Wearing the garden

Of course dressing yourself in the garden isn’t new. Chelsea Flower Show hairdo anyone?

garden hair

But I’ve fallen in love with two designers recently, who are doing more than just putting beautiful flowers on garments. Both Carol Lake and Travail en Famille are really digging deep to harvest their seeds of garden inspiration (I know, I know, I’m sorry…).

I came across the designs by mother and son team, Travail en Famille, hanging in a man’s shop in Hastings. ‘I can’t decide whether it’s art or clothes,’ the manager said, and I couldn’t help but agree.

Especially when you look on their website – here -(and they design for women too, hurrah!) and see that the inspiration behind the collection is a literary inspiration one, Voltaire’s novella Candide, first published in 1759. This gave the title of the collection, Il faut cultiver Notre Jardin and this is what they say:

Voltaire was telling us not to be concerned with the greater machinations of the world, but to grow our own garden, both literally and metaphorically. This is very much our philosophy at Travail en Famille, the only fashion brand where you will find a 23-year-old man making silk scarves with his mother.


The plants on the coat are inspired by the film, Van Gogh by Maurice Pialat, which covers the last few month’s of Van Gogh’s life when he was being treated by Doctor Gachet, just outside Paris.

Our Dr Gachet prints celebrate Van Gogh’s love of gardens through a collage of French garden flowers whilst acknowledging the difficulties he faced through a solitary white arum lily featured in the print. He painted these lilies when he felt melancholic and sad. garden

I love the idea of wearing these garden stories.

The second designer is Carol Lake, whose studio/home/the place I want to live in forever is in Norwich. Again, I came across her work by accident and felt those tremors of excitement when you know you’ve found something really original. Carol’s an artist, and her studio-shop is a treasure trove of Carol’s own botanical prints on shoes, scarves, dresses, sofas… you name it.



You can get a little of the flavour of the beauty of her work from her website, but if you can, I urge you to visit yourself. If not, indulge yourself with this video!




How a garden led to a family Christmas…

I’m lucky enough to be involved with the charity, Blackthorn Trust, in Maidstone. It’s a garden, a cafe, a bakery, a crafts studio – and all backed by a Trust Doctor, medical centre and talented massage therapists.


I know I’m biased but it’s a magical place. Visit it yourself, and I swear you won’t just want to visit the one time. You’ll be back! And you’d be very welcome. Here are some pictures I took late Autumn in the garden.

Today (5th December) it’s the Christmas fair, and we’ll be open from 10.30-2.30.

BT Crhistmas fair

In celebration, here’s an interview I carried out with Warren, one of our co-workers, to help explain a little of the work done by the team at the Blackthorn Trust.

“A Freedom I’ve Never Had Before” – What it’s like to be a co-worker at Blackthorn

A year ago, Warren Haddon was living like a recluse, estranged from his family and with no friends, but this year he’s looking forward to a family Christmas.

It’s a huge step that he credits to his time as a co-worker at Blackthorn.

‘When I first came in July 2014, it was very scary and I was so anxious,’ he admits. He was suffering from acute anxiety, and had such low self-esteem and no confidence that he felt useless. ‘It was difficult for me to get in that I had to take a cab every time.’

But now, Warren cycles by himself to the Trust, where he particularly enjoys working in the crafts room. ‘Needle-felting is a passion,’ he says. ‘I went on-line to get myself a home-starter kit, and after many years, at last I feel I’m doing something useful.’

And, just as transformational, after a ten-week catering course run through the Blackthorn Trust, he says he has become an amateur baker. ‘I’d never cooked before, but now I’ve baked for a Macmillan coffee morning and recently made a Victoria sandwich cake with fresh cream for a friend’s birthday.’

His relationship with his family improved after meetings at the neutral setting of the Trust café where he was able to feel safe. He is happy that he now has a normal relationship with his family, even making a mosaic table recently for his mother. In addition, his fellow co-workers have become friends, meeting for a meal outside Blackthorn hours, and playing pool together.

One of the tools Warren was given was a scrapbook in which he was encouraged to write down what he did and how he felt. He says it helped to see how far he had come, especially as he describes his progress to the optimism for the future he feels now as a series of small progressions.

‘It was really scary at first but I soon felt safe and knew that no-one would make fun of me,’ he says. ‘The staff and my co-workers were all so encouraging, and now I’ve got a freedom I’ve never had before. It’s a great place to go.’



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.