The view from a hill – Octavia Hill, Toys Hill and Ide Hill

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The Octavia Hill Centenary Hill is not so much a garden, but a walk involving three hills – Toys Hill, Ide Hill and the woman who connects the two – Octavia Hill.

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She was a social reformer and nature lover who left her house to the organization she founded – The National Trust, who still continue to look after much of the land these walks covers in the heart of Kent. They are well laid out with signs and even leaflets, but still offer surprises.

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At Toys Hill, you can sit on this bench here, next to the well, and change the world over a cup of coffee.

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There’s a real feeling of community here – we found an oak planted by both the oldest and youngest member of the village in 1990.

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And then when we walked over to Ide Hill, this simple memorial to those who died in WW1 made me want to cry.

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The pub wasn’t as bad as advertised either.

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But most of all the Octavia Hill Centenary Trail centres around views. Every time you come out of a thicket of wood you are left breathless, not just with the climb, but with just how far you can see into the distance – “Pure earth, clean air and blue sky”. This is what Octavia Hill thought was the right of every man and woman, and is certainly in abundance here.

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And no wonder the farmer this bench remembers loves the view.

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Just look at it!

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Perhaps it was views like this that gave her the farsightedness to work tirelessly to bring about reform in London’s social housing. Because she believed so strongly that fresh air was important to quality of life, she created an inner city garden, now known as The Red Cross Garden. Linked to a social housing estate, it is still a place for people to sit in to counter some of the problems caused by the smog and industrial fumes of the time. At the same time, she built the small row of cottages and a ‘village hall’ for activities such as dancing, crafts and skills. It still exists and is a thriving community centre. In fact, it is hard to imagine when you sit there that this is in the middle of London. Only the street names around, Little Dorrit Street, help more to picture what it must have been like in Hill (and Charles Dickens’s) time.

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So it is important to come here and see where it all began. As Octavia Hill must have felt, fresh air is definitely worth fighting for. And as I’ve just read today in Psychologies Magazine that we are spending on average 77 hours a week in front of a screen and only six hours outside walking, if you are anywhere near Kent this weekend, I suggest a walk here not least to see the last of the autumn colours.

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This is the poem I wrote in the Red Cross Garden. I’m posting it again because I took with me to the top of Ide Hill to read where Octavia Hill must have walked.

The Outside Sitting Room

After a winter we thought would never end
and a spring that had barely begun,
we come shyly – one by one –
into the park. A father lies down immediately,
his daughter giggling as she tiptoes away,
the homesick student listens to music
from her childhood, eyes shut,
head raised to catch these slivers
of sun she’s learning to call summer,
a jogger comes and goes, and a family
takes over the far corner, prams, and aunts,
and picnics, and complicated games
only one boy will ever understand
while I sit, and by the act of recording them all
shut the door on myself.
Put down the pen,
shut the journal,
walk with bare feet on warm grass.

Find out more about the Octavia Hill Centenary Trail here.

Porcupines and Poetry at Penshurst Place, Kent

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I always think of Penshurst Place as a true writers’ garden. This isn’t just because it was the home of one of the great 16th Century English poets, Sir Philip Sidney.

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or the muse for Ben Johnson’s poem, To Penshurst.

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But it is still attracting writers today. Dramatist and short story writer, Gaye Jee (who kindly agreed to read one of Sidney’s poems at the end of this piece) can be found guiding sometimes, and where else would you receive a reply to your email IN VERSE from the office? Also there are regular literary events at both the house and garden. But this isn’t the only reason to love Penshurst. It has a very special feel which I think comes from the fact that it is still a family home – that of De L’Isle family and you can see an exhibition of family portraits and photographs over generations.

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I’m lucky in that it’s one of the nearest gardens to my home so I get to visit regularly. This means I see the 11 acre garden at different times…

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… and find my own special corners where I can almost imagine myself back to the 16th century when the garden was first laid out …

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… and never fail to leave a little lighter-hearted…

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… and even walks outside in the glorious parkland (and open to all) make me feel grateful.

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But I was grateful to Gaye for pointing out something I would never have noticed before, and that is how much of the garden plays with perspective. So this isn’t just how the hedges allow you to move from one garden room to another and from one height to another, still giving glimpses of the house…

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… but she pointed out how the pond at the front of the house, while looking like an oval from the ground…

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… actually makes a perfect circle when seen from the first floor reception room.

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My new favourite thing. It joins the topiary bear but above all the porcupine as essentials to visit each time.

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The porcupine is the symbolic animal of the Sidney family, and may seem a strange one until I read that in ancient times it was believed that porcupines can throw their quills at an enemy.

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(Completely off subject, but I love the fact that a group of porcupines is called a ‘prickle’.)

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Definitely not prickly is one of the other attractions of the garden at Penshurst Place which is the 100 yard Peony Border…

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If you are lucky enough to see it at its prime (in June), I swear it will keep you going all year. Penshurst kindly operate an email list, allowing you to sign up to be informed for when it’s at its finest. It really does fill you up in every sense, and is worth waiting for…

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And so I took all of these things, but above all one of Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnets as my writing inspiration. The eagle-eyed among you may recognise the line-ends to Sidney’s sonnet, Astrophli and Stella 1 which I kept to exactly.

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Come to the Window

From above, the pond’s a perfect circle as if to show
how even your eyes can be deceived if you think pain
is something those on top will never know.
The perspective’s a trick; I pass the story on to obtain
your interest but better surely than a tale of woe
is the joy you feel at a garden set out to entertain —
topiary beasts to make you laugh, a sense of beauty to flow
right through, white gardens, flags, heart first then brain.
A peony border you rush to see because you think it’ll stay
fresh only fleetingly, forgetting how the wind blows
sweet scent into winter nights until you dream of the way
those bawdy flowers blushed as if caught in the throes
of a delicious secret. Circles have no corners, no room for spite
and what’s important is what YOU feel, not what I write.

And here is Gaye Jee reading one of Sir Philip Sidney’s poems. It was filmed last summer in the sun.

Website for Penshurst Place is here.

A joyride in a paintbox – a walk round Winston Churchill’s Chartwell, Kent

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Regular visitors here will know that there’s a form of time-travelling that can go on. Sometimes I’ll put up a post about a garden on the day I visit it, other times it will take months. This is because I really hope I can write something original for each garden I visit, and sometimes thoughts need to settle a little. Actually it doesn’t always matter because the site can be accessed any time of the year anyway, but the downside for those reading these posts as and when they are written is that the seasons can get a bit whopsy-daisy.

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Our visit to Chartwell is a case in point. We went in spring, when it was if anything colder than right now. And as atmospherically misty. But Winston Churchill, who lived here from 1924 until his death at the age of 90 in 1965, famously said ‘A day away from Chartwell is a day wasted’, so I think he probably enjoyed all the seasons equally.

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Besides, it doesn’t feel to me – and do prove me wrong if I am – that this is a particularly horticulturally sensitive garden. The interest of the visitors when we went seemed instead to be focused on the garden as Winston Churchill’s private retreat. Certainly the man himself is still present everywhere you look.

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There’s a wonderful story about his wife Clementine though, who planted drifts of bulbs in London during the war. I know I’ve written about it here but it bears repeating. 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. I don’t imagine Winston Churchill was an easy man to live with, but somehow they obviously managed it for more than fifty years – and at least she got beauty, colour and scent with this gift of a rose walk.

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So what impression is it possible to get of the man from walking round his garden? Admittedly I am a novelist, and by our very nature, we have creative minds, but I could see a sense of order, if not control…

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… I could also see him taking potshots at us visitors too, or at the very least harrumphing in a corner somewhere at the ‘invasion’…

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… and there’s his famous wall-building. I actually wanted to rush home and build my own wall straight away. Imagine building something that you can see growing with every brick AND being able to get it so exact? It appeals to all that is Virgo in me, and certainly doesn’t happen with my creative writing.

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… the natural heated swimming pool – a mixture of hardiness and also wallowing a little like a hippo. Yes please…

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… and then there is the sentimental side…

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Jock was apparently his favourite cat, who would stay by WC’s side as he sat on this white chair and they fed fish in the lake together…

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And one of my favourite parts of the garden was the little playhouse that Winston Churchill built for his daughter, Mary, and called the Marycot. Apparently all visitors to the ‘Big House’ would come to the Marycot to eat dropscones made on the little oven there. As these visitors varied from Charlie Chaplin to Lawrence of Arabia, with some international statesmen thrown in for good measure, I conjured up a lovely picture of the conversations that must have taken place here. A good premise for a play maybe? The two trees you can see in front were planted by Winston Churchill for his daughters, one for Mary and one for her sister, Sarah – interestingly (for me anyway) I am Sarah and my sister is Mary. Where, I wanted to know, was the Sarahcot???

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Easy to see when walking round how the garden must have been a sanctuary from the world. It was fascinating to compare with Howick Hall, the garden of Lord Grey, also prime minister but with a very different political background. Not least because while at Howick Hall, raising seeds and plants from all over the world is a large feature of the garden; at Chartwell, you get the feeling that Englishness is to be preserved at all cost, although some foreign plants are indeed proudly featured.

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And if the garden, and the essential visit to Winston Churchill’s art studio which shows what an inspiration the garden was for his painting, make you forget that actually he didn’t spend all of his time on ‘hobbies’, there is an exhibition of letters and memorabilia from his time in office. I was still in ‘private man’ mode though, so it made me laugh to read a letter to members of the civil service. It went something like this: ‘The Prime Minister wishes it to be recorded that the expression “most grateful” is not to appear in any letter for his signature. He says that he is the only person who can decide whether he is grateful or not.’ Ha! Whether I minded or not, whether I felt I was intruding or not, whether I loved it or not, it wouldn’t really matter. The Prime Minister would decide.

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So it was that letter, and his somewhat surprising description of his life as a painter as ‘a joy ride in a paint-box’ that gave me the inspiration for the subsequent poem. All the names of colours are from Winsor and Newton Oil Colours.

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Venetian red leaving earth behind
before we can strap terre verte on
permanent rose glows viridian raw
raw umber flashing before our eyes

Ambling round the rose
garden through to the white
chair, Jock by his side at the lake.

Scarlet lake ultramarine violet let
let cadmium lemon take us faster
until all we see is lamp black moss
black light red threads in the distance.

Black dog on his shoulder again,
and yet here, brick after brick calming
order, pattern of pleasing richness.

Renaissance gold transparent marooned
in naples yellow Indian yellow both unsettle
with unknowing we only think we know oh
russian prussian blue against slow sap green
.

Back to earth, a child’s house,
two trees for two daughters, an oblong
canvas waiting for history’s brush.

Terra rosa up jaune brilliant against
dull pewter phtalo turqouise glows
and burnt sienna heats heats until purple
madder madder madder flake white.

The Prime Minister will decide himself
when he is most grateful. Thank you
for visiting. A day spent away is wasted.