Gardens. Matters of life and love. And other trivia

As soon as I knew there was a Beguinage at Antwerp, I had to visit it. I’ve been obsessed with them since I first visited one in Bruges. These are communities for women, originally Roman Catholic but not a nunnery, normally wrapped around a garden.

These photographs above from my visit have been rather shamefully kept in a file on my desktop labelled ‘All the Single Ladies’, and every time I think I must do something with them, I end up singing Beyonce.

As you do.

And because I am always amazed at the synchronicity that sprinkles itself around this website, I expected… what … Beyonce may start singing about gardens. Wouldn’t that be fab!

But instead, a much more beautiful synchronicity. Like nearly everyone else in the UK, it seems, I have just finished reading Bernard MacLaverty‘s excellent novel Midwinter Break. Glorious. Go and buy.   In it, Stella and Gerry visit Amsterdam. It’s supposed to be just a holiday, but Stella has an agenda. She wants to visit the Beguinage there. Which made me whoop with delight (see where I got the better title from – although I must admit I do have Beyonce in my head right now. Beyonce and MacLaverty – now there’s a heavenly coupling).

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Look, he’s talking about Amsterdam but doesn’t he capture the Antwerp one perfectly too?

I thought I was slightly on my own with my love of Beguinages (also called begijnhofs). Situated in the middle of cities, such as Amsterdam, Bruges and of course, Antwerp, but with their backs slightly turned to the world. An enclave of protection, support and peace – an atmosphere which still exists today. There’s a waiting list, but oh my, you can still apply to live there.

From the very beginning, the women living in the Beguinages were not nuns, they could leave at any stage and marry (although they couldn’t return after), and each community had its own rules. As this piece in the New York Times says, they were looking ‘for holiness outside monastic norms.’ And perhaps not surprisingly – women wanting to live without men, whatever next – they risked persecution as ‘free spirits’.

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I imagine, as Bernard MacLaverty captures so perfectly in his novel, there are still many women who long for somewhere to live like this. The Antwerp one does allow couples, but there’s something about the atmosphere left behind – all those women making an active choice to live a different way and being welcomed to do so – that makes them a special place to visit, although perhaps a little too claustrophobic for men?

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Oh oh oh but just imagine this as your front door….

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… and, as I saw a woman do, walking just a couple of yards to the garden with your thermos of coffee and a good book…

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Peace indeed.

The last tree…

One of the highlights of the last summer was a trip to the Gothenburg Botanical Garden. There was so much to see that we decided to spread our visit out over two days, which was lucky because on our first trip, we’d completely overlooked the Sophora Toromiro…

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And why should that matter? It looks like a little, not to be rude, insignificant?

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Well, as the label above suggests, this little gem is actually one of the last remaining trees of its species. I couldn’t stop thinking about that line – that it was thought to be in danger of extinction ‘mainly due to human endeavours.’

Endeavour = to try hard to do or achieve something.

Makes you proud, doesn’t it? Maybe if the tree had been put in a special cage, or viewing room, it would be less affecting. It was also so moving to see how normal the tree was. I’d built it up in my mind. THE LAST TREE OF ITS KIND….

In my defence, it’s not often you get to see an almost extinct species, and because of that – especially in the middle of all the other green fertile bounty of the botanical garden – there was a certain thrill to it. Rather like funerals can sometimes make you think about life.

And how ordinary and insignificant – and therefore beautiful – that can be.

Here’s the poem that came up…

If this was our last night
Sarah Salway

Please let us still
watch television, let me
get angry at how you
never bother to ask
if you can change channels,
let the shepherds pie
be burnt, the tomato ketchup
finished, another bottle
of wine gone. Let the wind
catch our garden gate,
the apples lie where they fall.
Let’s not bother to call
our mothers, children, friends,
but moan as usual
about meetings and to do lists,
plan Christmas and work
on the allotment, let us finish
our books later in bed,
let me be wearing those glasses
you hate, let us turn off
our lights in unison, and for you
to whisper, I love you,
and turn it into a song,
IloveyouIloveyouIloveyou.
Let me drift off to that.

Papermaking in the garden

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Back in the summer (remember that far back, when the sun shone and everything?), I went on a day papermaking course at Morley College in London. I was drawn to it by the fact we were going to be using natural plant materials, but what I hadn’t expected was that I would fall in love with the little college garden off Waterloo, and especially the plants grown for colour.

It was a taster session rather than a real course, but led by a real expert, Lucy Baxendale. There’s a course starting in June though, you can sign up here – I’m tempted. It was such a joy to go round looking for seeds, plants and textures to use, to feel the gooey mixture (like Blue Peter, prepared earlier for us) give as it turned from plants into paper. Yes, that real pleasure in getting your hands dirty and actually making something.

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Here are the scraps I took away with me:

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And I had just the poem I knew I wanted to write on the one I made using honesty. Here it is:

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My father takes Rupert Brooke’s poems to France, 1945

This knot of honesty I picked today
must have fallen out of my pocket
so you’ll have to believe me when I say

each leaf was thinner than a page
in the book of poems my father
took to war. I like to think

it was the weight behind each word
that kept pushing him to a future
he can’t have dared write himself:

to love and be so loved. Though once
reading nonsense rhymes at bedtime,
he leant so far into that night’s book

I started crying, sensing how
he wanted to topple into it,
just as he must have done once

smelling Brooke’s sweet honeyed tea
above the stench of mud and blood,
this other world he could slip into.