Hidden in central London, a garden for peace and reconciliation

Although I was looking out for the St Ethelburga’s Garden for Peace and Reconcialition, even so, walking down busy Bishopsgate, I missed this tiny passageway to the garden first time round… Doesn’t look very promising, does it?!


But luckily I retraced my steps, and entered into a beautiful little corner that let me time travel

… or mind travel, anyway!


It was so quiet that I could even hear the birds singing, so I kept having to look up to see where I was. These noisy neighbours quickly reminded me!



The garden belongs to one of the oldest medieval churches in London. St Ethelburga’s Church managed to survive both the Great Fire of London AND the Blitz. However, it was destroyed almost completely by an IRA bomb in Bishopsgate in 1993. For some time it was thought to be beyond repair, but then a charitable trust was formed, and it was decided to rebuild the church as a Centre for Reconciliation and Peace. Amongst its roles, is research into how faith communities can work in the resolution of conflict. That it looks outwards to all parts of the world is reflected in the peace garden.


IMG_9472IMG_9464The garden was first designed by Sylvia Crawford, and recently redesigned by Jeremy Rye. Amongst its gems is the St Ethelburga’s Rose, specially created by Peter Beales Roses. In the centre is a large Bedouin tent (made from woven goats hair, several herds-worth I imagine) in which meetings and seminars on conflict, peace and reconciliation are held. And also visitors are invited to come in and enjoy the peace. And if it feels particularly peaceful, that’s because it has been carefully designed to be so. As the booklet says:

The Tent was designed by Professor Keith Critchlow, an expert in “sacred geometry”, who was charged to create a safe and dignified space without using the symbols of any specific religion.  He has used the universal languages of geometry, algebra, astronomy and harmony to create a perfectly proportioned space in a tranquil peace garden with a Lebanese fountain and an olive tree.  The windows carry the word peace in 7 languages.



But it was too tempting to sit outside, admire the points of interest and just wish I could be there at night when the lanterns were lit. Sir Thomas Wyatt seems to have been following me around recently (although luckily only in print) and may even have visited the church at any point – it had been standing for perhaps a hundred years by the time he was born –  so it seems appropriate to put up one of his poems as a celebration for this lovely garden. Maybe the poem is more about the difficulties of peace, but conflict and the need for reconciliation is actually at the heart of this garden. It feels like an oasis, but one that understands completely why it is needed rather than forgetting the outside world.




I Find no Peace

I find no peace, and all my war is done.
I fear and hope. I burn and freeze like ice.
I fly above the wind, yet can I not arise;
And nought I have, and all the world I season.
That loseth nor locketh holdeth me in prison
And holdeth me not—yet can I scape no wise—
Nor letteth me live nor die at my device,
And yet of death it giveth me occasion.
Without eyen I see, and without tongue I plain.
I desire to perish, and yet I ask health.
I love another, and thus I hate myself.
I feed me in sorrow and laugh in all my pain;
Likewise displeaseth me both life and death,
And my delight is causer of this strife.
Sir Thomas Wyatt
And hard really to leave. Particularly to hit the rush of the crowds outside rushing backwards and forwards – and not expecting to be joined by a peaceful writer coming in to them at such a different angle. I was pleased that some of them looked up to where I was coming from, as if I had appeared from Narnia’s wardrobe. Which in some ways I had!
More information about the garden can be found here, and there’s a particularly beautiful poem about poetry and peace by Denise Levertov here.




A sprig of jasmine in a water bottle – a walk round Scicli Cemetery

The gardens I remember the most aren’t always where I expect to find them. On our holiday in Sicily last week, we stopped the car to walk round this massive cemetery. From the road it looked like a row of beach huts so we wanted to know what it was like inside…


But inside it was the care taken by the cemetery gardeners and families to make the place beautiful that was particularly moving, often it was the smallest, gentlest planting that made us stop and think. This was so much about love.






As was the way the silence was broken by birds singing loudly and enthusiastically in the surrounding trees…

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So here’s the poem I wrote there. I think I can safely say it’s the first poem I’ve ever written in a cemetery…


Watching my husband text at Scicli Cemetry

So many roads of the dead to walk down.

I try to hear all their voices but listen

to the birds instead, their small but constant

conversation. Sometimes, in an effort

to make this a heavier memory, I rest my hand

on a gravestone, see a small child’s angel

wrapped in the shadow of a grandmother’s

cross, hope the proximity of a footballing dad

with the teenage cyclist is deliberate,

the fresh wild flowers amongst dusty

plastic roses, a sprig of jasmine

in a water bottle, yews, more yews.

Would I want to be with my mother’s family,

or rest in my husband’s crypt?

My children – no, they’ve no place here,

and I’m at the crossroads looking down

at so much love, so much hope,

when I catch him, my partner in life,

and yes, death too, bent over his phone,

as if any of it really mattered

when our lives are so free, being temporary,

and he’s laughing at a joke that I know

he’s already planning to tell me later,

and still, still, the birds sing on.


Trails, tea and Tofino

You know those guided meditations which start, ‘imagine yourself in a beautiful place in nature…’? Well, ever since I’ve visited the Tofino Botanical Gardens on Vancouver Island, that’s exactly where I imagine myself. Perhaps it’s not surprising when you feast your eyes on these pictures…



IMG_0700In fact it’s both beautiful and surreal. Especially when you suddenly come across a piece of home…


Or a reminder that’s it’s been some time since you wrote in your journal…


The gardens is designed to inspire conservation of, and provide information about, the world’s Temperate Coastal Rainforests. A series of boardwalks take you through to ‘pocket gardens’ which display plants that thrive in other temperate coastal rainforests around the world, some designed so you can look at all levels of the planting.


There’s also the fascinating Bernardo O’Higgins homestead, recreated after a chance find some years ago. Somehow I don’t imagine Bernardo had much time for meditations.


Bird hides to look out at the mudflats, part of a Wildlife Management Area.

IMG_0697IMG_0696And in the middle of the wild landscape, the thriving Tofino Community Garden.

tofinoIMG_0778A children’s garden that this ‘unsupervised adult’ found just a little tempting…



Art was everywhere, adding to rather than taking away from the plants, although sometimes so much so that it was hard to tell whether it was natural or manmade.



Not to mention other fun things to do…


Possibly the best selection of books on gardens and garden history in the cafe library, where there was also a reminder of the serious scientific endeavour behind the gardens…


And, of course, a cup of London Fog through which to view the garden!


If you have a garden and a library,

… you have everything you need. So said Cicero, and so, it seems, the Carnegie Library in London…



I visited this library on Wednesday to sit on a session of the adult literacy group, the Ruskin Readers. But first, I couldn’t resist a quick peek at the ‘Reading Garden’. Admittedly it wasn’t the perfect day to take a book out to read, but I could just imagine doing so in the sunshine. Perfect! Lots of different places dotted round to sit and dream over the words.



For all these reasons and more, the Carnegie Library is the perfect place for the Ruskin Readers to meet. This is a wonderful group where volunteers work on a one-to-one basis to help adults with reading and writing difficulties learn to read. It’s something I’m passionate about – particularly after hearing so many stories of the shame adults can feel when they can’t read or write, sometimes through no fault of their own. Caroline, who runs Ruskin Readers, said that their ‘readers’ may be dyslexic, left school to be carers or wage-earners, just not had the particular support they needed, or moved to this country and didn’t have the opportunity to learn until now. One reader I spoke to had come from Iran after many years in the merchant navy and he wasn’t the only person I spoke to who said the sessions with Ruskin Readers had changed his life.

And it wasn’t surprising. Just imagine how much we take for granted. All these wonderful opportunities as you enter the library, for instance.


Not to mention the many possible worlds you can step into once you go inside…



Here’s a poem I wrote for the Ruskin Readers…
In some circumstances, a y
sounds like an i,
put two consonants together
to feel your tongue moving forwards.
After a life on shifting sea, his son
asks him, why bother, but he’s pinning
himself down to this new country,
word by word by word.
She asks why should others miss out
on the pleasure she’s got from books,
andI see Dorothea, Elizabeth Bennett,
even Heathcliffe draw their chairs up,
sounding the letters silently with her
as she listens, explains, listens, corrects.
Listen to these scribbles on the page,
read the pictures with me,
we’re moving through the days here:
Tuesday, Wednesday, Sunday.
I agree it doesn’t always make sense,
the words are moving too quickly,
out of reach, just like our days,
and yes, days
is a different kind of Y.
Let’s try again.


Catching a healthy dose of Pteridomania in Canada

It was a real treat to meet one of my favourite gardeners (and friends) when I was in Canada recently. And also to be introduced to the delights of ferns. Which I’ve always thought were just there really to fill up some space. (I KNOW! I have an invisible speech bubble saying – #confession – in my head as I write this, which probably suggests I’m spending too much time on social media and not enough in the garden appreciating all plants.)


So back to the garden. It is on an island, and so not only has a beautiful ocean view from nearly everywhere. 

But also some unwelcome visitors in the form of small goats (I didn’t see these although I would love to have done) and deer (which I did see, they were munching too!)


I don’t think this is their bones above. But I LOVED this desk. It reminded me of the magic that can happen when a gardener is also a naturalist. And how peaceful it looks. This is what is important in life, isn’t it? And she’s a proper gardener too. Just look and admire this compost station.

IMG_0288There’s a wonderful thing going on in this garden. Because of those goats and deer, my friend has put fencing up and is busy recreating the missing middle layer of the natural landscape around. It was fascinating to see this happening so deliberately, and then comparing her natural island garden to the rest of the island. Because before I saw round her garden, I knew something had been missing but I hadn’t been able to put my finger on it. These pictures below are the garden in process, and shows just how much work it takes to create a ‘natural’ look. It has been a particularly dry summer in Canada too, lovely for us tourists but worrying for the plants, many of which were being tended individually. 

IMG_0358 IMG_0351 IMG_0343 IMG_0332 IMG_0328 IMG_0314This garden is really a work of generosity and skill, using only plants indigenous to this most easterly Gulf Island. It made me look and think again at layers, and proportion, and also about how gardens aren’t just about the plants, but are about light and shade and also shadows they throw. 

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And then once I started looking at ferns, I couldn’t stop. These photos below are from the VanDusen Botanical Gardens in Vancouver…

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What joy then to come home and look up Pteridomania, which means Fern Madness or Fern Craze, and hit Victorian England like a hurricane. The name – from the Greek for Fern, coming from Pteron for feather, was first devised by Charles Kingsley in his book Glaucus, or the Wonders of the Shore. Rather patronisingly, he said:

Your daughters, perhaps, have been seized with the prevailing ‘Pteridomania’…and wrangling over unpronounceable names of species (which seem different in each new Fern-book that they buy)…and yet you cannot deny that they find enjoyment in it, and are more active, more cheerful, more self-forgetful over it, than they would have been over novels and gossip, crochet and Berlin-wool.[1]

There are some lovely articles I found here and here, which include this illustration of fern hunting in action:


And – forget goats and deer – the full baskets shown above were probably the reason this strange notice was put up!


Anyway, I came back from Canada with a slight touch of Pteridomania, which has led to this latest beauty uncurling itself in MY garden back in Tunbridge Wells:





And a poem…


Lucy’s not crying over her crochet

and Jane’s escaped from the novel net,

Freda and Jo have stopped talking

about how Ali’s wound up the Berlin wool,


Because now ferns tickle us all like a feather:

sipping tea in fern cups, fern silk rustling

round our hips. Yes, the Lady fern’s uncurling

our purse-strings into a topknot of Venus’s hair.



Joining the Blackthorn Garden community



I am so pleased to say that I’ve just been appointed as a Trustee for the Blackthorn Trust. This garden and therapy centre near Maidstone is a very special place that I’m proud to have supported for several years now.

Here is a little bit about their work from their website:

Anyone can be struck down with illness. For some, however, illness becomes a life-long struggle which can result in losing a job, friends and a love of life. Blackthorn Garden is a community where by working together, one can find friends and security, learn new skills, feel valued and gain confidence to face the world at large.

The Garden was founded in 1991 and has attracted strong support and funding from Social Services and the NHS ever since. It also benefits from grants and donations from national and local charitable trusts, local businesses and individuals. Blackthorn Garden exists to assist individuals (known as co-workers) with a range of mental and physical health conditions, to build or gain confidence and self-esteem and to develop life and work skills.

And this video is a wonderful introduction (it’s silent for the first few seconds so don’t panic!).

If you are a garden writer, or interested in therapeutic gardens, and would like to find out more, do please let me know and I’ll do what I can to help! But in the meantime, I invite you to look at their website and maybe even sign up for the newsletter.

And I can thoroughly recommend the cakes and very special bread from the cafe!!!! It’s a perfect place to write too.





Sowing poetry seeds in two very different gardens

Over the last month, I’ve ‘appeared’ in two very different gardens…

Just last week, I was lucky enough to read from Digging Up Paradise at Long Barn, probably one of the most beautiful and interesting private gardens in Kent.






The evening was organised for the charity, Haller, aimed at empowering communities in Kenya. It was generously hosted by the owners of Long Barn, who also had organised some delicious sunny weather for us! Because Haller is all about sowing seeds, this is one of the poems I read during the evening:


Deep in the root ball of the ship
the plant collector is making a nest.

He counts his catch, tucks each seed
in its own hand-labelled box, an ebony

cabinet ticking with paused hearts.
Soon he will grow a fresh desert,

bring back to life these dried moments
of the old land. And as he waters

his dust, the sailors sleep on,
and no one sees how the wooden

mast dances its memory of the wind’s
song until, reaching for water, it leans

too far, loses balance. White sails,
like baby gowns, christen the sea.

me and marian!
(Here I am with the inspiring landscape architect, Marian Boswall, who is currently working on the garden at the Charleston Farmhouse, surely the mothership of Literary Gardens!)

The second garden is the Kensington/Olympia Community Garden in London, right on the edge of the train track. This is an amazing idea – local residents are encouraged to take over one of the brightly coloured wooden boxes to grown their own vegetables and fruit. And how they did! What I loved most was how different each box is.








It was inspirational! And well looked after by the community gardeners, including Will Gould (that’s him above) who had asked me to run a poetry workshop there for the Chelsea Fringe. It was such a pleasure to have two unsuspecting tourists from Sweden join us – they had wandered in to see the garden and ended up writing poems too. Below the photograph of us all ‘in action’ is the group poem we wrote during the day. It was a serendipitous mix of random memories that created something beautiful in its own right – much like seeds!



A Group Poem – Kensington Olympia Community Garden
May 2015
Garden Memories

We remember sitting in the garden,
eating a cabbage,
walking barefoot,
being told not to walk barefoot,
crawling through damp rhododendron tunnels
and waist high backyard fields of wheat,
seeing how paths between emerged.

We remember late Spring,
walking in the greenhouse,
watching new life,
biking home from school and climbing a tree,
eating plums until our stomachs ached;
we remember smelling a mint for the first time,
cutting grandmother’s grass,
and we remember to be humble.

Denise, Magnus, Will, Anna, Lisa, Zoe, Nigella, Ginny, Isobel, Sarah