Notes from a summer: London Wetland Centre

London Wetland CentreAhoy there! Hello! How are you? It’s been ages, I know. I fell off grid a bit, this August. Technology (such as this dear old laptop on which I write all my blog posts) becoming substantially less appealing than lying outside in the sun on a picnic blanket.

Anyway, such times have come to an end, it seems, with this utterly relentless and miserable rain of the last week, so I’ve finally remembered how to open up Word and plug my camera into the computer to take a look at some pictures I’ve taken over the past few months.

It’s been something of a pottering sort of summer. No big holidays, but the odd weekend away. Few exciting day trips, but lots of time poking around in our garden pond, or building soil castles in the flower beds, or mooching along to the local park.

Still, I have a couple of little gems of visits to share with you so, for the next couple of days, a few notes from summer 2015.

First up, the utterly wonderful London Wetlands Centre. We visited a fortnight ago, when the summer flowers were just reaching their end, and the first hints of autumn were coming in.

Summer planting at London Wetland Centre
Kniphofia, grasses and asters looking abundant
Wood sculpture at London Wetland Centre
I loved this wood sculpture
London Wetland Centre
I shared this pic on instagram, having been astounded at my wondrous photography prowess. Very few people liked it, ha ha. Just goes to show, you never can tell with instagram,

It’s a great spot for kids: acres and acres of lakes, surrounded by long winding paths, perfect for running down and exploring.

(Side note: last time we visited the littlest was still pram-bound only, and I found that a more peaceful experience than our most recent visit when he was off toddling away and I had to keep a close eye to ensure he wasn’t about to leap off into a huge body of water. So if your child is toddling age, perhaps wait six months or so until they really understand why it’s best not to run headfirst at a lake…)

Of course, there’s lots of wildlife to see, of the ducks, birds and otters variety, but I am always especially taken by the glorious plants. It’s naturalistic planting at its best, in my opinion, everything appearing to be growing just where it wants to but – I am sure – in fact carefully planned and designed.

London Wetland Centre
Paths for wandering
London Wetland Centre
All the reflections made me think a lot about what plants are best to sit next to water. There is something lovely about seeing the flickering mirror image upside down of a beautiful plant.

A high point of this trip was discovering three sleepy ducks sitting on a wooden bridge. As we approached, they opened their eyes to take a look at us, but made no attempt to actually move, so I got the chance to photograph them for some time, while the sprogs stared and asked various questions about their feathers, their legs and why they had chosen to go to sleep on a bridge.

Ducks at London Wetland Centre
Zzzzzzz
Duck feathers
Those amazing feathers!

And aren’t these just the sorts of conversations you want to be having on a day out?

Practical info:

  • The Wetland Centre is in Barnes and is run by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT).
  • Entrance is £12.75 for an adult or £7 for a child. Various family, concession and membership options also available. I’ve just seen, while checking prices to write this, that you can save 10% by booking online. Doh, if only I realised that before we went.
  • Their website is here: London Wetland Centre
  • There’s a cafe (essential in my eyes) and various activities for children too.

Food collaging: my July harvest

July harvest | Wolves in LondonI’m completely addicted to taking courses.

Photography, blogging, garden design, how to rear alpacas… …you name it, if I’m half interested and there’s a course I could possibly take, chances are I’m going to sign up.

(I often think that if I won the lottery, the best thing of all would just be to take endless courses, learning ever-more-esoteric things, until I pop my clogs and depart this earth. What a heavenly way that would be to spend my days.)

Anyway, when I discovered Skillshare recently, a repository of short (about 30 min) online classes I was immediately hooked. The first thing to catch my eye was a course on food collaging, by Julie Lee of Julie’s Kitchen. (The class is here, if you’re similarly inclined: styling food for instagram.)

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you might recall that I used to do a monthly garden moodboard. I really loved it, but after 18 months or so I felt like I had already photographed every single plant in my garden so many times that I’d run out of ways to come up with anything new. So I stopped.

But I thought I’d resurrect these moodboards for the summer months this year, just to show off the highlights of my veg patch.

Following the tips and hints on the course, I put together my first moodboard: purples and greens from my garden in July. This is the pic I posted to my instagram account:

July food collage | Wolves in LondonI’ve got to say, I’m pretty happy with this photo. I mean, both with the photo and with the foodstuffs contained therein. Something that constantly amazes me is the absolute beauty of fruit and veg you’ve grown yourself. I’m sure it’s just the same as the way you think your own kids are the most gorgeous people ever to have walked this earth, but having sown, watered and cared for these little veggies for the past few months, I can’t help but marvel at their delicacy, the intricate patterns and beautiful colours.

Come, take a closer look with me.

Borlotti pod | Wolves in LondonBorlotti pod open | Wolves in LondonBorlotti beans | Wolves in LondonI’m a huge fan of the borlotti bean, despite the fact I fail, spectactularly, every single year to actually grow enough to make more than one single meal.

You could argue that one meal for months of tending a plant is really crappy pay off. And, I have to say, I’m inclined to agree with you. But no matter how many of these I think I’ve planted every year, I always lose hundreds of the plants to slugs and each plant only produces ten or so beans (at least the way I’m growing them…)

Every time I’ve planted them in the ground I’ve lost the entire crop to the voracious slimy beasts, so I keep them in pots now, with a line of copper tape at the top, but I still somehow managed to lose about a quarter of the crop. In fact, the beans in this photo make up the large majority of my entire yearly harvest.

Ah well, small numbers they might be, but just look at them! Surely the most beautiful bean ever to have been created?

Yin yang beans | Wolves in LondonA first for me this year was the yin yang bean (erm, you can see a pattern here, can’t you? Namely that I like a bean with a pattern…) Black and white mottling on the bean inside a green (turning to yellow) pod. It’s another glorious little thing.

Tomatillo | Wolves in LondonRipe tomatillo | Wolves in LondonTomatillo peeled | Wolves in LondonAlso new for me this year is the tomatillo. Basically, a tomato that grows inside its own casing, just like a Chinese gooseberry. Once the tomatillo inside fills the case and starts to burst out a little then you know it’s ready to eat. (Unlike a tomato, they don’t ever turn red.) You can peel back the papery case (which is covered in the most wonderful purpleish veins) and use the tomato inside. They need to be cooked before you eat them but other than that, they seem to taste pretty much the same as a tomato. Apparently, they’re a staple in Mexican cooking. I’ve got five plants growing and they seem to produce a lot of tomatillos each, so I should have a really decent harvest of these.

Garlic bulb | Wolves in LondonI’m not sure I’ve grown the garlic right — again the first year for me ever growing it. The leaves have gone yellow and started to wilt, which is the sign for pulling them up, but the garlic heads themselves are still very small. Still, I’ve been using the heads whole and they still seem to taste pretty good. I’ve been hugely fascinated by that light sheen of purple iridescence on the papery skins ever since I pulled them out of the ground last week, losing myself in the odd reverie, wondering at their beauty, in the middle of the kids’ tea, or when I’m meant to be making a sandwich. Beetroot | Wolves in London

Finally, and a little more prosaically, the humble beetroot. Root veg to end all root veg. The veg that some people claim tastes of nothing but dirt. Personally, I love it. Love, love, love the sweet taste of a roasted beetroot, the bright purple insides that bleed onto anything they touch and the green and purple veined leaves that taste a little bit overly “healthy” but bulk out a salad in times of need. Another mighty handsome vegetable in my opinion.

So there they, all photographed for posterity. A good thing, actually, since I’ve already devoured every last one: turned into a big ratatouille last week. Yum.

Next month I hope to have a huge selection of tomatoes to show you. The six different varieties I’m growing this year all seem to be coming along nicely and the first ones are turning red right now. Hoorah for homegrown.

A bit of this and a bit of that

June in photos
Bits and pieces from June

These long, drowsy, lethargic days of summer tend to disappear in a bit of a haze, the weeks melding together. June is over before I’d hardly realised it had begun.

Emails back up in my inbox awaiting replies; text messages go unanswered for weeks; my laptop is checked perfunctorily in the evenings. Any spare moments I have are spent, instead, watering the thirsty plants in the greenhouse, trying to fix the puncture in the paddling pool or just gazing out of the window into the cloudless blue sky, daydreaming about this or that.

And so it is, a good few weeks have passed since I last wrote anything on this little blog. I thought it was high time to swing by and tell you a few of the things we’ve been up to since my last post.

The hubby and I spent a few childfree days in Wiltshire last week, while we did a little bit of house-hunting. We’ve long had ambitions to move to the country and start a smallholding, and – with the sproglet starting school next September – it seems like something we should probably try and sort out in the next year.

We checked out a few areas and are probably honing in towards somewhere close to Malmesbury. But I think we’ll return, with kids, in a few weeks to really check everything out en famille.

We also visited an alpaca breeding farm and found out all about the logistics of having alpacas, another dream of mine. I’ve got to say, they were outrageously fluffy and adorable and just so incredibly soft up close. Once we have a bit of space for them, a little family herd of alpacas will definitely be lolloping into our lives.

The sproglet, especially, is very excited about the prospect of having alpacas and pigs and goats in his garden, and I am planning a vegetable garden with glee. There’s really nothing like summer to make you yearn for a bit of country air.

We popped into Bath one afternoon too and I finally managed to get in a visit to the Foodie Bugle, where I mostly splurged on wooden-handled kitchen brushes. I think I could have quite happily bought up the entire shop though.

Back at home, the current “vegetable garden” (AKA small bed and part of the greenhouse) is prolific at the moment. I’ve been picking rondo carrots almost every day: a gorgeous fat little round carrot (as the name suggests), that’s perfect for growing in pots. This is my first year trying them. The verdict so far: simple to grow and they look gorgeous, but I have to say they don’t have the best ever carrot flavour that I’ve ever tasted. Anyone else tried them and have thoughts on that?

The borlotti beans are also starting to swell, but I lost a big collection of yin yang beans to slugs, so I’ve copper taped the top of the pots in the hope that might help.

The greenhouse is pretty much completely taken over with tomatoes; all five varieties going great guns now. I think I’ve probably got something like 50 individual plants. I have great plans for enough passata to last us through the winter…

And finally, a few weeks ago now, I made my way up to Hampstead to visit the Grow London fair. I somehow managed to win tickets from Gardens Illustrated, which was an unexpected pleasure, so I set off there for the charity preview on the Thursday evening.

It was good fun, but I was glad I hadn’t expected to spend an entire day there, since my sister and I had wandered the stalls within about an hour. Lots of aspirational / inspirational gardening items for sale. I was very taken with all of the teeny weeny succulents in tiny concrete pots. Very OTM as Grazia would say, no doubt.

Perhaps the most fun thing, though, was just chatting with all the stallholders and saying, “oh yes, I’m training to be a garden designer at the moment”… It made me feel, for the first time, as if I really might be about to properly change career and actually do it.

So, there we have it, a bit of this and a bit of that. Proper, structured, specific posts to follow again at some point soon, I promise. Just not until this glorious heat has passed.

PS photos above all from my instagram feed, so apologies if you’ve seen them before.

At Blogtacular

BlogtacularConferences don’t tend to be my cup of tea.

For a start, the cups of tea are always tiny. You have to drink at least three to equal a normal mug size.

But it’s not the tiny teas that are the worst thing. Not by a long shot. It’s all the bloody networking. It reminds me of the very first work party I ever attended in my first job after uni.

I was working for a newspaper and the work party happened to be taking place a fortnight after I had started. Nervous enough already (of being in an office; of being expected to know how to do things like filing and replying to emails and generally behaving like an adult), the thought of having to stand and sip champagne and make small talk with all these deeply intelligent journalists, whose photo bylines I had been looking at for years, was absolutely terrifying.

I arrived at the party, and stood at the back, clutching a glass of champagne and talking to the next most junior person in the office.

He filled me in on some gossip, we had a bit of a laugh and I started to unwind. And then after ten minutes he cheerfully declared, “Well, there’s no point standing here and talking to you, is there? I must go and network now and see what prospects I can get lined up.”

I swear, it honestly took me a good minute to realise he wasn’t joking.

But Blogtacular, the blogging conference I went to yesterday (of my own volition!) isn’t anything like that, of course.

Yes, there are the faces you recognise from the About pages, the bloggers you’ve followed for years and deeply admire, the same sense of trepidation on entering the room with everybody else chatting and laughing.

But Blogtacular is billed as a place of creativity where people can come together. And this year, 2015, the overriding theme was collaboration.

It was a packed day, almost overwhelmingly so, and there is really far too much to try and squeeze into one blog post. Plus, I know there are likely to be hundreds of posts popping up over the next few weeks with all sorts of information about the event.

So, rather than a full account of what I did, here is just a gathering of some of the things I found most inspiring.

  • In a completely fabulous talk about food styling and photography, Marte Marie Forsberg shared this poem, which I found so unbelievably beautiful as it popped up on the projector that I had to subtly brush away a tear. (Luckily, I was sitting in the front row, so I don’t think anyone noticed me blubbing…)

Tea for Two (A Tragedy)
For Richard Brautigan, who couldn’t be with us

It wasn’t until after
I poured the second cup
that I realized
I was alone.

Post-event Googling, I’ve discovered it is by Pamela August Russell. Beautiful, taut and haunting.

  • Grace Bonney’s opening talk about harnessing fear of change was filled with fabulous soundbites. Perhaps my favourite was her belief that a blog “isn’t just about more, more, more…” We shouldn’t be on a constant mission to increase the numbers; more readers, more likes, more shares. But instead, we should be searching for “an engaged reader” – someone who gets us, is interested in what we have to say, and wants to come back time and again.
  • I went to a second talk by Marte Marie Forsberg on creativity and inspiration. She told us that in her house when she was growing up there was a craft room, referred to by the family as The Blue Room, that was filled with everything you could need to be creative in any imaginable discipline. Every Monday evening, parents and children sat down together for a few hours of making. I was practically texting my husband to demand an extension to our house asap, so we can do the same.
  • And a final thought from Marte Marie: “Creativity is just about problem solving.”
  • Cate Sevilla from Buzzfeed took part in a panel discussion about growing your audience. She was fabulous and direct and had a brilliant point of view on just about everything that was discussed. Including: “You can’t grow an audience by doing the same thing over and over again.”
  • The closing keynote presentation was by Anthony Peters, who showed a trailer for his film, “Made you look”. It contained the most excellent quote:

“Twitter’s a bit like shouting into a cupboard, or talking into a cupboard… No-one hears you. No-one cares.”

Ha! My sentiment, exactly.

  • As well as the talks, I met lots of really lovely bloggers, some of whom I felt I already knew well having read their blog for ages, some of whom were new discoveries. But, I’m restricting myself to telling you about just one awesome person I met: Sarah from A Life Less Physical. I got chatting to Sarah at the very start of the day and she was witty, dry and refreshingly honest. After having a good read of her blog this morning, I can say she writes in the same way. Do check it out.

So, across the day, a huge great wallop in the face of inspiration, ideas and things to mull over for where I want this blog to go and what I can do to take it there. (Regular readers will know I’m already prone to somewhat constant blog navel gazing, so I’m hoping I don’t fall into a rabbit hole for too long and remember, instead, the main thing: just keep writing.)

And the best thing of all: every single person I spoke to seemed genuine and interested. And not a single one told me they needed to end a gossipy conversation in order to go and network with someone more important.

Links:

Blogtacular

Marte Marie Forsberg photography (If I happen to have a lottery win before October, I will be booking myself a place on this Venice food and photography course!)

Grace Bonney’s Design*Sponge

Cate Sevilla at Buzzfeed

The trailer for Made you look

A Life Less Physical

Cotswold Wildlife Park: where garden design meets rhinos

Over the half term week we had a holiday – of sorts – down in Somerset.

Clanville Manor
The sproglet is rushing ahead to open the door and let us in to our holiday cottage

I say “of sorts” as the kids were both a little bit grouchy and clingy for much of the week and I returned home feeling somewhat exhausted.

We were staying in a wonderful, atmospheric holiday cottage with a huge, child-friendly garden (The Tallet at Clanville Manor, above, for anyone interested – not sponsored, just a genuinely lovely place). But the sproglets always take a little while to adjust to new surroundings and we really spent far too much time driving around in the car and trying to squeeze in naps ad hoc for their liking.

One of these days, I’m sure, we’ll crack that magic family holiday formula of doing just enough of the things to keep them happy and just enough of the (interesting) things to keep us happy…

Anyway, apart from the clinginess, we had a great time. As well as catching up with family and friends, we took a couple of day trips.

The first was to Cotswold Wildlife Park and, my goodness, if you are ever in the area I urge you to go, go, go!

Cotswold Wildlife Park
Oh yeah, that’s a rhino wandering across the front lawn
Cotswold Wildlife Park
The manor house

If you were to draw a Venn diagram of the interests of this family, then I think this place would sit firmly in the centre of it.

Loads of animals: tick. Beautiful planting and gardens: tick. A gigantic playground: tick. A stunning old manor house hosting brass rubbing: tick. An orangery where you can eat your lunch: tick. A miniature train: tick.

The layout of the place is fabulously quirky; lots of the animal enclosures bordered only by electric wires rather than solid fences. So it is that the rhinos appear to be simply grazing on the front lawn, surrounded by huge flower beds stuffed full of alliums.

Bedding at Cotswold Wildlife Park
I’m not usually a fan of bedding, but who can resist this riot of colour?
Tropical planting at Cotswold Wildlife Park
Yes, this really is in England…
Meerkat at Cotswold Wildlife Park
Strange little things…

In the walled garden, tropical planting was enjoying the microclimate, alongside some meerkats and the sloth enclosure. (And if you’re anything like me, the combination of the words “walled garden” and “sloth enclosure” would be enough to have you jumping into the car before finishing reading this paragraph, ha ha. But wait, wait, there’s more!)

Particular favourites of ours were the giraffes (such incredible, yet elegant creatures), some fabulously grumpy looking camels, their winter coats just starting to hang off them, and this lovely red panda hiding at the top of a tree…

Red panda at Cotswold Wildlife Park
Shy? Me?

We were only there for three hours or so in the morning, on the way down between Oxfordshire and Somerset, but we all wished we could have stayed the whole day. I think we may well be making a return trip as a treat for the sproglet’s birthday this summer…

Part two of our hol, featuring the wonderful Bishops Palace gardens in Wells, later in the week.

PS, Please excuse the slightly crappy nature of the photos. As you can see, it was a rather gloomy day and the light wasn’t great for taking pictures. But it was such a brilliant place, I just had to tell you all about it anyway…

You call this June?

June eh? I’ve got to confess, I’ve had the heating on these past two evenings. And looking out of the window, I can see that one of my tomato plants has been blown over in the winds. Sigh. Good old English summers…

Moaning aside, I dashed out of the back door the other evening, and took a few shots of the garden in between the showers. It’s been a while since I’ve taken any photos out there, but everything has been growing quite well recently, especially the veg. Anyway, come and see:

Flower bed
This is by far the worst photo in the post, so please keep reading. Why, in fact, am I even putting it at the top?!

Only one of my flower beds is even a little bit planted up. (We’re contemplating moving house this year (I know, I know! It seems a bit insane, but there we go…) and if not, then I plan to re-design the entire garden next year, once I’ve finished my garden design training. So, it seemed a bit silly to spend lots of time putting plants into beds only to either leave or have to dig them all out in a year.) This is that bed. On the left is the wallflower (Erysimum ‘Bowles mauve’) that I bought last year.

Allium christophii going to seed
The last of the flowers just clinging on

The alliums have been amazing (Allium giganteum) but by the time we got back from holiday, they were starting to go to seed. I do love the seed heads too, so they will stay in situ as long as they don’t get too windswept.

White allium
Can anyone identify?

And I think these are white allium, just about to bloom. I remember, vaguely, planting them last Autumn, but not exactly what they were.

Erigeron karvinskianus
Undoubtedly one of my all time favourite flowers

At the bottom, are lots of wonderful Mexican fleabane, aka daisies, aka Erigeron karvinskianus. I planted it all last year and it’s doing really well now. I just adore the way they turn pink as they get older.

Stachys byzantina and raindrop
Look at the amazing fine hairs

Also at the front of the bed, I procured some lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina) on my recent trip to Painshill Park. I say “procured” which sounds as if I stole it, but I’m not that much of a rule-breaker and I just bought it from the shop. It’s one of my favourite plants ever (so very very very soft!) so I am pleased to finally have some in the garden. Of course, I will need to divide and increase the solitary plant I’ve put in and try to make a proper little clump of them at the front.

Pink geranium
I have the name of this kicking around somewhere, but it’s not to hand

Also recently purchased (from Eltham Palace, this time), this rather delicate looking pink geranium is currently in my window box, but I’m planning on moving it into this bed eventually too.

Campanula and forget-me-nots
You can leave this well alone and it will just keep on coming up, year after year, perfectly happy

There’s also a fair bit of campanula with the odd forget-me-not still going strong. Some say these are weeds, but as far as I am concerned, any plant that produces gorgeous flowers and is just happy looking after itself is very welcome in my garden.

Raindrop on sweet pea leaves
I wish now I had an even-more-macro lens

Elsewhere, I’m hardening my sweet peas off outside and found these little rain drops sitting in the leaves. Rather lovely.

Tomato Super Marmande
Just starting to unfurl…

The tomatoes are all just starting to flower. I can’t remember if I said before, but I’m growing many different varieties this year (Super Marmande, Gardener’s Delight, Tigerella, Tumbling Tom Yellow and some tomatilloes as well…) The one above is a Super Marmande, which I’ve not grown before. The flowers appear in the most amazing way: what seems to be a gigantic flower bud comes out at the very top of the stem, then slowly, it peels back and separates to reveal several individual flowers all on tiny stalks. Rather fascinating to watch.

Greenhouse
No longer such a beast

And finally, do you remember how, last year, I planned to spruce up my greenhouse? It’s not yet a finished result (I plan to artfully string some more bits and pieces from the outside, and hopefully give it a paint job as well) but here’s a little “in progress” shot for you. It’s definitely improving from the monstrosity it was before. Maybe next week I’ll take you a little tour inside…

Turning one

We’re just back from a lovely week in Somerset and I’ve got lots of photos I want to share with you of some of the beautiful places we visited. However, since I think I would need to change this blog’s name to Gardens wot I have visited if I were to follow on with yet another garden visit post, I’ll save them up for next week. This, instead, is something I found sitting in my drafts, written a month ago when it actually had just been the littlest’s birthday and then left as I had wanted to get some better pictures. I think it’s time to admit defeat on that front and just publish it…

Just popping in rather quickly to share a photo of the T-shirt I made for the littlest’s first birthday at the weekend.

 

Homemade birthday top
Oh glorious baby chubbiness!

I’m thinking of turning it into a bit of a tradition, this birthday T-shirt thing. Do you remember the top I made for the sproglet’s second birthday last July?

Needless to say, far less time, thought, planning and energy went into the making of this one for the poor old baby. Where the sproglet had a large, well-planned and well-cooked-for first birthday party, last Saturday’s affair was a family only, last-minute organised do, catered by a quick trip to Waitrose to pick up sausages, scotch eggs and the like. We managed to make him a cake, at least, but forgot to buy candles.

Homemade birthday t-shirt
Crumpled and creased, post-action

And as the first guest arrived – my Mum – I was still busy ironing the image onto the front of his birthday T-shirt, cobbled together in the last few minutes before the party officially started.

Ah well, I rather suspect this will be his lot for the rest of his childhood. Hand-me-downs and less fuss made over all the big milestones. I wonder if it might not be a much easier entrance to the world, though, always aware that you’re not actually at the very centre of it, making it all spin round. At some point in time, his elder brother, the sprog, might get a rather rude awakening to all that, after the constant adoration and amazement from his family.

Gorgeous boys, both, in their different ways. I’m very lucky.

PS, I should mention that the image I’ve used isn’t actually copyright free and good for reproduction, so, erm, don’t tell on me. In a bit of a rush, rather than use my normal vintage images sources, I just had a very quick Google.

PPS, If you’ve not already seen it and want to make your own T-shirts (or anything else at all), check out my tutorial for how to print on fabric.

Painshill Park: the weirdness of landscape gardens

Hot on the heels of my trip to Eltham Palace to check out the 1930s planting, yesterday saw me visiting Painshill Park in Surrey, this time to visit an 18th century landscape garden.

Painshill Park | Wolves in London
The lake at Painshill Park

A bit of potted garden history for anyone interested. The “landscape” style of gardening became popular in the UK around the 1700s; its best known designer Capability Brown.

It’s a style of gardening that essentially aims to “improve” the natural landscape, intending the results to look like a beautiful spot of English countryside (though, in fact, huge chunks of money were likely spent on creating these effects, and vast swathes of land dug up and moved around to make “natural” lakes and hills and woodland areas…)

Painshill Park | Wolves in London
View of the estate

Nestled within the bucolic scenery were (in my opinion) completely lunatic buildings, designed to become a focal point and draw your eye to the horizon, across the sweeping vistas. Gothic follies, “ruined” abbeys, temples, towers, arches, bridges… …nothing was considered too grand or too weird for the aristocrats who owned and built these gardens.

At Painshill, close to Cobham in Surrey, all these features are apparent. Designed by its owner, the Honorable Charles Hamilton, an aristocrat with good connections but little actual money, the park was extensively re-designed and re-built to adhere to the 18th century ideas of a beautiful landscape.

Among other great ventures, the oxbow lake was re-dug to form a more appealing shape; a tumble-down ruined abbey was built to hide some actual modern-day brickworks; a grotto was bejeweled inside with crystals; and, most bizarrely, a Turkish tent was erected on the top of a hill at one side of the estate.

Grotto at Painshill Park
The outside of the crystal grotto. Think this looks weird, then take a look…
Crystal grotto at Painshill Park
…at this! Every single crystal was stuck onto the ceiling by hand.
Crystal grotto at Painshill Park
And this was one of the views from the grotto’s many peepholes
Gothic temple ceiling at Painshill Park
This is the ceiling of the gothic temple
Hermitage at Painshill Park
Naturally, there was a hermitage (!) – this was the rather beautiful view from its window

I’ve got to admit, it’s not my favourite era of garden styles. A little bit too much effort and artifice to create something “natural” – and a serious lack of things that, to a modern eye, are desirable. Such as, you know, flowers or non-evergreen trees and shrubs.

But a morning wandering around (in rather cold May drizzle) was a good way to blow away the cobwebs of the week. And I did very much enjoy the (non-original) watermill and the glorious walled kitchen garden on the way in.

Kitchen garden at Painshill Park
The walled kitchen garden
Water wheel at Painshill Park
The waterwheel building was gorgeous
Waterwheel at Painshill Park
As were the views behind

Incidentally, if you’re thinking of visiting a landscape garden close to London, I would recommend, instead, a trip to Stowe (where I was lucky enough to spend two years in the sixth form at the school there). Designed by Capability Brown himself, this is landscape gardening at its absolute finest.

Next week, we’re off on holiday to Somerset and I’m hoping to visit Hestercombe while we’re there. With a garden designed by Lutyens and Jekyll, I’ve got high hopes of some serious inspiration there…

Falling in love again

Of course we loved our house when we first bought it. You’ve got to really love a collection of bricks to hand over the best part of half a million pounds, after all.

I remember when we first viewed it: I was seven months pregnant, we were looking at 13 houses that weekend and we thought we’d found everything we ever wanted as we wandered through the cute little Victorian terrace in East Dulwich.

Pebble dash London house
Our house, the day we viewed it for the first time

It was perfectly preserved in the 1950s, a real home where we could imagine bringing up our imminent arrival.

And, best of all in our eyes, it was a doer-upper. “Oh yes!” we exclaimed when we heard there was no central heating. “Oh we’ll just extend this kitchen right out to the side and back” we panted with enthusiasm on discovering the long narrow galley kitchen with no natural light. “We’ll have that pebble dash off on the very first day” we grinned to each other, all the while thinking of the savings we were making on the purchase price by doing all these things ourselves.

And then we moved in. And the love affair came to a rather abrupt end.

That first winter was so fricking freezing. Without central heating, we shivered away. Ancient electrical heaters in the main rooms provided some warmth but left me with the constant fear of an electrical fire in the night. Heaven forbid if you had to walk out of one room to reach another, shivering all the way down the corridors.

Eventually, the builders moved in, 14 months after we first did. Four months later, structural work completed, we moved back. To a house of bare plaster and a need for endless decorating. Once again, I was seven months pregnant.

Our money long (long!) eaten up, the past 14 months have been spent painting, sanding, hole-filling, caulking and getting quotes for various things that cost a fortune.

But at last it feels as if the end is in sight, signalled by the momentous occasion of the pebble dash being removed. And you know what, I’m reminded for the first time that my house is actually a real little looker.

Under all that ugly brown and grey pebbledash are some beautiful London stock bricks, all now beautifully re-pointed and able to breathe the air for the first time in probably 40 years.

London terraced house
That brickwork! Who knew I could be so excited by a lovely brick?

Next steps: plant a climbing white rose up the front and replace the windows. Possibly in the opposite order. Ah, little house, you’ll be a proper beauty again before too long.

Loving the 1930s: Eltham Palace day trip

I always wonder, at some point in a blissful three day bank holiday weekend, whether every single weekend would be as good if everyone only worked a four day week all the time. Surely so much office working is just faffing around, chatting, making coffee, checking emails and so on, that actually it could all be squeezed into four days instead and the whole country could have three whole days off every single weekend? Anyway, such dreams are unlikely to become reality (and perhaps I would find then that I longed instead for a four day weekend?) but a bank holiday Monday is always a very delightful thing for me… …even though I don’t even have an office job to go to these days.

This Monday past, we set off for Eltham Palace, an English Heritage owned house and garden in deepest South-East London.

Eltham Palace | Wolves in London
The main entrance was across a fantastic bridge…
Eltham Palace | Wolves in London
…and round the curving drive to the front door

My latest garden design assignment is to create a planting plan for a London garden attached to a 1930s house; the planting needs to sit nicely with the period of the home. I didn’t know much about 1930s gardening, but a quick Google told me that Eltham Palace has some of the best 1930s borders in the country (and described it as a “gardener’s garden”) and Google maps told me it was a 25 min drive from our house. What luck, eh?!

The gardens were, indeed, stunning.

Along one side of the house, the formal gardens are set: a rose garden, a “linear” garden, a square pond and so on. In my research on 1930s gardens, I discovered that this was quite common in Edwardian times (and, indeed Arts and Crafts gardens, which were still in fashion in the ‘30s): more formal gardens, laid out often symmetrically, planted closer to the house, often in a series of “outdoor rooms” and then, as you got further towards the boundary, the planting became more naturalistic and wild, blurring where garden ended and open country began.

Eltham Palace gardens | Wolves in London
All is symmetry and tradition here
Eltham Palace gardens | Wolves in London
This looked like an old potager
Orangery at Eltham Palace | Wolves in London
The heavenly orangery. Oh to have an orangery!

So, too, at Eltham. Across the most fabulous bridge from the moat, a meadow area was full of trees, grass and wildflowers, with a series of paths just mown into the meadow. This is an idea I absolutely adore and one I definitely plan to do if I am ever lucky enough to own a piece of land big enough to have a meadow…

Eltham Palace | Wolves in London
The bridge across the old moat – perfect for the Billy Goats Gruff
Eltham Palace meadow | Wolves in London
The meadow had some magnificent trees

Though the house would originally have been enclosed by the moat, nowadays only half is still filled with water. The section of moat at the back of the house has instead been turned into huge borders, flanked by beautiful old red brick walls.

Even the car parks were beautiful, in fact, this brick wall being one of the first things we saw when we parked the car:

Eltham Palace car park | Wolves in London
Yup, I haven’t uploaded the wrong photo here, this really is the wall in the car park…

Looking at the “1930s borders,” I’ve got to say, they looked like any contemporary flower borders to me, using all sorts of plants that I’ve learnt about in my course and love. I certainly wouldn’t have known that they were specifically from the ‘30s if I hadn’t been told so.

Garden notes a Eltham Palace | Wolves in London
I loved this sign on the way in…

white flowersflowerseuphorbiablossombleeding heartsAs for the house, well, that is the most fabulously 1930s place you could ever imagine. I’d left my camera in the pram (which wasn’t allowed inside) so I’ve got no photos, but it was a wonderful stroll round rooms preserved in their 1930s best: fabulously decadent gold mosaic-filled bathrooms; round windows all over the place; a special room (with central heating) for the pet lemur, called Mah-Jong (or Jonggy, if you’re on intimate terms) and walnut-panelled guest bedrooms. Given half a chance, I would have moved in then and there…

So, definitely worth a visit if you’re a garden lover, 1930s buff, or just fancy a wander round a nice house and grounds. We were talked into signing up to a year’s membership with the English Heritage at the entrance (you know, cos it ends up only costing three times as much as just paying to get in and that suddenly sounds like a great deal when someone says it to you enthusiastically) so I hope we’ll be visiting lots more places before the year is out.