Thursday, 28 August 2008

Sissinghurst Castle

I have wanted to visit Sissinghurst Castle for a long time. I first heard the name when I began reading about Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group. It was not until sometime later though that I realised that it had a fabulous garden and even then I was not really sure what it would be like. Despite only being a 20 minute drive down the road from where I live and being a member of the National Trust I have only just been to visit it this weekend.

My mum arrived at my house on Saturday morning in time for a quick coffee before we set off to find the castle. The drive down through the Kent countryside is very relaxing with stunning views of the Kent Downs. Sissinghurst village itself is very pretty, we were drawn to the antique shop but resisted and drove down the road to the castle that is just off the main road that runs through the village. It is a very narrow road with 6ft high hedges running along both sides so you have no idea what the castle looks like and it is only once you have parked the car and walked through a small wood that you actually see it.

What I hadn’t appreciated is that the castle is in fact a ruin of a once grand castle. When you first walk up to the castle you can see the tower poking up and you just assume that the rest of the castle is hidden by the building in front of you. It is only when you get through the main gate that you see that the tower is in fact standing on it’s own and there is no castle to be seen!

It has taken many different forms over the hundreds of years that it has been standing and there is quite a good summary here.

We started off by having lunch at the restaurant that is housed in a refurbished barn. The food was delicious, I loved the home made chutney that is made from vegetables that are grown in the garden. They are currently working on producing more home grown food at the site which is great. The windows of the restaurant, large wooden frames that blend into the scenery, allow you to enjoy the pretty view whilst staying in the warm as it was a bit overcast at this point.

I assured Mum that by the time we had finished our lunch the weather would have improved and sure enough, when we set off towards the garden the sun had come out.

For me, the real interest in the garden is the last family of occupants, Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicholson. I am fascinated by the Bloomsbury set and I have read about Sissinghurst Castle in Virgina Woolf’s diaries. The garden was developed by Vita and Harold and they were inspired by the gardener Gertrude Jekyll. It is set out into lots of different areas, each with its own theme and distinct planting scheme. Some areas are very formal, whilst others are much wilder and flowing. Moving around the garden you get a feel for the different themes that they were trying to achieve in the garden, but this becomes much clearer when you see the views from the tower. You can very clearly see the different areas of the garden and the blocks of colour really stand out.
The borders around the edge of the first part of the garden before the tower are absolutely full of plants in contrast to the delicate climbing roses on the wall of the library.

The grass is immaculate and I felt really bad walking across it and wanted to pick up the stray leaf that had blown onto it.
The tower itself is a wonderful part of the estate. Vita had her writing room up here and peering in through the door you can see a room full of books as well as her writing desk. The space where she wrote is surrounded by all sorts of little trinkets and large picture of her friend Virginia Woolf. Although the weather had improved there was still quite a breeze at the top of the tower, but what a place to go when you are lacking inspiration.

Having come down from the tower we wandered through into the wilder part of the garden. The grass has been allowed to grow long and there are bee hives dotted about amongst the fruit trees. The original moat of the castle still exists and I think it would be wonderful to row a boat along it on a cool summer evening.

The pavilion at the corner of the garden was built in memory of Harold Nicholson by his sons in 1969 following his death in 1968. From the garden it doesn’t look very impressive, but from the footpath on the edge of the garden you can take a peek inside. Following the moat round you are brought to the more formal area of the garden. This pot here really needed to be taken with a person in the picture, as it was huge, about 4ft tall!

There is certainly plenty of room here for oversized pots without them detracting from the rest of the garden. Winding back down through we found ourselves in the hot garden which also has a cottage in it (which you can see from the top of the tower).

I would be quite happy with a house and garden this size and it really demonstrates how big the estate is that this is just one small part of it. I loved the colour of this pot and the contrast with the orange and green of Osteospermum in it.

The garden really does live up to it’s name as all of the plants in it are deep fiery red and orange colours with touches of pink and yellow too. I would love to see this garden in the winter to see if it still has that warm feeling.
We headed back towards the moat and I was pleased to find some borders that were more on my scale. These borders ran the length of the wall and I could see the remains of the alliums that had been planted there. It is about the same width as my borders and I think I will be planting some of this in my garden.

We finished up in the white garden where we spotted this perfectly coloured little white butterfly. The seperation of the gardens by colour really helps to make distinct areas, but the style of planting is also very different. In the white garden the planting is quite informal but each bed is divided up by a very rigid box hedge.

I felt that the garden was almost too big, I was ready for a cup of tea and piece of cake at the restaurant by the time we had walked around. It is definitely one to visit again and again so that you can see how it changes throughout the year and really get to know the different gardens. I don’t know what it would be like to live with. Obviously you would have to have a whole team of people maintaining the site, but I think I would prefer something more on the scale of Charleston. You can very easily get lost at Sissinghurst, and you could spend your whole day not seeing anyone if you wandered off to a quiet part of the garden. I did however get lots of inspiration from the garden and there are several things that I would like to try in my own garden, even if it is on a smaller scale.

One of the unexpected highlights of the day for me was in an exhibition about the history of the castle that we popped into just as we were leaving. In a room about Vita’s friendship with Virginia Woolf there was on display THE “Hogarth Press” (pictured above) that Virginia and Leonard Woolf had used to print some of their early books at Hogarth House in London. Virginia had given it to Vita as a present in 1930. I had seen the printing press when we went into the room, but it was only when I read the information on the wall that it all became clear. I hadn’t quite appreciated that Virginia and Leonard had printed books by hand, page by page, setting the type for each page by hand.

I really enjoyed my day out at Sissinghurst and as I have just renewed my National Trust membership I will be visiting it again soon

Monday, 18 August 2008

Whitstable - A Visit To The Seaside

My Mum and I took my very French cousin William and his very French friend Kevin (Not such a French name) on a very English seaside trip to Whitstable. We had packed a picnic and despite the weather being a little overcast, windy and about to rain we put down the picnic rug and carried on regardless. I'm not sure what Kevin and William made of all of this, but they did seem to be rather relieved when we retreated to the car for a cup of tea and home-made flapjack. I had been to Whitstable a couple of time before, but only to the beach, so I had not really explored the rest of the town. I really love a trip to the seaside, but what I love about Whitstable is that it has retained to many of the old features and whilst it does have lots of "mod cons" the high street still has a unique character and has not been turned into the generic high street that so many towns now have.

After our tea and flapjack, we set off to explore the harbour which is still very much a working harbour.

There were posters up campaigning to keep the harbour as a place of work and not to turn it into a shopping district. There were several beach hut style buildings that looked like they housed craft shops, but as we were there on a week day they were not open. I am a vegetarian and do not eat fish, but I think it is important to keep local industries working. Many of the restaurants advertise the fish on their menu as having come from straight from the sea, fresh and local. And whilst I don't eat it myself, I bet it tastes so much better than something that has been sat in a freezer for a few weeks.
So with none of us sampling the local catch, Kevin didn't like that look of the cockles, we headed off to the high street.

It is very exciting to wander up the high street, many of the shop fronts have kept their original features but inside are all sorts of wonderful shops.

The ice cream parlour, Sundae Sundae... a Seaside Store, is a real treasure trove. Selling local handmade ice cream, it also has lots of souvenirs that look back to the days when people used to go on holiday to the seaside. I bought some 1950's inspired liquorice allsorts napkins. Another shop selling lots of lovely things, bags, tea towels and books had a lovely garden at the back. None of these shops had very much room, but every last little space was filled with something pretty and interesting to look at.

We continued up the high street, through to the Horseybridge arts centre which hosts a whole variety of things and back onto the beach where we saw this pile of crates.

It is actually an oyster shell recycling point!
Whistable really does seem to be proof that trade and tourism can live and work side by side, with a bit of recycling thrown in for good measure. I'm sure I will be back there again and again...

Sunday, 20 July 2008

The Chelsea Physic Garden

A few weeks ago I visited the Chelsea Physic garden with my Mum. I had bought her a membership to the garden for her birthday but did not have any idea what the garden was. So I took a day off work mid week and we met in London

The garden is a short walk from the busy shopping street of The Kings Road. On the way you pass some lovely old houses, all beautifully maintained with painted railings and window boxes full of flowers. The garden is surrounded by large walls on all sides and the entrance is through a small gate off a little side street. As you step into the garden you suddenly forget that you are in London.

The garden was founded in 1673 as a garden for apothecaries to train their aprentices in identifying different species of plant. Over the years it has been taken over by various people and many different varieties of plant have been brought here from all over the world. You can read more about it's history here...

We started off by having lunch from the small cafe that they have. It was a refreshing experience as the cafe is not at all commercial. There is a table at the end of a room where there are various salads, quiches and cakes laid out for you to choose from as well as homemade lemonade. I had a delicious goats cheese quiche with a sundried tomato base. I think I will be trying to replicate this myself as it was really rather good. There are tables outside so we were able to have our lunch whilst looking out into the garden.

The garden is divided up into different areas that are home to different types of plant; Pharmaceutical Beds, Systematic Order Beds Dicotyledons, Systematic Order Beds Monocotyledons etc. When you go into the garden you are given a "Points of Interest" sheet with information that is relevant to that month. It is definately a garden to go to throughout the year and see how it changes with the different seasons.

We set off into the Tropical Corridor and Glasshouses to start with as it was just starting to rain. The heat of these is the first thing that hits you, and then you can apreciate the detail of the houses. They are probably of victorian era, wooden doors with detailed brass handles, and great big brass levers for opening the air vents. (I stupidly didn't take my camera so I will just have to visit again to take some more pictures)

The Pharmaceutical beds are fascinating as I had just not apreciated how many plants have some sort of medicinal property. Close to these beds is the fibre bed which has a collection of plants that are used to make rope and textiles. It is surrounded by the ropes and has an explanation of where each one is used. It is funny to see the plant where the ropes come as it is not obvious from looking at the plants what they would be used for.

The most fascinating area for me was the Cool Fernery. It was similar in construction to the glasshouse. but it was in the shade, cool and just had different varieties of ferns in it. Mum said that she has a fern that she can give me, so I will have to find a suitable place in the garden for it. There was also a Wardian case in the cool fernery. It is a simple idea, it is like a mini green house and you don't need to water the plants as the closed environment keeps it moist. I have a large glass sweet jar that I am going to try to make into a Wardian case.

The great thing about the garden is that it is a working garden and on show all year round, so it is not comeplly neat and tidy. It has also got me interested in the academic side of gardening. I love the sound of Systematic Order Beds Dicotyledons, but I do not really know what this means, and I am hopeless with the latin names of plants. I think I will try to learn more about this over the coming months. The other thing that I loved was that no matter how large or small a plant was, almost all of the potted plants were in terracotta pots, not plastic here.

I really enjoyed my visit, and I think that The Chelsea Physic Garden is possibly my favourite place in London. I am going to become a friend of the garden and visit it as much as I can.

My Own Garden

My own garden is really starting to come along and I feel that I am getting more confidence. It has managed to recover from the arrival of the chickens last year, who as lovely as they are, can really cause a lot of damage in a very short time if they are not watched.

My borders are quite poor this year and I have had a real problem with slugs, but I have (so far) been a lot more successful with my vegetable growing. I am starting be able to enjoy going out into the garden and picking things to take inside to eat.

This was my haul the other evening

Tiny but certainly moving in the right direction. The strawberries were delicious and I have been able to have a small vase of sweet pea for several weeks now. I have had a couple of courgettes too and the tomatoes and potatoes are thriving. I am not quite ready to live from my own produce (I think I would be rather hungry) but it is one, all be it small, step closer.

So much of gardening ins unknown, how will a plant work in your soil, will the slugs or the chickens destroy it. But when it does work there is something quite magical about seeing a flower, fruit or vegetable that you have nurtured from seed grow and mature.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

A Room of One's Own

Last Autumn I went on a Bloomsbury tour of Sussex and visited the country houses of the Stephen sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. Monks House in Rodmell was Virginia's house. It is a small, understated cottage with a large garden that stretches out into the Sussex downs where Virginia used to go on regular walks. It is owned by The National Trust, but is lived in by a couple who occupy the upstairs rooms but have left the downstairs areas as Leonard and Virginia would have had them. Monks House was very much a retreat from London for the Woolf's, especially in the late 1930's when London was in the middle of the blitz. It may have been safer to be in the countryside, but it was very much at the centre of the conflict, with The Battle of Britain being fought in the skies above.

My favourite part of the house and gardens was Virginia's writing room, which is a small shed at the bottom of the garden containing a desk, chair and a few simple items.

Just behind the writing shed are the huge vegetable patches that are bigger than my entire garden.
I really enjoyed visiting Monk's House because it is was where Virginia Woolf had lived and written some of her novels from. Virginia Woolf is one of my favourite writers, but I only began to enjoy reading her work after I had read about her life. I am fascinated by the connections between her life and her writing and I don't think that you can truly appreciate one without the other. Being able to see some of the places that she writes about in her diaries adds a whole new depth to reading them.

The visit to Charleston, Vanessa Bell's house, was very much an after thought. The trip itself was another mother/daughter outing and it was my mum who suggested that we call in at Charleston as well. It made sense as it was just down the road from Monk's House, they have a lovely cafe where we were able to have lunch and it was very much a central part of the Bloomsbury Group. I am really pleased that we did this as it is the most beautiful farmhouse and it has been preserved just as Vanessa left it, so it is full of all of the art work she did. Each of the rooms of the house has been decorated by Vanessa, with bold patterns on the walls, doors and fireplaces and contain objects made by various of her artist friends.
My favourite room was Vanessa's bedroom which is connected to the studio (which is a brilliant, light space) as well as having two double doors that open out onto the garden.

And it really is a fantastic garden. It is much less formal than Monk's House and the borders are full to bursting with brightly coloured, scented flowers.

Vanessa took her artistic talents outside and there are little touches of her art all over the garden such as these tiles.

I can't decide which house I prefer because I liked them both, but for different reasons. I know that I would love to live in either of them and I took lots of photos and found it very inspiring for things to try in my garden.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

An English country garden

Whilst I really enjoy tackling my own garden, I also love visiting other people’s gardens for inspiration. In the last month I have been to several great places that I have really enjoyed and that have inspired me to try things in my own garden. Visiting gardens is something that I started to do with my mum a few years ago. It is a really lovely way to spend time together as we both appreciate the gardens and I can gain some knowledge by asking her questions. But we are also spending time together where we are not distracted by the hustle and bustle of day to day life.

We took my Mum’s friend Lee and her daughter Cathleen to Wyken Vineyards in Suffolk in May. Lee is American but regularly comes to the UK armed with a list of things she wants to do. She had been to the Vineyard some years ago on an organised tour, but the guide had only allowed her to have lunch there and not to see the garden. Needless to say this time she was not going to miss out on seeing them. It was the most perfect day. The weather was glorious, the sky was a really deep blue with not a cloud in the sky and it made the house in the vineyard, which is a deep terracotta colour, look even more stunning.

We had lunch at the cafĂ© before setting off into the vast four acres of gardens. It was interesting to see another mother/daughter pair enjoying the gardens and the four of us all agreed that we are lucky to be able to spend a wonderful day together. I also enjoyed seeing the different breeds of chickens they have roaming around. Since getting my girls I have become obsessed by all things chicken! This little cockerel was my favourite, I think he is a bantam. He tried to crow as loudly as the full size cockerels, he wasn’t as loud but he gave it his all!

Last Saturday was one of my favourite days of the year. A friend of my mum has a beautiful garden and for the last few years she has held a plant swap party. She invites all of her friends round and asks them to bring a plant that they have too much of, they can then wander around her garden (which is not open to the public), eat some home made cake and then at the end of the day everyone dives in to grab a plant or two to take home. It is a great garden and last year it won the Times back garden of the year competition! Despite not having anything to take, Sorrell insisted I went away with something so I have a strawberry plant, an artichoke and a geranium to add to my ever growing plot.

And as if that was not enough gardens for one weekend on Sunday I went to the Eye Open Gardens with my Mum and our friend Jess. The village of Eye in Suffolk is very picturesque and has managed to retain a really retro feel to it. This year the church and town hall had organised a weekend of open gardens to raise money for various repairs. We arrived at the town hall at 1:30, paid our entrance money and were handed a map of the town with the 18 open gardens marked. We set off to explore the gardens which were all beautifully numbered by the owners. The gardens we visited were a real mixture of planting styles and ideas. The first one we visited was very well thought out but also clearly loved by the owner. She was sitting in the garden ready to tell all the visitors about the gardens history and what inspired her.

We stopped half way through for tea and scones in the town hall, very 1950’s. The spread of sandwiches, scones and cakes was very impressive but as we were off to a tea party of our own we held back.

By the time we came to the next set of gardens the sun was blazing hot and we only made it through 9 of the 18 gardens on offer. We did manage to keep going until we got to the garden with the plant sale and I picked up a pot of purple sprouting broccoli. Jess and I even managed to get our picture taken by a reporter from the Diss Express. He thought that a picture of us taking pictures of the plants was an interesting angle to go with. You can see it here picture number 8DE0608042

At the back of the garden with the plant sale is the Eye allotments which are just wonderful. If I could live in a village like this I would be very happy. All in all a thoroughly enjoyable weekend.

Strawberries and cream

I have had my first crop of strawberries from the garden. Well, I say crop there was actually only three but they taste delicious. It is so satisfying to grow a plant, water and look after it and then be able to enjoy the produce.

I have been cooking with my home-grown basil and the flavour is just so much better than anything you can buy in the shops.

I feel like this is my first step to growing the majority of my own food. The other plants I have seem to be doing well. Some little courgettes have emerged, the tomato plants are flowering and the potatoes in bags look from the surface like they are doing well. I haven't grown potatoes before so I am not really sure what they are supposed to look like.

The onions have not done so well, but this is mostly due to me not being able to stop Mabel the chicken from jumping into the bed and digging them up. It is great having chickens in the garden, they are lovely creatures and there is nothing quite like a freshly laid egg for breakfast. Their poo is great for the compost and they help to keep the weeds down but they love to dig. Trying to keep them off my plants is a full time job and if they are not digging they are nibbling the leaves or tipping over flower pots. Naughty chickens... but oh so lovely!

I was so excited about the strawberries that I forgot to take a photo of them

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

The Day of the Triffids

I am attempting to grow some of my own veg this year. I have had a go in the past with mixed results but it is a really fun thing to do and if you do manage to grow something it tastes so much better than shop bought veg.

I have taken some pictures of my courgettes which are the most fascinating plant to watch grow. They seem to grow several centimetres a day and when they get a bit bigger look like something from Day Of The Triffids.

My garden isn't really big enough to have a proper vegetable patch so I am having to squeeze things in where I can find space. I am also making a raised bed to grow onions in, as these are set (excuse the pun) to have one of the biggest increases in price this year. I think my biggest challenge will be trying to keep the chickens away from all of the young plants, as even a few seconds munching from them can destroy a whole batch of seedlings. They do have their uses though, I am hoping that they will keep the slug and snail population down. I don't want to use any chemicals in the garden and I don't much like the idea of the various traps that you can use as you end up with dead gooey slugs. The chickens are a much cleaner way of dealing with them and they thoroughly enjoy it too!

It is really good fun to find a plant that you can grown in your own back garden and then be able to take it inside and eat it for lunch. Another step on the road to self-sufficiency... This weekend I am going to try to make my own butter.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Irish Soda Bread - Attempt No. 3

Visiting relatives in N. Ireland every year meant regular trips to the local bakeries. A NI bakery is very different to an English one in many ways. For a start, people still go to the bakery (and the butcher and the greengrocer) as it is only in the last 10 years that the big supermarkets have really established themselves there. When you get there you have the most amazing choice of breads and cakes. Wheaten bread, soda bread, wheaten soda, treacle soda, cherry scones, fruit scones, Paris buns, barnbrack… and the conversation from behind the counter is very friendly. You are also likely to find that some breads are only baked on certain days (which meant tracking down Paris buns when I was last there very tricky)

Every time I went to visit I would always leave a space in my suitcase to bring home a selection of baked goods to stash in the freezer, even thought they taste best fresh, the day you buy them. I have fond memories of arriving home after a stay in NI and getting out some cherry scones that I had bought that morning and eating them with a cup of tea. I would reluctantly share them with the rest of the family

The bakeries in England jut don’t compare, so I have had a go at making some of these myself. My cherry scones are not bad and the picture is my third attempt soda bread. It is made with buttermilk and bicarbonate of soda instead of yeast and had a delicious sweet taste. It can either be cooked in an oven like normal bread or pressed flat and cooked on a griddle. It is really good toasted with a little raspberry jam, but somehow my effort just doesn’t taste as good. I am almost out of my frozen supplier from my last trip so I will have to make a trip over there soon

Sunday, 17 February 2008

I'll put the kettle on...

I visited my grandparents for lunch yesterday. It is one of my favourite things to do. They lived in Northern Ireland when I was growing up so I would only see them once or twice a year. A few years ago they moved to a bungalow near to my parents which means that I can pop in and see them more regularly. I love the familiarity of being there. I always have a cup of tea in my brown mug, there are ornaments there that moved with them from their old house. But most of all I love chatting to them about the past. Where they lived when they were younger and members of my family who I never met. I found out yesterday that an uncle of my Grandmothers died during the first world war. I know a lot about my Great-Grandfather's time during the war but know very little about the family of my Grandmother's side of the family. I will have to start to research that too...

Friday, 15 February 2008

Two pints please...

We had our first delivery of bottled milk today. It was really exciting to open the front door at 6:50am and see two pints of milk waiting for me on the doorstep. I checked that the milkman delivered early as we both go to work before 9am but before 7am is very impressive.

This is another small step towards using the supermarkets less frequently. My new year’s resolution is to stop using the big supermarkets to do all of my shopping and use local shops and online retailers. I feel very strongly that the supermarkets have really taken over and the food that they are providing is having a damaging effect on both our local communities and the environment, not to mention our perception of what real food is actually like! My aim is that by the end of the year I do not have to go to the large supermarkets for anything, that as much of my food as possible is locally sourced, and that buying it is no more expensive or less convienient than going to a supermarket. With all the recent programmes about chicken rearing and where our food comes from I have become more aware of just how controlling the supermarkets are. I already keep two lovely chickens, Mabel and Luci, and their eggs are absolutely delicious. They are made all the more tasty by the fact that I know that my chickens have a lovely life and are very well looked after.

So all in all I am very excited about having milk delivered to my door. It is slightly more expensive than buying it from the shop, but the big bonus is that it is in glass bottles which are re-used, so less plastic recyling for me and less plastic in a landfill! It is also supporting a local dairy and my milkmans livelihood. I will have to get up a bit earlier if I want to meet him though…