Scientists in the Garden of Love – Bologna


The Bologna Botanic Garden or Orto Botanico (like everything, it sounds better in Italian) has been a centre for botanical research since the 16th century when the University of Bologna was one of the main centres of botanical research.

bologna mapIMG_4365

It’s not big, just over two hectares, and a slope at the end is formed by the city walls. However, despite its relaxed feeling…


…and both tourists and locals obviously using it for relaxation (even if not on the flower pot benches), it retains its educational focus.

Even the carnivorous plants (excitingly caged in) were being studied by someone with a clipboard when we visited. He didn’t get eaten.


So it felt appropriate, and curiously beautiful, to suddenly come across these two women in white coats gathering specimens from the garden.


Here’s a poem for them…

Scientists in the Garden of Love

There needs to be proper proof:
to dismiss first of all the negatives,

the grandmother making daisy chains
won’t do, she’s biologically programmed

to protect her young, that baby laughing
up at her needs her affection, their smiles

are pure self-interest; the group of teenagers,
– a boy at the centre, standing on a log,

and at the edge, another boy laughing
at a joke only those two will find funny –

it’s hormonal. Even the middle aged couple
reading on the bench, his hand raised

to stroke her hair, are both just facing
their fears of getting older. Move on,

because at last here is our evidence:
those two kissing, see where

they have placed themselves
right by the carnivorous plants?

Yes, their love is not just about growing,
but in how much they have to lose.

NB The garden is also home to the world famous Herbarium. This holds 100,000 botanical specimens dating from the 16th century onwards. A true treasure trove. You need to make an appointment to visit the Herbarium, although the gardens are open and free. More details here.

Spring, lorries, Sadlers Wells, champagne and soil

Spring came on a lorry last night


Or so it felt, as we walked through balmy unbowed London to see the English National Ballet’s triple bill at Sadlers Wells. We marvelled at the blossom, we stepped across streets to walk in the sun, and listened to kids playing outside in the squares again. And then there was this lorry waiting outside the theatre…. a ballet lorry!

It was a wonderful evening, but it was the third piece, Pina Bausch’s Le Sacre du printemps, an interpretation of Stravinsky’s work and an astonishing performance by the English National Ballet, that made every hair on my body stand on end. Much as spring itself does. The first sign that something special was happening was when they poured buckets and buckets of soil on the stage, and raked it almost as a performance. (I obviously didn’t take photos during the dancing, but I couldn’t resist one of this alternative ballet…)

Raking soil at Sadlers Wells

And because it’s the week when it felt important to keep on enjoying the simple beauty and optimism of a London that is as much about honey and selling so many different kinds of potatoes as it’s about politics…



… a week when I met a man who makes my favourite champagne (Taittinger, in case you happen to be passing), and when the tulips on my balcony have not quite burst into colour although I know they want to…


… and maybe because of all that, when I sat down with my journal, although none of this is really about a garden, this spring poem came out, and so I’m sharing it here.


Tell me, what does spring sound like?

Stravinsky, the five o’clock bird singing

with relief at the new day, a champagne cork

aimed as true as a young girl jumps into love’s arms,

and our gasps as she’s caught, again and again.


And does spring taste of flowers? Not yet,

it’s the sweetness of clean earth, the ache

of green, a twig shadowy as tobacco bursting

in your mouth with a flavour so clear

it’s like being born, feeling before knowing.


So you can feel it? Always. You’re twisted

into a bubble, a crystal champagne glass,

it’s the pad of a foot fresh pressed into soil,

the clench of a muscle, it’s running across a stage

so fast you’re flying, it’s being let go, held, let go.


But do you smell it? You turn the corner

and there it is, white and heavy, first

communion, first tickle of celebration, first

kiss you feel in your knees, the sweet sweat

on his neck as he holds you still, the surprise of that.


Will I see it, will I recognise it? Maybe not until

it’s too late, you can’t bear to look as a small girl

in a red dress reminds you of every false path

you did and didn’t take, and you hold your breath

until the soil is raked smooth, each year a new chance.



Crossing the bridge at Compton Verney


Compton Verney –

When I say I love Lancelot Brown, I don’t mean it in the sense of ‘I deeply admire his work.’ No, I mean it in the same sense the teenage me wanted to faint every time I saw a photograph of Richard Gere.


Compton Verney –

Yep, that bad.

But perhaps it explains why I almost couldn’t cross the bridge from the car park to Compton Verney when I arrived there for my writing residency with Viccy Adams. This wasn’t just a bridge, it was THE bridge Capability Brown built. Over the lake he designed, and there around me – OH GOD ALL AROUND ME – was his vision. And for the next two days, I was going to be ‘living’ in the house as if he’d designed the landscape all for me. Not just a quick visit, but I’d be able to look out of windows at different times of the day, see it in different lights, walk in it, get cuddled by it…


Compton Verney –


Compton Verney –


Compton Verney –




But it was true. I’ve seen many Brown landscapes over the time, but I’m not sure I’d really got it in the way I did at Compton Verney. There were huge bits of landscaping – a derelict village cleared for this view…


Compton Verney –

The chapel (marked by the obelisk)…


Compton Verney –

…moved to behind the house so there was an unobstructed view of the lake from the windows…


Compton Verney –

Some relics were moved the church…


… others remained…



Beautiful, personable, characterful trees….


Compton Verney –

The bridges marking exactly the right points so the water seemed to go on forever…



The views in and out of the house…

So, in honour of being possibly his most fansydosy* fan, here’s a love poem to him… and first a quick video… it’s only a few minutes AND IT CONTAINS… no, I don’t want to spoil the surprise…


(*I don’t care if this is a word or not, it should be.)

Fresh Green Silence
Sarah Salway

Maybe like this: sunburnt hands
brown as earth or the bark of a tree,
stroking the neck of his horse,
sweat and mud flicking high
in air, as even then, cantering

into the courtyard, his mind as open
as the servants’ kitchen, where ale spills
over the oak table while he arranges
pots and pans as forests, skims off foam
from his tankard for a lake,

until later, upstairs, he unrolls
vellum plans, takes silky ladies
to the window. You must always,
he urges, embrace even disorder
with necessary order. Arms stretched

out in the offer of so many possibilities:
here the sound of rushing water
under a spinx lined bridge,
there there there, spaces between trees,
full stops in a constant conversation.

I will give you, he whispers to her hand,
fresh green silence, and it’s this
she holds on to, the rush of air
as he rides away and the very land
she walks on is transformed forever.

Have you seen….

I don’t want to lose you all forever, but I’m also aware I haven’t been here as much as I’d like to recently. I’ve been busy working on a novel, although I did get away recently for a writing residency at Compton Verney. More on that soon, but in the meantime, let me introduce you to five lovely inspirations who manage to keep their plots in better condition than mine…

1.The wonderful author and garden designer, Angelica Gray has just started a beautiful blog, Gardens and Other Stories. I’m so much looking forward to seeing where it goes – and joining her on other adventures.

2. I’d love this one for the name alone, but The Anxious Gardener  is full of joyful and useful posts too.

3. The Urban Veg Patch always teaches me something new. And often makes me laugh.

4. I’ve been reading Veg Plotting since I started my garden stories adventure. I think you will become addicted too!

5. With a clue in the name, the Middle-sized Garden bursts with ideas. I always come away with something new.

We wrote a poem on a leaf…

I’m just back from a glorious weekend teaching creative writing with Anna Robertshaw from Freestyle Yoga Project, who was teaching the yoga. Yoga and writing proved a perfect combination, or maybe that was the group who came. Or even the venue, glorious Tilton House, just up the road from the Bloomsbury set’s famous Charleston Farmhouse on the South Downs.


There’s a beautiful garden at Tilton, which Shaun and Polly, the owners, are gradually clearing in parts to show off more of the views. And best of all, a fairy light lit walk through the words to the yurt – we shared our sessions between the yurt and the library belonging to Tilton’s previous owner, John Maynard Keynes. I know, it’s a hard life! Here’s Anna, at the door of the our yurt.


I’d intended to do a writing exercise using the garden but it was raining that day, so instead, we collected leaves on the walk back from the yurt to the library, choosing them like children – precious treasure we might otherwise have walked over. Then in front of the log fire, we wrote haiku – not counting syllables though (sorry haiku writers) but working to combine image and emotion to catch a moment, a passing moment. We’d been talking about the concept of wabi sabi earlier – how time changed things into a different kind of beauty.


Then we wrote our poems with sharpies on leaves, pinning them over the fireplace like autumn decorations, or writing them on the logs to feed into the fire.


The joy was how each leaf dried in a different way over the next days – curling round our words like they were keeping a secret.

This was the original poem we used as inspiration, it is by the Russian Poet,  Yevgeny Yevtushenko. I love this poem, and somehow it seemed appropriate in the current news cycle (series of disasters).

I Hung a Poem on a Branch

I hung a poem
on a branch.
it resists the wind.
“Take it down,
don’t joke,”
you urge.
People pass.
Stare in surprise.
Here’s a tree
a poem.
Don’t argue now.
We have to go on.
“You don’t know it by heart!”…
That’s true,
but I’ll write a fresh poem for you tomorrow.
It is not worth being upset by such trifles!
A poem’s not too heavy for a branch.
I’ll write as many as you ask for,
as many poems
as there are trees!
How shall we get on in the future together?
Perhaps, we shall soon forget this?
if we have trouble on the way,
we’ll remember
that somewhere
bathed in light
a tree
is waving
a poem,
and smiling we’ll say
‘We have to go on.’ …


And of course, the next day, the sun shone… but we decided to let our poems gently disintegrate and took a silent walk up to the South Downs instead. Magic.



Making Patterns in Vietnam – a prose poem and a song

To being with it was the uniformity that gets you. You feel as if the patterns on the hillside were reflecting and softening the patterns inside you. Like walking the labyrinth, you are being settled by the landscape.


Dig your fingers in earth for five minutes has the same chemical benefits as taking a Prozac pill – you’ve repeated this fact so often who cares if a word here and there has fallen off, the meaning of the sentence remains unaltered, and that’s when you notice that the rice fields are of course all different.



Looking closely, you see the circles and whorls, necessity shaping distinct personalities until you feel you could recognise each rice farmer if you met them. As you walk on you make a game of it,


let your eyes drift before focusing intensely on one spot.



Inside the barriers to begin with, but then at the walls themselves. Were they made by hand? How did they hold firm?


And isn’t this what you are trying to do – to build walls around yourself just so you can stand up. Only close up becoming distinct, recognisable? But get too close, and you miss the true miracle. How, despite everything, you’re still clinging on. One of many, a small part of the pattern. You walk on. And on.


And now here’s a treat. A Vietnamese friend let me record him playing a traditional Black Hmong song on a leaf just for you…

Listen, says the labyrinth

This is a post in which I not only review a book about labyrinths but show you how to draw one…. so I should issue a little warning – it’s completely addictive. Like counting syllables in haiku, once you’ve done one, your fingers will be constantly itching to circle round and round again.


I’ve just started back working on campus at the University of Kent, this time not as a visiting lecturer but one of the Royal Literary Fund Fellows there. Not only does this mean I get to spend time with students on all aspects of their writing, but I can creep out to visit one of my favourite places of all time. Look at this view (yep, that IS Canterbury cathedral) and I think you can guess why…


The labyrinth on the University of Kent campus was the brainchild of Jan Sellers, so as I sat on one of the few free benches beside the labyrinth on Tuesday, eating my sandwiches and writing in my journal, I was grateful to her vision and determination.

Jan is also one of the two editors of a recent book about how labyrinths can be used as a learning device, Learning with the Labyrinth, Creating Reflective Space in Higher Education, which I reviewed recently for the NAWE magazine, Writing in Education. Here’s the review, the title of this post is a line from one of the poems by Victoria Field featured in the book:

Learning with the Labyrinth, Creating Reflective Space in Higher Education
Edited by Jan Sellers & Bernard Moss
Palgrave Teaching & Learning, ISBN 978-1-137-39383-8

listen, says the labyrinth,
there’s no here nor there
just the path
one way, an oak tree
the other, a eucalyptus

Fittingly a book that takes the labyrinth as its subject, it’s hard to squeeze this in to a pre-determined academic agenda; as suggested in this extract above from the poem ‘Choice’ by Victoria Field. A different ‘Poem from the Labyrinth’ separates each section of this book which explores the theory and practice of labyrinths, looking particularly at how they are being used in universities and higher education spaces throughout Britain.

I have to admit a bias here as I have taught for several years on the campus of the University of Kent, which, thanks to the efforts of co-editor Jan Sellers, has its own Canterbury Labyrinth. Having watched students use it and walking it many times myself, I have both seen and experienced the benefits first hand. What did surprise me, however, is that there are currently 129 labyrinths on college and university campuses, according to the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator (out of a total of more than 4700 labyrinths in at least 75 countries.)

This book brings together the views of academics, support staff, students and artists from across the world, looking at how the labyrinth can be used to create reflective spaces in Higher Education. One of the few common factors between the essay writers is both their positivity towards using a labyrinth in this field and interestingly, their own ambiguity when they were first introduced to the concept.

‘Facilitating the labyrinth in a commercially driven environment in which clients paid substantial sums of money for sessions, and expected tangible outcomes, carried significant reputational risks for me and the university…’ writes Alex Irving of Liverpool John Moores University, about her work with the business development team at the University’s Innovation Laboratory.

Sonia Overall at Canterbury Christ Church University, writes a diary account of using the labyrinth with creative writing students:

1.30: The Labyrinth. (Light) rain. I offer encouragement: this is a place for emptying the head, focusing ideas. It’s not a race, I say. Think Sebald, I tell them. Think Borges. The students jump, hop, skip and slide to the centre. Some mime a minatour. They clutch damp notebooks. One of them actually writes something down.

Both of the editors have a distinguished academic history, with an emphasis on good teaching practice. Dr Jan Sellers is a National Teaching Fellow (NTF) and was the University of Kent’s first Creative Learning Fellow. Bernard Moss is Emeritus Professor of Social Work Education and Spirituality at Staffordshire University, and a Principal Fellow and National Teaching Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. They have both also trained labyrinth facilitators, but the strength of this book is in the practical case studies of how labyrinths have actually been used in many different settings.

Reflect: Receive: Return, these three R’s are how I learnt a labyrinth is most usefully tackled. It’s a structure that we see used in this book by Michelle Bigard of Central Michigan University with first-generation and low-income students as part of a Hero’s Journey Labryinth Workshop. Di Williams reports on how the labyrinth has been introduced to the University of Edinburgh by Chaplaincy Support Services, while Dr Jill Raggett and Steve Terry of Writtle College write about how labyrinths used by an artist in residence Jim Buchanan allowed students to work with the concept of space, collaboration, reflection and aesthetic enjoyment. The labyrinths discussed in this book may be elaborate turf structures, or simple finger models, traced on to canvas, or temporary structures made from sand, candles and even chicken feed. They are used by dancers, design students, midwives, health professionals, creative writers, business executives, artists, counsellors, and lawyers.

‘There is no wrong way to walk the labyrinth,’ write the editors, which of course can prove difficult for the ticks and crosses of most academic evaluations. Although the research element is bravely tackled by John W Rhodes, he admits that ‘the “gold standard” of the double blind research design likely will not be met in labyrinth research.’ Interestingly Rhodes concludes by saying that while the actual uses of the labyrinth (as exemplified in the book) must inform future research, in future the roles could be reversed with research informing the practices of using the labyrinth as a tool for engaging with teaching, learning and researching in higher educational establishments.

It’s a statement that sums up the pioneering feel to this book. Like the labyrinth itself it offers reflections rather than direct answers, but there are more than enough practical examples here to offer inspiration for anyone interested in exploring contemplative, creative and aesthetic ways of enhancing learning. And I defy anyone reading not to try at least the pencil labyrinth drawings for themselves.

End of review.


But HOW could I possibly leave you, my lovely blog readers with that last line of the review, without showing you some of those pencil labyrinth drawings, so here’s my very professional how-to…