (although I will admit to picking a bit of goose-grass out of the middle of the bush to make a better picture. Yes, I’m now actually weeding my neighbours’ gardens for the sake of this blog. Don’t thank me, folks, it’s all part of the garden snooping service…)