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.


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.

Chelsea Fringe – London Garden No 10

Five Minutes Peace: a garden to sit in, a poem to read, and a prompt to write to … No 10. (Find out more about what this is all about here.)



The brainchild of landscape designer, Marian Boswall, the Poetry Pop Up Garden is a welcome addition to the Chelsea Fringe. I was lucky enough to read on it yesterday in the grounds of Canterbury Cathedral as part of the Chelsea Fringe in Kent, and the NGS Open Gardens Scheme. And look …. we had actual sun.


Together with Patricia Debney and two Foyle Young Poets, Dillon Leet and Flora de Falbe, we shared our own poems as well as our favourite garden poems.


And in between readings, we wrote our own collaborative poem which we read out together later… a real buzz!


Here it is as today’s poem: I’m calling it Mixed Border because we wrote it line by line like the old-fashioned game of consequences…


The trees are getting hungry again,

chlorophylls crowd to the leaves’ tips

to devour a flash of sunlight

that trips like tongues through broken clouds,

pours like slow sand through water

and all the healing words, like flotsam

in the static of air that withstands the wind,

crowd with laughter and rhyme.


Grown from stone, stuck between sexes,

the statue watches trains swerve by its gate,

and I wonder will we ever recover?

Today we’re a landscape that doesn’t fit,

a shelf of sun in a mid-May shower

that I’ll keep in amber come December,

and forever, I imagine, thereafter.


Some flowers only open every century

like my heart, full of petals.

I’m counting out: He loves me

not. He (thirty-three)… he loves me not.

They say daisies in love are genetic mutations,

sometimes we all need extra petals

and a green travel chest to keep locked.


Here I remember that afternoon:

the constant tolling of the bells

wafts through sun-drugged air

that blows the commas off my page like pollen

like the dust which floats anywhere.

To create a garden is to write a love story –

lines that twine up balconies, bind trees

at the limbs, the roots.

We dedicated the poem to Marian as a thank you for making us such a beautiful garden to work in.


The Pop Up Poetry Garden will be at Canterbury Cathedral again today (Sunday) with special poets Jo Hemmant and Abegail Morley taking the stage, and then travels to London on Tuesday to be in the Potters Bar Garden (right next to the Mayor of London’s office). The excellent Emer Gillespie will be taking the stage there, together with special guests… Wouldn’t it be something if Boris nipped out of his office to read a poem or two? You can find out more here.