Searching for silence in The Phoenix Garden

I’ve found a new favourite spot to read and think.

Beautiful, eh? A haven of peace, probably miles away from anywhere noisy or busy? Well, no. The Phoenix Garden is a minute off London’s Charing Cross Road and just two minutes away from Tottenham Court Road. Best of all, it’s right opposite Foyle’s Bookshop, so a perfect place to take a newly discovered book too, and just read. Even the benches feel like poetry.

If you look closely, you can see the buildings surrounding it on all sides. But they feel more like walls than intrusions.

 

But despite the numbers of other people here, it still felt as if I got a corner all to myself. Perhaps that’s because of the number of people reading, writing and even meditating – a full crossed legged closed eyes pose that I didn’t want to spoil by taking a picture of. Shh… you can picture it though, can’t you?

And like so often happens, I found myself reading the perfect paragraph. I’d shut my book – Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal – to see if I could really hear birds this close to central London. Yes, I could. When I went back to my book, I found this description – how grown men remembered their childhoods when they heard the birds sing. I loved how I got the shadow of the trees over the page too.

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If you’re in London this weekend, you can even go to their 8th Agricultural Show, with a WI cake stand, London Pride Morris dancers, beekeepers and a brass band. Maybe it won’t be quite so peaceful. IMG_6855

The Phoenix Garden is Covent Garden’s last remaining community garden. It was created and is still maintained by volunteers. It’s an extraordinary project. f you want to donate to help keep it up, you can find out more or become a friend for only £12 a year here.

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Fancy a London garden mooch?

There are some beautiful, interesting, inspiring, almost secret gardens in London. I did a virtual tour of them a couple of years ago for the Chelsea Fringe, and although some may be out of date now,  you can find the full list here

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Five I would particularly recommend, and which are a little bit different, though are:

Flowers in the Fish Factory

On a recent holiday to Sweden, we were lucky enough to stay in a unique bed and breakfast at Edshultshall on Western Sweden’s wild coast. Ladfabriken (as the name suggests) has been lovingly converted from an old fish factory, and the owners, Johan and Marcel, have a unique sense of style and are such generous hosts to make this a really wonderful experience.

Not least because of the garden. It was no surprise to find a copy of Derek Jarman’s Garden in the house, because Johan and Marcel have created a garden by the sea too. Just look at this lushness…

 

There are flowers everywhere – even on the breakfast table…

 

And most of all the sea and rocks at the end of the garden… seen through a prism of flowers…

Here’s a poem I wrote at Ladfrabriken, sitting in the little yellow room looking over the garden:

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We made our boat of rose petals,
wove lavender into oars, covered
thorns with lichen, stuffed black
violas in the gaps, and at night,
we held up pink peonies to light
our way safely back to shore.

And now, every time we pick a posy
we smell seasalt, see petals
shining like fish scales.
We feel the high wind brushing
our cheeks and we know that,
though we could sail anywhere,
the garden’s where we put down roots.

A garden and a library….

That’s all you need, according to Cicero, and I’ve just had a joyful residency in both! The Women’s Library at Compton Verney to be precise, looking out at grounds laid out by Capability Brown.

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The project was part of Spreadsheets and Moxie, a year of research and development into professionalism in the arts for women writers which I’m carrying out with fellow writer, Viccy Adams, and which is supported by Arts Council England. We first went to Compton Verney for this back in January, but this month I went back alone for a very good reason – the arrival of Viccy’s beautiful baby, Archer.

I wasn’t really alone though, because of the number of wonderful visitors to the Women’s Library who I cornered to ask for the one book they might recommend – written by a woman. From top left, working clockwise we have – I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach, One Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler and The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. And then there were the recommendations left in our #100Women100Books visitors book.

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The residency was part of the overall year of research and development into professionalism in the arts, Spreadsheets and Moxie, Viccy and I have been working on, and which is supported by Arts Council England. For this, we devised a model project – #100Women100Books – specially for Compton Verney’s Women’s Library. We asked 100 women in our lives, from toddlers to the over-eighties, what book they would recommend to other women now, and why. The resulting list – A Women’s Library for the 21st Century – can be found and downloaded from our website here. It’s fascinating reading, and we’re so pleased how many people are already downloading it. Do let us know if you do, and also leave us YOUR recommendation. You can follow us on Facebook too, or on Twitter using the #100Women100Books hashtag.

The project fitted in well with the Compton Verney Women’s Library too, which has just undergone a splendid restoration, as part of the Unsilencing the Library project. It’s really worth a visit, virtually via their website or in real life! When Viccy and I visited back in January it was a strange experience not least because there were no books. There were bookspines however (above) – a ‘false library’ of what books would have been recommended for women in the 19th century when Georgiana Verney, wife of the reclusive 17th Lord Willoughby de Broke was thought to have created it. She was an enthusiastic champion of women’s education, reading and suffrage, so it was lovely to sit writing in the library and feel her presence. And also to be with other readers, as the Unsilencing the Library team asked different individuals and groups what books they would like to see in the library. There was Emma Watson’s shelf:

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Margo Jefferson’s shelf:IMG_6309

And The Prison Reading Groups selection (I loved the wide range here):IMG_6305 2

Amongst others. And of course, outside the library there were the grounds. Can you imagine the bliss of sitting in this chair, looking up from a book and seeing this view?

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So a last shout out to Gary Webb, who is in charge of Capability Brown’s vision now at Compton Verney. Here he is standing on Capability Brown’s bridge, with the house behind.IMG_6296

And here’s the poem I wrote for #100Women100Books with lines taken from the reasons people gave for picking their own book, and collaging it into just one book!

This book

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…

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But let’s go below again…

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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’…

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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…

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“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

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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.

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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…

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…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.

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

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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.