An ode to Allotmenteers


HAHA Allotment, March 2016

Hello allotment, it feels like it’s been a long time…


What’s that? Oh right, yes it has. But hurrah, it’s gardening time again. And look at these potatoes in the allotment shop waving at us. Pick me, pick me…

So here’s a poem to all of us, peering at our allotments at this time of year and hoping the digging elves might have popped in to help us secretly over winter.

We rarely appear in winter,
although some have been spotted
like cat burglers reaching out
to pick up cold earth, sniffing it.

We know the seed catalogues backwards,
pictures of our ideal weedless plot –
vegetable heavy, dahlias and sunflowers
waving – hide somewhere in our hearts.

Through summer, we’ll greet each other
with seedlings, surplus tomatoes or shakes
of our heads. We have our own gods:
the ones here everyday, the giant pumpkin growers.


How to be Capable (ity Brown)

I’ve been thinking about Lancelot (Capability) Brown for probably far too long. Here’s a post I wrote about visiting his birthplace, Kirkharle in Northumberland. So it’s lovely to join in the celebrations for the 300th anniversary of his birth, with a series of poems coming out in the commemorative copy of the magazine for the Follies Fellowship.

The visit to the Church above, the path he would have walked to school every day, and the countryside he grew up in (not his house, that’s now a car park!) all informed writing an imagined view of how he became the ‘Shakespeare of English gardening’.

How You Learn To Be Capable by Sarah Salway

Never be told you can’t.

Walk to church every Sunday, sometimes more, past stories that thrill even when they should be scaring you, and although you know you shouldn’t speak about the past, let the land whisper it with just a sideways glance at a mound or an old bent tree.

On your daily trek to school, surprise yourself by glimpsing future stories hiding in clumps of trees, behind a hill, swimming down stream to a lake where they are lost before you fish them out.

Lancelot, your teacher smiles, now do you know where that name comes from? And although you’re only five, you do. So you tell him of ancestors, of the land, of the trees, of woodsmen and the earth, of the pride of being a servant to a good man, of what it means to be a Brown.

There is another story, he says, and that’s how honour, and gallantry, and most of all, maybeoneday, enter your world.

Now when you walk to school, you place the rises and falls, the trees and the rivers in different places in order to catch the future better.

One day when you are in the kitchen, you tell your mother that you’d like to move the hill in front of the house. And she doesn’t laugh, but looks out of the window as if she can see over the horizon now too.

You walk to school through rain, walk to church through rain. You get so tired of rain rain rain every day.

We need the rain to keep our lands green, the preacher says that Sunday, and because you listen hard every time he mentions land, you start to think again about water.

Because what if we could control it, you ask your teacher, what if we could turn the weather on and off when we need it. Not just for the land but for beauty too.

 Shhh. It’s by scaring your teacher that you learn another story. That Control is something you have but pretend you don’t. Power exists when it’s not questioned. And Stories don’t have to be spoken aloud to be heard.

Control and Power and Stories are like you and your brothers. You may fight, but you can’t be separated, and in some people’s eyes and shakes of their heads, you are one and the same. Those Brown boys. The ideas in them.

 But God, your teacher says, is the one who holds the Order.

You say, Like my Lord Loraine, but now your teacher, your mother, even your brothers, tell you not to think so much.

You’re still thinking when your father comes to say he’s got you a job, working on the land, working so hard that your mind will stop worrying at itself like a dog with a bone, and although you agree, of course you do, if you hold your head a certain way, if you were to move the hills, rearrange the trees, let the rivers flow in a new way, you know you can rewrite Order’s story. Because you are a Brown, but you’re a Lancelot too, so the Story you keep inside, and don’t even have to say out loud for people to listen, is for Beauty too.


The rest of the poems will be in the magazine, due out in May!

Chatto-ing to myself in the rain… at Beth Chatto’s Garden


It was never going to be possible for me to visit Colchester and not fit in a trip to Beth Chatto’s garden, but to be honest the constant rain finally pushed my patient husband a little too far. Never mind, there was a cafe for him, and I trudged round happily – even if I did catch myself pointing out things like these ‘nobbly knees’ above (part of the root system of the Cypress Tree).. to myself!  How we laughed, me and me… and then we saw a plant in need of a haircut, chortle chortle..


Because there may be certain people who say you have to be mad about gardens to enjoy them in the rain. However, I wanted to check whether it really was a garden that looked beautiful in all weathers and in all seasons. Look, see for yourself…

I was trying to work out what put this garden above a normal display of – very early – spring flowers, and then – to myself – blurted out HELLEBORES!

Of course. So modest and hopeful, they gave a necessary softness to the daffodils and snowdrops. I’m definitely copying this one.


I’d love to go back in the summer, in fact at all seasons! There’s so much to explore here, and it is a joy to go to a garden of this quality that doesn’t preserve itself in aspic but is constantly exploring new ideas…


And isn’t too precious to admit it doesn’t know everything…


And it was interesting to see a connection with another garden, Great Dixter, that does both of these things above.


I bought the book of letters between Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd, Dear Friend and Gardener, to read later. Perhaps in front of a fire, with a nice drink of strawberry beer, to remember this beautiful plant, Midwinter Fire…

Eel Art in the Public Garden

IMG_2478This is probably one of the best known views in Britain, the Octagon tower at Ely Cathedral. It’s got special resonance for me, to be honest, because I was at boarding school here and we used the cathedral as a playground, short cut, an everyday part of our lives. It is only now that I’m realising just how lucky that was. And how much it has informed my aesthetic as a writer since.


But it’s another artist I wanted to talk about here. One new to me, and it was a joy to come across her work when I was visiting Ely last weekend. In 2003-2004 Elizabeth-Jane Grose was commissioned to create an Eel trail for Ely (once the Isle of Eels, of course) and as I walked round looking for her work, I fell increasingly in love with the way she obviously had researched her subject, resulting in a beautiful mixture of knowledge, sense of place and also sense of play.

Here is the eel art I found, I could find surprisingly little information online, and when I went to the Tourist Information Office, the woman there mouthed through the window that the office didn’t open until 11, despite the fact that it was 10.55 and pouring with rain outside, so I gave that a miss.

First one was the Eel hive, at the foot of Cherry Hill, next to the Cathedral. From the path running through it, it’s obviously well used and well loved, but could do with a bit of a haircut!


Second, is the Yellow Eel mosaic in Jubilee Gardens. Beautifully sparkling in the brief sunshine, and made up of fragments found in a recent archeological dig.



And then there are the Ely Glaives, outside the  Maltings. These are based on drawings in the museum, and have been used since Anglo Saxon times to catch eels. The shape of the sculpture matches the Octagon tower. Oh how much I was crushing on this artist and this particular body of work by now!



And lastly, my favourite, a special cheer for Elizabeth Cromwell’s seat, outside the Oliver Cromwell museum. Running round it was the recipe for roast eel, taken from Elizabeth Cromwell’s recipe book (also in the museum). I might have sat here forever, if it hadn’t been raining. But hey, this is Ely and you don’t get eels without a bit of rain… which was probably why the tourist officer was going to make me wait. Just so I could appreciate it more. She probably didn’t realise I’d already had years of ‘appreciating’ it in the past.