Time travelling down tunnels with HG Wells at Uppark House

IMG_3933See this photograph… not really a garden, I admit, but it’s the part of the tunnel that leads from the main house at Uppark to the servants quarters, designed so they wouldn’t be seen or heard.

Here’s what’s above…


But let’s go below again…


Because this is the tunnel that the writer H G Wells would have gone down to visit his mother Sarah Wells, who was housekeeper here from 1990 to 1893. Impossible to know this and wonder if it wasn’t an inspiration for time travel. His book The Time Machcine features after all, the savage Morlocks who live underground and Eloi above. Here’s the slightly wider view from the ‘upper levels’…


And then there’s the famous Doll’s House of which HG Wells said:  “.…went to the great dolls’ house…I played under imperious direction with that toy of glory.”

I can’t imagine a more potent example – the tunnels and the dolls house – of teaching a writer to create new worlds. Until I read in the guidebook how he was given free run of the library and the attic, ‘where he unearthed the elements of a telescope, which he carefully put back together.’ OF COURSE HE DID!

Here are some pictures showing the alternative world that would have been run by his mother, Sarah Wells, underground…


“We all have our time machines, don’t we. Those that take us back are memories…And those that carry us forward, are dreams.” HG Wells


Nine bean-rows, friends and a poetry exchange

I am lucky enough to be involved with the Poetry Exchange, an organisation which pops up in interesting places and asks people to nominate what poems they consider as friends.

It’s a fascinating question – not your favourite poem, or even a poem that you love – but what kind of friend is this poem to you? The conversations are fascinating too – and of course I always prick up my ears a little more when they turn to gardens. Recently John and I discussed Ithica with a perfumier who considered it an adventurous friend – partly inspired by it, he was sure, he’d created a perfume based on a garden at Pompeii.

Luckily, some of the conversations are podcasts now so we can all listen in. Here’s one I took part of which made me look at Yeat’s beautiful poem, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, again, and inspired its ‘friend’ Martin to think about creating a special garden. Here’s the podcast: (I’m hoping this embedded link works like magic, but it’s looking a bit gobbledygook to me so if not, click here, it’s episode 8!)

You can subscribe to the Poetry Exchange podcasts here, and here’s the poem Martin discussed. I’d also love to know what poem you’d consider a friend, and why!

The Lake Isle of Innisfree
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Scientists in the Garden of Love – Bologna


The Bologna Botanic Garden or Orto Botanico (like everything, it sounds better in Italian) has been a centre for botanical research since the 16th century when the University of Bologna was one of the main centres of botanical research.

bologna mapIMG_4365

It’s not big, just over two hectares, and a slope at the end is formed by the city walls. However, despite its relaxed feeling…


…and both tourists and locals obviously using it for relaxation (even if not on the flower pot benches), it retains its educational focus.

Even the carnivorous plants (excitingly caged in) were being studied by someone with a clipboard when we visited. He didn’t get eaten.


So it felt appropriate, and curiously beautiful, to suddenly come across these two women in white coats gathering specimens from the garden.


Here’s a poem for them…

Scientists in the Garden of Love

There needs to be proper proof:
to dismiss first of all the negatives,

the grandmother making daisy chains
won’t do, she’s biologically programmed

to protect her young, that baby laughing
up at her needs her affection, their smiles

are pure self-interest; the group of teenagers,
– a boy at the centre, standing on a log,

and at the edge, another boy laughing
at a joke only those two will find funny –

it’s hormonal. Even the middle aged couple
reading on the bench, his hand raised

to stroke her hair, are both just facing
their fears of getting older. Move on,

because at last here is our evidence:
those two kissing, see where

they have placed themselves
right by the carnivorous plants?

Yes, their love is not just about growing,
but in how much they have to lose.

NB The garden is also home to the world famous Herbarium. This holds 100,000 botanical specimens dating from the 16th century onwards. A true treasure trove. You need to make an appointment to visit the Herbarium, although the gardens are open and free. More details here.

Spring, lorries, Sadlers Wells, champagne and soil

Spring came on a lorry last night


Or so it felt, as we walked through balmy unbowed London to see the English National Ballet’s triple bill at Sadlers Wells. We marvelled at the blossom, we stepped across streets to walk in the sun, and listened to kids playing outside in the squares again. And then there was this lorry waiting outside the theatre…. a ballet lorry!

It was a wonderful evening, but it was the third piece, Pina Bausch’s Le Sacre du printemps, an interpretation of Stravinsky’s work and an astonishing performance by the English National Ballet, that made every hair on my body stand on end. Much as spring itself does. The first sign that something special was happening was when they poured buckets and buckets of soil on the stage, and raked it almost as a performance. (I obviously didn’t take photos during the dancing, but I couldn’t resist one of this alternative ballet…)

Raking soil at Sadlers Wells

And because it’s the week when it felt important to keep on enjoying the simple beauty and optimism of a London that is as much about honey and selling so many different kinds of potatoes as it’s about politics…



… a week when I met a man who makes my favourite champagne (Taittinger, in case you happen to be passing), and when the tulips on my balcony have not quite burst into colour although I know they want to…


… and maybe because of all that, when I sat down with my journal, although none of this is really about a garden, this spring poem came out, and so I’m sharing it here.


Tell me, what does spring sound like?

Stravinsky, the five o’clock bird singing

with relief at the new day, a champagne cork

aimed as true as a young girl jumps into love’s arms,

and our gasps as she’s caught, again and again.


And does spring taste of flowers? Not yet,

it’s the sweetness of clean earth, the ache

of green, a twig shadowy as tobacco bursting

in your mouth with a flavour so clear

it’s like being born, feeling before knowing.


So you can feel it? Always. You’re twisted

into a bubble, a crystal champagne glass,

it’s the pad of a foot fresh pressed into soil,

the clench of a muscle, it’s running across a stage

so fast you’re flying, it’s being let go, held, let go.


But do you smell it? You turn the corner

and there it is, white and heavy, first

communion, first tickle of celebration, first

kiss you feel in your knees, the sweet sweat

on his neck as he holds you still, the surprise of that.


Will I see it, will I recognise it? Maybe not until

it’s too late, you can’t bear to look as a small girl

in a red dress reminds you of every false path

you did and didn’t take, and you hold your breath

until the soil is raked smooth, each year a new chance.



Crossing the bridge at Compton Verney


Compton Verney – writerinthegarden.com

When I say I love Lancelot Brown, I don’t mean it in the sense of ‘I deeply admire his work.’ No, I mean it in the same sense the teenage me wanted to faint every time I saw a photograph of Richard Gere.


Compton Verney – writerinthegarden.com

Yep, that bad.

But perhaps it explains why I almost couldn’t cross the bridge from the car park to Compton Verney when I arrived there for my writing residency with Viccy Adams. This wasn’t just a bridge, it was THE bridge Capability Brown built. Over the lake he designed, and there around me – OH GOD ALL AROUND ME – was his vision. And for the next two days, I was going to be ‘living’ in the house as if he’d designed the landscape all for me. Not just a quick visit, but I’d be able to look out of windows at different times of the day, see it in different lights, walk in it, get cuddled by it…


Compton Verney – writerinthegarden.com


Compton Verney – writerinthegarden.com


Compton Verney – writerinthegarden.com




But it was true. I’ve seen many Brown landscapes over the time, but I’m not sure I’d really got it in the way I did at Compton Verney. There were huge bits of landscaping – a derelict village cleared for this view…


Compton Verney – writerinthegarden.com

The chapel (marked by the obelisk)…


Compton Verney – writerinthegarden.com

…moved to behind the house so there was an unobstructed view of the lake from the windows…


Compton Verney – writerinthegarden.com

Some relics were moved the church…


… others remained…



Beautiful, personable, characterful trees….


Compton Verney – writerinthegarden.com

The bridges marking exactly the right points so the water seemed to go on forever…



The views in and out of the house…

So, in honour of being possibly his most fansydosy* fan, here’s a love poem to him… and first a quick video… it’s only a few minutes AND IT CONTAINS… no, I don’t want to spoil the surprise…


(*I don’t care if this is a word or not, it should be.)

Fresh Green Silence
Sarah Salway

Maybe like this: sunburnt hands
brown as earth or the bark of a tree,
stroking the neck of his horse,
sweat and mud flicking high
in air, as even then, cantering

into the courtyard, his mind as open
as the servants’ kitchen, where ale spills
over the oak table while he arranges
pots and pans as forests, skims off foam
from his tankard for a lake,

until later, upstairs, he unrolls
vellum plans, takes silky ladies
to the window. You must always,
he urges, embrace even disorder
with necessary order. Arms stretched

out in the offer of so many possibilities:
here the sound of rushing water
under a spinx lined bridge,
there there there, spaces between trees,
full stops in a constant conversation.

I will give you, he whispers to her hand,
fresh green silence, and it’s this
she holds on to, the rush of air
as he rides away and the very land
she walks on is transformed forever.

Have you seen….

I don’t want to lose you all forever, but I’m also aware I haven’t been here as much as I’d like to recently. I’ve been busy working on a novel, although I did get away recently for a writing residency at Compton Verney. More on that soon, but in the meantime, let me introduce you to five lovely inspirations who manage to keep their plots in better condition than mine…

1.The wonderful author and garden designer, Angelica Gray has just started a beautiful blog, Gardens and Other Stories. I’m so much looking forward to seeing where it goes – and joining her on other adventures.

2. I’d love this one for the name alone, but The Anxious Gardener  is full of joyful and useful posts too.

3. The Urban Veg Patch always teaches me something new. And often makes me laugh.

4. I’ve been reading Veg Plotting since I started my garden stories adventure. I think you will become addicted too!

5. With a clue in the name, the Middle-sized Garden bursts with ideas. I always come away with something new.

We wrote a poem on a leaf…

I’m just back from a glorious weekend teaching creative writing with Anna Robertshaw from Freestyle Yoga Project, who was teaching the yoga. Yoga and writing proved a perfect combination, or maybe that was the group who came. Or even the venue, glorious Tilton House, just up the road from the Bloomsbury set’s famous Charleston Farmhouse on the South Downs.


There’s a beautiful garden at Tilton, which Shaun and Polly, the owners, are gradually clearing in parts to show off more of the views. And best of all, a fairy light lit walk through the words to the yurt – we shared our sessions between the yurt and the library belonging to Tilton’s previous owner, John Maynard Keynes. I know, it’s a hard life! Here’s Anna, at the door of the our yurt.


I’d intended to do a writing exercise using the garden but it was raining that day, so instead, we collected leaves on the walk back from the yurt to the library, choosing them like children – precious treasure we might otherwise have walked over. Then in front of the log fire, we wrote haiku – not counting syllables though (sorry haiku writers) but working to combine image and emotion to catch a moment, a passing moment. We’d been talking about the concept of wabi sabi earlier – how time changed things into a different kind of beauty.


Then we wrote our poems with sharpies on leaves, pinning them over the fireplace like autumn decorations, or writing them on the logs to feed into the fire.


The joy was how each leaf dried in a different way over the next days – curling round our words like they were keeping a secret.

This was the original poem we used as inspiration, it is by the Russian Poet,  Yevgeny Yevtushenko. I love this poem, and somehow it seemed appropriate in the current news cycle (series of disasters).

I Hung a Poem on a Branch

I hung a poem
on a branch.
it resists the wind.
“Take it down,
don’t joke,”
you urge.
People pass.
Stare in surprise.
Here’s a tree
a poem.
Don’t argue now.
We have to go on.
“You don’t know it by heart!”…
That’s true,
but I’ll write a fresh poem for you tomorrow.
It is not worth being upset by such trifles!
A poem’s not too heavy for a branch.
I’ll write as many as you ask for,
as many poems
as there are trees!
How shall we get on in the future together?
Perhaps, we shall soon forget this?
if we have trouble on the way,
we’ll remember
that somewhere
bathed in light
a tree
is waving
a poem,
and smiling we’ll say
‘We have to go on.’ …


And of course, the next day, the sun shone… but we decided to let our poems gently disintegrate and took a silent walk up to the South Downs instead. Magic.