Cas Holmes in the Garden

As soon as I saw this beautiful little picture by artist, Cas Holmes, I knew it had to be mine:


It sums up my emotional roots in the Fen landscape just perfectly, and so I wasn’t surprised to find that Cas is from the Fens too. She’s a wonderful and interesting textile artist – just look at her work – and also a friend of this website. She says about her art:

“I like to use discarded items, waste material no longer considered useful and develop pieces using stitch and collage. Looking at translucent layers, connecting paint, mark and print with the found surfaces of fabrics and papers, my work is informed by the ‘hidden’ or often overlooked parts of our landscape, and personal spaces. I am interested in the relationship with domestic interiors and outside places, the views from our windows, the verges of our roadsides, field edges and the places where our gardens meet the ‘greater landscape’. Working with ‘stitch sketching’, I seek to capture a moment or thing before it is gone.”

This is a beautiful piece of hers called ‘Wayside Weeds’:


Recently she sent me some quotes and thoughts about gardens that made me want to dedicate a post to her! Here are some of the quotes she sent:

‘People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.’ Iris Murdoch.


And this from her grandmother, Mary, who was a Romany Gypsy and wrote this while looking at plants in her garden on the advent of the second World War: ‘I watched as the Plumbago flowered and the petals fell and wondered how many of our men would now fall.’

Chilling, simple and true. I don’t think it is connected but it resonated for me with another of Cas’s pieces, Counting Crows:

counting crows

In fact, the Arts Council England have a textile art piece that  Cas made from her grandmother’s old seed wrappers and her aprons, which is called ‘My Grandmother’s Garden’. Cas says about her grandmother, that ‘as a traveller, she often said that the roadsides and the fields were her ‘garden’ and she never tired of the changing aspects.’

But it is something Cas’s grandfather said that gave me the inspiration for a poem today. This was after the Second World War when he was asked why he had flowers in his vegetable beds:

‘I will always plant some flowers as we need flowers to feed our souls as well as vegetables to feed our belly.’

It reminds me of a story I heard about Clementine Churchill who had been told off for planting swathes of bulbs in London during war time. She called it  ‘an act of defiance’,  because in fact what she was planting was hope that there would be a future and that future would contain beauty, colour and scent.

Good Company

And you’re there

preparing the ground

for me to plant marigolds

and tomatoes,

my mouth watering

already at our harvest

of gold and rubies.

If this tempts you to learn more, you can study with Cas at these forthcoming workshops! 

Becoming the garden

Last week we stayed in  a house called Scàl’s Broch, just near Achiltibuie and overlooking the Summer Isles. Although there were some days when no one seemed to have told them it was summer, the setting was glorious.


But it’s the Broch I wanted to write about because it was an adventure in itself, like a hobbit house tucked under the hills with a grass roof – it had a ‘haircut’ when we were there!


I tore myself away from the view sometimes to write in my journal..


..and started to write this poem about becoming part of the landscape…


And it happens so slowly

you have time to wonder

if there is a verb for it,

to gardeninify, to absorb

through feet and knees

and hands and heart,


the essence of the place

until you are the garden,

waking in dreams as fertile

as the wildflower path

you must have planned in the night,

to stand stock still in supermarkets

because a yoghurt’s packaging

is exactly the colour of the rose

you’ve marked as possible,

(now definite)

the sounds of a stream

mirroring blood running


through your veins,

each jump and start

a seedling performing.

Come winter, you’ll be watching

still, the new curve of your back,

echoing the tree on the hill,

how the wind has moved

it so often, you could say

it has surrendered,


but even as you push

the mower over resisting grass

you feel the garden through your skin,

your hands deep in the soil

until you’re not sure if you are planting,

or if it’s you being planted,

the only thing you know

is that it doesn’t matter any more.

2013-07-11 10.44.07

Howick Hall Gardens, Northumberland


There’s  nothing I like better than a well-made cup of tea – well, actually there are quite a lot of things if I’m honest, but it’s still exciting to have a cup of Earl Grey tea in the family home of Earl Grey himself, Howick Hall. It was the poshest tea room I’ve been in.


Howick Hall Gardens is just on the edge of the Northumberland coast. We’d been walking right by the sea earlier and spotted the Bathing House, completely isolated but amazingly well designed and built so it was perhaps not a surprise to find out later that afternoon that it went with the hall. The ‘teamaker’ was actually the second Earl Grey, and he and his wife, Mary had 15 children. Desperately unhappy at school himself, he’d educated them all at home, at Howick. The Bathing House had been built for them, just one of the innovations to ensure that they flourished in the outdoors, and also perhaps part of a creation of the perfect childhood the Earl must have wished he’d had.

The story of the Earl’s children sums up the charm of the garden for me – it has a very personal and nourishing atmosphere. If I could describe it, I would say it was a ‘slow garden’, but in the best possible way. Although now open to the public, it still very much has a feeling of a family sanctuary. The 65 acres have been developed at different times by different generations. Charles, the Fifth Earl, and his wife Mabel, probably made the most impression, establishing the informal and natural style of gardening you can see now. It’s like a living example of the late 19th century gardening expert, William Robinson, author of the influential The Wild Gardening, and campaigner against Victorian regimented bedding schemes. The resulting garden is a curious mixture of lucky surprise and serious botanical research. For example, the beautiful bog garden began when a pipe burst and it was found that plants seemed to like to grow there.


However many of the other plant and tree specimens in the garden are the result of specific plant finding expeditions over several decades the family ran in conjunction with the Quarryhill Botanical Garden in California. There are over 1,800 different species to be found in the gardens, all grown from seed collected in the wild from expeditions to India and Pakistan, North America, the Southern Hemisphere and Europe amongst other countries. Many of the expeditions to China and Japan were led by The Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, and a full computerised database is planned to be available on the website at some time in the future. So despite the relaxed atmosphere, this isn’t just what my mum used to call ‘a family doing its best’… In fact, seed is still exchanged from Howick with all the major international botanic gardens.


So this is less an arboretum than an encyclopedia, or as the website says: ‘A United Nation of trees and shrubs’.


The most famous Earl Grey was the father of 15 (mentioned above), Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834 and remembered for his work on the reform of Government, possibly the father of British democracy. I don’t know how much time he spent at Howick, but I did read that as a director of the railway company, he had a private halt nearby to make it convenient to get off the train from London! During his time as Prime Minister, his administration also worked to help abolish slavery in the British Empire, and I could easily imagine him walking through his own bit of paradise here in Northumberland as he fought to help others living such a different existence from him.


The family still live there, albeit in a wing rather than the main house, and on the day we went, the current Lady Howick’s private gardens were on show. Not a bad wing…


…although we had to watch out for hares. Actually we did see one earlier, quite magic, but it was too fast to photograph! We also saw a red squirrel. Amazing how animals can make your heart stop for a minute. Probably especially when they are in your carefully maintained flower beds.


It’s hard to imagine the garden looking better than it did in unexpected British sun with the wildflowers in full flower, but I would like to see it in spring too when the tulips are out too – apparently there are drifts so beautiful that Joyce Grenfell (a distant relation to the family by marriage) left money for their upkeep in her will.


And it was touching to walk through the West Arboretum and visit the church to find the grave of the five French sailors who lost their lives when the steam trawler Tadorne was wrecked on the nearby beach. The family rushed down to the sea to help the rescue parties. There really is history everywhere.


But what I can’t stop thinking about is the Long Walk, which leads from the garden down to the beach. Apparently, on the first full moon in July after the tenth birthday of each of the 2nd Earl Grey’s children, they were made to run up the Long Walk at midnight to bring back a flower of the Grass of Parnassus which only grew at one spot on the cliff. Presumably this was designed to build up character.


I couldn’t quite work out whether, for a child, this would be extremely frightening or exciting! It would make a great story though.



So here’s a piece from Wind in the Willows on Mole’s night time adventure in the Wild Woods.

There was nothing to alarm him at first entry. Twigs crackled under his feet, logs tripped him, funguses on stumps resembled caricatures, and startled him for the moment by their likeness to something familiar and far away; but that was all fun, and exciting. It led him on, and he penetrated to where the light was less, and trees crouched nearer and nearer, and holes made ugly mouths at him on either side.

Everything was very still now. The dusk advanced on him steadily, rapidly, gathering in behind and before; and the light seemed to be draining away like flood-water.

Then the faces began.

It was over his shoulder, and indistinctly, that he first thought he saw a face; a little evil wedge-shaped face, looking out at him from a hole. When he turned and confronted it, the thing had vanished.

He quickened his pace, telling himself cheerfully not to begin imagining things, or there would be simply no end to it. He passed another hole, and another, and another; and then–yes!– no!–yes! certainly a little narrow face, with hard eyes, had flashed up for an instant from a hole, and was gone. He hesitated–braced himself up for an effort and strode on. Then suddenly, and as if it had been so all the time, every hole, far and near, and there were hundreds of them, seemed to possess its face, coming and going rapidly, all fixing on him glances of malice and hatred: all hard-eyed and evil and sharp.

If he could only get away from the holes in the banks, he thought, there would be no more faces. He swung off the path and plunged into the untrodden places of the wood.

Then the whistling began.

Very faint and shrill it was, and far behind him, when first he heard it; but somehow it made him hurry forward. Then, still very faint and shrill, it sounded far ahead of him, and made him hesitate and want to go back. As he halted in indecision it broke out on either side, and seemed to be caught up and passed on throughout the whole length of the wood to its farthest limit. They were up and alert and ready, evidently, whoever they were! And he–he was alone, and unarmed, and far from any help; and the night was closing in.

Then the pattering began.




And here’s a poem about the different side of gardening!

Maybe it’s better to go wild than be corseted
in bedding displays, stamped on and bruised
for your smell, deadheaded. No wonder thorns
protect tender buds, sap weeps, tendrils wave,

and was this why Eve took a chance, left paradise
before stagnation seeped into half-starved soil
just as every year, the bravery of the lone tulip
snaps a true gardener’s heart in two?

Garden: Howick Hall Gardens, Alnwick, Northumberland, NE66 3LB – Website here.
Month visited: July 2013.

Cragside, Northumberland

The more gardens I visit, the more I appreciate those which have been created with a huge dollop of personality.


And probably few have as much personality behind them as the National Trust property, Cragside, just outside Rothbury in Northumberland.


Once the home of Lord and Lady Armstrong, you can feel the passion for engineering (from both husband and wife) and also of the time (during the late 19th century) as you walk round.


More than passion actually, you can almost feel the fizzing of excitement about anything new! Not surprising then that Cragside was one of the first houses in the country to have electricity.


Tucked away, in the woods, is the ‘powerhouse’ belonging to the ‘Caretaker of the Light’.


A telephone was installed between here and the butler’s pantry so that the house could be properly supplied with electricity as it was needed.


But it wasn’t just ‘new gadgets’, the rhododendrons on show are one example of the Armstrong’s ‘craze’ for the it-plant of the time. Dahlias too were another passion.


But it was the trees that got me.


Funnily enough my visit resonated for me with the two excellent – but very different – books I’m reading right now. Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson (one of Peirene Press’s gems) and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Here are two paragraphs that I read again later and thought… YES. This is exactly how I felt.

From Mr Darwin’s Gardener: I have decided to research the electricity of plants, inspired by the writings of Gustav Theodor Fechner and Edward Solly. I will try to use electricity to grow plants. Perhaps the sharp tips of plants function like a lightning conductor and collect electricity from the atmosphere. Maybe these tips facilitate the exchange of charges between the air and the earth. If I could connect plants in metal containers to a static generator, they would grow well. I would use a mesh of metallic filaments located above them, and earthed with a pole in the ground. I do not have a generator though. 


And this from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (do feel read aloud to yourself for just the pleasure of the words! I did, several times.):

Then I noticed white specks, some sort of pale petals, small, floating from under my feet on the creek’s surface, very slow and steady. So I blurred my eyes and gazed towards the brim of my hat and saw a new world. I saw the pale white circles roll up, roll up, like the world’s turning, mute and perfect, and I saw the linear flashes, gleaming silver, like stars being born at random down a rolling scroll of time. Something broke and something opened. I filled up a new wineskin. I breathed an air like light; I saw a light like water. I was the lip of a fountain the creek filled forever; I was ether, the leaf in the zephyr; I was flesh-flake, feather, bone. When I see this way I see truly. As Thoreau says, I return to my senses.

You may laugh, you see, but this is how I felt walking through the woodland at Cragside. As if I had been connected to electricity and returned to my senses. I don’t think I’ve ever looked properly at just how beautiful bark is before.






Barking mad? Maybe … but it was one of the loveliest afternoons I’ve spent for a long time. Forget Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s obviously all about Fifty Shades of Green for me when it comes to having my senses tickled!

Bishops Palace Garden, Chichester

I don’t know how many visitors to Chichester Cathedral know about this oasis tucked away between the Cathedral and the ring road behind. I say that because we were asked twice by people during our visit whether ‘they’ were allowed to come in too.


And that, of course, is part of the charm. The garden has been beautifully – and un-councilly – designed, with private bits and wild bits and bits overflowing with goodness.






Everywhere we turned, we saw people having conversations that made me long to sit down on the bench with them and join in.


Or others I wanted just to ask what they were thinking about.


Luckily then, perhaps, we were on a mission. We’d joined Emma Baynes for one of her popular herb walks around the gardens. Emma’s a herbalist and all-round fount of herb knowledge. Here she is identifying plants for us (despite competition from the hen party behind, I think we won on the hat front)….


… and also she pointed out one of the treasures of the gardens – the Gingko Biloba tree – which several of our party admitted they never knew was there …


But on a private note, another treasure in the garden is this bench…


… that we put up for my parents – Reg and Elizabeth Peplow – and dated for their joint birthday, 22nd June. We liked to think of people walking by and wondering why that date. When I was small, I always thought all parents had to be born on the same day!


Appropriate really because, of course, Chichester Cathedral is home to the famous Arundel Tomb, which inspired Philip Larkin’s poem concluding with the beautiful line, ‘Our almost-instinct almost true:/ What will survive of us is love.’ Here he is, reading it:

By the way, if you carry round the back of the Cathedral into town..


.. you will find the wonderfully named Vicars’ Close, and get a peek at some perfect private gardens too. You can almost imagine yourself in a Joanna Trollope novel!