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!

We Aren’t Quite There Yet

It is nearly the end of January, but we aren’t quite there yet. I don’t like to let a month slip by without writing a blog, but if there ever was a month to let slip by, January would be it.

January on social media has been taken over by people giving things up – Dryanuary, Veganuary, and over on Instagram (I’ve joined Instagram, for my sins), it’s all clean living and Slimming World.

Dryanuary would seem a bit wasted on me, who can go a fortnight without drinking and barely notice it, and whilst I have been tempted to dabble in veganism (hey, you can still eat chips, and I like dark chocolate, and tofu, right?) – and I do love my shiny new HFW River Cottage veg cookbook –

…..the thought of tea with some kind of milk substitute in it just can’t be borne.

So I have limped on to nearly-the-end of January without giving anything up, or taking anything up, and it has felt like a month of endless rain. Morning school runs in the rain, and slogs down the hill to preschool in rain, and dashing back up the hill to be home before it rains (this week bought some respite; we got the rain, but we also got a rainbow). I have only ventured into the back garden to fill up bird feeders, and found the lawn to be completely sodden.

It’s the time of year I like least, because the garden feels most remote from me. I look out of the window and notice things: I must cut that back when I’ve got a minute. I never pulled up the dead Michaelmas daisies. I wonder which ferns have survived the winter. And I don’t go and look. I put it off for another month. I think, February, I’ll deal with it in February.

And then February will roll round and there is a baby girl about to turn 3 – no longer a baby! – and half term and lots of weekends taken ferrying children to birthday parties, so another month will slip by and I still probably won’t get any jobs done in the garden.

I have done what I term ‘the basics’ in the front garden – sweep up the leaves, deadhead roses, cut back the fuchsia and a few other things that have got too big for their boots – but that to me is the very least, a lick and a promise to keep the front of the house looking vaguely respectable (and I’m sure I’ve typed very similar words in previous Januaries).

There is so much more to be done out there, an entire dead hydrangea to be dug out, for starters. That’s going to be an afternoon’s work in itself – and at least two other plants which don’t deserve to be there at all, and an enormous overgrown holly which is pretty much a hedge now.

Then we have to make decisions about the really big jobs of the year – new windows, and perhaps redecorating the sad neglected bedrooms (ours and the spare), or dealing with the drive and crumbling front wall. Make the house look more respectable from the outside, or the inside? The bit everyone sees, or the bit no-one but us sees? Paging Dr Freud…

In the meantime, the snowdrops are nearly up, the catkins are on the hazel tree, and for a pound you can buy a vase of sunshine in the shape of daffodils. So, spring is coming, but we aren’t quite there yet.

The lazy spring garden

I had a strange realisation about the garden earlier this month – it is the usual time of year when I remark with apparent surprise how the garden is suddenly green and blooming (as if it should be a surprise that spring happens! I always have to remember Larkin said it best: ‘begin afresh, afresh, afresh’).


However, there was something different this year – I was doing my usual pruning back and deadheading and digging up of dandelions and sycamore seedlings, but usually there are also some gaps to fill in, new plants to buy, things on my wish list to be added in here and there.

This year, though – no gaps! For the first time, plants I put in one or more year ago and didn’t necessarily expect to appear, have popped back up and are thriving.


On the raised bed, poppies from the plant stall at the school fair two years ago are sprouting again, a sedum my mum put in as a tiny seedling is now enormous, and my white thrift is thriving too. 

Even the nigella seeds I scattered last year, assuming I’d only get one year’s flowering from, are back.


The woodland garden at the back is also doing well, too, with bugle, periwinkle and lungwort, which I used to have to water all the time and coax back into life every time they drooped, spreading to cover the bare soil, and the one recent new purchase I allowed myself, a couple of hellebores, also settling in nicely.

It is nice not to have to do too much beyond basic maintenance and weeding – nice to see plants which used to struggle now taking care of themselves – and it’s certainly good not to be spending so much money on plants (though I do always hunt out the bargains and half price tables!). It is especially nice to look out over the raised bed and see a continual wave of colour, although I know once the bluebells are over there will be big gaps.


The silver birch tree, now in for a whole year, is also looking good, and with all the leaves out, we have a big improvement in terms of our privacy – looking out from the kitchen window, I can only just see the top roof of the house opposite, not their windows at all.


The question is, where does this leave me? I have two big beds I’ve worked very hard to fill, and now with our fourth summer in the house, they seem to be mature. I do still have two border beds with lots of shrubs, some very overgrown and prickly, and a lot of undergrowth spreading like lemon balm – none of it exactly weeds, but all a bit dull and samey. 

That is probably the next big task to contemplate, but for now, I’m going to enjoy what’s been done so far.


Plus I have a couple of junior gardeners to help me out – they are busy planting nasturtiums in this picture – and the poor old lawn which has become so lush and green, is going to be sacrificed for the new big toy, a trampoline.

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.

Tale of a Tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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