Saturday, 25 April 2009

Tagged for a meme

What are your current obsessions?

Walking and sowing things. I am getting increasingly terrified that I have not done enough training to be able to walk the Offa's Dyke long distance path at the end of May. This is a path from the southern coast of Wales at Sedbury cliffs near Chepstow to the northern coast at Prestatyn, running along the English/Welsh border, much of it on or near an ancient earthwork reputed to have been built by King Offa to defend his kingdom. It is 177 miles long. We are planning to walk it in sixteen days and I have now started to accumulate people who started and had to give up. This is freaking me out. Tomorrow I intend to walk nine miles along the Clwydian hills from Clwyd Gate home.
And sowing things. The greenhouse is heaving with seed trays and lengths of guttering with seedlings growing in them. Today I sowed pumpkin "hooligan" (great name for a pumpkin, how does a pumpkin do hooligan exactly?), more peas, borlotti beans, Trail of Tears beans and bulb fennel.

What are you reading?
Anna Pavord on kitchen gardening.

Which item from your wardrobe do you wear most often?
A pair of extremely tatty, ancient jeans which have become my gardening trousers. If trying to look halfway respectable, a pair of slightly smarter jeans inherited from my older daughter.

First spring thing?

Snowdrops and primroses.

What's for dinner?

We had friends for lunch and a child friendly lunch of cold roast chicken, salad (the child in question is a great lover of cucumber) and chocolate brownies. Evening meal was a chicken salad sandwich and a piece of coffee cake.

Planning to travel to next?
To Provence in late September to visit some friends and to admire their new house. I love Provence and would live there if I didn't live here.

Best thing you ate or drank lately?

The aforementioned chocolate brownies, made to an Angela Nilsen recipe in the May edition of the BBC's Good Food magazine. Truly wonderful and only half the calories of a traditional brownie recipe. Mind you, even at half the calories they are still not a lettuce leaf, but it is a gesture and they could not be yummier.

Last thing you bought?

Plants from the wonderful nursery at Great Dixter, the garden created by the writer Christopher Lloyd and now cared for by Fergus Garrett. I am assuming I don't have to count a food shop or a daily paper because that would be too boring but if I do need to include day to day stuff, the answer is a free range chicken.

Flower of the moment?

Tulips in variety.

Favourite ever film?
There is no point in asking me this. I am whatever the reverse is of a film buff ( a ffub?). I don't really like film, much prefer theatre or even better, books. I can't remember films and often don't watch to the end. I did like Mama Mia though because I could sing along embarrassingly.

Care to share some wisdom?
Be kind.
Laugh a lot.
If in doubt go for a walk with the sun on your back.
Baking a cake usually helps.
Humankind needs green: green grass, green trees. Go outside.
If you were a god/goddess who would you be?
Athene, goddess of wisdom.

Rules of the meme. Respond and rework. Answer questions on your own blog. Replace one question. Add one question. Tag 8 people.
Do this if you fancy it, or not, as you please. These are my 8:
Sorry if you have already been tagged by someone else!

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Hacking my way through the undergrowth

We have a whiteboard in the kitchen which is the place to record that we are running out of tea or cheese. It also records jobs that need doing, and, in my theory at least, these are vaguely "current" jobs as opposed to one of Ian's masterlists of the hundreds that things that need to be done in house, cottage and on the land. We have had one of these for years and every now and then the children, now way old enough to know better so obviously never going to grow out of it, adorn it with gently mickey-taking cartoons.
Completely belying my "current jobs" theory, we have had "ivy at back of house" on there for what feels like months and may be years. Here is an idea as to why.

We had established that somewhere under there were some stone steps which would allow you to climb up on to the rocky higher ground behind the house so we went looking, Ian armed with a billhook while I had my trusty Felco secateurs. The area under the yew trees was dense with ivy, all the way to the rickety treehouse.

Slowly the steps emerged from what had been an ivy covered steepness. It was a good job to do although these steps will hardly be in constant use. All that is up there is the high curve of land which protects the house from the prevailing winds and the huge beech trees which line the boundary with our neighbours' farm. This was part of the reason for finding the steps as Ian is keen that our neighbour's son, who has a business working on trees, should reduce the height and width of the beech trees. As always I want the least done that preserves the safety of the house and am swimming against the tide of male, chainsaw wielding opinion. So the question of improving access to the trees was the practical reason for extricating the steps.
But for me there was something magical about seeing them appear, like the magic of ruins or the half tug at the heart of the forgotten, overgrown garden.

I think they are rather beautiful, our steps to nowhere.

Perhaps it is time to get the fixing of the rickety tree house on the whiteboard.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Last week I went to Great Dixter. It is a garden built around a fourteenth century manor house in Sussex. The house was restored in the early 1900s by a businessman, Nathaniel Lloyd, with the help of the renowned architect Edwin Lutyens. Lloyd and his wife began the creation of the gardens but they were developed over fifty years or more by their son, Christopher, gardener and writer. For the last fifteen years of his life Christopher worked with Fergus Garrett who remains as head gardener following Christopher's death four years ago. It is one of the great gardens of the world.

Sometimes it is a mistake to do something you have looked forward to for a very long time and I have been wanting to go to Great Dixter for almost twenty years. How can a place bear the level of expectation laid upon it? Surely I would be setting myself up for at best an anti-climax, at worst a major disappointment. I was taken aback to find myself so moved by being there that I could not stop the camera shaking (I am not an excitable type) so the photos here are Ian's and doubtless better than mine would have been even had my hands been still.

It was not a disappointment. It was a grey, damp day, not raining but mild and still. We were almost the first people there and the garden was quiet and empty. It was too early in the season for a great and glamourous display of flower but in many ways all the better for that. In winter you can famously see the bones of a garden, here the mighty yew hedges and stone flagged paths. In spring you can see how the planting works: how many tulips, interplanted with what, where are the anchor plants, how many lupins are in this border, what grows under shrubs which will later be covered in flower and leaf. We wandered, Ian took photographs, we wandered again. There was a nursery filled with fascinating plants at sensible prices and knowledgeable, entirely unpushy staff. I spent some money, restraining myself with difficulty, hanging on to the need to remember that my thin stony soil and Dixter's clay could not be more different. If I didn't focus on the real toughies anything soft and delicate would quickly turn up its toes here on the hill.

We finished by going round the house, still furnished and full of Christo's books. It is used by students who come to work in garden and still feels like a living place. I would go every month if I could but it is five hours' drive away so I will content myself with seeing the place in my head as I read and plan and plant. A perfect day.

And yesterday another iconic place: I went with Exmoorjane, writer and blogger, to Blackden, home of the writer, Alan Garner and his wife Griselda. This is an extraordinary place, the site occupied for some ten thousand years. They live in a medieval hall house alongside a timber framed apothecary's house known as The Old Medicine House. The houses are full of ancient things, found on the site and full of their books. A day there is a day out of time, passing swiftly, fizzing with ideas and excitement.

Yesterday I had the luxury of walking slowly as Alan showed Jane around, pointing out the protective marks carved into the wood of the Medicine House at points of weaknesses, entrances and exits and structural weak points too. Most take the form of a double V, virgo virginem, virgin of virgins, for the Virgin Mary. They protect against the entrance of evil in any form, witchcraft or the devil I imagine. From the serenity of the place, they have succeeded for over five hundred years.

In May my daughter and I are going on a day course here on Tudor herbs and spices, learning about their use and finishing by helping to create a herb garden in front of the Medicine House. Blackden is in Cheshire where Alan has lived and worked all his life. If it is within reach for you, go if you can. It is another very special place. You touch another world here.

Friday, 3 April 2009

An update

Well maybe I could get the hang of this not going to work lark. On Wednesday I went for another of my training walks for the long distance path. Again I walked alone and today I offer you pictures rather than so many words.

In the higher fields most of the ewes have now lambed. Only those sheep who live on the very highest hills still lumber up and away when you approach, heavy with the unborn.

Elsewhere tiny lambs stagger about. You can tell when you are looking at a very new lamb because, along with its wobble and uncertainty, it has yet to be numbered or marked in some way by the farmer. The red on the back of the ewe is of longstanding, left on her by the ram when she was covered. Good job we don't have such a system for people.

I walked out along the Clwydian way, along the side of the hills looking out over the vale. It was sunny and warm but hazy looking out across to Snowdonia. Looking south the hills were invisible and looking north the vale disappears into grey haze, no glimpse of the sea.

The oak trees are in bud, swelling by the day. I meet two riders and for a moment wonder how it would be to be riding not walking, a different sort of lovely perhaps, but walking by yourself is so silent as to be addictive. I stop so that even the sound of my trouser legs rubbing together ceases. Clearly I hear the drumming of a woodpecker deeper into the oak wood.

I grow warm, the path is taking me gently downwards and I have lost the wind. A broken rowan shows what the wind can do up here although today it is hard to imagine such force.

I come to a conifer plantation and the path takes me into the forest and up towards the hilltops again. Here it is a different kind of quiet, cut through from time to time by birdsong, invisibly high in the trees.

When I reach the top I turn back towards home, on the Offa's Dyke path now, climbing the ridge steadily to the peak of Penycloddiau. Walking up here you walk on springy, cropped grass, perfect underfoot. A skylark pours its liquid song out above my head, a speck against the blue sky.

Three hours out and, steadily descending to my own piece of hillside, I am home again at just about the time I would normally be getting in a taxi to Euston station. No contest.