Gardening and Gardens


The late seventeenth century Woolbeding House and its associated 2,000 acres of beautiful countryside in the West Sussex Rother Valley were acquired by the National Trust nearly 60 years ago. However, its rather splendid gardens have only been open to the public since 2011. 

Even now they are not easy to visit.You can only see them on Thursdays and Fridays from late April until the end of September. You must pre-book by phone, and then take a complementary minibus from the local town of Midhurst. There is no parking on or near the site, as a result of local planning policy, and the only access from the main A272 road is by a busy, narrow, lane that is unsafe for pedestrians. 

You might at this stage perfectly reasonably think “why bother?” However, once you’ve been you will see why locals keep coming back and why so very few people go away disappointed. 

The restricted visiting times reflect the historically private nature of the property, which was acquired without any endowment from the Lascelles family in 1958. Given the dilapidation of the house and its surrounding garden and grounds at that time it was logical to let it to private occupiers. Fortunately the choice fell on the well known philanthropist and connoisseur Sir Simon Sainsbury, who died in 2006, and his lifetime partner Stewart Grainger who between them created the present gardens. Stuart survives him and still uses the house at weekends.  

No expense was spared, although little money seems to have been wasted either. The best authorities and experts, especially Lanning Roper and more recently Julian and Isabel Bannerman, were engaged to design the gardens.  These factors alone however can’t explain Woolbeding’s extraordinary success. Just as importantly, both partners had an exceptionally good eye and very considerable organisational skills. These were enhanced by a charming, albeit steely, determination to make something of exceptional quality.

Even now it is clear, from talking to the gardeners, that the success of Woolbeding’s gardens is a consequence of collaboration and mutual respect between all those involved involved. These gardens, an essentially private celebration of the couple’s lives together, match in quality, and one could even argue in importance, the better known achievements of Sir Simon’s business career in the family firm and his public munificence.

You currently enter Woolbeding through a fairly formal Bannerman designed courtyard garden centred on a series of pools, cascades and stone tanks and troughs. Water, often in motion, is a continuing theme throughout the gardens. You might even, however fancifully, think the deity of the local River Rother constantly commands  monuments and sacrifices to be created there. Next follows a reception area adapted from old barns, which also sells good simple food.

The main gardens lie to the west of the house and are principally the product of the Lanning Roper years in the 1970’s.  There the old walled garden has been divided into rooms with statuary, yew hedges, paving and walls. Two long borders extend the westwards axis towards an avenue of trees across the road.

The components include a herb garden, a vegetable garden, a garden centred on a fine copy of an original renaissance fountain now in the V and A, a pool garden and an orangery designed by the architect Philip Jebb. The area offers fine borrowed views of All Hallows church, around which the grounds wrap on three sides.  The planting is exceptional in terms of both quality of upkeep and selection of varieties and colours with a bold and sophisticated use of complementary colours and variation in tone and intensity. While the design may be conventional, its quality and execution are of the highest standard.

The loss of two exceptional trees has been marked by the erection of structures that memorialise them. The storms of 1987 felled largest tulip tree in Europe and a domed folly designed by Philip Webb now stands in its place.

A William Pye water feature, in which you can see the house and garden reflected, commemorates the far more recent loss of an enormous cedar of Lebanon.

From the upper garden one takes the appropriately named Long Walk to the south through meadow and parkland to arrive at an entirely separate, Bannerman designed ,pleasure ground. This is constructed around an artificial and very pretty lake within a sloping valley with paths on either side. The feel is romantic and recalls the later eighteenth century, indeed putting me in mind of our recent visit to Painshill. 

At the nearer end a charming, although not totally convincing, ruined abbey provides a suitably melancholy approach.

In the middle a yellow Chinoiserie bridge crosses the water.  At the far end a summer house, rather gothick in appearance, straddles a cascade from which water pours into the lake. A ruined hermit’s hut and various similar structures have been placed near the paths around the lake.

Near the summer house a grotto contains a river god with water pouring out of his urn.

The whole constitutes significantly more than the sum of its parts and recalls, as well as playing games with, all that is best in the tradition of the eighteenth century landscape.

Capability Brown called himself a “placemaker”.  The Bannermans can fairly do the same. Although they would probably have been too modest to make such a claim the partnership of Simon Sainsbury and Stewart Grimshaw may well be deserving of the title. At this moment in the history of Woolbeding, the property is in transition from a totally private place to one with limited, even if growing, public access. Now seems the perfect time to visit.



How Important are Plant Labels?

Whenever I visit a garden I always go armed with a notebook and pen so I can make a note of any plants I’d like for my garden. Ideally I also take my camera (my phone is sufficiently old fashioned that it can deal with phone messages but is not really up to taking photos). This way I can photograph the plant label to be sure of accurate information.

That is as long as there are plant labels. Last week I had lunch (highly recommended) at Sunbury Walled Garden. Afterwards we wandered round the garden admiring the roses. But only some had labels; at least only some labels were visible. A lot of tutting ensued.

I would be the first to admit that my note-taking system is not perfect. Firstly there is NO room in my garden; there already two trays of miscellaneous plants waiting for something in the garden to die so that they can take its place. So the ‘Oh, I must make a note of that so I can sow it / plant it / buy it next year’ is a bit pointless. Even if I had room the notebooks tend to be left, ignored, on the kitchen table till the next visit, by which time I often can’t read my writing or remember exactly why I liked a particular plant so much. In theory the photographs should solve any identification queries but I have never developed a systematic way of taking pictures so I never know whether the labels refer to the preceding or following plants. Sometimes it’s obvious but all too often I am left peering at the pictures, comparing them with the RHS Plant Encyclopaedia and finally giving up and deleting them.

Part way round the garden I realised that the lack of labels didn’t matter and I could simply enjoy the roses as beautiful flowers. It was a huge relief to realise that their exact names didn’t matter. They were pretty, enhanced the day immeasurably and surely that was enough?

To get to Sunbury from Central London you never really leave the city and yet it has the feel of a village. There are a lot of old and extremely attractive houses and the residents have created a Bayeux-like tapestry, stitched by over a hundred people, some of whom had never done embroidery before. It was drawn by a local architect and everything is accurate, from the buildings to the people depicted. The result is impressive, beautiful and fascinating. It is housed in a specially-designed building, which also houses the all-important café. 

Sunbury Walled Garden was originally the kitchen garden of an eighteenth-century manor house and is still surrounded by gracious parkland. The Walled Garden now contains knot gardens, parterres and a fragrant border. The Victorian Rose Garden has old varieties which have a short flowering season but are beautifully shaped, strongly scented and have romantic names such as ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’. Midsummer is the best time to visit for these roses. The Modern Rose Garden has newer varieties which ‘repeat flower’ and bloom throughout the summer. The garden also holds part of the Clematis Society’s collection and they drape elegantly over every wall.

The café has a terrace overlooking the garden and sells freshly baked cakes, home-made soup and sandwiches. Try the cream tea, with proper clotted cream or the delicious blueberry cake. There is an excellent cookery book available. There are courses, concerts and exhibitions throughout the year.

There is a two-mile walk through the park and village which looked lovely but we had unfortunately spent too long over lunch and ran out of time.  It will be a good excuse to go back later and admire more unknown roses.



London Art Week Summer 2017

By the time this appears London Art Week will be over. I missed the preview and only got there on Thursday, but I can report that it appears to have been a great success with numerous red dots on exhibits. Perhaps more to the point from the perspective of those who follow these posts, it took place in an exceptionally friendly and welcoming atmosphere. Of course, dealers would not exist if there was no money to be made, but equally most people involved are really passionate about what they do and want to share that passion. This is really not the same sort of business as the market for pork belly futures, where one unkindly suspects  many traders have never even seen a pork belly. If however there are City bonuses to be spent, there are plenty of things here you could do worse than to buy. Obviously one can’t write about everyone, even though the quality was very high throughout, so here are a few favourites.

Mark Weiss in Jermyn Street is focusing on Tudor and Jacobean portraiture and the role of clothing at Court. The gallery is showing several immaculately tailored reconstructions of court clothing alongside portraits where the sitters are wearing the same sort of attire. A portrait of Sir Roland Cotton by Paul van Somer shows him, as the Gallery states, wearing one of the most resplendent costume pieces of this period and the silk doublet and breeches are virtuosically tailored with deep slashing on the doublet to reveal a layer of blue silk beneath. The original costume was lovingly preserved by his family and given by his descendants to the V and A in 1938, where it remains.

Even finer, in my judgement at least, is the portrait, also painted on panel, of Lady Jane Thornagh by William Larkin, painted in 1617, a couple of years before the artist’s death. It combines an immaculate provenance by descent within the Thornagh family, superb condition with the impasto fully preserved and an exceptional and wonderful surface, and is of outstanding quality. Again I quote from the Gallery’s notes The intricately embroidered and brilliantly coloured costume is kaleidoscopic in effect. The motifs include sea monsters, maritime birds and flora, emerging from stylised silvery ripples of water on her skirt. Her bodice is decorated with crimson-crested woodpeckers, insects, grapes, and flowers punctuated by silver spangles and swirling patterns of golden thread. They are depicted with painstaking attention and each brushstroke imitates individual stitches. This picture had an intriguing red dot on its label and I understand has recently been sold, possibly to a museum.

Bowman in Duke Street is showing one of Emily Young’s large sculpted heads in St James Churchyard: her large pieces are very popular and well suited to incorporation in a garden setting – if anyone wants something along these lines designed do feel free to let us know! There are several good Rodin bronzes in the gallery itself. Faunesse Debout was originally conceived as part of Rodin’s Gates of Hell and the version here, cast from the original plaster in 1945 on behalf of the Musee Rodin, is very fine. 

Stephen Ongpin in Mason’s Yard is showing a group of drawings by Giovanni Baptista Tiepolo, such as this one of a Centaur Carrying off a Young Faun, and by his son Giovanni Dominico.  The father’s works show a remarkable economy of line used to suggest volume. They appear to have mostly been produced by way of working out ideas for more finished works in other media. The son’s are often highly finished drawings in their own right. Many of these drawings, including a head of an old man that I reckoned the finest of them all, have been sold, but some still remain.

There are some very grand things available while the same galleries also offer material within the reach of, admittedly comfortably off, private collectors. For example at Dickinson in Jermyn Street, there is a wonderful pair of Guardi Capriccios for a seven figure price, but also a very fine Portrait of a Jockey by Frederic Whiting (a less fashionable but very able contemporary of Munnings) for about £12,000.

If you turn up, as you should not hesitate to do when the next one occurs at the beginning of December this year, gallery owners will be genuinely glad to see you and will happily talk about what they offer. Chris


Claremont and Painshill

Recently Jane and I decided we needed an outing. After a little amicable debate we settled on the eighteenth century landscape gardens and parks at Claremont and Painshill in Surrey. These are only a couple of miles apart, situated just inside the M25 near Cobham and Esher.

At the risk of coming over like Pollyanna we just had a wonderful day.  Friendly staff in the cafes served good food. The rain held off. It was warm enough to sit outside but cool enough to walk briskly round the several miles of paths and tracks required to see each property properly. We followed the suggested routes that are such an important feature of the enjoyment of these landscaped parks. Since there were so few other visitors, we pretended to be the private guests of the earlier owners.

The gardens have much in common. Both are thoroughly relaxing and great places to take children and families. Both have very attractive wildlife including black swans at Claremont and the more usual white ones at Painshill. Both could fairly be called very pretty indeed. They really deserve to be visited.

Both sites are very properly listed Grade One and are extremely important examples of early English landscape parks.  Both estates fell from secure private ownership into times of great uncertainty and decay in the middle of the twentieth century. The essential cores of both were only rescued from dereliction and potential property developments by the remarkable efforts of concerned organisations and individuals.

To some extent the history and existing layout of Claremont is more complicated than that of Painshill. The National Trust acquired some 50 acres of Claremont in 1949 and a major programme of restoration began in 1975. Its underlying structure was largely established over a period of more than a hundred years, between 1709 when the site was first purchased by Vanbrugh and 1819 when the last major additions were laid down. Great names involved range from Vanbrugh himself, through the 1st Duke of Newcastle to whom he sold the property in 1714, and subsequently Charles Bridgeman, William Kent, Clive of India, Capability Brown and Prince Leopold and Princess Charlotte.

Vanbrugh and Bridgeman’s baroque layout, here shown in an engraving of 1725, was partially naturalised by the alterations of their successors. It survives at its strongest in Vanbrugh’s Belvedere tower and Bridgeman’s three acre turf amphitheatre carved into a steep hill,  was originally mirrored by a regular pool that Kent and Brown re-formed into a serpentine lake.

The Trust’s renovations include the re-instatement of the Amphitheatre, the clearing of vast acreages of Rhododendron ponticum that had overwhelmed and distorted both the overall layout and the individual features of the park, and the restoration of the Belisle Pavilion on the island in the lake.

The Mausoleum erected after the death of Princess Charlotte has recently been re-instated as a temporary replica. Although rebuilt in lightweight materials it offers an excellent idea of the original mass and design. The earlier breakup of the estate left Vanbrugh’s Belvedere in the possession of the adjoining school. Nonetheless it has been restored and is open to visitors once a month.

At Painshill more land has survived and its restoration looks back to the unified vision of a single owner and period.  Numerous surviving images of that period helped to guide the restoration, including a series of views by Gilpin.

A fine but anonymous picture of the early 1780’s has recently been acquired by the Garden Museum. Previously believed to be of Virginia Water, its subject has recently been identified as showing Painshill viewed from the Turkish Tent.The images show the picture and the same view today.

148 acres at Painshill were, after a torrid period, purchased by Elmbridge Borough Council in 1980 and vested shortly thereafter in an excellent charitable trust. As ongoing funding becomes available the long term programme of restoration and re-instatement continues. At Painshill, the park today today is the vision of a single man with an essentially naturalistic and romantic approach manifesting itself to visitors as they move through the landscape. Its prime mover and effective architect was the Honourable Charles Hamilton, the 9th son of the 6th Earl of Abercorn, who owned and developed the property from 1738 until he was forced to sell it in 1773. Despite a perpetual shortage of cash, he demonstrated a remarkable eye for the positioning of architectural features and the layout and balance of the vital ingredients of landmass, water, trees and grass. It is his vision that the Painshill Trust is so effectively re-instating on the land in its stewardship and at times succeeds in creating a musical or even a magical quality.

At Painshill many major triumphs include the repair or re-creation of buildings such as the marvellous Crystal Grotto, the Gothic Tower, the Ruined Abbey, the Turkish Tent (albeit with the original canvas replaced by accurate but slightly stiff fibreglass mouldings) and the five arch bridge. Currently the Temple of Bacchus is being recreated on its original site and this should be completed in the early autumn. In general the reconstructions and restorations are probably more solid and enduring than the original structures, but then they have to cope with a far larger number of visitors.

Both properties are, in the best sense of the word, theatrical. You are well advised to follow the set routes so you come upon the prospects and buildings in a satisfactory order and from the best viewpoints. There is the delight of immediate vision when you look through the window of a ruined Hermitage to see the ground fall away to the River Mole or walk up the Elysian Fields to the reconstructed Gothic Tower at Painshill. For many current and historical visitors the park can and must have produced an emotional and sensual response.

You need no historical or garden knowledge to appreciate Claremont and Painshill although they still recall classical landscape and mythology.  Eighteenth century sensitivities would admittedly find it easier than we do to appreciate the grounds in terms of Virgil, Pliny or the paintings of Claude Lorraine, but to do so simply adds another dimension to a wonderful experience.

These landscape parks act as theatres of transience and memory. And whatever Dr Johnson might have said about naturalistic and romantic gardens (“Pray Sir, where is the surprise the second time?”) that surprise remains in the play of light, weather, wind and the seasons across the more fixed elements.

Painshill is occasionally open on winter evenings before Christmas. If a good frost has formed, the moon is out on a cloudless sky and the crystal grotto is lit by candles then even the most hardened cynic will admit the experience to be both wonderful and magical.

Do go: It’s well worth it!  Chris

Chelsea Flower Show 2017

The Show Gardens

As well as entry to the flower show a ‘Chelsea’ ticket allows one to make sweeping, and probably rather unfair, judgements on the gardens. Along with the ‘Oohs’ and ‘Aahs’ of pleasure you can also hear ‘I wouldn’t have done that’, ‘How on earth did they manage to get a Gold medal?’ or ‘Why didn’t the judges give them a Gold, this is clearly the best garden in the show?’

It is probably fair to say that most people who go to the Chelsea Flower Show are interested in gardening and that a fair number of those people know quite a lot about plants and garden design. The difference between most of us ordinary mortals and the judges is that we are allowed to like (or not) a garden. They have a strict set of criteria for marking each garden and for them ‘like’ is a forbidden word.

This year the show was a little different, for reasons explained below, but there was still much that I liked, even loved. Charlotte Harris’ garden for the Royal Bank of Canada was inspired by the boreal forest of Canada. This covers 1.2 billion acres but somehow she managed to create something which looked both like a wild forest and a delightful garden. Although this was her first garden she has worked on many gardens at Chelsea and knew exactly how to make the most of the space. The dark surrounding walls were unobtrusive and the Pavilion framed a view through to a beautiful tree and the hint of more forest (rather than the neighbouring stand). The Welcome to Yorkshire Garden was charming but its view, a trompe l’oeil painting framed by a ‘ruined’ abbey, simply looked fake, whereas view here looked eminently real. The views through the Jack pine (Pinus banksiana) also made you think were looking through into a wilderness, albeit one you could also use for afternoon tea. The pretty cones remain on the trees for years, only opening after the extreme heat of fire. At this point the seeds fall to the forest floor and begin the process of regeneration. Red and yellow Granny’s bonnets (Aquilegia canadensis) floated delicately in amongst the grass (Deschampsia cespitosa) and this is one of the many plant combinations that would work well in the smallest garden.

James Basson’s Maltese Quarry won the Best in Show. It was spectacular in a harsh way, looking like a cross between an alien landscape and a cemetery. The addition of a swimming pool and table and chairs meant that one could (just) imagine using it as a garden and, with time, I have come to like it more. Even so his Perfumier’s Garden in Grasse from 2015 remains my favourite Chelsea garden ever –from the thirty-four shows I have worked at or visited. (It should have been thirty-five consecutive years but one year I decided I’d seen it all before and couldn’t face the crowds. Too late I realised the error of my ways as new and exciting plants and gardens unfolded before my eyes on the telly. It just isn’t the same.) In an interview he said that he is now interested in the landscape of Sicily, in particular the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna. In a couple of year’s time we may see an even more extraordinary garden if he recreates a volcano in west London.

Reading between the lines this has clearly been a trying Chelsea for a lot of people, with vagaries other than just the weather to contend with. As Brexit and its attendant caution hit the sponsors many decided, perfectly reasonably, that now was not the time to spend thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of pounds on creating a garden. Instead of the fifteen to twenty large show gardens there were a mere eight.

This meant the RHS had a lot of space to fill. The photographic display and new seating area were clearly gap-fillers but the Radio 2 Feel Good Gardens were a great addition. Each was based on one of the five senses and although they weren’t judged they were all the same high Chelsea standard. Sarah Raven’s Colour Cutting Garden was definitely my favourite, but then it was always likely to be. It was a condensed version of her garden as Perch Hill in Sussex and was a riot of well-organised colour (yes, you can have a well-organised riot; Sarah has just proved it). As well as introduce you to new plants, Chelsea reminds you of plants you once grew but have, for one reason or another, forgotten. Sarah had opulent opium poppies (Papaver somniferum) in a purple so deep it looked almost sinister. Sue and I used to grow these from seed every year and their brief but spectacular appearance each summer is something I now realise is lacking in my garden at the moment.  There were also pretty pink poppies (P. dubium) which they are trialling at Perch Hill. They have the delicacy of Welsh poppies and manage to be a shade of pink which is neither insipid nor brash. They were also on the M&G Investments stand and apparently you can buy them at Great Dixter. More wish-list plants and proposed outings go in the notebook – but that is the joy of Chelsea.

The Artisan Gardens

The Artisan Gardens have expanded up towards the Studios and this is brilliant as it spreads these little gardens out and makes them easier to see. Every year we head directly to the large gardens first and by the time we reach the Artisan Gardens in the middle of the afternoon the people are ten or twelve deep. Being Chelsea, everyone moves along in a well-mannered and genteel fashion and it is perfectly possible to see everything but the telly showed Monty Don visiting them in the empty twilight after the show had finished for the day and they are far better viewed in an atmosphere of peace and quiet. The three which have moved up onto woody glade which used to house some of the food stands have more space around them and the Poetry Lover’s Garden had the added advantage that it could be viewed from three sides. Sue and I had first marched past it on our way to lunch and it had very much been a case of ‘Yes, lovely, now where’s a seat in the shade for lunch?’ Later we met someone who raved about it, so we went back for a proper look.

Designed by Fiona Cadwallader this garden was inspired by the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem ‘This Lime Tree Bower My Prison’. Apparently the poet had been forced to remain behind in the garden while his friends went rambling in the countryside. The garden is similarly divided with an ‘old’ stone wall separating the domestic garden from the small strip of ‘wild’ beyond. The idea works perfectly; you could easily imagine striding out through the garden gate for a walk in a meadow-strewn meadow leading to the hills beyond. The prison consisted of four lime trees (Tilia europa ‘Euchlora’) which were pruned to create a canopy over a single seat. Even with my powers of space-filling I cannot fit this into my tiny London garden without sacrificing everything else but when I eventually move to the seaside (and a larger garden) this would be one of the first things I would want to create (well, one can dream).

The Great Pavilion and Beyond

The plants both in and out of the Great Pavilion were blissfully unaware of any economic problems and shone brilliantly. David Austin has a beautiful new creamy yellow rose called ‘Vanessa Bell’. W. S. Warmenhoven had an extraordinary plant between the traditional purple globes which consisted of a stem that rose straight up and then writhed and twisted like a streamer in mid-flight (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon). I think I like it but I’m not sure how it would fit in a garden; perhaps a single specimen in a pot?

I am writing a book on Mulberries (Cherries & Mulberries, Growing and Cooking, with Sally, due 2018, sorry about the plug) so I was very pleased that a mulberry won Plant of the Year. Mulberry Charlotte Russe (‘Matsunaga’) only reaches 1.5m, which means I can have one in my tiny garden. It is a hybrid resulting from a cross between a white and black mulberry by the Japanese breeder Hajime Matsanuga nearly fifty years ago. The fruits can be harvested from June to September, it will grow happily in a pot and apparently crops in its first year. It is available from Suttons and I have, of course, ordered one. Writing in the Daily Telegraph Stephen Lacey charmingly christened it Morus minor.

In conclusion I think most of the new ideas have improved the show and I am already looking forward to next year. I am also aware that I have less than fifty weeks to acquire (and find space for) all the plants on my wish list.


Allium jesdianum ‘Early Emperor’

Candelabra Primula (in this and lots of other colours)

Hydrangea ‘Fireworks White’

Eschscholzia caespitosa ‘Sundew’ (I think, if not they’re near enough and I want them anyway)


Garden Museum Re-opens 22nd May

On Monday 22nd May, just in time for Chelsea Flower Show, the Garden Museum will re-open its doors to the public after a lengthy, but very successful, programme of extension and refurbishment. The impressive results were on show last week at a press launch. Although work will continue right up to the wire what the first paying visitors will see on the 22nd is impressive and transformative. This has always been a very good museum, however strapped for resources it was. It is now an exceptional one and reflects the massive efforts of the Director, Christopher Woodward, the staff, the Trustees, and its numerous supporters at every level including the financial one.

This is the second phase of the Museum’s development programme and was enabled by £3.5 million of Lottery based money fully matched by funds raised by the Museum. The new work has a strong focus on the local and wider communities. It drives forward a process of engagement with the wider world. It is especially orientated towards education and developing young peoples’ interest in botany, horticulture and sustainability.  At the same time, and without creating a mood of elitism, you can find numerous reminders of the art of fine gardening and its constant engagement with the rich, the famous and the grand.

The Museum is based in, and is the long leaseholder of, the redundant and previously abandoned church of St Mary at Lambeth. The church’s original structure and the estimated 20,000 bodies interred there have to be fully protected so the new work is completely reversible if needs be. This design challenge has been most elegantly met by a series of lightweight solutions superimposed on the original structure without altering it. Engineering features have been developed to bridge protected areas and structures such as graveyards, vaults and the original structure and many features of the church.

The architects, Dow Jones, have further developed a long standing relationship with the Museum dating back to before 2008. The results of the building programme are manifested not only in individual buildings and services but also in the powerful sense of light, flow and structure that has transformed the Museum.

The lucid airy space engages visitors by its contents, displays, history and connections to the world as a whole. At a purely practical level it no longer feels cramped and random. The building is warm for the first time in ten centuries, at last possesses properly working loos, and now exudes a strong sense of purpose.

You enter the Museum through a new front garden, still under construction as this is written,  and then move through the main body of the church filled with display galleries at ground and clerestory levels. You can visit a recreation of Tradescant’s original “Ark” or Museum that subsequently formed the basis of the Ashmolean. This room is fittingly resourced by a core of valuable and generous long term loans from today’s Ashmolean. These include a reconstruction of Tradescants’ collection of shells, a stuffed crocodile, original portraits, and private possessions. In the centre of the floor is a sealed glass panel covering a steep stair to the vaults of the church, where the tombs of five Archbishops of Canterbury were discovered during the building works.  Elias Ashmole’s black memorial ledger slab was also discovered during the works and is on show nearby. Elsewhere in the main body of the Church is a study room, while the Archive of Garden Design, containing the works of Russell Page, Beth Chatto, John Brookes and Penelope Hobhouse amongst others, is now up and running.

You then pass into the new structures based around the old churchyard. They form a cloister of bronze clad buildings (the cladding is made of T shaped metal tiles intended to suggest the bark of neighbouring plane trees). The new work is centred on the Tradescants’ and Admiral Bligh’s tombs and set in a Dan Pearson garden of many semi-exotics that might be called a “vitrine” or “half a Wardian case”. You can see through the glass windowed buildings, including a cafe and education spaces to external roads and the world beyond the Museum. It is not too fanciful to claim that the process of looking in and out through glass corresponds to the process of global discovery and engagement by botany and horticulture through time and space. The retention and centrality of the two tombs within the garden is of the utmost importance. Both Tradescants of course won fame as explorers, plant collectors and catalysts of change in the seventeenth century.  Admiral Bligh is popularly renowned as the villainous and authoritarian captain of the Bounty. However, in conversation that day I learnt that after his reinstatement he made a second successful voyage, taking breadfruit to Jamaica. He thereby provided a food source that saved the lives of many thousands of freed slaves in the 1830s.

The themes of the whole courtyard express not only the excitement of possession of plants and knowledge but also the moral ambiguity that is an inevitable consequence of setting out to understand and conquer the world. The Tradescants may have sought to create a second Eden by re-assembling all the plants they believed to have been in the first in their Lambeth house. Their successor in the Museum shows us exactly how the process of man’s interaction with nature has consequences, good and bad, far beyond the expectations of those who originally thought, almost innocently, that they might master and control it.


The Fine Art of Stonebalancing

IMG_1135For me, the exceptional stand at the Chelsea Flower Show was the Stonebalancing stand. It was tucked away amongst the Fresh Gardens and at first glance it looked like a display of rather nice stone sculptures. Then you realised that the stones were balanced on each other, some seemingly defying gravity. Adrian Grey positions stones on top of each other in a way that seems completely impossible and created an area of magical calm amidst the bustle of the show. The stones you can buy are pinned together (for safety as some are huge), although all were naturally balanced originally. In the centre of the stand was a ring with naturally balanced stones. Every so often Adrian changes the stones. Holding the top one in place, he appeared completely still, all his concentration focused on finding the perfect balance. It seemed remarkably easy and totally impossible. After a few seconds he stepped back, leaving a perfectly balanced sculpture, which looked both precarious and solid at the same time. I think it is the contradictions that make stonebalancing so amazing: ease and impossibility, solidity and precariousness.

I bought his book, which is full of stunning photos of impossibly balanced stones, many of them on the beaches at Lyme Regis. As the tide comes in the stones are engulfed and, eventually, unbalanced. The stone boats are particularly charming, as are the stone families making their ways along the sands; others seem to defy gravity.

When I got home I decided to have a go. Dredging up the little physics I remembered, I was confident that everything must have a balancing point. It was simply a case of finding it. I selected some stones from the garden and settled down to create works of art. It is, of course, much harder than Adrian makes it look; it requires tiny, gentle adjustments, feeling for the slightest movement in the stone. It also requires a camera to hand and an attractive background, neither of which I’d thought about. Making my two little stone animals felt like a huge achievement but also made me realise just how incredible Adrian’s sculptures are.

Visit his website, read his book, The Art of Stonebalancing, and be amazed.



The Chelsea Flower Show 2016

Geum 'Mai Tai' 2Last week I visited the Chelsea Flower Show and, as always came away inspired by the gardens, awed at the standard of plants in The Great Pavilion, weighed down by too many catalogues promising great things and clutching a large list of plants I wanted.

The M & G Exmoor Garden, designed by Cleve West has the first plot on Main Avenue and it is wonderful but, in the sweeping way of amateurs, we decided that the judges were correct in awarding the Telegraph (or Dinosaur) Garden, designed by Andy Sturgeon, the Best in Show. I don’t usually like slabs of rock in a garden but here the fins of the stegosaurus managed to be spectacular without overpowering the rest of the garden. As we left there were people on the garden drinking champagne and sitting round the fire. It showed that while the garden was an extraordinary piece of design, it was also a garden which could work – children would love it and it looked just as good occupied by people as pristinely empty.

A great many of the gardens included semi-naturalistic planting with an abundance of grasses and purple flowers. This is not necessarily a bad thing, although by the end of the day it had become a case of ‘Oh look! More wafty purple plants.’ The Husqvarna Garden was very formal with tightly packed purple, burgundy and magenta blooms encircled by immaculately clipped hedges. Like little meercats the lysimachia seemed to be looking for a way out and in places had even made a break for freedom.

L'Occitane  Linum campanulatum or L. flavumLast year the L’Occitane Garden had been my favourite by a long way (it is still the screen saver on my laptop). This year the garden was a little too rough. It no doubt created an accurate picture of the landscape but, apart from an enticing path lined with poppies and flax, it didn’t appeal to my wilder fantasies of going to live in Provence.

The Harrods British Eccentrics Garden was inspired by William Heath Robinson and designed by Diarmuid Gavin. It was meant to make one smile, and that’s exactly what it did. The planting was exuberant, multi-coloured and, to my mind, near perfect. It was a joy to look at and then, every fifteen minutes, there was a brief flight of fantasy. The pure white foxgloves gave a little shake and then trundled round the folly. Box balls bobbed up and down, trees twirled, window boxes rose up a storey and a pair of shears popped up to trim the topiary. The sundial performed a somersault and became a tub of flowers. It was ludicrous and yet totally wonderful, especially with the man himself vaulting the flowers!

Jekka 3Jekka McVicar had moved out of the tent onto a plot on Royal Hospital Way. It was small but suited her design perfectly. Medicinal plants of all types circled a central stone bowl of constantly flowing water. It looked good from every angle and we couldn’t work out why it hadn’t been awarded a Gold Medal. Eventually we came to the conclusion that it was probably because the rough grass round the edge looked ‘rough’, rather than the ‘manicured rough’ one often sees in show gardens. Or there may have been a perfectly valid judging point that we didn’t know about. Either way, it was lovely.

In the smaller Fresh and Artisan Gardens, The Mekong Garden Mekong Garden 3: a giant stone cube with a garden hidden inside but every time we passed there was a huge queue and I’m afraid coffee and cake or a glass of wine won against the wait.

The Great Pavilion had its usual spectacular displays and the pile of catalogues on my kitchen table is testament to the persuasiveness and charm of the growers.

Outside, many of the stalls have been influenced by the need to cover costs (perfectly understandably). When I first started working at the flower show on the Hatchards stand we were one of five or six bookshops. Now, margins have meant that only the RHS is left, and even their display has shrunk to a few shelves and a couple of tables. For a variety of reasons, people don’t buy so many gardening books now but, even so, it seems a shame. Instead, there were a lot of stands selling expensive clothes, some garden-related, some not. One good thing is that I am less tempted to buy: some labels and a set of outdoor fairy lights from Sarah Raven were pretty well my only purchases. As far as I am concerned the plants and gardens are very much the stars of Chelsea and a little less shopping does no harm.


A Works Outing

Last Saturday we decided to have a treat and call it our works outing. Jane and I visited the Garden Museum Plant Fair, which this year was held in the gardens of Lambeth Palace since the Museum itself is being redeveloped. The day was a resounding success.

The Fair in ProgressThe fair had an awful lot going for it. For a start the trade stands were of the highest quality, full of fine and original plants at very fair prices. The exhibitors were those one hoped and indeed expected to see, people who knew and cared about plants and had brought along their best stock for a knowledgeable and often passionate group of gardeners. Just three of the many names give you an indication of the standard: Derry Watkins’ Special Plants, Rose Cottage Plants and Crug Farm Plants.

The plant stock was obviously rather spring-centred with lots of bulbs. One of nicest things was the proliferation of twists on old favourites. Thus I bought a wallflower from Special Plants as a present for a neighbour but it was Erysimum ‘Red Jep’ rather than some random bit of a Persian Carpet mixture. Described as ‘Deep velvety red with a touch of orange’ its best quality is the way it actually enhances the plants next to which it is put. It’s ended up in a border at the Old Vicarage surrounded by forget-me-nots and what I call Sarah Raven tulips such as ‘Cairo’, ‘Abu Hassan’, and ‘Queen of the Night’. Frankly it looks great whereas even good plants of that trusty favourite Bowles Mauve merely look good. And at £3.50 it could hardly have been cheaper.

Something else interesting and very fair value was a pot of Fritillaria acmopetala for £6 from Rose Cottage plants (see the picture).  Nearby, Crown Imperials have always been old favourites but ‘William III’ with its bronzy flush is a distinctive and distinct improvement on the ordinary red specimens.Fritilleria acmopetala

There were fine offerings of garden furniture in steel and splendid old garden equipment including a proper, large, half moon edger in good and useable condition for £32. A couple of the obligatory cucumber straighteners looked fascinating (if the price of these goes on rising as it has they’ll soon be worth a forger’s attention!).

Mari’s excellent pop up cafe not only served very good food but by a miracle did so very quickly; even keeping pace with swelling queues of the visitors sent scurrying by occasional showers into the catering marquee.

Perhaps the thing that made the Fair special though was the setting and atmosphere with loads of room to spread out in Lambeth Palace’s eleven acres without the usual crush you get at these events. It’s London’s oldest continually cultivated garden, dating right back to 1197 and is infinitely grander and more pleasing than anyone who hadn’t visited it before would imagine. Until recently it was remarkably difficult to visit. However the present Archbishop, Justin Welbey, has moved to open it not only for special events and groups, but to the general public. It’s open on the first Friday afternoon of each month between March and October this year.

Like anything that’s been around a long time it’s had its ups and downs and seen many changes. Archbishop Tillotson (in office from 1691 until his death in 1694) for example, was responsible for many improvements to the garden which had become somewhat neglected, as well as producing such memorable sayings as “A good word is an easy obligation; but not to speak ill requires only our silence, which costs us nothing.”  

You enter the garden, once you have passed through the ancient gatehouse and an enclosed courtyard which contains an ancient white fig on its left hand side propagated from an original planted in 1564. Such reminders of the place’s age and history are everywhere while the atmosphere, despite some noise from outside the high enclosing walls, is tranquil and relaxed, completely contrasted to the bustle and roar of traffic from the encircling roads.

By turning through a narrow passageway between ranks of buildings you come suddenly into a huge expanse of green composed of lawns, trees and borders and bisected by a broad stone walkway raised a few steps above the general  level and ornamented with pergolas, benches and planting. In the large lawned area beyond this walkway the plant fair had spread out its stands. Beyond this again there are many surprises, including a secret grove, lake, beehives and a gravel garden along with other delights. A Chinese garden for example contains rarities including a plant we were quite unable to identify initially. It turned out (thank you helpful label!) to be Dipelta yunnanensis, one of George Forrest’s introductions from Western China in 1910. It looks a bit like a weigela with corymbs of fried eggs for flowers and is nowadays scarce, although apparently hardy and is obtainable from two or three specialists such as Burncoose Nurseries.

Dipelta yunnanensis

All in all it was a delightful day and we voted the outing a great success. If you get an opportunity to visit the gardens do take it and there can be few better value plant fairs than this. A fiver covered both and it provided an opportunity to buy plants of distinction at prices rather less than you would pay for the most ordinary competitors in many garden centres.  It would be really excellent if it was held there again next year.





Writing in Edinburgh

Last month I went on holiday to Edinburgh and unexpectedly had some writing to do – in fact a lot of writing. I needed somewhere nice to write, after all, I was meant to be on holiday.

The Royal Botanic Garden was the perfect place; the weather was warm enough to sit outside and there were still lots of flowers to see, but the colours had an autumnal tinge. In fact the actaea looked positively Christmassy.

Sitting in the sunshine, on a bench brushed by lavender with a view ofView Edinburgh Castle in the distance is surely the way to write.

The other perfect place to write, and eat, is Earthy, at Canonmills, beside the Water of Leith. There were pumpkins and gourds on rough wooden tables reminding one that, however summery it seemed, autumn was approaching. Vases of fresh flowers and the warm sunshine which streamed in though the windows allowed one to imagine it was still summer. It is on a busy road but inside is calm and quiet. On the wall it says ‘You are how you eat, as much as what you eat’. I arrived in time for breakfast and stayed till lunch. It was busy enough to have an air of bustle but quiet enough that is didn’t matter that I spread my papers over the table and worked while I ate breakfast and drank delicious coffee.

Mid morning an elegant carafe of water with mint and long twirly slivers of cucumber appeared like magic. The croissants, fishcakes and the Strawberry and Pistachio Mess were wonderful and, if they are anything to go by, the rest of the menu would be delicious too.

Outside the back window is a broken old piano; a sight that should be sad but is actually charming. The candlesticks remain, as so most of the keys, but it is clearly past its prime. With strawberry plants and ivy growing out of the top and a bird house resting where sheet music once sat it has been given a delightful second life. Had I been less entranced I might have remembered to take a photo.

At times, Earthy can be a victim of its own success. On my last morning I went there for a farewell breakfast, rather sadly as I wasn’t ready to leave Edinburgh. I was shocked to find it packed, barely a free table. It was jolly, but not the quiet sanctuary I wanted. Perhaps it was time to go home after all. Jane.