Eating William Morris’s Potatoes – Red House, Bexleyheath


I nearly turned back when I got to the suburban street marked as the address for Red House because it was hard to imagine William Morris, who once proclaimed that we should have nothing in our houses that were not beautiful or useful, commissioning his first ever home from architect, Philip Webb, here.


Nothing against the street, it’s just so busy, but once in through the gates, there’s an immediately calmer atmosphere. And also, I found out later, a historical connection as Chaucer’s pilgrims would have passed nearby on their way to Canterbury. Morris christened the garden porch the ‘Pilgrim’s Rest’ in Chaucer’s memory.


The house and garden were designed together, and although not much of the original design of the garden remains, it’s hard not to see it as one with the house.


I’d wanted to see it particularly in autumn because the site was originally an orchard when Morris found it in 1858, and some of the trees – apple, cherry, oak,yew, hazel and holly – remain.


The flowers and plants were also an inspiration for Morris’s own designs, so as I walked round, I had half an eye on looking out for the shapes and structures that might have appealed to Morris.


Part of Webb’s design specification was that the house should be ‘clothed’ in traditional climbers such as roses, white jasmine and honeysuckle, and although it was obviously the wrong season for these, it was possible to imagine how this would work to enhance and soften some of the architectural features.


Possible also to imagine one of May Morris’s memories as you sit on the lawn here – it was of the poet Swinburne lying in the orchard, ‘his long red hair spread out on the grass, as she and her sister Jenny sprinkled rose petals on his face.’*


And if the house was designed to be looked at from the garden, so the garden forms pictures from different windows of the house.


I recently set my creative writing students the exercise of imagining the view from their character’s bedroom, so it was fascinating to see the view William Morris would have woken up to.


Although William Morris and his family left Red House in 1865 after a series of personal problems, the house feels less of a museum than a family home, largely due I’m sure to the careful owners who followed him. So it was nice to see this plaque on a bench in the garden.


Also good – if surprising – to see potatoes and apples on sale in the vegetable patch.


How could I resist? And it’s the potatoes I’ve written about for this garden. I had been worried that it wasn’t paying enough respect to William Morris – potatoes, after all! – but then I read how much fun they had in their early years at Red House. There was even an apple fight in the Drawing Room which left Morris with a black eye, and a spectacularly good practical joke by his friend, Edward Burne-Jones, who sewed up the sides of Morris’s waistcoat to persuade him he was putting on weight.


So here’s a silly potato poem for you…

Cooking William Morris’s Potatoes

It’s a hot potato, mashed, smashed,
boiled to a turn, it’s got its jacket on,
been chipped, French fried, finely
diced, topped and crowned, but

is it beautiful?

We arrange them in a china bowl,
pink earth eggs, dark scented
like honest women, skins
blooming with imperfections, but

is it useful?

As they struggle to breathe in the
kitchen air, tubers blindly groping
their way back to cold soil beds,
we heat water, watch as they fail to swim.

Peel it, roast it, serve it on the side,
Wedge it, spice it, nutmeg, salt and cream,
pocket warmer, peasant filler, fat
maker, famine causer, hot potato.

* Taken from the National Trust brochure for the house.

Red House is owned by the National Trust and the website is here.
Date visited: October 2013

Acorns and shopping streets – Delville Wood, France

I’m aware that this is a blog for English gardens but on a recent visit to the site of the Battle of Delville Wood as part of a trip to the WW1 battlefields in France, I was surprised to see this:


And so I kept looking:


I found out later that these markers represent the names which were given to the rides on the original 1916 battle map. Some were named after streets in London: Rotten Row, Regent Street, and Bond Street. And then there were the Glasgow streets: Buchanan and Campbell, while Edinburgh is represented by Princes Street and King Street; and Cape Town has Strand Street. It’s a reminder of the grim and still poignant humour that must have helped to keep the men going at times.


On the day we visited, the wood felt so peaceful. Admittedly it was wet and cold and so we were almost the only people there, but walking amongst the trees, I listened to birdsong and gave up counting just how many acorns were sprinkled underfoot. Perhaps this was why I found it so hard to imagine the wood as the setting for one of the bloodiest battles of the war.


It’s now a memorial for the South African soldiers who died on the Somme, significant because it was the first major engagement entered into on the Western Front by the South African 1st Infantry Brigade.


Although, of course, here as elsewhere, a mixture of nationalities fought alongside each other.


If you look closely you can see how the land carries the memory of the trenches:


But it’s still shocking to see this spelt out:


They lie not far from where the South African regiment first entered the wood:


Nowadays, there’s an impressive pair of oak vistas allowing you to walk up from the road to the South African war memorial, designed by Sir Herbert Baker. Research on the internet came up with the fact that the wood was given to the South African Government as a permanent memorial and planted with oaks taken from Stellenbosch and Franschoek. These two towns were settled by the French Huguenots in the 1600s, and it’s possible that the oaks at Delville were descendants of oak seedlings brought by these settlers in turn from France.


We were enormously privileged to have Jeremy Banning as our guide; he is not only an expert military historian but he knows how to tell a good story, including one about ‘Ralph’s oaks’. Apparently, a veteran called Ralph Langley stayed on in France after the war as an Imperial War Graves Commission gardener and was nursing some young oak saplings in the early 1920s. It’s good to think that these must have been the ones that now line the entrance way to Delville Wood.


And as for the original wood, well, there’s only one tree left:


– this hornbeam…


… which no doubt holds its own memories of the past as well as growing new ones.


And here’s the little poem I was writing in my head as I walked along Rotten Row:


Ambling down Rotten Row
coat buttoned against the October chill

acorns crackle underfoot like sudden gunfire

and straight rows of oaks reach down roots
to soothe their soldiers back to sleep.

I’ve written about another aspect of the recent writers’ trip to the Somme on my other website here.

More information about Delville Wood here.
Date visited: October 2013

Autumn colour at Marle Place … by appointment

After my post on Marle Place, I’m happy to tell you that – although now officially closed – it may still be possible to visit. The owner, Lindel Williams, got in touch to say: “As you know we close this week end but the Autumn colour may well be rather good, if it is we open by appointment ie a phone call, no tea room tho’.”


How generous and special is that? The website is here.

Enjoy! And if you do go and take some stunning autumn photographs, I’d love to see them.