Ernest Wilson – keeping one eye open

There’s a little gate off the main street in Chipping Camden. You might not even notice it, but step inside, and you’re … not in Wonderland, but almost in China!

It’s a memorial garden to the plant hunter, Ernest Wilson who was born in the town in 1876. Here’s his house, just further up the street…

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It’s hard to imagine how different this stone and brick must have been to the paradises – and horrors – he found himself in during his time as a plant hunter around the world, but so famously in China that he became known as Chinese Wilson.

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The garden is a cabinet of curiosities of some of the plants he brought back, some so common now that it feels odd to imagine how exciting it would have been to have seen them flower for the first time. Ernest Wilson is certainly one of the great collectors, he’s thought to have been responsible for introducing about 2000 Asian plant species to Britain.

And of course the names give a clue…

My personal passion for garden history follows my heart more than my mind. Back when I used to hang around my mother’s garden library, it was always the books about plant collectors I’d choose. (And Ernest Wilson was one of my favourites. Perhaps I knew I’d have a much loved Chinese sister-in-law and nephew one day?)

And indeed, this garden is rather like a book you can read, although instead of illustrations we have samples of the plants he brought back, 60 of which were named after him.

His adventures weren’t without trouble. In 1910, his leg was crushed during an avalanche of boulders. Apparently he set it himself with the tripod of his camera, but walked afterwards with what he called his ‘lily limp’. However, he was responsible for introducing the regal lily to the west.

He ended his life in the US, where he was keeper of the Arnold Arboretum, and died with his wife in a car accident in 1930.

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In the garden there’s a tree planted by his granddaughter. This poem came from one of the information boards, which says that in later trips to Japan when staying with headhunters, ‘it is a good idea to sleep with one eye open.’

Sleeping with one eye open

So as not to miss a moment
of the world’s beauty –
bark peeling like sunbaked skin,
petals as fresh as parchment,
the uptwist of a lily,
and a lion’s tongue of an iris,
and at night to dream of birdsong
like the skylark from home,
daisies in the churchyard,
a glimmer of silver on the river,
the honey-stoned Silk Street,
before waking to a fresh morning
on the silk route, searching
every day for one more miracle.

A visit to The Library of the Birds of London

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The complete joy of hearing birdsong again is making up for a stop-start spring this year. And thinking about birds, I had a joyful visit to the Whitechapel Gallery in London last week, mostly to visit the giant aviary created by American artist, Mark Dion.

Only four visitors at a time are allowed in the aviary – well, four people and the twenty zebra finches who are temporarily living there. So you stand surrounded by birds completely ignoring you, going around their own business, pooing on books and making nests from the linings of hats…

And there’s something about how they absolutely don’t care they are an ‘art work’ that made me take time, to go slowly, to look again at all the artifacts around the aviary so very deliberately placed there. The books on cats, the bird books from all round the world, the photos of David Attenborough, all the exploring equipment, the amount of knowledge we  humans feel we need for such a simple thing as looking at birds…

I loved it, and thoroughly recommend a visit. It’s on until 13th May. It’s part of Mark Dion’s ongoing exploration of the relationship between nature and culture, and includes a reading room with hand-made wallpaper featuring extinct animals (I heard a granny explaining that loudly to her grandson), findings from mudlarks, and so much more.

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My favourite was finding out about the The Ladies’ Field Club of York. This was a previous exhibition for  the National Railway Museum in York, in which imaginary female amateur naturalists from the turn of the century set out on a field trip together.

Joy indeed. Here’s the artist talking about it…

On the anniversary of Lancelot Brown’s death

Lancelot – Capability – Brown is best known as the creator of our current vision of the English landscape, so would it surprise you to know this is where he died?

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It happened on the 6th February 1783, 235 years ago today.  Apparently the night before he’d collapsed on the doorstep of his daughter Bridget Holland’s house in Hertford Street, London while returning after a night out at Lord Coventry’s.

Researching on the Historic England site, Henry and Bridget Holland lived at no 17, although there’s no plaque or general excitement. In fact, it’s now serviced flats, I got some odd looks when I was taking photographs of the doorstep – I think people thought I must have been a private detective! And slap next to a Prezzo.  I like to think of Lancelot Brown nipping there for a meal – it’s obviously a favourite for some locals! 

Jane Brown writes this in her wonderful biography, The Omnipotent Magician:

At the beginning of February he was spending time in town, staying with his daughter Bridget Holland and her family at their house in Hertford Street in Mayfair. It was an ordinary business trip, which enabled him to visit his clients at their London houses; on the Wednesday evening, 5th February, he was dining with Lord Coventry at his house in Piccadilly, and while he was walking the short distance home he collapsed from ‘an apoplexy’ and the next day he died.

His place of death couldn’t have been more different from his birthplace in rural Northumberland, right in the middle of the city, and I think even then full of secret private clubs such as the one now at No 5. And maybe even it was the footmen from General John Burgoyne’s nearby house who helped him home.

At least, he’d have had a view of Hyde Park running across the bottom of Hertford Street, I like to think of him not being too far away from green. His death, not surprisingly, caused a stir, with Horace Walpole wrote to Lady Ossory: “Your Dryads must go into black gloves, Madam. Their father-in-law Lady Nature’s second husband, is dead! Mr Brown dropped down at his own door yesterday.”

(Wouldn’t Horace Walpole been the best tweeter? Complete with exclamation marks!)

Lancelot Brown’s body was taken quietly to Fenstanton in Cambridgeshire to be buried, where he’d been Lord of the Manor. As his will stated, ‘my body I commit to the Earth to be decently buried.’

So here’s a poem to remember him today, based on something his contemporary Richard Owen Cambridge apparently said, which was that he longed to get to heaven before Brown, so he could see it before the great landscape gardener had ‘improved’ it. It’s a ‘mirror’ poem.

Views Reflected
Sarah Salway

By the time it was heaven’s turn,
the formal landscape of England
had changed forever:
a gardener and a duke
working harmoniously together.
Scattered trees,
a serpentine lake,
the ‘gardenless’ garden
painted a new picture –
Brown, nature’s second husband,
moving mountains from his path.

Moving mountains from his path,
Brown, nature’s second husband,
painted a new picture –
the ‘gardenless’ garden,
a serpentine lake,
scattered trees
working harmoniously together.
A gardener and a duke
had changed forever
the formal landscape of England
by the time it was heaven’s turn.

 

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.