Ruins and personality at Great Comp


Great Comp garden, near Sevenoaks in Kent, is a remarkably personal garden, wrapped round a 17th century house.


Dotted around the garden are the ruins which, by the time you spot the second one, you realise must be the creation of the same person who has created the rest of the garden.


They offer an interesting tension between wild imagination and order, classical romance and technical challenge, drama and horticultural excellence.


So perhaps it wasn’t surprising that as I was walking around, I was thinking about who had planted this garden. Even at this time of the year (September) it’s well-maintained, but there is such a sense of personality here that comes through.


One answer was in the interesting exhibition of photographs and cuttings in the summer house, which include these ‘Important ladies from the WI’.


I hope they enjoyed the garden as much as their modern equivalent obviously were!


Another clue was in the book I bought at the ticket office, The Life of an Amateur by Roderick Cameron. I fell in love with the writing immediately, and I sat on a bench to finish it, I could imagine Mr Cameron’s voice accompanying me round. Particularly his question, “Why if I and Great Comp are so great are we not famous?”


He and his wife, Joyce, moved to Great Comp in 1957 and created the garden we see today. It is now run by the Great Comp Trust, and is obviously flourishing.


So rather than say more, I have taken the liberty of using Roderick Cameron’s words for my creative response to this garden. It’s a collage from exact phrases (and chapters) taken from the guidebook. Somehow a collage felt important given that parts of the garden feel like a collage too. And although Roderick Cameron died in 2009, I imagine that the skeleton structure he designed is what gives the garden its cohesion.


And, as he said himself: ‘it is still my garden’, even after the running had been taken over by the Great Comp trust. It is the Trust I imagine who we have to thank not just for the sensitive and alive maintenance of the garden itself, but possibly the most welcoming tea room ever!


So here’s my Roderick Cameron Collage, I can only imagine what a wonderful personality he must have been.


I have views about plenty of things but…

I have throughout my life
been interested in the incidentals,
my real life’s work:
the fifty years of designing,
constructing and maintaining
the Great Comp ambience.
To me,
to me
anything open
to the public
should have
an element of
the theatrical.

Although never much of a personality,
I spent one night
in the unfinished buildings
of Mussolini’s 1942 Exhibition.
During the night a plane
circled several times
and dropped a bomb,
led me to become
an expert on concrete

Great Comp
It will have been noticed
that my early life was devoid
of any interest in gardening.
I found gardening tools,
spades, forks, rakes
and a bricklayer’s trowel
no problem at all.
It is not necessary to be a genius
to be a garden designer.
Harold Nicolson spent a lot of time
running around with ranging rods.
Read Gertrude Jekyll.
Read Isaiah Berlin.
The first ruin was the start,
the same ruins
could not have been built
by other people.

November and December Diary

I have made at least three
daily perambulations
and noted for this diary,
last winter cold but not dropping
even on clear nights,
our 70 magnolias coming,
gingkoes, field maples,
many common oaks to replace beeches.
The Liriodendron and Magnolia veitchii
and plenty of others, Acer griseum,
Malus tschonoskii, Parrottia,
Eunymus alatus, Cornus controversa
Two visitors from Hungary.
Plenty to enjoy but
no damage is a suitable note
to end my diary
on a note of optimism.

Can the whole ambience survive
me for another 50 years?
Laziness and listening
to Late Junction
until midnight,
and it is still
my garden.


Six such magnificent singers
emerging unobtrusively
from the choir,
these occasions are almost
like a family party.
A strange thing:
I am reading The Secret Garden,
opinions not science.

Outside Influences
Like the dramatic guard’s whistle
before the departure of an express train,
awe inspiring
need not be gigantic or complex,
to many no doubt as dull
as ditchwater.
One reason why my book
could never be a best seller.
I rest my case.

And such a contrast to my life
during my time on earth,
never letting anyone complete
a sentence in committee or elsewhere.
I accept an element of truth in it all.
It is given to few to be
both popular and achieve something,
my late wife and I are not
of that company.
One of the last things
she said on her death bed was
You never let me get a word in edgewise.
The last thing I want to do,
or ever wanted to do,
is to manage men
or women either.
At Great Comp I told them
just to do what I wanted.
If I were to presume to pass on advice,
be thankful for the sun,
let others worry about what follows.

Those who know my writing habits
will also know
that when it comes to amendments
and supplements
I am incorrigible.
I see Great Comp
not so much as a centre of erudition
as an oasis where civilized people
will be able to enjoy the garden.
I can only express my gratitude,
and so ends my story.


The website for Great Comp is here
Date visited: September 2013

Sculpture, sun-tattoos and the ‘art garden’ – Marle Place


This may well be the quickest garden-visit-to-post on here because I was in Marle Place gardens just this afternoon. And talking about speedy, look autumn is on its way.


There’s a reason for putting this up now though. Marle Place shuts to the public on the 29th September so there is only just enough time to visit if you rush there this week. If you do, you’ll be rewarded by the annual sculpture show.


When I told a friend where I was going, she told me she loved ‘the art garden’. Oh-uh, let me tell you a secret. I try and I try but I’m not all that fond of most garden art. Why gild the lily when gardens are so beautiful anyway?


In fact, as I was driving there, under the aching tunnels of trees my mum always called ‘cathedrals’, shafts of sunlight was dripping through so it felt I had my own disco ball turning above me, I was wondering if I wasn’t making a terrible mistake.


But Marle Place is nothing if not welcoming. Even these stones are getting a hug!


Relaxing place for a snooze too.


And as I started wandering round, a woman rushed up to tell me I was getting the garden to myself. She’d been walking round, she said, and she’d been the only person. ‘We are so lucky,’ she repeated.


In fact, there were several other visitors, but the garden is designed in a series of rooms so it is possible to imagine that you are alone. More that that, it feels as if it is your garden!


You certainly don’t feel shepherded through from one bit to another as you do in many other gardens. Which is lucky, because this is a garden to amble slowly around.


And because I’ve already told you one secret, let me tell you another. Many of the gardens I visit are subject to what I call the ‘Alice Test.’ I’m planning a garden tour to take my American friend and fellow writer, Alice Elliot Dark, on next time she comes – actually she doesn’t know she’s coming again yet but she may if I entice her with photographs of where we could write together. (Yep, that’s cake. What can I say? I am ashamed to say I’m not above bribery…)


Well, Marle Place definitely passes the Alice Test. It was, to be honest, just a little past its best but it’s still possible to see how ‘specially secret’ this garden is. In fact, I wonder if it is this influence that is encouraging these confessions today.


The house isn’t open to the public, but it’s architecturally interesting…


… and there’s plenty enough to see like this Victorian gazebo…


… tennis court…


… and swimming pool, for a quick five minute imagining of what it would be like to live there (one of my favourite things to do).


In fact, the house and gardens have been the family home of the Williams family for the last forty years. So the garden is definitely a personal creation.


A feast for the senses, and not just in the scented garden. It is rare now to be able to visit a garden with no road noise. Just birds, trees rustling, and when you find them, the chickens.


And the sculpture?


A big sigh of relief. Whether it is the careful placement…


or the mixture of artists exhibiting…


but this felt like art that added to and enhanced the beauty of the plants around it, rather than shouting so loudly it dominated everything else.


Some was witty…


… others more organic.


And I was surprised at how it encouraged me to start noticing the sculptural quality of both the plants and the garden itself…


… until I remembered that Lindel Williams, the owner, is an artist, as is her daughter, Lucy. So no wonder the private gardens are an artwork in their own right.


I bought a goodie bag to take home with me too.


And in honour of the ‘art garden’, here’s a haiku…


Late heat on my skin,

shadow tattoos on tree bark –
summer souvenir.

Website here – Marle Place gardens
Date visited – September 2013

Beekeeper in the Garden


And inside the hive
a baby soothed by the whir
of wings as fragile


as honesty leaves, how
warm honey pulses
through flower veins


to the sticky sweet nest,
dripping through fur
as drones search on


mouths open
hungry for nectar


My friend (and sometimes artistic collaborator) Ellen Montelius let me spend an afternoon with her bees recently so I could see the magic first-hand. As well as being an amazing photographer, Ellen is a beekeeper and the Apiary Manager of our local beekeeping group in Tunbridge Wells. That’s her honey above, and very special it is too. And if you want to encourage bees in YOUR garden, then the Royal Horticultural Society have some useful information (including a list of plants that attract bees) here.

PLUS… this is an entirely true bee-themed History of Maps created by the Tiny Circus arts project I was lucky enough to be involved with … Enjoy!

The Homewood – ‘temple of costly experience’


It’s impossible to talk about the garden of The Homewood without referencing the house. (And the house without referencing the garden.) This is a modernist gem, famously built by the architect Patrick Gwynne in 1938 when he was only 24.


Let’s repeat that. Only 24!


Perhaps it’s not surprising then that his ‘clients’ were his parents, and that it was his father who called it a ‘temple of costly experience.’


I think that comment was made with both love and a touch of humour though, this is clearly a successful and much loved building and landscape which achieved the objectives of being both an advertisement for Patrick’s growing architectural practise and a family home. Patrick himself lived there until his death in 2003 when the house was taken over by the National Trust.


Although not generally open to the public, it is possible to join a guided tour on alternate Fridays and Saturdays between April and October (arriving in a minibus from nearby Claremont Landscape garden). In some ways I think these small groups work better, because this is above all, ‘domestic architecture’. All of the furniture and fittings in the house were also designed by Patrick, for comfort and entertaining as well as for their aesthetic value. We couldn’t take photographs inside, but this outside cabinet gives a feeling.


I felt the gardens and house complimented each other perfectly, although I read later in the guidebook that the landscape we see today wasn’t laid out by Patrick until the 1960s. It was, he insisted, ‘a woodland garden, not a park.’


It is a garden designed to feel much bigger than it is. It follows the 18th century fashion of being able to spot a glimpse of the house from the entrance before the path curving around to hide it until you actually reach the door.


I don’t think Patrick would have allowed those bins though.


Although he might have whizzed past them in one of the cars parked in the very exciting-for-the-times garage large enough to house four cars. Apparently Gwynne’s last car – a 1784 Aston Martin V8 series III – can still sometimes be seen.


And everywhere outside in, inside out. These glass tiles at the front door were specially designed to allow the light into the entrance so plants could grow successfully in the hallway.


This outside kitchen is everything the ‘modern housewife’ could have dreamt of. My mum would have done anyway. It gave me a pang of nostalgia – and, yes, envy too myself!


Patrick’s ashes are buried at the foot of this copper beech planted in the garden in 2004.


But I could just imagine him still sitting here too, working on the willow fences that blend so well into the woods.


A lovely mix of ancient views…


… with surprises that sill feel modern.


The only thing that jarred were these beds of begonias although I am sure that someone will point out that they are contemporaneous and therefore authentic.


The enamel panels on the south front are by Stefan Knapp and they are designed to reflect the garden back on itself.


It was from them I took inspiration, and because I could imagine my mother here too, I wrote this poem:


I was too young to notice the changes in each bed,
how the roses fade and new buds grow and roses
grow and new buds fade and why

it mattered so much
if plants kept seeding and dying and seeding and

then I watched my mother in the garden,
her face turned to the sun, the sun turning
around her, saw my face in hers, the moon.

The Homewood is open to the public only as part of a guided tour. You can find out more information here.
Date visited: August 2013

Finchcocks – A Musical Garden


It’s grey and dreary here today so I make no apologies for writing about a garden I visited last summer* when the sun was still shining and the flowers blooming…


Now, doesn’t that make you feel better? And there’s still time for you to visit Finchcocks this year as it is open until the end of September.


I’m not sure why the garden of this Georgian Manor House feels likes such a delicious secret – almost as if it has just been discovered from another time. And every doorway you go through could just possibly take you to a new world..


Perhaps it’s because round every corner, you stumble on something from the past…


Or because the whole garden feels as if it just on the cusp of falling over into abandonment… in the best possible way because I should point out these 13 acres have been fully restored… but so sensitively that the romance still remains …


Ha, these flowers do look as they are about to burst into a glorious song! …


It’s certainly true that there is a musical theme going on…


Not surprising because the house is a musical museum with a famous collection of instruments you can visit. In fact, they are almost celebrities in their own right, with instruments featuring in films such as ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and ‘Vanity Fair’ amongst many others. There are regular recitals at Finchcocks, where you listen to world-class musicians play to you in rooms that make you feel you are in a Jane Austen novel.


You almost need a hat to show off in..


Or a frog to kiss into a Darcy…


One of my favourite instruments in the collection is the harpsichord which has been specially built so the music can only be heard by the person playing it. I took this thought with me into the garden as I watched the light making silent songs. Shhhhh…. can you hear them?


Perhaps my dad has been in my mind more than usual since writing the post about Monk’s House, but it made me think of the time he took me – as a child – to hear Beethoven’s 1812 Overture in London. I’ve never forgotten how much he laughed when I jumped at the cannons. So here’s my poem (after an upside-down daughter!):


My Father Always Like Loud Noises

I should have known something was up
when the trip was first announced –
‘A classical concert, us?’
I sit shredding the frills
on my new stiff petticoat,
running my nails the wrong way
across red velvet seats –
‘stop fidgeting’ – and then
musicians file on stage, one by one,
how many could there be? – ‘stop yawning’
a conductor summoning images like magic,
his baton sways wand-like and I’m cut
in half, made whole, half, whole,
pulled from a dozen top hats,
I’m a coloured dove flying high,
five hundred silk scarves floating free,
I’m icy rain and and hot sun,
until my father takes my hand in his,
I squeeze back – ‘thank you’ – until
– BOOM –
I turn to see his shoulders shaking
‘you jumped!’ but the truth is
I’ve been wound as tight as spring
since the very first note.

(*I’ve only just started dating when I visited each garden here because I hadn’t realised how many visitors I would get through search engines. A lovely surprise, but perhaps more useful if they show exactly when the garden has been photographed. Some poems for the posts flow straight after a visit, others – like this one – take longer to incubate, so I may post several months after a visit. I’m happy with this so I hope you understand. Rather like a garden, I don’t always like to be rushed!)

And the website for Finchcocks is here.
Date visited: July 2012

Tortoises and tulips in Istanbul


We didn’t do many garden-visits during our recent – short – visit to Istanbul, but then in some ways the garden was with us in the form of decoration everywhere we looked.



Or tulips were anyway.





They even formed part of the city’s sadly unsuccessful Olympic 2020 bid.



It’s a reminder that tulips originally came from Turkey, and the first bulbs to reach Holland came as a present from a Turkish Sultan. In fact, the flowers were so popular in Turkey, that the period at the beginning of the 18th century was known as the ‘Tulip Era’.


And Sultan Ahmed III of Turkey was the chief supporter.



A visit to his library at the Topkapı Palace, was definitely one of our highlights. I don’t think these photographs show just how inviting the room was but hopefully you will get an idea of the ornate flowery decorations.







Lavish much? Well, just listen to this account of one party taken from Anna Pavord’s wonderful book, The Tulip. This paragraph was very much in my mind as I tried to cancel out the tourists and replace them with tortoises…


Music filled the grounds where the Sultan’s five wives took air. One of the courtyards of the Grand Seraglio was turned into an open-air theatre; thousands of tulip flowers were mounted on pyramids and towers, with lanterns and cages of singing birds hung between them. Tulips filled the flower beds, each variety marked with a label of filigree silver. At the signal from a cannon, the doors of the harem were opened and the Sultan’s mistresses were led out into the garden by eunuchs carrying torches. Guests had to dress in clothes that matched the tulips (and avoid setting themselves on fire by brushing against candles carried on the backs of hundreds of tortoises that ambled round the grounds).

I couldn’t help wonder if a party like that is just what this army of gardeners at the Palace were preparing for…


Some information for Topkapı Palace here.
Date visited: September 2013