It’s easy to forget there is a beautiful world out there sometimes, especially if you live in a city where the seasons can sometimes pass you by.  Reuben and I had a few days in Pembrokeshire this Easter, visiting family, hanging out together and damming a few streams. It was a heavenly.
For me, spring time in West Wales is hard to beat if the weather is with you. The birds are going crazy. The sun is just warm enough to warrant only a jumper. Viewed from a distance the trees gives a pointillist impression of vivid green as the buds open and the flowers – the  bright yellow celandines, the pale lemon primroses and the pure white snowdrops – carpet the ground, drawing the eye to the low patches of colour, amongst the last of the winter leaves and new grass.
When we first moved to Wales, the land was surrounded on all four sides by rivers – the most substantial one being the Berian which gives the little hamlet up the road its name of Brynberian. I spent hours in this river as child. Swimming, fishing, skimming and generally lazing on its banks whilst watching the dippers and brown trout.
On the opposite boundary of our land was a smaller, rockier stream which we dammed to make a pool to allow our short-lived ducks a chance to swim in, before the fox decided to make a meal of them one day whilst my back was turned. A few years ago the council decided to return this dip of land between properties to its former purpose of a bridle way. They cleared away the rocks and stones and laid a drainage channel below ground to take away the surface water. The ground was levelled a little and the trees cut back. And now every now and then we hear the sound of hooves as we sit in the garden and see helmeted heads bobbing above the hedge row as riders and horses make their leisurely way past. I rather like it but I miss the water marigolds that used to the dot the way along the small stream.
I hope these brief moments in Reuben’s child hood will be enough to help him appreciate the beauty of nature and encourage him to seek it out for himself. You don’t find too many Scarlet Elf Cups in London.
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I’ve been looking through some old sketch books from back in the day when I began my garden design course and I found a piece I wrote on a visit to my parents home, one dreary Autumn day. It’s a long piece and I don’t expect many people to read it but I’m going to write it out here in its entirety anyway. This blog is dedicated to my Dad who died a month after the piece was written.

I’m standing in my parents’ garden in Pembrokeshire. It’s a mild October day, warm even but my shoes are wet from the long unmown grass. I breathe in sharply, tears welling and try to focus on the photo I am about to take of a dried globe artichoke head. I’ve always loved them. Dad uses them in his pottery show room, – the long stalks with their top-heavy  thistle-like heads, a startling bright purple, standing tall in his vases.

Dad has been diagnosed with cancer.

I look round the garden, remembering. The early days. Him rolling the huge boulders of stone out of the proposed vegetable patch, me, getting in the way but determined, aged ten, to help. The pigs we kept, who rotivated and fertilised the ground. Large Whites, their ears flopping over their small, shrewd eyes. Summer evenings, sat here with a book, eating fresh peas and carrots. The runner beans entwined with sweet peas, in a leafy embrace.

I started a garden design course in London this September, just as Dad went into hospital and I’m missing a week of college but I just had to be here. I needed to see him. He’s home from hospital at the moment and earlier I peeped into the sitting room. He and Mum were in their respective chairs, both fast asleep, heads lolling, afternoon golf on the TV. Their vulnerability as they slept caught at my heart and I’ve retreated to the garden to weep and to collect myself.

The garden was and is my sanctuary, my familiar place. It’s still beautiful, even at this time of the year, slowly collapsing in on itself with the autumn decay. I love the private feel of the land, the trees which line the boundaries – huge copper beech, oak, sycamore, rowan and ash. The remnants of the summer garden are still here and I can see the remains of courgettes, marrows, garlic, beans and peas, onions and leeks. In the green houses peppers, tomatoes and melons are becoming twiggy, stringy and brown. Mother’s herbs are still going strong – marjoram, sage, comfrey and thyme. Chives, oregano and mint. And rosemary for remembrance. The orchard below the garden is sagging with rotting apples. Summer’s here were always hot and magical. You could almost hear the plants growing. And the constant buzz of bees.

In the early years, adders, unused to humans invading their space, would slip unseen into the strawberry beds to sleep in the straw, only to die on trying to leave, entangling and strangling themselves on the netting. I remember the shock of finding the first one, poking at it with a stick and, once realising it was dead, the terrible feeling of remorse, cutting it free to bury it, stroking its smooth grey yellow skin with its pattern of arrows

But my parents years are now showing in the garden’s unkemptness. Dad is 70 now and I reflect on his vigour and strength. I always describe him as a’ big man’ and so he is still, despite his years, despite the disease. But neither of them can cope with the work required for the upkeep of such a large garden. We’ve never been an articulate family when it comes to emotions and feelings but standing here I can see the love and work invested in the garden reflects the same love and work they put into their family of seven children. How painful to be a parent, watching the struggles, the heart breaks, trying not to interfere but to guide.

And now how painful to be the child.

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So I’m getting busier. Which is a good thing, right? Except I’m finding the work I do isn’t quite as satisfying. Not the designs but the end product, the masterplan I give to clients. And it’s been bugging me.

Late last year I showed my portfolio to a couple of friends. It contained work dating way back,  stuff I did at college, my first few jobs working for landscape architectural practices, right through to my own personal work in the past 5 or six years since setting up my own business. With a flourish I turned to my latest design, all stark lines and flat colour, drawn completely on the computer, expecting them to marvel at the confident design and spatial awareness. One said ‘It’s a shame you don’t do them by hand like you used to do as I think people would respond much better to them’. The other said ‘Yes, I much prefer them too’. Oh. I felt a bit deflated. But later, looking back through my work I could see what they meant.

So this year I have been once more weilding my coloured pens and hand-rendering (colouring in to you) my designs and now my sense of enjoyment in presenting the finished masterplan to a client has definitely increased and I can see them responding in an altogether more positive way to something which has been lovingly produced with human artistic sensibility. It is interesting to see that people still respond to something hand-produced in this technological age. Brings out the inner neo-luddite lurking in us.

I’ve got a long way to go. It’s been ten years or more since I seriously did any kind of artistic endeavour of the finer kind but I’m enjoying the process of mixing the speed of a computer with the slower more thoughtful technique of using a pencil and pen and all the room for mistakes that that implies. Gone are the flat colours. Instead I’m bringing back in the hand-drawn shadows beneath the trees and shrubs and putting in little idiosyncratic touches here and there in the form of bird baths. I might even put in a hand-drawn swing-ball.

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Earlier this week, I listened to Dan Pearson on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. I stumbled across it quite by chance. I’d be prompted by a friend to listen in to another castaway’s musical choices, the delectable Mark Rylance, currently starring in BBC2’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I first fell in love with Mr Rylance when he played Romeo at the RSC, many moons ago. Lord knows who played Juliet but I’m sure I hated her. So fittingly, for a blog written on St. Valentine’s Day, a teenage crush has lead me to the discovery of an incredible place.

Dan Pearson, a most respected garden designer, has had a life long passion for plants, beginning at the ridiculously early age of five with a garden pond and nurtured through out his formative years by various perceptive mentors. It was while he was describing his time on a diploma course at Kew and in particular a scholarship trip to the Himalayas that he mentioned The Valley of Flowers – “We were bowled over by the vast scale of the wild plant communities.” With a name like that I had to find out more.

The Valley of Flowers is found in Uttarakand, in northern India, often referred to as Land of the Gods for the many Hindu temples to be found in the area. It nestles among the majestic Himalayas and the trek to reach it is an arduous one by all accounts. But on reaching it, the descriptions of the sights that meets one’s eyes sound simply magical – flowers upon flowers, as far as the eye can see; orchids, primulas, campanulas, poppies and anemones, marigolds and daisies, carpeting the ground, while silver birch and rhododendron rise above them to create sub-alpine forests.

It first came to Western attention in 1931 when a group of British mountaineers lost their way and chanced upon it,naming it Valley of Flowers, rather prosaically. One of them, Frank Smythe, later to wrote an account of the journey by the same name.

Now, my appetite whetted by the various descriptions I’ve read and the beautiful photographs of fauna and flora, I’ve resolved to go and see it with my own eyes, if not this year then certainly the next, hoping that the gods will be kind and send the sunshine. I’m asking Mr Rylance if he’d like to join me.

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