Reading and Writing … at the Chelsea Fringe

WRITERINTHEGARDENI’m delighted to be – virtually – taking part in the exciting Chelsea Fringe Festival this year.

I’ll be posting from a selection of London gardens and parks – some well-known, some you may have overlooked – with photographs, a little bit of gossip, and for each one, I want to offer you a poem to read which has been chosen specially to add another layer to the experience of the park.

There will also be a series of creative writing prompts to encourage you to write in a garden – wherever you are! I would love for you to join me.

My Chelsea Fringe ‘virtual tour’ starts on 18th May. See you then!

Villa Gamberaia, Florence

Although Villa Gamberaia is outside Florence (a 30 minute No 10 bus ride from San Marco Square), it has been designed so the view of the city becomes part of the garden itself.


It’s a garden that has been much written about, ‘Nowhere else in my recollection have the liquid and solid been blended with such refinement on a scale that is human yet grand without pomposity..’ wrote Harold Acton. ‘It leaves an enduring impression of serenity, dignity and blithe repose.’


Certainly, the water parterres help with this feeling of serenity. It’s hard to imagine now the shock the replacement of formal flower beds with water must have caused when Princess Ghika transformed the gardens at the beginning of the twentieth century. According to Monty Don in his Italian Gardens programme (a clip is given below), Princess Ghika was a Rumanian Princess who went out heavily veiled after she had lost her famous beauty, and would swim in these pools. I hope that she took off her veils in the gardens at least so she could see the beauty she had created.


The photograph above was taken from the terrace – it’s a garden to be admired from all angles and at every window from the house, which has a beautiful inner courtyard as well.


And it was seeing this courtyard that made me realise that, despite the view, all the statues looked inwards as well. Almost as if they were giving permission to forget the outside world and take sanctuary in the garden.


And despite its relatively small size, the garden contains contrasts and surprises. The intimate rockwork garden for instance, which led from the bowling green:


And then there’s the Nymphaeum:


And gates everywhere, taking you through to explore another sense – another atmosphere.


Again, as with the other Florence gardens, we went at the wrong time for flowers but I imagine that the box topiary shapes would dominate anyway. The shapes again suggest floating, or clouds.



But, do you know what, this is a garden that encourages silence, introspection and bliss. I can’t imagine visiting here and walking round carrying on a day-to-day chat, so I’ll shut up now and let you enjoy it for yourselves.







The amazing thing is that, although it is privately owned, you can actually rent out the villa and stay there.


Imagine writing in this room… what did Cicero say? ‘”If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”

Or here..


But I had to take my notebook home to write – this time at least! I took the shape of the garden for my piece, and took courage in the fact that a garden, even one as fine as Gamberaia, is too a work in progress!


Forget love; it’s stories of lost beauty that capture me now. For a Rumanian princess to veil herself through shame at the lines life had left, for her to swim only at midnight when all the garden visitors have left. Did she keep her eyes shut even then in case she caught sight of her reflection, or did she float looking out at the view through a net film?


Found in the forest car park

a top-shelf magazine, girlie

and me, tramping it into the puddle

but the photograph won’t stop smiling

back at my brothers, their laughter.


Stop a minute.

Get out of your brain.

Think with your feet,

arms, belly.

Move, feel, taste life.


‘Smell this,’

he’d hold the earth

right up to our faces,

‘that’s the fens that is’.

At night before sleep,

I’d take his hands,

pretend to plant

potatoes in the creases.


Money doesn’t grow on trees

but my father had a trick

whereby he’d twist our heads

this way and that,

pull coins from our ears.



a world

seen only


lace holes.


the French


who made it


a bride,

love, happiness,


their fingers

dancing over

silk threads?

And here’s Monty Don’s piece on the garden which gives more of the history:

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Boboli Gardens, Florence

Our second Florence garden was the Boboli Gardens, just behind the Pitti Palace. Originally built for the Medici Family, and constructed on a hill once covered with olive trees and vineyards, it still retains an air of a perfect Italian classic design although apparently…

‘During the brief period of French rule, the Boboli gardens ran the risk of being turned into an English Park.’



But if it was saved from nasty English influence, records show that in 1932, the majestic amphitheatre was the scene of flag throwing performance of Hitler and Mussolini before being turned into a vegetable garden. Hard to imagine now.


Although records are sketchy, or those that I can find anyway, it does feel that the extension to the Palace and the gardens were done at the same time. There’s a pleasing organic feel to them, and also, given the scale of these gardens, a surprising sense of personality coming through.




Today we miss the ‘thrushery’, a hunting ground for the Medici but what for? Thrushes? And talking of birds, there was once apparently a magnificent aviary near the Kaffehaus, as well as an exotic menagerie. The Garden of Madama, a market garden of citrus trees and flowers commissioned by Giovanna of Austria, the wife of Francesco 1, has gone but her grottinca still remains, begun in 1553, it was one of the first of its kind.


Still very much present is the famous ‘fountain of Bacchus.’ I’d read that this was a portrait of Cosima’s household dwarf, but when I investigated, this is apparently untrue as Cosima was too fond to have him ridiculed like this, but even so. (The turtle is a Medici symbol.)


But practical jokes were welcome elsewhere. Like many gardens of their time, especially one built round water like Boboli, there was much play with watertricks. One jet at the Isolotto could shoot upwards to a height of 71 feet, 8 inches. Mind you, on this rainy day in Florence, it felt as if the water was coming down, not up..!


But it’s the Grotto of Buontalenti which is really special. Open only at certain times during the day, it once featured four sculptures of slaves by Michelangelo, which have since been replaced by plaster of paris copies, but you can still imagine what it must have been like.



I would have loved to have seen it in its heyday, when hidden water jets drenched unwary visitors, and a central jet could be adjusted to reach the ceiling. The statue of Venus in the third chamber, by Giambologna, has its own secret story. Although the artist begged in vain to be allowed to work on it further, Duke Francesco was so pleased with it that he apparently kept it in his personal chamber for a while before moving it to the Grotto.


When the grotto was originally built, Buontalenti suspended a crystal fish basin from the vault’s skylight, but it proved too difficult to keep the fish alive due to the temperature changes. However, it’s wonderful to think what  the lights and reflective splashes from the basin would have added – a real feeling of being underwater.


This is the poem I wrote in the gardens:

Wanting to see everything, we queue

to visit the grotto, have our pictures

taken by a naked dwarf riding a tortoise,

imagine the wild animals, wild

parties, but the real fantasy would be living

in a world when you would hire Michelangelo

to sculpt mighty slaves emerging

from the underworld, and yet

you’d still feel safe, on top.



Here’s a piece by Monty Don from his television series on Italian Gardens which interestingly shows the contrast between Boboli and Villa di Castello:

Bardini Garden, Florence

We visited several gardens during our visit to Florence – watch this space for reports on Villa Gamberaia and Boboli Gardens – but by a stroke of luck, Bardini Garden was literally just around the corner from our flat.


The garden, like many, is a work of love – several times over. The current garden has been part of a renovation project lasting several decades, since the last member of the Bardini family left in 1965. The fact that this significant green landmark was then abandoned led it to being called the ‘Bardini question’. In the guidebook, the back page is given over to a quote from Raffaello Torricelli, who led the garden back into its current beauty: ‘The Bardini Garden is part of the countenance of Florence. A reason for giving new thought to the city. We must make something that lives.’


Walking round the gardens, it was clear that this goal has been reached. This isn’t just a ‘historic garden renovation’, but a living place. At the heart is a central stairway, which was once lined with vines.


Admittedly we didn’t go in the best time, plant-wise, but it was still clear to see how the separate parts of the garden – the flower garden, the olive grove and rose garden, the camelia garden, the peony garden, the fruit orchard, the English wood – would all work together to form a harmonious sanctuary from which to both escape, and watch, the busy commercial world of Florence down below.





Even though it’s now open to the public, it still retains this feeling of a private sanctuary. And this is enhanced by the surprisingly tender statues, that seemed to make it less a place to impress (as so much of Florence is) and more a garden for conversation, love and stolen moments..




I definitely want to go back and see it in full bloom – the ‘Calendar of the Blossoms’ in the guidebook make me think, hmmm… I need to be there in May for the Hydrangeas, Wisteria, Judas Tree and Peonies…. although there’s June for the Roses, Iris, and Viburnum. And then July, for the Dahlias….

And then again, there’s something about seeing a garden stripped down to its bones. Certainly it made it easier to look out…


And so, for my creative inspiration, I took the view (and what we might say that could be true or false in conversations) …

Ten True Facts I’ve been told about Heights…

* When David Collins’s dad went up to the top of the Post Office Tower in London, he got a certificate to say he’d been in space.

* If you throw a penny from the top of the Eiffel Tower and it lands on someone in the street below, it will kill them.

* Until the spire collapsed in the 16th century, Lincoln Cathedral was the tallest building on earth.

* There are a number of buildings that are haunted because a construction worker died in the lift shaft. There is nothing more scary than a haunted lift shaft.

* Women over 35 can’t go on rollercoasters because their balance changes.

* In the 18th century, hairstyles got so elaborate they could reach three foot high. Hair was wound over horsehair pads, and could be designed in the form of ships, buildings and gardens. Rats were a problem.

* The front row of the top deck of a London bus is a good place to eat tomato sandwiches.

* The tallest dog living is called Zeus. He’s a Great Dane and measures 44 inches.

* The average woman uses her height in lipsticks every five years.

* The West Tower of Ely Cathedral is so tall, and the land around it so flat, that it’s possible to see the tower from all the churches in the diocese.

* If you counted all of these and found there are actually eleven not ten, you probably aren’t aiming high enough in life. On the other hand, it’s lonely at the top.