Silence in the nature reserve

And a happy new year to you all! I think it’s still all right to say that, but this has been my theme recently… just a little too late!

We spent the weekend after the new year in the middle of silence. It was beautiful. I’d been wanting to stay at the Elmley Nature Reserve on the Isle of Sheppey for some time, and it was everything I dreamed of.

We took the little but beautiful Salt Box, which contains a bed, kitchen and bathroom but more importantly this view when we woke up in the morning….

We didn’t take advantage of the outdoor shower – surprisingly! But we did spend time reading, thinking and walking. I made a list of all the gardens I’ve visited this year and haven’t shared with you here, so – again late to the party – I’ll be catching up with them soon.

But in the meantime, enjoy this video taken just outside our little cabin before I sat down to write…


Which made me think of this poem, Silence by Billy Collins. Here’s an extract:

And there is the silence of this morning
which I have broken with my pen,
a silence that had piled up all night
like snow falling in the darkness of the house—

Revisiting Salutation Gardens, Sandwich

Although I’m slightly horrified to realise that it’s SIX YEARS since I first wrote about The Salutation Gardens in Sandwich, Kent, it was a pleasure to go back and see them in all their spring glory. Look at the tulips in the bottom corner…

Then, of course, they were called the Secret Gardens, but I guess now that their owners, Dominic and Stephanie Parker are now television stars, then it’s not so secret now.

Still lovely though, and surprisingly peaceful.


IMG_0611 2



And I still love how the house was first built by Edwin Lutyens in 1910 for three brothers who all had asthma. The story goes that it was deliberately built to be near the gas works because the fumes were then thought to be good for breathing! Here’s the poem I wrote at the time of my first visit…

Fresh Air
Sarah Salway

You’d be sure to notice the gasworks first,
worry how close the garden sits
until you learn this is why it was built,

three asthmatic brothers filling
their lungs with seasalt and gas fumes:
the latest thing in London, Lutyens
also. You imagine three garden chairs
lined up to face the smoking chimneys,
a sound of gasping like bad static

waiting to be tuned while, from over the sea
the smooth sounds of orchestras playing,
tea cups clinking in peaceful pre-war courtyards,

and so many farewells hang in the balance,
tears ready to mist on cheeks, and still
the brothers struggle to catch their breath.

And actually those tulips above are wasted, let’s have another closer look at them… hello there, beautiful! How many estates would you have cost back in the day?

You can find out about visiting times for the Salutation Gardens on the website by clicking here

Always the two sides….

On this rainy Easter weekend we went walking in Kent, and came across this lovely rural scene of a church being decorated for Easter Sunday and the start of spring…


And then keen to investigate the one Commonwealth War Grave in the churchyard, I went round the back of the church. Here it is…


But my attention was caught more by a bench placed directly against the back of the church…


I’m always struck by the word ‘novelist’, so I investigated further, and found that Marjorie Bowen has written “150 volumes under half a dozen pseudonyms, and tackled larger-than-life subjects in historical dramas, supernatural tales and mournful gothic romances. Critics have long considered her storytelling to be clear-eyed and efficient, her detail and description masterful, her understanding of human nature filled with compassion and sorrow.” (taken from here). Her pseudonyms included Joseph Shearing, George R. Preedy, John Winch, Robert Paye, and Margaret Campbell. Her books have been described as ‘sinister gothic romances full of terror and mystery.’


I’ve ordered one to read – of course I have! – but after admiring the view above and sitting on her bench to google her gothic writing history, she is apparently the ‘master of horror’ – it was particularly pleasing to go back round to the front and get a cheery goodbye wave and bright smile from the flower arrangers.

Shades of Wickerman, anyone???? Sometimes England really is a parody of itself.


Halfway to Heaven in Folkestone


Not quite a garden, but this website has done graveyards before so we’ve got form. And besides, this is amazing. It feels so secret and magical, that even the dandelions look as if they are meant to be there.


The Baptist Burial Ground in Folkestone has been left as an ‘island’ for more than 100 years, floating above the town. You have to go up some steps to get there, and I’m not sure I’d ever have found it if it hadn’t been part of the Folkestone Triennial this year. The sound artist, Emily Peasgood, chose it for her wonderful audio installation, Halfway to Heaven (on until 5th November). She has created a polyrhythmic (phew, trying spelling that when you’ve had a drink) harmony based on the stories of the people buried there – and the living get involved too because you have to stand in front of the grave in order to hear their strand of the composition.

Only when the ground is full, do you get the full experience. So many things to think about as you stand there – the history of the place, the people left almost stranded there and also who we all were – random strangers coming together to make beautiful music. A song of us, as well as those who have gone before.

And I hadn’t heard of Emily Peasgood either before this show, so I looked her up when I got home and found this really charming TED talk – I wonder if there are many writers it won’t resonate with!

What people have been saying about Digging Up Paradise

I’m not always the best person to talk about my own work. To be honest, I tend to say stuff like, ‘Oh, don’t feel you need to buy it…’ or even direct them to someone else’s book about the same subject. So it’s made me laugh, cry and dance to get the blurbs below for DIGGING UP PARADISE. Not only are they blush-makingly flattering, but more importantly for me, they absolutely get what I’m trying to do. Thank you Lia, Viccy, Victoria and Patricia. You are my dream team of readers, and I am honoured.

From Lia Leendertz, writer on gardens for The Guardian, The Telegraph and others:

“On this poet’s garden tour Sarah Salway writes of the gardens physical selves, of course, but also of the sensations they conjure, the memories they stir up and the glimpses of history that colour her perception. Each description is rich, layered, personal and moving. It is more like the way we all experience gardens than any garden writing I have come across. Sarah has a unique combination of a garden lover’s eye and a poet’s imagination, and it is a delicious treat to watch her exercise them on this group of gardens. She makes a fascinating and unpredictable virtual garden companion, always drawing your attention to some unexpected detail, or taking some half-told story, exploring it and breaking your heart with it. At the end I desperately wanted to set her onto my own favourite gardens and see what happens.

I read this book sometimes with a silly smile on my face, sometimes gripped and anxious, often with a tingle running down my spine. Sarah’s poetry has always moved me, and now she writes about my favourite subject, gardens. How lucky we gardeners are to have her in our midst. This could not be a lovelier book.”

From Victoria Field, author of The Lost Boys:

“Sarah Salway’s new collection is an original and engaging take on a perennial theme – pun intended! Gardens have occupied the imaginations of poets for generations, from Hafiz writing in ancient Persia to Rudyard Kipling declaring that ‘All England is a garden’. In moving, engaging and often surprising reflections, Sarah Salway takes the reader on a tour of the Garden of England, introducing us to the stories of Kent’s astonishing variety of well-known and tucked-away gardens. As we’d expect from this widely praised and published writer, her prose is expansive and generous and the poems distilled and precise. As a bonus, both are illustrated by Sarah Salway’s own photographs. This is a book to treasure and to carry on summer picnics to these captivating and ever-changing oases – a worthy paean to gardens and the gardeners who created them.”

From Patricia Debney, author of Littoral and How to Be a Dragonfly:

This remarkable creation – part guided tour, part literary and history essay, part poetry – is rich testament to Salway’s entirely passionate and insightful observations as a writer and self-confessed, lifelong biophilic.

In Digging Up Paradise, Salway charts interior and exterior journeys as she travels through Kent’s gardens. From Margate Shell Grotto to Sissinghurst Castle, we travel with her via an eclectic mixture of photos, journal entries, and exquisite poems, often to our own real and remembered gardens, and the people in them. This book surprises and delights us with what we never knew, or knew and had forgotten, reconnecting us with our own public and private spaces. With characteristic lightness of touch and lively enquiry, Salway explores our relationships with the natural world: how we live and create in it, and how it lives and breathes in us.

From Viccy Adams, Writer and Literary Artist:

“In Digging up Paradise Sarah Salway has drawn thoughtful and imaginative pathways for the reader through the horticultural persons, places and histories of Kent. Through an arboretum of writing these spaces come alive on the page, providing a moment of instant verdant escape for the committed armchair traveller.

Part-travelogue, part-poetry collection, part-guide-book, Digging up Paradise moves from landscaped castle grounds to shell grottoes, from desolate public parks to topiaried views, gathering creative seeds and espaliering the stories so that a sense of each place can be quickly understood and enjoyed. Reading this book has inspired me to take my own notebook out into my local green patches, and left me with hopeful plans to visit the Garden of England that these ‘cuttings’ make sound so enticing.”


The book is coming out in May, and there are plans for walks, workshops and readings. Information will be on this website, but do let me know if you’d like to be on the Digging Up Paradise mailing list I’m keeping too. There will be special ‘mailing lists’ events…

Do also let me know if you would like a review copy of the book or want to talk to me about readings, events or garden poems.

‘Loveliest’ Leeds Castle


Leeds Castle – in Kent, not Yorkshire as some people apparently think – is justly proud of Lord Conway’s comment that it is the ‘loveliest castle in the whole world’. It’s origin dates from 1119, and has been the home to six queens – Eleanor of Castile, Margaret of France, Isabella of France, Anne of Bohemia, Joan of Navarre, Catherine de Valois. Another queen, Catherine of Aragon was a regular visitor.

‘…among the waters on an autumnal evening when the bracken is golden and there is a faint blue mist among the trees…’ Lord Conway also says.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that water paid such a large part in my visit to Leeds Castle, not just because of the water features in the park but because it seems to have done little else but rain recently. The weather has its advantages though. The parklands around the castle glistened and glowed, like a teenager tossing back freshly washed shiny shiny long hair.

And the sounds. Rushing and tapping and gurgling and … honking.

Forget the famous queens, it seemed to me that it’s the waterbirds that rule Leeds Castle today. I tried to walk sternly past them, but the couple behind me screamed and threw all the food they had purchased at the entrance just to make a getaway. These geese meant business.

Given their very obvious sense of entitlement, I wasn’t surprised to learn that birds are a deliberate feature in the garden. The most recent ‘lady’ of Leeds Castle was Olive, Lady Baillie, who left the castle to the Leeds Castle Foundation when she died in 1974. She loved birds of all kinds, and developed part of the parkland as an ideal environment for waterfowl. She also introduced the black swan, the symbol of the castle, to the United Kingdom, importing them from Australia.

She seems like quite a woman. During her time at Leeds Castle, it was a centre of parties and innovation. She built the first wave swimming pool in the grounds, turned the gatehouse into a squash court (now a dog collar museum!), and a cinema in the Maiden’s Tower. Not surprisingly, it became the place to visit, and as I walked round, I tried to picture some of the guests over the years here… Noel Coward, Errol Flynn, Edward and Mrs Simpson, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, and David Niven who would apparently desert his fellow guests to play cards with the servants. I bet they made a few trips down to the wine cellar too.

But during the second world war, like many grand houses, the castle opened itself up to other ‘guests’. It was used for secret meetings with senior military figures, but continuing the female theme, was mostly a centre for the VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachments). Then, as a military hospital and convalescent home for airmen, when during the Battle of Britain some arrived still harnessed to their parachutes.

Here’s a statue of Florence Nightingale, still looking after the castle in memory of that time.
lc florence

But it was another group of visitors I was interested in, the so-called ‘guinea pigs’ – war burns survivors who had been treated by the pioneering plastic surgeon, Sir Archibald McIndoe, at nearby East Grinstead. I think this British Pathe News clip below must have been taken at the Queen Victoria Hospital although records show that reunions were held at Leeds Castle too.


It is a coincidence obviously that, although much of the original furniture remains, there are so few mirrors in the castle. Instead every room I entered, every corridor I walked down, had windows which drew you to look out to the parkland beyond.

And even inside to another view of the castle.
lcinternal indows

These are from the ‘Gloriette’ where the Royal Rooms are. Gloriette is a Spanish term for a Moorish garden building, and indeed there was a Spanish feel to this part of the building. Maybe an influence from Eleanor of Castile?

In my mind, I followed their progress through the castle and into the library. I do hope one of them sat and read their way through these very British selection of books..
lc books

Or perhaps they got down the oldest book in the collection, Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, printed in 1638… look, the guide got it down for me to see! Sir Philip Sidney was, of course, the owner of nearby Penshurst Place. Perhaps it was a gift between neighbours.

It’s impossible, of course, to know what it must have been like for these men, getting used to their new faces and bodies in the loveliest castle in the world. I imagine the beauty must have helped.

And also a sense of durability, with trees such as this Cedar of Lebanon to rest against.
lc cedar leb

Later, I had a walk round the maze. On my own, thinking it would be easy. 2,400 yews, yes! Bring it on. A stroll in the park. I got lost at the first turn. And then again at the second. My heart started to pound like a cartoon character. I began searching for sticks and things I could wave over the top of the hedges because I wasn’t sure anyone had seen me go in. I tried to retrace my footsteps and got lost again.

I resorted to deep breathing. Tracking the footsteps in the mud to see which direction they were going.

And then just like that, I was out. And heading for the grotto as my treat. Two seconds later and I was cursing myself all over again for going in on my own. This is scary wonderful gothic stuff based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses…

And after that, I was ready for some light relief. Look, celebrities still come to Leeds:

Here’s the poem I wrote for the ‘Guinea pigs’ at Leeds Castle.


A work of art, the nurses call you,
the stitching on your cheek as fine
as tapestry. You’ll have me hanging
in the Gloriette
, you play the castle fool,
but the rough stones under your fingers
could be a self-portrait, your hand a brush
paused on your chin before you remember why
the castle’s windows are angled for defence:
it’s important to keep looking out,
You head to the mirrored lake, reflections
are a maze you tiptoe through to reach
the heart, each glance becomes a needle
until finally you’re sewing a new picture.

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


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.


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.


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


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.


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


The pub wasn’t as bad as advertised either.


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.


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


Just look at it!


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.


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.


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


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.

philip sidney

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


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.


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…


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


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


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


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…


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


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


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


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.


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


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


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…


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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…


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


… 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.


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


… and then there is the sentimental side…


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…


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???


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.


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.


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.


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.

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