Margate Shell Grotto

Not a traditional garden in the lawn and flower style, but I’ve long been a fan of garden grottos (a passion inspired by a childhood gift of this book by Barbara Jones) so I have no problem in including Margate’s mysterious shell grotto in this tour – and if I need another excuse, just look at the plants commemorated along the walls…

… and the reminders everywhere of the power of nature…

It’s still a mystery who built the grotto. It was found in 1835 on ground owned by one Mr Newlove (apparently when they were digging a duckpond and the spade went in a little too deep). His small son was lowered down to investigate and came back with wide-eyed tales of tunnels and shells.

Over the years since, experts and enthusiasts have come up different theories as to who built the grotto:


… and some have even gone deeper in their research…

But either you can go mad trying to work out the truth (carbon dating won’t work because of damage by Victorian oil lamps) or you can give yourself up to the winding, dancing, swirling, unexpected magic of the place..

All the more extraordinary when you remember the entrance – a perfectly unremarkable residential street, apart from one giveaway clue…

It is like a dream. I think it’s supposed to feel like one. It felt feminine.

It felt as if I was dancing. It felt as if I was entering a conversation. It felt as if I could shut my eyes and wish for whatever I wanted – there is apparently a wishing shell there, find it and press on it and you can get whatever you want!

I didn’t find the wishing shell, but Sarah Vickery, owner of the grotto, made me wait (rather nervously) in one spot so she could move way to the whispering shells – although she was too far away for me to see her, I heard clearly every word she was whispering.

I surprised myself by the poem I wrote as a result of visiting the Grotto. It’s much more personal than my other garden poems, and yet all the things I was noticing – a conversation, the labyrinthian tunnels, birth, skeletons – are in here. The amazing mystery of creation!

For the Margate Shell Grotto

I told everyone I didn’t care,
so long as it was healthy,
but sitting on a bus one day
watching mothers and daughters
in the street turn to one another,
(how did I even know the relationship?)
I had to stroke my stomach,
every finger an appeal, and later,

when I held her through that first night,
tiny body settled in the crook of my arm,
I’d have turned myself inside out
so she could wear my skeleton as protection,
but we just carried on a conversation
begun long before either of us was born
and though I wanted to tell every happy
ending, could only whisper, you,

into her shell-like ear, had to trust
her to find the tunnel that leads past
the talking wall and on to the wishing
shell, the ray of light falling
like a perfect circle across her path,
and the fact that she didn’t know
how she’d got there, or even why,
was her mystery to unravel, not mine.

And here’s Sarah Vickery reading an extract about the Grotto by the Victorian novelist, Marie Corelli after her visit in 1896.

Rosherville Gardens, Gravesham

Of course, it’s not possible to visit Rosherville Gardens any more, although in the 1840s and 1850s you might have been one of the hundreds of London visitors who travelled down to Kent by steamboat to visit these famous pleasure gardens.

The gardens started with high academic aims, to be a place for the best society to enjoy the zoological gardens and fine planting. But by the mid 1800’s, the emphasis was fully on pleasure. Here’s how local boy, Charles Dickens, described Rosherville in his 1881 Dicken’s Dictionary of the Thames:

Besides the tea and shrimps so dear to the heart of the Gravesend excursionist, other refreshments of a more substantial and stimulating character can be obtained at very reasonable rates… There is a conservatory about 200 feet long, a bijou theatre, a maze, museum, “baronial hall,” occasionally used for dancing, but more often for purposes of refreshment. There is a very good fernery and a bear-pit, and some to miles of walks are held out as additional inducements to the excursion public. The peculiar situation of Rosherville – it being an old chalk quarry – has lent itself admirably to the landscape gardener’s art, and the result is a really pretty and remarkably diversified garden, in which it is quite feasible to pass that “Happy Day” which in the advertisements is always coupled with the name of Rosherville.

And this is what one of those famous ‘Happy Day’ advertisements looks like on the front cover of a very good looking book about the gardens by Lynda Smith:

Hmmm…. it seems that part of the guarantee of a ‘Happy Day’ came from an unofficial rule of secrecy, or ‘what happens in Rosherville stays in Rosherville’. As one contemporary account notes, ‘The maze wasn’t bad fun. Four of us lost ourselves there ; two were of the other sex.’ And here’s how P J Wodehouse described a day enjoyed by one of his characters: ‘There is a story about Sir Stanley Gervase-Gervase at Rosherville Gardens which is ghastly in its perfection of detail. It seems that Sir Stanley – but I can’t tell you.’

However, it was the antics of the garden’s famous MC and dancing teacher, Baron Nathan who captured my imagination. Or to be more specific, his world-famous blindfolded dance of the Egg Hornpipe.

Here’s my poem:

Mr Baron Nathan Performs The Egg Hornpipe

She’s not normally keen on gardens
but was drawn by the bills,
be prepared for anything,
so when she saw him, blindfolded
and dancing, hello, she thought;
the way his velvet suit encased
a body so smoothly oval
she wanted to tap him here,
and there, to take her spoon to him,
consume slowly down to his yolk.
He’d wobble for sure by breakfast,
but now young Master Gellini (ten
years old) was making his terrific flight
direct from the cliffs for their pleasure
and delight, steamboats raced, rockets
showered and though she’d yet to see
a flower, Mr Baron Nathan
took again to the stage, hornpiping
with his stylish flip of a calf
over a carpet of thirty other eggs.
Oh yes, they’d unshell each other
under fairy land illuminations,
a pyrotechnical finale, their fall
more brilliant than in any other Eden,
at Rosherville where paradise
grows wild as weeds in every bed.

The Grove, Tunbridge Wells

I should probably declare an interest. This park is my local – just a few hundred yards from my house, and one of the reasons I decided to move to Tunbridge Wells. It even has a pub that backs on to it, so you can bring drinks out and sit on the grass in the summer.

It’s a park for trees rather than flowers, and for people even more than trees. In 1703, the Earl of Buckingham gave it – or Inmans Bush as it was then called – to the people of Tunbridge Wells ‘to come and go and walk in and upon the said Grove at their will.’

By 1782, the records show that there were 174 oaks, 10 beeches and diverse small trees, but many of these have been lost in ‘Victorian improvements’ and also the hurricane in the 80s.

However, small reminders of gentler times remain, and you can imagine the promenades that must have taken place. I do love how this cat looks so hopeful hanging around Birdcage Walk!

And as well as cats, there are other Grove locals. This huge Teddy looks out from one of the houses overlooking the park. My children always used to wave to it faithfully every day, and I love that it has probably seen numerous generations of Tunbridge Wells children off to school.

And, I have to say, the Grove has the fattest squirrels I have ever ever seen.

As for literary inspiration, it was this bench – Sophie’s Bench – that sparked my second novel, Tell Me Everything.

I have no idea who Sophie was, and I don’t want to know, but there was something about the love on show in that moving and simple dedication that meant it just wouldn’t let me go. In the end – and in the novel – it was my heroine, Molly, who used sit there, and although I imagine her as someone very different from my idea of Sophie, she still got comfort from the bench. In my novel, it became Jessica’s bench, but I always clearly pictured the Grove in my mind as I was writing that book. Not just the physical layout, but the different emotional atmospheres layered on it at different times of day. It’s hard to believe that the leisurely 10am park when parents and toddlers come to play on the swings and slides is the same place as at 6pm when commuters march through it as a short cut from the train station to their homes.

And so I was very pleased to find this extract from a Saki short story about another suburban park. It’s read by Ellen Montellius, another Grove resident and dog walker!


Well, admittedly this isn’t a garden visit, but one thing I realised when walking round the gardens in Kent – the Garden, after all, of England – is how little actually comes from England. The ideas, the plants, even the gardeners. So here’s a poem about plant collectors that I spliced up with history (and home made seed packets) for an installation in the wonderful reconditioned light vessel (now arts facility) LV21.

If you’d prefer the poem ‘pure’, you can hear me reading it here:



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

When I think of plant collectors I think of Sir Joseph Banks. Although not the first – Chinese botanists were collecting roses more than 5,000 years ago – he might have been the richest. His second voyage was with Captain James Cook of the Endeavour to record the transit of Venus across the sky in 1768. It must have been like a trip to space. Strange to think that there has only been one other pair of transits between then and recently. The next two will be in 2117 and 2125.

He counts his catch, tucks each seed
up in its own hand-written box, an ebony
cabinet ticking with paused hearts.

Anyway, Joseph Banks caused his own sensation by refitting his quarters on the Endeavour and funding the expedition at a cost of nearly £10,000 – nearly three times what the boat originally cost to build and a sum which would translate into millions today. He was only 25 but luxurious in his tastes. Plant collecting seems to have been the equivalent in coolness to owning a football club – although more dangerous.

He dreams of growing a fresh desert
one day, of these dried moments
in the old land coming back to life.

Lucky Joseph Banks made it home safely and with most of his collection intact. Others weren’t so fortunate. Francis Masson, sent to Madeira by Banks many years later, was drafted into the local militia to defend against French attack. Then he was caught and imprisoned by the French, and lost most of his specimens. He was eventually freed but on the way back to Britain, a hurricane destroyed the remainder. On another trip he was caught by a French privateer, and nearly starved to death before being transported to New York. From there he went to Canada, still amazingly collecting, but he froze to death near Montreal.

His bones ache as he waters
the dust, while on the deck above,
sailors sleep,

Or not. Even if the plant collectors faced danger, their conditions were still easier than the crew, many of whom will have been pressganged. Another collector sent out by Banks was David Nelson who travelled with William Bligh, captain of the Bounty. It’s said that the crew partly mutineered because the plants on board were given all the fresh water. Before the captain and Nelson were left, thousands of plants were thrown over board. Revenge can be sweet.

the wooden mast dances
in perfect tune with the winds,
until reaching for water, it leans
too far, loses balance.

Masts at that time would have been made out of the trunk of a conifer – one single piece. The Bounty had one single purpose – to transport Breadfruit from Tahiti to the British West Indies. It was cheap and therefore the perfect food for slaves.

White sails,
like baby gowns, christen the sea.


Dane John Gardens, Canterbury

I haven’t just looked at garden-gardens on this tour and one of my intentions has always been to explore how public gardens can become private parts of the people who visit them. An extra space, if you like, so the parks in Canterbury were always going to be high on my list, particularly one with such a long history as Dane John Gardens in Canterbury.

I knew that the park had been used as a public space since at least the twelth century, although at that time it perhaps wasn’t as pleasant a space as now – plague victims were left out in tents to die and so they didn’t infect the rest of the town. Probably right where people lie out on the grass now!

My first thought as a creative project for Dane John was to listen in on other people’s conversations, so I climbed the mound…

… and sat tucked away on one of the little seats there…

Sure enough, people soon forgot about me there, and I jotted down random snippets of conversation:

Overheard in John Dane Gardens

Don’t go too near,
missy. I remember.
I’m not saying it was
a bargain. That fountain
splashes. I never would.
After 30 years, you’d think.
You’re fitter than me.
Although the buildings
are in disrepair. It’s my
fault. Can you hear me?
I haven’t had time to stop.
And do we have time?
Time for tea, I think.

But to be honest, this didn’t satisfy my need to give an idea of the history of the park. So I trawled through newspaper archives to find out what happened in the park over history. Amazing!

The visit by 500 French Professors of Gymnastics:

(I couldn’t find photographs but I did find this amazing Pathe News video to give some idea)

And then there was the daring escapade by a balloonist, who cut off his basket and hung instead to the balloon as he floated over the park!

Or perhaps I should pick one of the promenades that took place most nights by fashionable society to listen to the music at the bandstand:

Ah, but what about the air raid shelters, used for storage and then for people as Canterbury was badly bombarded during the Baedecker raids, and after the worst night of which, the Archbishop of Canterbury was found wandering the streets in his pyjamas as he rushed out of bed to survey the damage:

However, perhaps it was the plant perfect appearance of the park and the reminder every where of how much hard work goes in to maintain a garden like this:

that made me pick this poignant story. A thirteen year old boy caught for picking two roses every Sunday, and most probably sentenced – because he might not have had the money to pay the fine – to seven days hard labour.

Here is my version of the story…

This is Henry Court and I’m one of the gardeners at Dane John Gardens. The date is July 13th 1861:

I turned a blind eye the first time I caught him stealing the roses. Thought it was probably a gift for some poor mother, and was even pleased he was a good boy.

But then I saw him the second Sunday, that hat of his tipped to one side, his thumbs tucked into his waistcoat pockets, swaggering as if he hadn’t a care in the world. I’ve tended those roses like they were princesses, you see. Maybe better, and there he was, laughing at me.

I shouted, ran after him, but he was too quick. He even waved as he headed off down Castle Row. I was ready for him the third Sunday, but then Mr Taylor, the park supervisor, promenaded by with his wife and I couldn’t be seen running.

Two roses every Sunday. It wasn’t until the fifth Sunday I finally caught up with him. He was with a friend, one as cheeky as him. They even greeted me, a rose each in their hands. ‘That’s private property,’ I told him. ‘You’ll be done for that.’ He stopped laughing then, made some comment about how we were plant lovers, the three of us.

Luckily there was a policeman walking by, and I called out to him before I could be won over by that smile. He liked the smell, he told me as we waited for him to be taken away. Just sniffing them wasn’t enough, he had to dive his whole face in if he was to keep it with him all week. He showed me his hands, he was a twine spinner, he said. That accounted for the skin shredding on his palms. He’d wrapped one rose petal round his little finger. I guess the softness was a comfort.

I waited for him after the trial. You can come back to the gardens, I told him, but he shook his head as they took him away. Of course he wasn’t going to have the money for the fine, but seven days hard labour. I didn’t expect that. He’ll lose his job too. And all because he liked the smell of a rose. Call me tender-hearted but I took him one to the prison after the second day. I guess I knew they wouldn’t give it to Henry so I wasn’t surprised when the guard crushed it in his hand as I watched, like he was squashing the life out of a bird. And enjoying it. I tell myself a job is a job, and any thieving is bad so I shouldn’t blame myself, but I can’t look at the roses in the same way now. I hate their smell.

And here’s Victoria Field reading one of her own poems in the Dane John Gardens:

The Secret Gardens of Sandwich

I visited the Secret Gardens of Sandwich; and met its owner (or as he says, custodian), Dominic Parker, at the very beginning of this project. It was one of those beautiful January days where the sun makes up for any lack of warmth with interesting shadow play and breathtaking rays of light. (Mind you, the cold was pretty breathtaking too!)

All the evidence points to the fact that the garden was designed by Gertrude Jeckyll, not least because the house was definitely designed by Edwin Lutyens, a perfect English country house and with all sorts of Lutyens details such as the lawn directly outside the front of the house is the same shape and size as the dining room.

Although the gardens are open to the public and are run as a business now, the house is very much a family home for the Parkers, and I loved how Dominic did that gardener-thing of carrying on talking even as he bent down to pick  the odd weed or check on how a plant was doing.

And as he was talking, I was doing the writer-thing of testing out each story to see whether it was ringing any inspiration bells for me. Here were some of the possibilities…

* the fact that before the Parkers bought the house, the front gates had been shut for many years … a secret garden being nurtured back to life…

* the contrast everywhere between straight paths and circles … such a Jeckyll thing – to sculpt a domestic landscape like this…

* the island on the stream … someone who moves out of the house to live on the island…

* the vegetable garden which Dominic said was his favourite part – over 400 tonnes of waste including mattresses was removed when his family moved in and has now been brought back to life and order… Mattresses=vegetable beds…

* the Wollemi Pine, which dates back to the era of dinasours and was once thought extinct. This was definitely on the list after it transpired that it had been moved into the greenhouse for safety during the cold winter … an ancient wandering tree

* And then there was the white garden, and the research which proves that the Secret Gardens possibly had the first White Garden in Britain. angel who comes to live in the garden…

But in the end, the thing that gave me goosebumps most was when Dominic talked almost off-handedly about the people who had previously lived and walked in the garden – the recluses, the runaways, the bankrupts, the developers – the footsteps of each one we were following but we were all seeing the garden through such a different lens depending on our circumstances. …same path, different stories…

Even the woman who doesn’t live there but has a season ticket to the garden each year so she can sit in the same spot every day to knit sees a different garden to me.

I started to wonder about the people who have shared my garden over time. But then I went back to the start of the story – the house and garden were built 100 years ago as a country residence for three brothers, the Farrar brothers. … three unmarried brothers in one house, surely there’s a whole novel there…

But then…. Dominic mentioned that it wasn’t the sea air they were after so much as the nearby gasworks.

At that time, apparently, it was thought that the fumes were good for asthma.

Aha!I had my story.

So here’s my poem:

Fresh Air

You’d be sure to notice the gasworks first,
worry how close the garden sits
until you learn this is why it was built,

three asthmatic brothers filling
their lungs with seasalt and gas fumes:
the latest thing in London, Lutyens
also. You imagine three garden chairs
lined up to face the smoking chimneys,
a sound of gasping like bad static

waiting to be tuned while, from over the sea
the smooth sounds of orchestras playing,
tea cups clinking in peaceful pre-war courtyards,

and so many farewells hang in the balance,
tears ready to mist on cheeks, and still
the brothers struggle to catch their breath.


And here is Dominic in the Secret Gardens reading an extract from Gertrude Jeckyll’s book, Children and Gardens, and one of the poems he has written himself about the garden: