A visit to The Library of the Birds of London

IMG_0348

The complete joy of hearing birdsong again is making up for a stop-start spring this year. And thinking about birds, I had a joyful visit to the Whitechapel Gallery in London last week, mostly to visit the giant aviary created by American artist, Mark Dion.

Only four visitors at a time are allowed in the aviary – well, four people and the twenty zebra finches who are temporarily living there. So you stand surrounded by birds completely ignoring you, going around their own business, pooing on books and making nests from the linings of hats…

And there’s something about how they absolutely don’t care they are an ‘art work’ that made me take time, to go slowly, to look again at all the artifacts around the aviary so very deliberately placed there. The books on cats, the bird books from all round the world, the photos of David Attenborough, all the exploring equipment, the amount of knowledge we  humans feel we need for such a simple thing as looking at birds…

I loved it, and thoroughly recommend a visit. It’s on until 13th May. It’s part of Mark Dion’s ongoing exploration of the relationship between nature and culture, and includes a reading room with hand-made wallpaper featuring extinct animals (I heard a granny explaining that loudly to her grandson), findings from mudlarks, and so much more.

IMG_0385

My favourite was finding out about the The Ladies’ Field Club of York. This was a previous exhibition for  the National Railway Museum in York, in which imaginary female amateur naturalists from the turn of the century set out on a field trip together.

Joy indeed. Here’s the artist talking about it…

Always the two sides….

On this rainy Easter weekend we went walking in Kent, and came across this lovely rural scene of a church being decorated for Easter Sunday and the start of spring…

IMG_0312

And then keen to investigate the one Commonwealth War Grave in the churchyard, I went round the back of the church. Here it is…

IMG_0317.JPG

But my attention was caught more by a bench placed directly against the back of the church…

IMG_0319

I’m always struck by the word ‘novelist’, so I investigated further, and found that Marjorie Bowen has written “150 volumes under half a dozen pseudonyms, and tackled larger-than-life subjects in historical dramas, supernatural tales and mournful gothic romances. Critics have long considered her storytelling to be clear-eyed and efficient, her detail and description masterful, her understanding of human nature filled with compassion and sorrow.” (taken from here). Her pseudonyms included Joseph Shearing, George R. Preedy, John Winch, Robert Paye, and Margaret Campbell. Her books have been described as ‘sinister gothic romances full of terror and mystery.’

IMG_0318

I’ve ordered one to read – of course I have! – but after admiring the view above and sitting on her bench to google her gothic writing history, she is apparently the ‘master of horror’ – it was particularly pleasing to go back round to the front and get a cheery goodbye wave and bright smile from the flower arrangers.

Shades of Wickerman, anyone???? Sometimes England really is a parody of itself.

 

On the anniversary of Lancelot Brown’s death

Lancelot – Capability – Brown is best known as the creator of our current vision of the English landscape, so would it surprise you to know this is where he died?

IMG_6821

It happened on the 6th February 1783, 235 years ago today.  Apparently the night before he’d collapsed on the doorstep of his daughter Bridget Holland’s house in Hertford Street, London while returning after a night out at Lord Coventry’s.

Researching on the Historic England site, Henry and Bridget Holland lived at no 17, although there’s no plaque or general excitement. In fact, it’s now serviced flats, I got some odd looks when I was taking photographs of the doorstep – I think people thought I must have been a private detective! And slap next to a Prezzo.  I like to think of Lancelot Brown nipping there for a meal – it’s obviously a favourite for some locals! 

Jane Brown writes this in her wonderful biography, The Omnipotent Magician:

At the beginning of February he was spending time in town, staying with his daughter Bridget Holland and her family at their house in Hertford Street in Mayfair. It was an ordinary business trip, which enabled him to visit his clients at their London houses; on the Wednesday evening, 5th February, he was dining with Lord Coventry at his house in Piccadilly, and while he was walking the short distance home he collapsed from ‘an apoplexy’ and the next day he died.

His place of death couldn’t have been more different from his birthplace in rural Northumberland, right in the middle of the city, and I think even then full of secret private clubs such as the one now at No 5. And maybe even it was the footmen from General John Burgoyne’s nearby house who helped him home.

At least, he’d have had a view of Hyde Park running across the bottom of Hertford Street, I like to think of him not being too far away from green. His death, not surprisingly, caused a stir, with Horace Walpole wrote to Lady Ossory: “Your Dryads must go into black gloves, Madam. Their father-in-law Lady Nature’s second husband, is dead! Mr Brown dropped down at his own door yesterday.”

(Wouldn’t Horace Walpole been the best tweeter? Complete with exclamation marks!)

Lancelot Brown’s body was taken quietly to Fenstanton in Cambridgeshire to be buried, where he’d been Lord of the Manor. As his will stated, ‘my body I commit to the Earth to be decently buried.’

So here’s a poem to remember him today, based on something his contemporary Richard Owen Cambridge apparently said, which was that he longed to get to heaven before Brown, so he could see it before the great landscape gardener had ‘improved’ it. It’s a ‘mirror’ poem.

Views Reflected
Sarah Salway

By the time it was heaven’s turn,
the formal landscape of England
had changed forever:
a gardener and a duke
working harmoniously together.
Scattered trees,
a serpentine lake,
the ‘gardenless’ garden
painted a new picture –
Brown, nature’s second husband,
moving mountains from his path.

Moving mountains from his path,
Brown, nature’s second husband,
painted a new picture –
the ‘gardenless’ garden,
a serpentine lake,
scattered trees
working harmoniously together.
A gardener and a duke
had changed forever
the formal landscape of England
by the time it was heaven’s turn.

 

Gardens. Matters of life and love. And other trivia

As soon as I knew there was a Beguinage at Antwerp, I had to visit it. I’ve been obsessed with them since I first visited one in Bruges. These are communities for women, originally Roman Catholic but not a nunnery, normally wrapped around a garden.

These photographs above from my visit have been rather shamefully kept in a file on my desktop labelled ‘All the Single Ladies’, and every time I think I must do something with them, I end up singing Beyonce.

As you do.

And because I am always amazed at the synchronicity that sprinkles itself around this website, I expected… what … Beyonce may start singing about gardens. Wouldn’t that be fab!

But instead, a much more beautiful synchronicity. Like nearly everyone else in the UK, it seems, I have just finished reading Bernard MacLaverty‘s excellent novel Midwinter Break. Glorious. Go and buy.   In it, Stella and Gerry visit Amsterdam. It’s supposed to be just a holiday, but Stella has an agenda. She wants to visit the Beguinage there. Which made me whoop with delight (see where I got the better title from – although I must admit I do have Beyonce in my head right now. Beyonce and MacLaverty – now there’s a heavenly coupling).

trivia3

Look, he’s talking about Amsterdam but doesn’t he capture the Antwerp one perfectly too?

I thought I was slightly on my own with my love of Beguinages (also called begijnhofs). Situated in the middle of cities, such as Amsterdam, Bruges and of course, Antwerp, but with their backs slightly turned to the world. An enclave of protection, support and peace – an atmosphere which still exists today. There’s a waiting list, but oh my, you can still apply to live there.

From the very beginning, the women living in the Beguinages were not nuns, they could leave at any stage and marry (although they couldn’t return after), and each community had its own rules. As this piece in the New York Times says, they were looking ‘for holiness outside monastic norms.’ And perhaps not surprisingly – women wanting to live without men, whatever next – they risked persecution as ‘free spirits’.

IMG_7919

I imagine, as Bernard MacLaverty captures so perfectly in his novel, there are still many women who long for somewhere to live like this. The Antwerp one does allow couples, but there’s something about the atmosphere left behind – all those women making an active choice to live a different way and being welcomed to do so – that makes them a special place to visit, although perhaps a little too claustrophobic for men?

trivia2

Oh oh oh but just imagine this as your front door….

IMG_7895

… and, as I saw a woman do, walking just a couple of yards to the garden with your thermos of coffee and a good book…

IMG_7905

Peace indeed.

The last tree…

One of the highlights of the last summer was a trip to the Gothenburg Botanical Garden. There was so much to see that we decided to spread our visit out over two days, which was lucky because on our first trip, we’d completely overlooked the Sophora Toromiro…

IMG_6032

And why should that matter? It looks like a little, not to be rude, insignificant?

IMG_6028

Well, as the label above suggests, this little gem is actually one of the last remaining trees of its species. I couldn’t stop thinking about that line – that it was thought to be in danger of extinction ‘mainly due to human endeavours.’

Endeavour = to try hard to do or achieve something.

Makes you proud, doesn’t it? Maybe if the tree had been put in a special cage, or viewing room, it would be less affecting. It was also so moving to see how normal the tree was. I’d built it up in my mind. THE LAST TREE OF ITS KIND….

In my defence, it’s not often you get to see an almost extinct species, and because of that – especially in the middle of all the other green fertile bounty of the botanical garden – there was a certain thrill to it. Rather like funerals can sometimes make you think about life.

And how ordinary and insignificant – and therefore beautiful – that can be.

Here’s the poem that came up…

If this was our last night
Sarah Salway

Please let us still
watch television, let me
get angry at how you
never bother to ask
if you can change channels,
let the shepherds pie
be burnt, the tomato ketchup
finished, another bottle
of wine gone. Let the wind
catch our garden gate,
the apples lie where they fall.
Let’s not bother to call
our mothers, children, friends,
but moan as usual
about meetings and to do lists,
plan Christmas and work
on the allotment, let us finish
our books later in bed,
let me be wearing those glasses
you hate, let us turn off
our lights in unison, and for you
to whisper, I love you,
and turn it into a song,
IloveyouIloveyouIloveyou.
Let me drift off to that.

Papermaking in the garden

IMG_5073

Back in the summer (remember that far back, when the sun shone and everything?), I went on a day papermaking course at Morley College in London. I was drawn to it by the fact we were going to be using natural plant materials, but what I hadn’t expected was that I would fall in love with the little college garden off Waterloo, and especially the plants grown for colour.

It was a taster session rather than a real course, but led by a real expert, Lucy Baxendale. There’s a course starting in June though, you can sign up here – I’m tempted. It was such a joy to go round looking for seeds, plants and textures to use, to feel the gooey mixture (like Blue Peter, prepared earlier for us) give as it turned from plants into paper. Yes, that real pleasure in getting your hands dirty and actually making something.

IMG_5077

Here are the scraps I took away with me:

honesty3

And I had just the poem I knew I wanted to write on the one I made using honesty. Here it is:

honesty

My father takes Rupert Brooke’s poems to France, 1945

This knot of honesty I picked today
must have fallen out of my pocket
so you’ll have to believe me when I say

each leaf was thinner than a page
in the book of poems my father
took to war. I like to think

it was the weight behind each word
that kept pushing him to a future
he can’t have dared write himself:

to love and be so loved. Though once
reading nonsense rhymes at bedtime,
he leant so far into that night’s book

I started crying, sensing how
he wanted to topple into it,
just as he must have done once

smelling Brooke’s sweet honeyed tea
above the stench of mud and blood,
this other world he could slip into.

Doing better in 2018

While this has mostly been a happy year for me full of garden visits, gardens and weddings, it has also been a year when all the blog posts, journal jottings and photographs of things I had wanted to share here began queuing up and arguing with each other in the dark rather than coming dancing on to the stage.

I have SO MUCH I had wanted to write about – rare trees, special benches, sea shanties, garden jewels, history gems – but maybe they are just taking their time, rummaging around in the compost heap so they can shine later!

So as Christmas comes, and 2017 closes its curtains, here’s perhaps my favourite gardeny-related photos for you… a converted ambulance selling plants and Christmas trees. An emergency relief vehicle if there ever was one.

plant ambulance.JPG

And while we’re on lost … posts, thoughts, opportunities to share… here’s a poem on lost gardens. I’m grateful for the poetry magazine, The Rialto, for publishing it.

Reading a book on lost gardens
Sarah Salway

Endlessly sunny, with trees a line of dots
like small boys’ knees in an old school photo

so I read it in the same way, a fascination
in the butterfly-pinned moment.

I stroke black and white grass, pick fruit
with my finger and thumb from walled gardens,

trace the serpentine walks I’d take, my full skirt
brushing at the knots until the scent of box

releases, each path could be a wish or a regret.
Can photographs be capable of happiness?

Because as I turn the page I see an open gate
beckoning to the future, and I bend with jealousy

at how they’ll never watch each other grow old
or laugh at all that time left for flourishing.

I hope to see more of you in 2018! Thank you for staying around, and also for those of you who keep a blog for all your beautiful words. I do enjoy reading everyone else!