A Little Chaos – the fictional dream

Imagine the excitement in the Writer in the Garden household this weekend: There’s a film about proper gardening. Even Tim Richardson says it’s ‘squarely and actually about gardens and garden design’. Do we need to book? I think we should book. I’m worried it’ll be full….


Hmmm… we didn’t need to book. Sadly the cinema wasn’t full, not even in Tunbridge Wells, but nevertheless I loved this film. I think you will too – if you’re reading this website at least. There’s a phrase from the great writer and teacher, John Gardner (good name for this post!) to describe how in our fiction writing, we need to allow the reader to enter the ‘fictional dream’ – so the writer takes a step back and allows the story to come to the forefront. And that’s what happened in this film for me, so while I was watching I didn’t care about details. Although if anything I could do with a few more bits about gardening – the scene with Monsieur de la Quintinie whispering to his pears was delicious! And then La Barra interrupting the King in the enclosed fruit garden made me want to be there too.


Although when I got back, I wanted to look up a few facts.


And not just for the excuse of gazing at pictures of moody Matthius Schoenaerts as Andre Le Notre…

… who actually was an old man when Versailles was created, and looked more like this..

andre le notre

And of course the garden designer Sabine de Barra was fictional. Ho hum. Although maybe she’ll encourage more interest in women gardeners in history, such as the fascinating Thomasin Tunstall.

And of course Versailles is Versailles… and the soaring computer-generated image of the gardens at the end made the heart soar too. And long to go back.


This is a poem I found by Rita Dove, The Great Palaces of Versailles. Click the link for the whole poem, but here’s an extract below. Funnily enough, this wasn’t in the film…

Beulah had read in the library
how French ladies at court would tuck
their fans in a sleeve
and walk in the gardens for air. Swaying
among lilies, lifting shy layers of silk,
they dropped excrement as daintily
as handkerchieves. Against all rules

she had saved the lining from a botched coat
to face last year’s gray skirt. She knows
whenever she lifts a knee
she flashes crimson. That seems legitimate;
but in the book she had read
how the cavaliere amused themselves
wearing powder and perfume and spraying
yellow borders knee-high on the stucco
of the Orangerie.

Why this bench made me cry…

I’ve decided to move my bench posts from my old website, A Quiet Sit Down to here as, to be honest, trying to keep so many blogs in the air was driving me a little crazy, and benches fit in the garden just perfectly.

So to celebrate, here’s an example of why memorial benches matter so much. Meet Leslie and her bench to be found at Rye Harbour…


… and then this postcard, spotted by my friend Gaynor Edwards, last summer and left pinned on Leslie’s bench. A birthday card on what would have been Leslie’s 70th birthday.


I know we visit the bench in Chichester dedicated to my parents whenever we can especially on special days. Silly as it may seem, it feels like a chance to sit down with them again. And also, as the lovely Colin shows above, a place to chat too.

It is here now! It has come, the Spring! Dickon says so!

Writer in the garden, pah! Bricklayer in the garden more like… or at least for three bricks!


Inevitably having a wall built round my garden has sent me back to one of my favourite childhood books, The Secret Garden.

secret garden

And then it was even more of a joy when I saw how beautifully Frances Hodgson Burnett writes about spring. So as my garden’s a building site, these quotes are illustrated by pictures from my allotment…


On that first morning when the sky was blue again, Mary wakened very early. The sun was pouring in slanting rays through the blinds and there was something so joyous in the sight of it that she jumped out of bed and ran to the window. She drew up the blinds and opened the window itself, and a great waft of fresh, scented air blew in upon her.


The moor was blue and the whole world looked as if something Magic had happened to it. There were tender little fluting sounds here and there everywhere, as if scores of birds were beginning to tune up for a concert. Mary put her hand out of the window and held it in the sun. ‘It’s warm – warm!’ she said. ‘It will make the green points push up and up and up, and it will make the bulbs and roots work and struggle with all their might under the earth.’


“Things are crowding up out of the earth,’ she (Mary) ran on in a hurry. ‘And there are flowers uncurling and buds on everything and the green veil has covered nearly all the grey and the birds are in such a hurry about their nests for fear they may be too late, that some of them are even fighting for places in the secret garden. And the rosebushes look as wick as wick can be, and there are primroses in the lanes and woods, and the seeds we planted are up, and Dickon has brought the fox and the crow and the squirrels and a new-born lamb.’


‘I can’t wait! I am going to see the garden!’


She unchained and unbolted and unlocked, and when the door was open she sprang across the step with one bound, and there she was standing on the grass, which seemed to have turned green, and with the sun pouring down on her and warm, sweet wafts about her and the fluting and twittering and singing coming from every bush and tree.


She clasped her hands for pure joy and looked up in the sky, and it was so blue and pink and pearly and white and flooded with springtime light that she felt she must flute and sing alound herself, and knew that thrushes and robins and skylarks could not possibly help it.



Painting Paradise, and sneaking looks at Buckingham Palace garden through bars….

Now, Writer in the Garden hasn’t been getting out as much as she’d like recently, but when she does, she goes in style.


Last week I went off to the launch of Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace no less. That’s the curator, Vanessa Remington above, who wrote the accompanying book, Painting Paradise which I am still lusting after.

Here’s what she said: ‘The exhibition tells the story of how gardens have developed over time and of the many ways in which they have been valued by their royal owners. From the practical manuals they read to the botanical images they collected, and most of all from the many beautiful images of royal gardens, we can gain a real sense of how each generation of the royal family created their own corner of Paradise.’


And as she says, this is an exhibition about royal gardens first and foremost so I’m sure it will pull the tourists in.


But then it deserves too. I thought it was rather wonderful. So many stories here. Such as this painting of Charles II and his gardener, John Rose, from 1677.


Marvellous handing over of a pineapple there, ALTHOUGH at the time of the painting, no fruit had been successfully raised in Britain. So it was just wishful thinking.

And then there’s the extraordinary Sunflower clock from the Vincennes porcelain factory, c1752…


And what about this Victorian glass chandelier… the writer in the garden likes garden in the home very much indeed!


In particular, these delicate Faberge plants almost floored me with desire…



This one, the celandine, belonged to Vita Sackville-West. From one very royal presence to another…


And there’s the view of Hampton court, c 1704-14, by Leonard Knyff. I’ve only seen it in books during my garden history studies before, but there are so many details – deer, sundials – that you just don’t see unless you look close up.


Those two sundials in front of it are actually featured in the picture. Although so small and dot-ty that you probably would have to take a magnifying glass to see them properly.


What else? Oh yes, these magnificent tulip vases, thought to be the largest ever…


And I did promise a view from behind bars. Here you go, the Queen’s garden seen just outside the gallery…


Writer in the Flower Shop

How to wire an orchid

The weakest part
is the throat,
submerge head
then pull
up by the stem
and twist –
you’ll feel it.

Go up and push
a little harder.
Don’t spear the leaf,
but cut to show
the silver.
Pinch and pinch
and then stretch
and then twist
wire into gutter tape.

Orchids hate
the breeze,
by the time
you get them home,
they’ve caught a cold,
but remember,
the beauty
of flowers
is all about
the sacrificing of them.


Lucky me. Just before Christmas I won, at auction, a flower arranging course at the prestigious Covent Garden Academy of Flowers, and so last Friday I got to spend a day with some of the most beautiful flowers – and people – you can imagine.


To be honest, although I love flowers, I haven’t thought to much about arranging them before. This is my usual effort:


So anything was going to be an improvement. But …. TA-DA ….. look what I came home with. I couldn’t have been more chuffed – or amazed!


It was surprisingly hard work. And as I huffed and puffed, professional arrangers dotted and darted around making the most beautiful arrangements to go to hotels, venues, events and weddings. I spent quite a lot of time with my mouth open, watching little dreams being spun in front of me.


And if I needed a reminder that it was art we were making (or everybody else was, I think mine was more of a fluke!), here are three images from the books we could flick through for inspiration.


I’m not sure I’ll be taking this up, I have a friend who is a wonderful flower designer so I know just how skilful real experts are, but I came away totally inspired. And with a list of flowers and foliage I want to grow on my allotment for the next time I’m tempted to plonk some stems in any old vase.

And the poem at the top is the exact transcript (although maybe not in the right order) of our instructions for wiring an orchid. Who knew orchids could catch colds? Somehow my life is a little bit richer for even that one fact.

Who says a garden can’t talk? Lyveden New Bield

How’s this for a bit of magic?


Lyveden New Bield is perhaps one of the most important gardens in Britain, and I’ll take a bet that many of you have never heard of it before.


Or non-gardeners anyway. And why should you? The house is a ruin, and the garden unfinished.


But… but … but… there’s a story here. Of course, there is.


Lyveden New Bield in Northamptonshire was the summer house of Sir Thomas Tresham, from an Elizabethan family of staunch Roman Catholics. Because he was imprisoned for his faith for many years, he directed much of the work in the garden by letter from his book-lined cell, and you can still read the letters at the British Library. (There’s one particularly poignant note from his wife telling him how much she is missing him but rather than keeping it close to his heart, he’s used the envelope to scribble down his plans for the garden. Gardeners never change!)


When he died in 1605, he was seriously in debt and work on the garden and house came to a halt. The house is not a ruin – it was left roofless!


This meant that the garden remains as a perfect Tudor garden, without any of the ‘improvements’ so many other gardens enjoyed. Particularly as two months after Thomas’s death, his son, Francis, was exposed as a member of the Gunpowder Plot.


And indeed there’s a bit of a plot about Lyveden New Bield itself. The lodge and garden are full of Roman Catholic symbolism, perhaps an example that it is best to keep secrets in the open. Obviously there are no original plants remaining but significant plants that Tresham notes in his letters (with their Catholic name in brackets) would have been Campion (Mary’s Rose or Lady’s Candles), Anemone (Candlemass Caps), Raspberry (symbol of Christ’s Passion), Wormwood (Mary’s Tree) and Hawthorn (Mary’s Mayflower). You can still see traces of the laybrinth which represented ‘a spiritual journey on the one true path’…


… and indeed this was how the garden was found again. Oh how I love this story. An aerial photograph was taken by a Luftwaffe cameraman in 1944, and the images were then left in the US National archive in Maryland before copies were ordered and studied by the National Trust.


The ten concentric rings you might just be able to make out would have been planted with cherry and plum trees, roses and raspberries. Wouldn’t that be fine to see again? The garden is now Grade 1 listed, and there’s certainly a lot of work happening. I’m hoping that the National Trust will plant the fruit varieties Tresham notes in his letters. Apple varieties included Great Green Costard, Dr Harvey’s and RUsset, there were Windsor, Madingley, Norwich and Hawksbill Pears, and Walnut and Moiled Plum. What’s a moiled plum? I feel the need to search one out.


We walked up the curving paths of all four ‘snail-mounts’, imagining our skirts swishing from side to side as they would have done in Tudor times…


And thought about taking a boat out for fish…


But as you can probably tell from these photographs it was a bit cold! Luckily, although we weren’t expecting it, there was a great cafe here for hot chocolate and soup, and when we went to nearby Burghley House, just look at the skies. A bonfire of beauty…


I’m still mulling over my creative response to Lyveden New Bield, in some ways there were too many stories here to pick just one, so here’s a poem by another Catholic nobleman of the time, Robert Southwell. He had found refuge with Henry Vaux, Thomas Tresham’s brother-in-law, so I am guessing that they met. Perhaps to talk gardens and poetry, as well as religion. I hope so.

Times Go by Turns
By Robert Southwell

THE lopped tree in time may grow again,
Most naked plants renew both fruit and flower;
The sorriest wight may find release of pain,
The driest soil suck in some moistening shower.
Times go by turns, and chances change by course,
From foul to fair, from better hap to worse.

The sea of Fortune doth not ever flow,
She draws her favours to the lowest ebb.
Her tides hath equal times to come and go,
Her loom doth weave the fine and coarsest web.
No joy so great but runneth to an end,
No hap so hard but may in fine amend.

Not always fall of leaf, nor ever spring,
No endless night, yet not eternal day;
The saddest birds a season find to sing,
The roughest storm a calm may soon allay.
Thus, with succeeding turns, God tempereth all,
That man may hope to rise, yet fear to fall.

A chance may win that by mischance was lost;
The net, that holds no great, takes little fish;
In some things all, in all things none are crossed;
Few all they need, but none have all they wish.
Unmeddled joys here to no man befall;
Who least, hath some; who most, hath never all.

Digging Up Paradise… an ‘Eden of a book’

I had thought that Digging Up Paradise might just be a summer book, so what a treat to have two new reviews this week – all talking about reading it in Autumn.

First of all, a huge thanks to Rosie Johnston from The London Grip who said:

Beside an autumn fire while winds and rain tear up the garden outside, this book is pure joy. I look forward to taking it in the bike basket around Kent in the summer too. It is Salway’s gift for poetic prose that haunts the heart most of all. The harpsichord in Finchcocks Musical Museum in Goudhurst for example has been specially built (Salway writes) so the music can only be heard by the person playing it. I took this thought with me into the garden afterwards as I sat on a bench against one of the ivy covered walls and watched the light making silent songs with shadows on the grass.


And she calls it ‘an Eden of a book’.

I love that!

And also a big thank you to Clare Law from Three Beautiful Things, who reviews it here, and says:

“Sarah’s meditative walks and patient observations have produced something fresh and fascinating that will continue to delight me for a long time to come.”



Now we’ve passed Halloween and even Bonfire night, is this the right time to say that Digging Up Paradise might be a perfect present for Christmas?

Oh go on then.

So just in case you have a garden/poetry lover in your family and this might sound just right gift for them, I’m very happy to sign a dedication to whoever you would like. Just get in touch with me via the comments or my email – sarahsalway@gmail.com. Copies will cost £14.50, (including – nice – postage and packing!).