Creative writing workshops about gardens and the landscape, plus some walks and weeks away…

I’m delighted to tell you that my latest book, Digging Up Paradise is now available for pre-order. It will come out ‘properly’ at the beginning of June, but in the meantime here are some courses and events which may be of interest:

3rd and 8th JuneExplore the lost gardens of the Strand with the ‘Old Map Man’, Ken Titmuss and me as part of the Chelsea Fringe. This is a two hour walk, starting at Charing Cross Station and ending at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Ken will provide knowledge, maps and expertise, and I will provide poems, extracts of letters and bits of novels which will add another flavour to the imagination. We have been finding out lots of things ourselves and promise some surprises along the way! You can book here, and we’re asking for a donation of £15 per ticket (payable on the day) with £5 of that going towards a gardening charity.

July 2, 9, 16 and 23rd July, 10-12.30pm – A four-week writing workshop in Tonbridge run through the University of Kent called Step Outside and Write. Participants will use a mixture of practical writing exercises as well as looking at published pieces and outdoor writing projects. This workshop is suitable for all levels of writers, and is designed to allow you to concentrate on your individual project. You can find out more and book for the course here

Aug 18th – Aug 23rd – An Arvon course: Landscape Writing, A Field Guide to Writing. Together with Shaun Levin, brilliant creator of Writing Maps, and with special guest, Tristan Gooley, The Natural Navigator, we will be running a week of walking, reading and getting lost with some excellent writers at the Hurst in Shropshire. This week will be an exploration of landscape writing and how it can work for you, whether you have a project in mind or just want to get some new ideas. Both walkers and non-walkers are welcome!

September 13th – A free writing workshop at Canterbury’s Westgate Gardens to help turn the gardens into a poetry park! We will write garden-inspired poetry, share our favourites and hang them from the trees in the park for everybody to enjoy! More details to come.

There will be more… watch this space … but I do hope to get the chance to write with you this summer, even if it’s virtually through this website!

Poetry in Westgate Gardens, Canterbury – a competition

I’m delighted to be judging the competition to find three poems to display in the underpass in the Westgate gardens in Canterbury. You have until MAY 15TH to send in your poems - there are two categories for under 18, and over 18, and poems should capture the spirit of Canterbury past and present; its history, people, architecture and ecology. Find out more here.

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AN IMPORTANT NOTE: Don’t send your poems to me, or let me know the titles or anything about the poems you enter.

This is part of a project to reinvigorate Westgate Gardens, and it’s lovely to see poetry used as part of this.

Now it’s a long way ahead, but I will also be running a free workshop in the gardens on Saturday, 13th September, 11-1pm, in an attempt to turn Westgate into a poetry park. Do put it in your diary, but enter the competition first!

I’m particularly pleased to be involved in this, because one of the projects I’m proudest of is Homegrown, part of the Wise Words Festival in Canterbury when I was allowed to play with poetry and words in four of the public parks in Canterbury, in collaboration with the ReAuthoring Project and artist, Wendy Daws.

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It was amazing to have people come up to us and say that it had made them look at the whole park again, even – especially – when they were regular visitors.

I look forward to – anonymously – reading your poems!!

What people have been saying about Digging Up Paradise

I’m not always the best person to talk about my own work. To be honest, I tend to say stuff like, ‘Oh, don’t feel you need to buy it…’ or even direct them to someone else’s book about the same subject. So it’s made me laugh, cry and dance to get the blurbs below for DIGGING UP PARADISE. Not only are they blush-makingly flattering, but more importantly for me, they absolutely get what I’m trying to do. Thank you Lia, Viccy, Victoria and Patricia. You are my dream team of readers, and I am honoured.

From Lia Leendertz, writer on gardens for The Guardian, The Telegraph and others:

“On this poet’s garden tour Sarah Salway writes of the gardens physical selves, of course, but also of the sensations they conjure, the memories they stir up and the glimpses of history that colour her perception. Each description is rich, layered, personal and moving. It is more like the way we all experience gardens than any garden writing I have come across. Sarah has a unique combination of a garden lover’s eye and a poet’s imagination, and it is a delicious treat to watch her exercise them on this group of gardens. She makes a fascinating and unpredictable virtual garden companion, always drawing your attention to some unexpected detail, or taking some half-told story, exploring it and breaking your heart with it. At the end I desperately wanted to set her onto my own favourite gardens and see what happens.

I read this book sometimes with a silly smile on my face, sometimes gripped and anxious, often with a tingle running down my spine. Sarah’s poetry has always moved me, and now she writes about my favourite subject, gardens. How lucky we gardeners are to have her in our midst. This could not be a lovelier book.”

From Victoria Field, author of The Lost Boys:

“Sarah Salway’s new collection is an original and engaging take on a perennial theme – pun intended! Gardens have occupied the imaginations of poets for generations, from Hafiz writing in ancient Persia to Rudyard Kipling declaring that ‘All England is a garden’. In moving, engaging and often surprising reflections, Sarah Salway takes the reader on a tour of the Garden of England, introducing us to the stories of Kent’s astonishing variety of well-known and tucked-away gardens. As we’d expect from this widely praised and published writer, her prose is expansive and generous and the poems distilled and precise. As a bonus, both are illustrated by Sarah Salway’s own photographs. This is a book to treasure and to carry on summer picnics to these captivating and ever-changing oases – a worthy paean to gardens and the gardeners who created them.”

From Patricia Debney, author of Littoral and How to Be a Dragonfly:

This remarkable creation – part guided tour, part literary and history essay, part poetry – is rich testament to Salway’s entirely passionate and insightful observations as a writer and self-confessed, lifelong biophilic.

In Digging Up Paradise, Salway charts interior and exterior journeys as she travels through Kent’s gardens. From Margate Shell Grotto to Sissinghurst Castle, we travel with her via an eclectic mixture of photos, journal entries, and exquisite poems, often to our own real and remembered gardens, and the people in them. This book surprises and delights us with what we never knew, or knew and had forgotten, reconnecting us with our own public and private spaces. With characteristic lightness of touch and lively enquiry, Salway explores our relationships with the natural world: how we live and create in it, and how it lives and breathes in us.

From Viccy Adams, Writer and Literary Artist:

“In Digging up Paradise Sarah Salway has drawn thoughtful and imaginative pathways for the reader through the horticultural persons, places and histories of Kent. Through an arboretum of writing these spaces come alive on the page, providing a moment of instant verdant escape for the committed armchair traveller.

Part-travelogue, part-poetry collection, part-guide-book, Digging up Paradise moves from landscaped castle grounds to shell grottoes, from desolate public parks to topiaried views, gathering creative seeds and espaliering the stories so that a sense of each place can be quickly understood and enjoyed. Reading this book has inspired me to take my own notebook out into my local green patches, and left me with hopeful plans to visit the Garden of England that these ‘cuttings’ make sound so enticing.”

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The book is coming out in May, and there are plans for walks, workshops and readings. Information will be on this website, but do let me know if you’d like to be on the Digging Up Paradise mailing list I’m keeping too. There will be special ‘mailing lists’ events…

Do also let me know if you would like a review copy of the book or want to talk to me about readings, events or garden poems.

An Exciting Book Announcement!

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I’m absolutely delighted to tell you I’ve just signed the contract for a book from this blog.

DIGGING UP PARADISE: Potatoes, People and Poetry in the Garden of England
will be published this year by the excellent Kent publishers, Cultured Llama, and is an armchair ‘tour’ with a map, descriptions and poetry inspired by twenty-five Kent gardens, including Sissinghurst, Penshurst Place, Mount Ephraim, Quex Gardens and Down House.

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Writing it has been a chance to go back and explore my feelings about gardens developed over the two years I’ve been writing this blog – how they are places of alchemy where we can turn a public space into our own private paradises. And also to introduce you to some wonderful and sometimes obsessive people who have gardened in Kent through history – the three ashmatic brothers who built a formal garden together as the world stood poised on the edge of war; a man who built his own ruins; the thirteen year old boy sentenced to hard labour for stealing roses in the 19th century; hornpipe dancers; plant collectors and apple scrumpers.

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I’m currently got my editing hat on and am working away like mad, but will be planning some readings, talks and events to celebrate when it’s finally blooming in the book garden this summer. Do contact me if you would like more information, or indeed want to RESERVE YOUR SIGNED COPY…

So come take a walk in the garden and discover some new places with me!

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Sarahx

‘Loveliest’ Leeds Castle

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Leeds Castle – in Kent, not Yorkshire as some people apparently think – is justly proud of Lord Conway’s comment that it is the ‘loveliest castle in the whole world’. It’s origin dates from 1119, and has been the home to six queens – Eleanor of Castile, Margaret of France, Isabella of France, Anne of Bohemia, Joan of Navarre, Catherine de Valois. Another queen, Catherine of Aragon was a regular visitor.
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‘…among the waters on an autumnal evening when the bracken is golden and there is a faint blue mist among the trees…’ Lord Conway also says.
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Perhaps it’s not surprising that water paid such a large part in my visit to Leeds Castle, not just because of the water features in the park but because it seems to have done little else but rain recently. The weather has its advantages though. The parklands around the castle glistened and glowed, like a teenager tossing back freshly washed shiny shiny long hair.
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And the sounds. Rushing and tapping and gurgling and … honking.
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Forget the famous queens, it seemed to me that it’s the waterbirds that rule Leeds Castle today. I tried to walk sternly past them, but the couple behind me screamed and threw all the food they had purchased at the entrance just to make a getaway. These geese meant business.
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Given their very obvious sense of entitlement, I wasn’t surprised to learn that birds are a deliberate feature in the garden. The most recent ‘lady’ of Leeds Castle was Olive, Lady Baillie, who left the castle to the Leeds Castle Foundation when she died in 1974. She loved birds of all kinds, and developed part of the parkland as an ideal environment for waterfowl. She also introduced the black swan, the symbol of the castle, to the United Kingdom, importing them from Australia.
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She seems like quite a woman. During her time at Leeds Castle, it was a centre of parties and innovation. She built the first wave swimming pool in the grounds, turned the gatehouse into a squash court (now a dog collar museum!), and a cinema in the Maiden’s Tower. Not surprisingly, it became the place to visit, and as I walked round, I tried to picture some of the guests over the years here… Noel Coward, Errol Flynn, Edward and Mrs Simpson, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, and David Niven who would apparently desert his fellow guests to play cards with the servants. I bet they made a few trips down to the wine cellar too.
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But during the second world war, like many grand houses, the castle opened itself up to other ‘guests’. It was used for secret meetings with senior military figures, but continuing the female theme, was mostly a centre for the VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachments). Then, as a military hospital and convalescent home for airmen, when during the Battle of Britain some arrived still harnessed to their parachutes.
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Here’s a statue of Florence Nightingale, still looking after the castle in memory of that time.
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But it was another group of visitors I was interested in, the so-called ‘guinea pigs’ – war burns survivors who had been treated by the pioneering plastic surgeon, Sir Archibald McIndoe, at nearby East Grinstead. I think this British Pathe News clip below must have been taken at the Queen Victoria Hospital although records show that reunions were held at Leeds Castle too.

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It is a coincidence obviously that, although much of the original furniture remains, there are so few mirrors in the castle. Instead every room I entered, every corridor I walked down, had windows which drew you to look out to the parkland beyond.
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And even inside to another view of the castle.
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These are from the ‘Gloriette’ where the Royal Rooms are. Gloriette is a Spanish term for a Moorish garden building, and indeed there was a Spanish feel to this part of the building. Maybe an influence from Eleanor of Castile?
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In my mind, I followed their progress through the castle and into the library. I do hope one of them sat and read their way through these very British selection of books..
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Or perhaps they got down the oldest book in the collection, Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, printed in 1638… look, the guide got it down for me to see! Sir Philip Sidney was, of course, the owner of nearby Penshurst Place. Perhaps it was a gift between neighbours.
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It’s impossible, of course, to know what it must have been like for these men, getting used to their new faces and bodies in the loveliest castle in the world. I imagine the beauty must have helped.
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And also a sense of durability, with trees such as this Cedar of Lebanon to rest against.
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Later, I had a walk round the maze. On my own, thinking it would be easy. 2,400 yews, yes! Bring it on. A stroll in the park. I got lost at the first turn. And then again at the second. My heart started to pound like a cartoon character. I began searching for sticks and things I could wave over the top of the hedges because I wasn’t sure anyone had seen me go in. I tried to retrace my footsteps and got lost again.
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I resorted to deep breathing. Tracking the footsteps in the mud to see which direction they were going.
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And then just like that, I was out. And heading for the grotto as my treat. Two seconds later and I was cursing myself all over again for going in on my own. This is scary wonderful gothic stuff based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses…
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And after that, I was ready for some light relief. Look, celebrities still come to Leeds:
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Here’s the poem I wrote for the ‘Guinea pigs’ at Leeds Castle.

Narcissus

A work of art, the nurses call you,
the stitching on your cheek as fine
as tapestry. You’ll have me hanging
in the Gloriette
, you play the castle fool,
but the rough stones under your fingers
could be a self-portrait, your hand a brush
paused on your chin before you remember why
the castle’s windows are angled for defence:
it’s important to keep looking out,
You head to the mirrored lake, reflections
are a maze you tiptoe through to reach
the heart, each glance becomes a needle
until finally you’re sewing a new picture.

The view from a hill – Octavia Hill, Toys Hill and Ide Hill

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The Octavia Hill Centenary Hill is not so much a garden, but a walk involving three hills – Toys Hill, Ide Hill and the woman who connects the two – Octavia Hill.

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She was a social reformer and nature lover who left her house to the organization she founded – The National Trust, who still continue to look after much of the land these walks covers in the heart of Kent. They are well laid out with signs and even leaflets, but still offer surprises.

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At Toys Hill, you can sit on this bench here, next to the well, and change the world over a cup of coffee.

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There’s a real feeling of community here – we found an oak planted by both the oldest and youngest member of the village in 1990.

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And then when we walked over to Ide Hill, this simple memorial to those who died in WW1 made me want to cry.

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The pub wasn’t as bad as advertised either.

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But most of all the Octavia Hill Centenary Trail centres around views. Every time you come out of a thicket of wood you are left breathless, not just with the climb, but with just how far you can see into the distance – “Pure earth, clean air and blue sky”. This is what Octavia Hill thought was the right of every man and woman, and is certainly in abundance here.

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And no wonder the farmer this bench remembers loves the view.

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Just look at it!

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Perhaps it was views like this that gave her the farsightedness to work tirelessly to bring about reform in London’s social housing. Because she believed so strongly that fresh air was important to quality of life, she created an inner city garden, now known as The Red Cross Garden. Linked to a social housing estate, it is still a place for people to sit in to counter some of the problems caused by the smog and industrial fumes of the time. At the same time, she built the small row of cottages and a ‘village hall’ for activities such as dancing, crafts and skills. It still exists and is a thriving community centre. In fact, it is hard to imagine when you sit there that this is in the middle of London. Only the street names around, Little Dorrit Street, help more to picture what it must have been like in Hill (and Charles Dickens’s) time.

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So it is important to come here and see where it all began. As Octavia Hill must have felt, fresh air is definitely worth fighting for. And as I’ve just read today in Psychologies Magazine that we are spending on average 77 hours a week in front of a screen and only six hours outside walking, if you are anywhere near Kent this weekend, I suggest a walk here not least to see the last of the autumn colours.

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This is the poem I wrote in the Red Cross Garden. I’m posting it again because I took with me to the top of Ide Hill to read where Octavia Hill must have walked.

The Outside Sitting Room

After a winter we thought would never end
and a spring that had barely begun,
we come shyly – one by one -
into the park. A father lies down immediately,
his daughter giggling as she tiptoes away,
the homesick student listens to music
from her childhood, eyes shut,
head raised to catch these slivers
of sun she’s learning to call summer,
a jogger comes and goes, and a family
takes over the far corner, prams, and aunts,
and picnics, and complicated games
only one boy will ever understand
while I sit, and by the act of recording them all
shut the door on myself.
Put down the pen,
shut the journal,
walk with bare feet on warm grass.

Find out more about the Octavia Hill Centenary Trail here.

Porcupines and Poetry at Penshurst Place, Kent

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I always think of Penshurst Place as a true writers’ garden. This isn’t just because it was the home of one of the great 16th Century English poets, Sir Philip Sidney.

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or the muse for Ben Johnson’s poem, To Penshurst.

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But it is still attracting writers today. Dramatist and short story writer, Gaye Jee (who kindly agreed to read one of Sidney’s poems at the end of this piece) can be found guiding sometimes, and where else would you receive a reply to your email IN VERSE from the office? Also there are regular literary events at both the house and garden. But this isn’t the only reason to love Penshurst. It has a very special feel which I think comes from the fact that it is still a family home – that of De L’Isle family and you can see an exhibition of family portraits and photographs over generations.

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I’m lucky in that it’s one of the nearest gardens to my home so I get to visit regularly. This means I see the 11 acre garden at different times…

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… and find my own special corners where I can almost imagine myself back to the 16th century when the garden was first laid out …

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… and never fail to leave a little lighter-hearted…

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… and even walks outside in the glorious parkland (and open to all) make me feel grateful.

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But I was grateful to Gaye for pointing out something I would never have noticed before, and that is how much of the garden plays with perspective. So this isn’t just how the hedges allow you to move from one garden room to another and from one height to another, still giving glimpses of the house…

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… but she pointed out how the pond at the front of the house, while looking like an oval from the ground…

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… actually makes a perfect circle when seen from the first floor reception room.

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My new favourite thing. It joins the topiary bear but above all the porcupine as essentials to visit each time.

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The porcupine is the symbolic animal of the Sidney family, and may seem a strange one until I read that in ancient times it was believed that porcupines can throw their quills at an enemy.

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(Completely off subject, but I love the fact that a group of porcupines is called a ‘prickle’.)

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Definitely not prickly is one of the other attractions of the garden at Penshurst Place which is the 100 yard Peony Border…

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If you are lucky enough to see it at its prime (in June), I swear it will keep you going all year. Penshurst kindly operate an email list, allowing you to sign up to be informed for when it’s at its finest. It really does fill you up in every sense, and is worth waiting for…

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And so I took all of these things, but above all one of Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnets as my writing inspiration. The eagle-eyed among you may recognise the line-ends to Sidney’s sonnet, Astrophli and Stella 1 which I kept to exactly.

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Come to the Window

From above, the pond’s a perfect circle as if to show
how even your eyes can be deceived if you think pain
is something those on top will never know.
The perspective’s a trick; I pass the story on to obtain
your interest but better surely than a tale of woe
is the joy you feel at a garden set out to entertain —
topiary beasts to make you laugh, a sense of beauty to flow
right through, white gardens, flags, heart first then brain.
A peony border you rush to see because you think it’ll stay
fresh only fleetingly, forgetting how the wind blows
sweet scent into winter nights until you dream of the way
those bawdy flowers blushed as if caught in the throes
of a delicious secret. Circles have no corners, no room for spite
and what’s important is what YOU feel, not what I write.

And here is Gaye Jee reading one of Sir Philip Sidney’s poems. It was filmed last summer in the sun.

Website for Penshurst Place is here.