Chilham Castle

Of course the Writer in the Garden has no favourite gardens, but if she did Chilham Castle may come pretty high up the list. Even going through the gates felt like I might be entering a secret garden …

The Castle is privately owned by Stuart and Tessa Wheeler, and I was lucky enough to be taken around by Michael Peters, who has been researching and writing a fascinating history of the castle, including the vexing question as to whether there were really elephants at Chilham.

The trouble with walking around with someone like Michael was that there were SO MANY stories to think about, such as this wisteria which is supposedly a direct descendant of England’s first wisteria brought from China by a family friend of the then owners, a certain Captain Wellbank ..

And then there was the ‘fantasy’ cricket match between the Australian team and “Mr Wilsher’s Gentlemen”.

Treading the ‘Colonel’s Walk’ with Michael was one of the nicest walks I’ve been on for a long time even if it wasn’t clear enough for us to see over the fields to the Cathedral – a sight I’d love to have seen…

But I did get to see these playful wrestling cherubs!

What I ended up writing about though was one of the paths of trees that added to the pleasing symmetry of the grounds.

Here’s what Michael writes about it:

There were two major avenues of sweet chestnuts which fanned out from the castle, across Digges’s original 25 acre park, in the same direction as prehistoric tracks subsequently called the Pilgrims’ Way.

The eastern one known as the Chestnut Avenue points straight to the courtyard at the heart of the house, where it meets another axis running straight across the village square and into the churchyard where it glances the stump of the ancient yew tree. The symbolism behind this geometry is now a matter for speculation but the orientation of the house and the Chestnut Avenue (with its companion avenue to the west described below) do relate closely to celestial motions – perhaps an echo of the astronomical interests of Sir Dudley’s father and grandfather.

And here’s my poem:


And as the garden sleeps,
held safe by Colebrook’s wall,
the straight silvered arrow
of a fox stalks the terraces

negotiating by ancient impulse
dew embroidered footprints,
until a shift of the earth,
a tremor so slight everything stills,

Morning, the castle’s windows
open on a world righted back to itself,
sun rising and setting in a perfect line,
the promise of each day correct and waiting.

And the wall mentioned was one built around the grounds – with some controversy perhaps because he extended the park by a factor of ten! – by the 18th century owner, Robert Colebrook..

Brogdale, home of the National Fruit Collection

I visited Brogdale, near Faversham in October, but I’m definitely going back in the Spring. Imagine seeing these rows in blossom …

Although the apples are like flowers in themselves…

As well as apples, there are pears, cherries, gooseberries, blackcurrants, and nuts in Brogdale, but it was the apples I was particularly interested in. Over 2,300 varieties apparently – some with poetic names like Marriage Maker and Wealthy;

while others are more descriptive:

And it’s not just about being decorative or yummy of course; the collection is run by Reading University for scientic purposes, and you can see the new rootstock – smaller and more efficient – getting ready to take over apple production, rather like young army recruits:

It’s lovely though to feel that romanticism isn’t dead here. I couldn’t help but be moved by how these two ‘Duchess of Oldenburg’ trees are in their own separate row. I know, I know it’ll be for some practical reason but be honest, can’t you just imagine them gossiping together about how the rest of the apples in the field are letting the side down!

There’s something about apples that takes me straight back to childhood. Not just how naughty it felt to take an apple from the tree when there were ‘perfectly good windfalls’ to be picked up, but look, how beautiful…

(There is a star on that second apple, isn’t there? Please tell me I’m not making that up!)

And while buying an empty bag and choosing a selection of apples pick-a-mix style is like being given a goodie bag at a children’s party..

… the good news is that I can make cakes from them now too!

So take a cake, make a cup of tea and here’s an apple story for you …


A bobbing bouncing stream of apple skin snaking its way around the city, pips thrown mischievously through keyholes in the hope they’ll take …

… the bite of apple flesh lodges in the Princess’s throat, blocking off air until the prince moves her coffin to his house, the jolt of the carriage, and Gavin, who dreams of working with apples, and who will, if you’re not careful, tell you all day about the grafting and the harvesting of them, likes this story, even though his friends say it’s a girl’s story, but what he wants to know is what type of apple it was. Was it a Discovery, or an Egremont Russet, a Lord Lambourne, or a Merton Charm., until his mother says, it was a red apple, OK? And, even though she’s exhausted, nearly out of patience, she kisses him goodnight. Gavin can’t get to sleep. A red apple. Maybe a Bloody Ploughman, a King’s Acre Pippin. Or a Red Windsor, considering that it was a Queen who gave the apple. He’s still awake when his mother creeps in. It was a Pine Golden Pippin apple, she says. A russet. Sweet.

… and the maggot hole you nearly miss, leading done to the core, the story hidden deep inside…

… why a Golden Delicious is allowed to be called that when it’s neither golden or delicious, this is what Susanne asks her husband. A green OK would be a better name, she says, and although James tries to grunt as if he cares, she knows he doesn’t and that this shouldn’t, but does, matter. But also that neither of them will say anything. They never do. Later in bed, he will dream of being Paris but instead of judging the nymphs, he’s chasing them, throwing hard apples as if he means to hurt, until one nymph, bored and bruised, stops and lobs one back. He sees her face as he catches the ball which has turned into a baby, and shocked awake, he reaches for Susanne. You’re delicious, he surprises them both by saying, as they drift back, smiling, to sleep.

… windfalls they call them, as if the wind had picked them up and dropped them without thinking…

… an apple never falls far from the tree, the doctor says. He wants to know more about Gavin’s father because this might help them to determine the severity of the symptoms. She says she doesn’t know; she’s hardened herself by now to the look she’ll get, but this time round there’s not even sympathy in the doctor’s gaze. He is matter of fact as he outlines Gavin’s future. It’ll be hard work, he says, but you’ll cope. And because she knows this too, and this is the first doctor she wants to confess to about how Gavin is her harvest and how it feels to be the worm, she starts to speak. He was called James, she says so quietly the doctor almost doesn’t hear. He was married, I don’t think he even knew my name. It’s important, the doctor says, we get in touch with him. And she nods.

… while high above, from New Zealand, Australia, Spain, America, frozen in crates, a uniform army of perfect apples fly in.

Down House, Downe

The twisting roads to Charles Darwin’s family house are a lesson in survival in themselves. But once there, the house and gardens feel like a sanctuary. As indeed, they must have done to Darwin, his wife, Emma, and their children. And although on one hand, this has been recreated very much as the family home it would have been…

(this tree, now propped up, was the one the children used to climb out on from their nursery window – the one with the blind half drawn.)

… English Heritage have managed to show how it was also a living laboratory for Darwin’s experiments…

Here’s a recreation of how the lawn would have looked like, parcelled out for plant counting!

And, oh my, here’s a photo of the meadow in which Darwin, with the help of the children’s nanny, apparently tried to sort out how many wild species of plants would have grown naturally…

If you visit, and I would highly recommend it, I suggest you take the garden tour. There is so much you might otherwise miss, such as this ‘worm hole’, the record of an experiment Darwin carried out with his son. It looked like a hole for a washing line to me!…

And definitely see the carnivorous plants – here’s one that’s just caught lunch!…

And it’s not all about science and survival, the garden is really beautiful in itself. It seems Emma was the gardener of the family, and they have tried to recreate what it might have looked like under her aesthetic eye…

But the bit of the tour that caught my creative interest was Darwin’s circular ‘thinking path’. When he was at home, he would walk five laps twice a day…

… and to keep count, because of course he was too busy thinking, he would leave a pebble each time he passed the start point…

… although his children would apparently creep out and either remove one, or add one, so he never quite knew how many times he had gone round! I LOVED this story, and this is how my poem came about …

Walking with Darwin

We’re thought tourists, giggling
on Darwin’s thinking path,
in front of me the husband
jostling his wife,
feel cleverer now?
and they wait for me,
practicing their joke
as I finish my final circuit,
So? they say,
and though I shake my head
as we make our way to tea,
it was on the second round,
only three pebbles
left on the bend,
that I began to feel
placing my feet
where he once paced,
until I could guess
when it’s you about to overturn
the world, you would need
something like this,
the sound of laughter,
how even as your children
played, you kept
on the path you started,
the end and the beginning
in one sand circle;
what’s one more round
when not even love
can disrupt the plan?

Canterbury Cathedral Gardens

When we think of cathedrals, we often picture the buildings and not the gardens around them. But Canterbury Cathedral, although smack bang in the middle of the city, is actually an oasis of calm and green – even if it is, as it was on the spring day I visited, absolutely freezing! As well as the public grounds, there are five private Canonical gardens which add to the feeling of space, and which are opened annually for charity – it’s well worth looking out for this very special event.

On my visit I was lucky enough to be taken around by the Cathedral’s events assistant, Jocelyn Prebble, and to meet one of the gardeners, Peter Dee, who reminded me all over again that people are what matter – even with historic buildings. Here they are with one of the poetic statues that can be found in the grounds.

And here’s a video of Peter reading the inscription of Dante’s words:

But I was there to write my own words. And so I made notes and took photographs as we walked round. At first, I was taken by this plaque near a walnut tree in the Campanile garden. What a wonderful act of faith it seemed to plant a walnut seed.

But how well it had been rewarded.

And then there was this primrose I spotted which had obviously been deliberately planted although it spoilt the otherwise formal shape of the Memorial gardens.

I couldn’t stop thinking about who had put it there; was it an individual expression of grief amongst the collective memories?

And then what was the story behind this seemingly random pile?

Just how many paths, doorways and passages (even now hidden ones) are there in the Cathedral precincts? And who has used them over the years?

And why had this perfect crocus circle been planted in an otherwise plain piece of grass?

Ah, looking up at the Rose Window, it became clear. The flower circle is exactly the shape and distance of where the window would land if the tower fell.

And as you’ll see from the photograph above, when I visited there was quite a lot of building work going on and the herbarium was shut, but I remembered just how much of a sanctuary it was from a previous visit, with places to sit near the herbs and healing plants both hidden and protected by ruins and Cathedral walls.

And so I started writing about two people who had different reasons for seeking comfort from being near the Ccathedral. I used the same format as the herb list I’d downloaded from the Cathedral website.

I imagine this story being read as if each section had been written on a plant label, and it’s been designed so you could, if you want, read it any order. I’d love to see it in place in the garden – maybe one day!

A story through plants found in the Medicinal Herb Garden at Canterbury Cathedral

She spends the afternoon sitting against one of the ruined pillars in the herb garden, chatting with the plants. “We’re ladies who lunch,” she tells the mint.

Since the accident, he finds it difficult to meet people’s eyes. He comes to the Cathedral to run his hands over the ancient stones, pressing his palms so deep against the sharp edges he draws blood. Only then does he feel better.

She has everything her mother dreamt of for her – farmhouse near Faversham, a rich husband who’s hardly there, committees. Only children are missing. She watches the school parties at the Cathedral, likes the naughty ones best. Imagines how good it must feel to be cross at them.

He’d been driving past two horses in a field full of daisies, laughing at how they galloped just for the joy of it. He saw the flashing lights, of course he did. But he thought he might gallop across the tracks in time. But then the train reared up, and his heart.

Butcher’s Broom
Since the hospital visits began, she’s stepped over into a different world from her family and friends. After two hours of machines and chemicals, she longs to fill herself up with the scent of these plants. To inhale the life in them.

No, his heart said. So loudly he remembers thinking the driver of the train must have heard it too. Otherwise why would he have looked so scared. Now the sound deafens him, ringing in time to the Cathedral bells. No. No. No.

She lies flat out on the grass, trying to remember the last time she was touched, flesh to flesh. Although they are careful to warm the metal instruments first, even the nurses settle her down with plastic covered hands these days.

A lucky escape. That’s what the lawyers said when he was told that charges wouldn’t be pressed. His medical notes were used as proof that he’d suffered enough. He doesn’t drive anymore, but the Cathedral is only a forty minute walk away. He’d do it barefoot if he could.

Mouse Ear Hawkweed
Kindness comes from unexpected places. Last week as she was walking through the Westgate in the rain, a teenager handed her a black umbrella and walked on. Probably he’d taken it from a bin, because it was broken, but she doesn’t care. She smiles every time she uses it.

He hasn’t been able to work since his wife – never strong – left him. His only routine is to come daily to the Cathedral. He wishes he could just let go of it all, allow the wind to take him any way it wants.

A routine medical check and it turns out she’s dying. She takes courage from all the hot-country herbs she sees battling against the Kent frosts. Because if nothing is as she expects, then maybe she can be surprising too.

He’s been following the plant’s trail for weeks. Sees the gardeners try to contain it but the next day, a shoot pops up in the next bed – fragrantly confident of a warm welcome. He imagines the plant parties that take place after dark, roots tangled together deep under the earth.

If she puts her hands on the soil, she swears she feels the plants vibrating against her skin, letting loose a cacophony of emotion– sorrow, anger, joy, fear – that threatens to overwhelm her. But like the prince’s kiss, it wakes her up after all those years.

Wild Thyme
‘Excuse me,’ she says, and he looks up, recognizing her. The woman who sits over by the pillar. ‘I think I know you,’ she seems nervous. ‘You’re always here too,’ he says. ‘You look different,’ she says. ‘You too,’ he says.

They’re so easy to overlook. Two ordinary people going off to have tea in a nearby café. But then they stop, look back at the scaffolding on the tower. ‘I’m scared,’ she says. ‘Everyone is,’ he says. And yet they keep on walking.

And here’s Jocelyn, gamely freezing in the campanile gardens as she beautifully reads an extract from T S Eliot. You may need to turn the sound up, she is competing with the wind!

Knole, Sevenoaks

Of course, if we were being pedantic it shouldn’t be Sevenoaks any more. Apparently it’s been Oneoaks ever since the 1987 Hurricane.

Knole though is still Knole, and I’m sure always will be…

… despite the threat from flying golf balls..

I wasn’t sure, to be honest, what I would write about Knole, but after the third of several brisk walks there, I knew it had to be something about the land. Who owned it? What is the relationship it has to our psyche? How does it get so deep into our bones?

And then again how heavily do we walk over and on it? And after a day spent in the expansiveness of Knole Park, why do we even bother to kid ourselves we can cope without the countryside?

But amongst such openness, there’s also the feeling of being shut out.The openness of our Sunday walk can only be temporary.

Perhaps it is the long-term fascination I’ve had with the story of Vita Sackville-West, and how she never quite got over not inheriting her childhood home of Knole because of her gender, that made me think this way, but when, in my researches, I came across a story about how she had been given a small key to the grounds and only used it very rarely but kept it with her at all times, I knew straight away what I wanted to write about. And on one walk where we came across a white stag, I had a vivid picture of her walking through the grounds by moonlight.

Here’s my piece – it’s still draft, so don’t be surprised if you come back to find it changed!


1. Stiff backed, stiff legged, each step working against gravity, head turned forward, chin lifted.

2. Without a backwards glance, knowing to do so would be to display emotion, to let down the house and all it stands for.

3. To feel in your pocket the weight of a key, a small lead key barely bigger than your thumbnail.

4. To put your trust in the English way.

5. In hotel rooms, from Monte Carlo to Teheran, to secrete the key under your pillow, to wake with the brand of home on your cheek.

6. To build your own paradise, plant by plant, your fingers plunging deep into the soil, caressing the roots, a goddess. For your most prized design to be a ghost garden, a white shadow of all you miss.

7. To leave the earth sometimes for a tower, the work of hands for the mind, to escape into dreams of a woman becoming a man, to stride through those gates again, to have no need of that key nestling even now in your pocket, the weight of it keeping you grounded.

8. To look up at the moon one night and think that just a few miles away the same moon is looking down on a doe you haven’t seen before.

9. And surely what happens at moonlight isn’t real, so you can’t be judged. The time of lunatics, werewolves, transformations, and so, with the wolfhound that’s the grandson of the one you buried there, doesn’t a dog deserve to see the bones of its family too, you use your key to walk along the moonlight path, for your feet to recognize home, the heft of it.

10 To take that once used key with you to your grave. To never speak of it again, in the English way.

And I was delighted just last week to find this quote about Vita Sackville-West in a letter written by Virginia Woolf – ‘Why she writes is a puzzle to me. If I were she, I should merely stride with 11 elk hounds behind me, through my ancestral woods.’

You are invited…

To an evening of readings of new and favourite garden writing...

… on Wednesday 17th October, 8pm at the Canterbury Cathedral Lodge, as part of the Canterbury Festival.

Together with fellow writers, Will Sutton and SJ Butler, I will be reading poems from my gardening inspired work-in-progress, illustrated by photographs, music and readings of favourite pieces of gardening writing.

As this website shows, over the last year I have been writing a portrait of Kent through its famous and less well known gardens. Along the way, I’ve collected inspiration from the stories I’ve heard, the plants, and of course, the gardeners themselves. This is the first public sharing of the work.

There are still tickets available here or by phone on 01227 787787.

Quex Gardens

Oh, Quex Gardens is a strange and hidden gem. To be honest, it wasn’t even on my original list of gardens to visit and yet it ended up being the one that most haunted my dreams. Normally I read up about every garden before I visit, but this time I had no idea what to expect. I wandered around on my own and tried to capture the emotion – there was something about it that felt strangely wounded. I couldn’t help but see strange shaped trees and plants looking for somewhere else to go…

And yet, this was strange because there was also the most amazing feeling of peace.

So when I went into the house and read one of the leaflets, I knew exactly what I wanted to write about. During the first World War, Quex was turned into a military hospital. Expecting a smallish contingent of British soldiers, the family – the Cotton-Powells – were surprised to greet instead a large number of non-English speaking Belgian soldiers. However, they coped, not least by turning some of the rooms in Major Powell-Cotton’s extraordinary museum of stuffed African animals into dormitories. I can just imagine the soldiers reactions when they woke up! It seems that the gardens were used for recovery by the soldiers, not least by eating the good food from the vegetable gardens which caused the war office to complain at one point that the hospital was feeding its patients too many calories! The story of one of the soldiers pricked my imagination – this was a boy called Camille who had lost his voice through shock, regaining it only when he went home at the end of the war.

This is his song – as I’ve imagined it. Obviously I’ve taken huge liberties with the story, not least with the ‘Australian’. I knew there was an Australian novelist who volunteered as an auxillary during the time Camille was there, but I found no record that she could do hand-stands!

1. Camille’s Song

You could speak if you want to, but it’s like this. Stuck in your heart, the words, when they should flow through your veins. You don’t have the words for what you’ve seen, even the letters that make up the words are weapons because if such things exist then they could happen again. Dam. Age. Damn this age of ours.

2. Other

It’s true the enemy must be a boy like you, who dreams at night of a father’s hand over his on the spade, or a mother’s private smile as she hands him the first ripe tomato to smell and then, go on, no one is looking, to taste. It’s true the enemy was once a boy for whom the very word, Africa, spelt adventure but he’s also your friend who faints the first morning when the screen is pulled back and he sees he’s been sleeping next to a lion. He’s next to you now as you stare at the animals during Major Percy Cotton-Powell’s show-and-tell, he’s your friend painting the backdrop for a giraffe to walk across from photographs and stories, he’s your friend gambling over cards in the evening, climbing up to the tower with you, arguing over which of Major Percy Cotton-Powell’s collection of cannons would fire the furthest, blushing as he’s caught staring a little too long at Major Percy Cotton-Powell’s wife. He’s the one who wants a future too.

3. Expectations

In-ger-land. Kut. They catch you one morning, your hand on the bark of a tree. St-uck. But what they don’t know is you can feel the sap rising, how the tree is drawing its own strength from the earth. Trreee. You shake your head, put your hand up to pull a leaf down, point to the edges as clumsily cut as a child might do. Oak. You nod. Oak. Grass. Bud. Flower. Weed. They think they’re just teaching you English, but you know the truth. You are building a wall of words inside, a shell to keep you safe until.

4. Mis-shape

Australia. You’ve looked it up on an old map in the museum. And one day you’re walking beside her as she wheels the medicine trolley round the wards when she suddenly takes off. Gee-whiz!, and she’s through the door and over the patio and out on to the lawn. The wheels making marks like directions on the grass, and you’re following because you like the idea of creating a new map. The space in my country, she says, you can just breathe it in. Sometimes I just need air, and then shockingly, surprisingly, she folds herself over to stand on her hands, a waterfall of white petticoat, a glimpse that shudders you down to your feet until you’re not sure you’re not upside down either. But then she’s upright, and somehow you are too. Ah, she says, as she moulds herself back to the medicine trolley and leaves you so smoothly, you’d swear she was moving on wheels too if you hadn’t have seen… surely you did see. Ah, she says over her shoulder, old Earbash might not talk but he can sigh, And before you know it, you laugh. Then you remember.

5. Progress

Fresh air and brisk walks, Major Powell-Cotton says. Good food and kindness, Mrs Hannah Powell-Cotton says. Clean bandages and rest, the nurses say. Hard work and a clean mind, your mother always said. But you, still you say nothing.

6. Metaphor

And then one day, you look around and see things as they are. There are no soldiers creeping through the woods.

No blood or tears in the grass.

And the trees aren’t caged.

No bark leaks poison.

Chimneys are just there to heat the greenhouses and to nurture the plants.

And that’s how you know the news. Even before Major Powell-Cotton comes across the lawn to find you, and each cheer you hear echoing through the space behind him is like a series of flags being hoisted. Home, you whisper, and you don’t care that no one hears because the word bangs round your head until you wonder if all of the Quex canons have been fired at the same time. You’re off. Home. Home. Home.