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.


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:


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?


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…


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.

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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…


…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, a spring poem came out.

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.