Oxford B&B

Oxford B&B

Oxford Botanical 2

We spent 24 hours in Oxford last week – there primarily to see Cezanne and the Modern, the current exhibition at the Ashmolean.  Somehow, I’ve reached retirement age without ever having been to Oxford before, so we spent time strolling through the streets of the town and ambling along the shaded path that lies between the Cherwell and Christ Church Meadow.

I was quite taken aback by how much Oxford conformed to what I had assumed was a clichéd image I had of the town: you know – young people punting lazily along the Cherwell, drinks in hand; bicycles everywhere, left leaning against walls and railings; the honey-coloured Cotswold limestone of the buildings. Two of the most memorable places we encountered on our meanderings were the Botanic Garden (above) and the Bodleian Library.

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Poppies in Oxford Botanic Garden

The University of Oxford’s Botanic Garden is Britain’s oldest, founded almost 400 years ago, when the first Earl of Danby donated £5000 to start a ‘physic garden’ to grow plants that would support medical practice.  From the beginning the garden was intended to be, in Danby’s words, ‘for the glorification of God and the furtherance of learning’. Danby might have been motivated to appease the almighty by having, thirty years earlier at the age of 21, murdered a man in a long-standing feud between families.

A site for the garden was chosen on the banks of the River Cherwell at the north-east corner of Christ Church Meadow.  The land belonging to Magdalen College, part of it having been a Jewish cemetery until the Jews were expelled from Oxford (and the rest of England) in 1290.

The garden, established for ‘the furtherance of learning’, continues to support scientific enquiry and understanding, but is also a place for taking aesthetic pleasure in nature, or for quiet contemplation.  Undergraduates studying biological sciences at the university visit the garden to learn about many aspects of plant biology, while thousands of school children visit the garden each year as part of the university’s schools education programme.

Strolling around the rectangular ‘family beds’ where plants are grouped according to their botanical family, geographical origin or uses, we occasionally came across signs that described the investigations currently going on in a particular section.

The garden is home to more than 5000 plant species – on less than five acres of land, this makes it, according to the guide we were given, one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. In addition to colourful flowerbeds, there are sections where herbs and vegetables are grown, and – dispersed throughout the garden – some very interesting and beautiful trees. One tree survives from the original 16th century planting – an English yew, a species, as a label informs, that today is the source of drugs used to treat breast and ovarian cancer.

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The blossom of the Tulip tree

There is a Gingko, a Monkey Puzzle, and a Tulip tree with beautiful blossoms that look like tulips, though the plants are not related.  Most dramatic was the towering Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), a tree known only in the fossil record until several living ones were discovered in China in the 1940s.  This one was planted in 1948, so is my age but a little taller.

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The Dawn Redwood

Then there is the Black Pine.  I love pines, and this one reminded me especially of one of my favourite Cezanne paintings, ‘The Great Pine’.  But this tree has literary, rather than artistic associations.  Indeed, the garden is rich in literary associations: Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, would bring the children of Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church (including Alice), for picnics in the garden. In John Tenniel’s original illustrations for Alice in Wonderland the garden’s water lily house can be seen in the background of one of the plates illustrating the Queen of Heart’s Croquet Ground.

Alice Queen of Hearts

Alice in the Queen of Hearts’ croquet ground: inspired by the Botanic Garden

The Black Pine, brought here as a tiny seed in 1795, was the favourite tree of Oxford professor and author, JRR Tolkien, who often spent hours in the garden sitting under this tree.

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The Pinus Negra in the Botanic Garden

The tree is also a favourite of another Oxford-based author, Philip Pullman; he so loves this tree that he has Lyra, the heroine of His Dark Materials, sit under it tree at the conclusion of the trilogy.  In his story, a bench beneath its spreading branches is one of the locations where the parallel worlds inhabited by the protagonists, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry. In the last chapter of the trilogy, both promise to sit on the bench for an hour at noon on Midsummer’s day every year so that perhaps they may feel each other’s presence next to one another in their own worlds.

The bench is now the subject of pilgrimage, and the names of Lyra and Will have been carved on the backrest. Such is the resonance of this place that the University has added to its website a podcast in which the author shares his passion for the Botanic Garden and reads from the end of the His Dark Materials trilogy where Lyra sits beneath the pine and dreams of the time when the Republic of Heaven will be established:

The Master had given Lyra her own key to the garden door, so she could come and go as she pleased. Later that night, just as the porter was locking the lodge, she and Pantalaimon slipped out and made their way through the dark streets, hearing a’r the bells of Oxford chiming midnight. Once they were in the Botanic Garden, Pan ran away over the grass chasing a mouse towards the wall, and then let it go  and sprang up into the huge pine tree nearby. […]

She sat on the bench and waited for Pan to come to her. He liked to surprise her, but she usually managed to see him before he reached her, and there was his shadowy form, following along beside the river-bank. She looked the other way and pretended she hadn’t seen him, and then seized him suddenly when he leapt on to the bench. […]

Pantalaimon murmured, ‘That thing that Will said. . .”
‘On the beach, just before you tried the alethiometer. He said there wasn’t any elsewhere. It was what his father had told you. But there was something else.”
“I remember. He meant the kingdom was over, the kingdom of heaven, it was all finished. We shouldn’t live as if it mattered more than this life in this world, because where we are is always the most important place.”
“He said we had to build something. . .”
“That’s why we needed our full life, Pan. We would have gone with Will and Kirjava, wouldn’t we.”
“Yes. Of course! And they would have come with us.
“But -”
“But then we wouldn’t have been able to build it. No one could, if they put them first. We have to be all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and brave and patient, and we’ve got to study and think, and work hard, all of us, in all our different worlds, and then we’ll build. . .”
Her hands were resting on his glossy fur. Somewhere in the garden a nightingale was singing, and a little breeze touched her hair and stirred the leaves overhead. All the different bells of the city chimed, once each, this one high, that one low, some close by, others further off, one cracked and peevish.
another grave and sonorous, but agreeing in all their different voices on what the time was, even if some of them got to it a little more slowly than others. In that other Oxford where she and Will had kissed goodbye, the bells would be chiming too, and a nightingale would be singing, and a little breeze would be stirring the leaves in the Botanic Garden.
“And then what?” said her daemon sleepily. “Build what?”
“The republic of heaven,” said Lyra.

Gallery: Oxford Botanic Garden

Earlier we had drifted into the quadrangles that enclose the Bodleian Library, the main research library of the University of Oxford, and one of the oldest libraries in Europe. In Britain it is second in size to the British Library, containing over 11 million items. In its current form the library has a continuous history dating back to 1602, though its roots can be traced back even further. The first purpose-built library known to have existed in Oxford – a small collection of chained books – was founded in the fourteenth century by Thomas Cobham, Bishop of Worcester.

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The Divinity School, built between 1427 and 1483, and attached to the Bodleian Library

Thomas Bodley was the son of a Protestant merchant family from Exeter who had studied under Calvin in Geneva – a Protestant exile in the reign of Queen Mary- before returning to England when Elizabeth came to the throne to study at Merton College) In 1598 he wrote to the Vice Chancellor of the University offering to support the development of the small existing library.

The library expanded rapidly, with the Schools Quadrangle – where we had entered – being added between 1613 and 1619.  Doorways leading off the quadrangle are labelled with the names of various disciplines and I was interested to note the entrance to the School of Natural Philosophy.  Only a week before I’d heard Melvyn Bragg’s panel on In Our Time discuss the work of the pioneering scientist Robert Boyle – one of the first to conduct rigorous experiments to lay the foundations of modern chemistry.

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Doorway to the Schola Moralis Philosophiae (School of Moral Philosophy) at the Bodleian Library

Except that Boyle – as a member of the panel pointed out – wasn’t a scientist, and would not have understood the term.  He was a natural philosopher, the term scientist only coming into use in the mid-19th century.  As an interesting feature in yesterday’s Guardian explained, the word was coined in 1840 by the Reverend William Whewell in his book The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, which contained a 70-page section on the Language of Science:

In it he discusses how the new words of science should be constructed. He then coins the universally accepted term physicist, remarking that the existing term physician cannot be used in that sense. He then moves on to the larger concept. ‘We need very much a name to describe a cultivator of science in general. I should incline to call him a scientist.’ The word that scientist replaced was philosopher. An account of this coinage in Word Study, a newsletter published by Merriam-Webster in 1948, noted: ‘Few deliberately invented words have gained such wide currency, and many people will be surprised to learn that it is just over a century old.’

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The Radcliffe Camera

Leaving the quadrangle, we came face to face with a circular building constructed from the local honey-coloured limestone.  This was the Radcliffe Camera, designed by James Gibbs in neo-classical style and built between 1737 and 1749 to house the Radcliffe Science Library. Known as the Radcliffe Camera (camera, meaning ‘room’ in Latin), it was taken over by the Bodleian in 1860, as the library grew short of space.

Gallery: Bodleian Library

On a warm afternoon, we strolled the sun-dappled path alongside the Cherwell, as students punted past us in celebratory mood.  Where the Cherwell meets the Thames we sat and watched teams of rowers as they practised on the Thames, the shouts of their cox’s splitting the air.  Later we enjoyed a drink at the waterside pub by Folly Bridge, The Head of the River.  Then over the river to The Folly restaurant for a delicious meal on the terrace as the sun set on a balmy evening.

Gallery: Cherwell and Thames


Arundel Avenue’s Quaker burial ground: a secret garden hidden from view

Arundel Avenue’s Quaker burial ground: a secret garden hidden from view

I must have walked past the narrow, gated alleyway on Arundel Avenue a thousand times before I even noticed it.  When I did, and saw the small plaque which explained that beyond the gate there lay a Quaker Burial Ground, I never imagined so large a space lay down the narrow passage. On Sunday, as the result of a community project supported by the local residents association, TANN and the Liverpool Quakers, I went along to the grand opening of the burial ground as a ‘community orchard and wildlife garden’. What I discovered was, in the words of the leaflet being handed out by volunteers, ‘a secret garden hidden from view.’ Continue reading “Arundel Avenue’s Quaker burial ground: a secret garden hidden from view”

Magnolia: ‘the whiteness is a gift’

Magnolia: ‘the whiteness is a gift’

These are the mornings when I pull back the curtains and light floods into the room as if overnight there has been a sudden, heavy fall of snow.  It’s the magnolia in the front garden, planted nearly thirty years ago that for a week two in spring is clothed in dazzling splendour, the creamy white flowers like candles, touched with pink blush.

It never lasts long; after their couple of weeks of glory, the petals fall and carpet the garden as if snow has fallen. Richard Lambert’s poem, ‘The Magnolia’, speaks of this:

Will you watch the wind blow
white blossom from the tree,
will you watch it blow,

the branches strained with love,
the garden stained with white,
will you watch the wind?

A blackbird leaps into the height
and sings; sky is blue.
Will you watch it blow?

The whiteness is a gift.
Soft, and slow, it opens
on the limbs. Watch it so.

Old hippy that I am, it’s usually a tune by The Grateful Dead that sings in my head as I gaze at the tree:

Sugar magnolia, blossoms blooming, heads all empty and I don’t care …

Sunshine, daydream, walking in the tall trees, going where the wind goes
Blooming like a red rose, breathing more freely,
Ride our singin, I’ll walk you in the morning sunshine

And those blissed-out lyrics seem just right for these days of fine weather, warmer than southerly parts of continental Europe such as Barcelona, Nice and Majorca.  As if we’ve skipped a season and plunged straight into summer.

Magnolias are, I learned from Wikipedia, truly ancient.  Named after a French botanist Pierre Magnol, they evolved even before bees appeared, the flowers developing  to encourage pollination by beetles.  Fossilised specimens of Magnolia have been found dating to 20 million years ago, and of plants identifiably belonging to the family Magnoliaceae dating to 95 million years ago.  A primitive aspect of Magnolias is their lack of distinct sepals or petals.

This reminded me of  the recent BBC TV series presented by geology professor Iain Stewart, How to Grow a Planet.  Branching out from rocks and volcanoes, he set out to demonstrate how plants are the ‘silent power’ that has shaped the Earth as much the geological processes he usually describes.

As recently as 130 million years ago plant life was so limited in its evolutionary journey that the part of a plant we prize above all else – the flower – didn’t exist at all. Stewart went on to show that in the geologically short time they’ve been around flowers have brought about the single most powerful transformation in our planet’s history:  they kick started an explosion of diversification in the animal kingdom – that ultimately lead to homo sapiens.

It was all to do with sex.  All organisms have to reproduce to survive, and that’s what a flower is for, of course.  But before flowers the plant kingdom consisted of  conifers and ferns, and they relied on something completely random – wind and water –for reproduction.

But flowers are basically super-efficient sex organs which, by forming all kinds of partnerships with animals, were incredibly successful, transforming the planet and helping  to steer evolution of animals at the same time.

Scientists still don’t know exactly how and why flowers appeared – there’s some evidence they share genes with fir cones, or evolved from adapted leaf structures. What’s remarkable is that flower fossils all start appearing around the same time – 140–130 million years ago. Darwin called this sudden appearance an ‘abominable mystery’.

Iain Stewart explained that flowers emerged at a time of geological transformation:  the ancient mega-continent of Pangaea was breaking up and new habitats and niches were being formed. Flowering plants evolved a survival ‘toolkit’ that made them better adapted to colonise a changing planet.  Above all, the reason why flowers were so successful was because they harnessed animals to reproduce – flies, beetles, and above all, bees.

As bees evolved they became perfectly adapted to collect pollen from flowers. Their whole bodies became covered in hair, so that the pollen would stick when they landed on flowers. They developed special antennae to smell out nectar,  and their sophisticated compound eyes, each made up of up to 6000 tiny lenses, were perfect at spotting flowers. While we are all familiar with the idea that flowers use colour to attract insects, Iain Stewart demonstrated that insects can also see ultra violet markings on plants – patterns that are indetectable to the human eye.
The magnolia in our garden has been around for close on thirty years, but its kind have flourished on this planet for a few million years longer.

Bodnant: the glory of the garden

Our England is a garden that is full of stately views,
Of borders, beds and shrubberies and lawns and avenues,
With statues on the terraces and peacocks strutting by;
But the Glory of the Garden lies in more than meets the eye.
– Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Glory of the Garden’

I often wonder, when exploring extensive gardens stretching across acres and created at the whim of some wealthy landowner in a previous century, what it must be like to exert such control and impress your will over such expanses of nature.  Kipling’s poem reminds us of the many unsung ‘men and ‘prentice boys’, largely hidden from history, who laboured to bring a rich man’s vision to life.

The garden at Bodnant, which four of us explored today on a jaunt to Anglesey, is truly one of the most beautiful gardens in the UK.  The garden faces across the Conwy valley towards the Snowdonia range.  The view from the terraces (above), looking across to the Snowdonia mountains is, as F remarked, one of the best examples of the imposition of a piece of man-made beauty on existing natural beauty.  It’s as if  the mountains are part of the garden.

The rich man who acquired this land and organised the creation of this garden was not an aristocrat but a successful industrial chemist and inventor. Henry Davis Pochin was the son of a yeoman farmer of Leicestershire who served an apprenticeship to James Woolley, a manufacturing chemist in Manchester, and in course of time became his partner. Pochin’s most important invention was a process for the clarification of rosin, a brown substance used to make soap, so that after distillation it came out white, thus enabling  a great step forward in human progress – the production of white soap. Another invention involved the use of china clay to reduce costs in the manufacture of paper.  He bought several china clay mines in Cornwall for this purpose

On his retirement in the 1870s, Pochin was able to pursue his passion for gardening – firstly on the Great Orme at Llandudno where he created an extensive and steeply terraced garden that since 1929 has been under the care of the local authority and freely open to the public – then at Bodnant, an estate comprising 80 acres and 25 farms, from 1874 onwards until his death in 1895.

Bodnant House (above) had been built in 1792 but was remodelled by Pochin and on his death it was inherited by his daughter (whose husband became the first Baron Aberconway in 1911). The garden, but not the House or other parts of the estate, was presented to the National Trust, with an endowment, in 1949.

The garden has two parts: the upper garden around Bodnant House consists of the terraced gardens and informal lawns shaded by trees. The lower section, known as the Dell (below) is formed by the valley of the River Hiraethlyn and forms a tranquil wild garden with giant conifers, the shade loving herbaceous plants and blue flowering hydrangeas growing along the river bank.

The upper garden below the house features huge Italianate terraces, specimen trees and formal lawns, with paths descending to the Dell. In the summer months the terrace gardens are colourful with herbaceous borders, roses, water lilies, clematis and many unusual wall shrubs and climbers.

The Pin Mill (below) is an elegant building originally constructed as a garden house around 1730 in Gloucestershire, and later used as a rural factory making dress-making pins. In 1938 it was in a decayed state when Lord Aberconwy bought it and had it moved from Gloucestershire to Bodnant.

Bodnant Garden is renowned for growing a wide range of interesting and beautiful plants from all over the world, particularly China, North America, Europe and Japan, that are suited to the Welsh climate and soil. One of the highlights is the Laburnum Arch, a curved walk covered with laburnum which produces a magnificent cascade of long yellow flowers in late May and early June.  We’ll have to back to see this wonder, revealed in the stock photo below.

Here’s that Kipling poem in full, reminding us of the hard work that goes into creating any garden:

Our England is a garden that is full of stately views,
Of borders, beds and shrubberies and lawns and avenues,
With statues on the terraces and peacocks strutting by;
But the Glory of the Garden lies in more than meets the eye.

For where the old thick laurels grow, along the thin red wall,
You will find the tool- and potting-sheds which are the heart of all ;
The cold-frames and the hot-houses, the dungpits and the tanks:
The rollers, carts and drain-pipes, with the barrows and the planks.

And there you’ll see the gardeners, the men and ‘prentice boys
Told off to do as they are bid and do it without noise;
For, except when seeds are  planted and we shout to scare the birds,
The Glory of the Garden it abideth not in words.

And some can pot begonias and some can bud a rose,
And some are hardly fit to trust with anything that grows;
But they can roll and trim the lawns and sift the sand and loam,
For the Glory of the Garden occupieth all who come.

Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made
By singing:–“Oh, how beautiful!” and sitting in the shade,
While better men than we go out and start their working lives
At grubbing weeds from gravel-paths with broken dinner-knives

There’s not a pair of legs so thin, there’s not a head so thick,
There’s not a hand so weak and white, nor yet a heart so sick.
But it can find some needful job that’s crying to be done,
For the Glory of the Garden glorifieth every one.

Then seek your job with thankfulness and work till further orders,
If it’s only netting strawberries or killing slugs on borders;
And when your back stops aching and your hands begin to harden,
You will find yourself a partner in the Glory of the Garden.

Oh, Adam was a gardener, and God who made him sees
That half a proper gardener’s work is done upon his knees,
So when your work is finished, you can wash your hand and pray
For the Glory of the Garden, that it may not pass away!
And the Glory of the Garden it shall never pass away!

Hidcote Manor garden

On our way back from Stratford yesterday we called in at Hidcote Manor Garden, regarded as one of England’s great gardens. It was the lifelong passion of  self-taught gardener Lawrence Johnston who created his ‘garden of rooms’ in the Arts and Crafts style.  being so close to Stratford (though over the border in the Gloucestershire Cotswolds) we were able to get there for opening time and experienced a usually busy garden in peace and tranquillity.

Lawrence Johnston was an American who came to England to study at Cambridge University.  His mother had bought Hidcote in 1907 and Johnston spent 41 years creating what would become one of England’s most influential 20th-century gardens. He became interested in making a garden out of the fields surrounding the house.

It’s a beautiful garden to wander in, with new vistas opening up constantly as you move from one outdoor ‘room’ to another through archways in high yew hedges and along winding paths.  The small chapel building in the courtyard at the entrance (above) was never consecrated: the wisteria must be spectacular in the spring.

The Old Garden was probably the first of Johnston’s plantings and is dominated by the cedar of Lebanon (above).

Johnston designed Hidcote as a series of outdoor ‘rooms’, which combine masses of colour with traditional garden crafts such as topiary. Each room has its own distinct atmosphere and character.  The hedges that divide the rooms were designed to compensate for the plot’s exposed aspect. Johnston planted hedges of holly, beech, hornbeam and yew for shelter and structure.

Another key feature of Johnston’s scheme is the Red Borders (below) which incorporates all kinds of red and orange flowers, as well as purple foliage for contrast.

The Beech Walk (below) was planted by Johnston to protect the garden from the damaging north-westerly winds.  It is now a fully-mature cathedral nave of beech trees.

There’s an orchard, as well as an extensive kitchen garden (with a huge pumpkin patch).

Two pigs are employed in the kitchen garden, preparing ground by turning over the soil, digging out roots and grubs.This one is as happy as the proverbial…

The gardens are so extensive that can be difficult working out whether you’ve seen everything.   There’s a garden of Japanese maples, an alpine terrace, a garden with a circular bathing pool, and a series of gardens that follow the winding course of a stream.  There’s a ‘wild garden’ called The Wilderness and The Long Walk – an extended grassy walk bordered by hedges, with twin gazebos at one end and superb views across the surrounding Cotswold countryside at the other.  And if you have a snack at the outdoor cafe tables, you’ll find the sparrows are very attentive!

In 1948, Johnston gave his garden to the National Trust. For the next few decades, the National Trust struggled to maintain the original Arts and Crafts style of the garden on limited funds. Several of the garden rooms became somewhat overgrown, and some of Johnston’s original plant specimens had to be replaced. Recently, following a major donation, the Trust has been able to begin to return the gardens to their original state, and Hidcote has become one of the most popular destinations on garden tours and tours of the Cotswolds.

Postscript June 2011

BBC 4 showed a documentary telling the story of Hidcote – the most influential English garden of the 20th century – and Lawrence Johnston, the enigmatic genius behind it. Hidcote was the first garden ever taken on by the National Trust, who spent 3.5 million pounds in a major programme of restoration. This included researching Johnston’s original vision, which in turn uncovered the compelling story of how Johnston created such an iconic garden.

Until recently, little was known about the secretive and self-taught Johnston. The documentary told how, in 1907, Johnston’s mother bought Hidcote Manor and Johnston began a programme of 40 years’ work on its gardens. Here, beginning tentatively before 1914, and more confidently after after being wounded in the First World War, Johnston combined a feeling for structure (creating a surprising series of discrete spaces) with a love of plants and a willingness to experiment with novel plant-combinations. An enthusiastic plant collector, he sponsored or undertook several expeditions in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America to bring back rare specimens.

In 1924 Johnston bought Serre de la Madone, near Menton, on the Mediterranean coast of France; and from then on would spend most of the year at Menton and a few summer months at Hidcote. At Serre de la Madone he turned terraces of vines and olives into a garden notable for its design and rare plantings of sub-tropical plants.

He kept few, if any, records on Hidcote’s construction, but current head gardener Glyn Jones made it a personal mission to discover as much about the man as possible to reveal how, in the early 20th century, Johnston set about creating a garden that has inspired designers all over the world.

See also


Look to your life.
Rest your kindness
and your unkindness
now, and listen: I know
what makes your heart
clench coldly
in all weathers,
I know how it feels
that it always will.
Bear that. Look to your life,
to your one given garden.

– Garden by Sam Willetts


Tonight we went to Ness Gardens for the light display, Illuminess. The gardens were illuminated by solar powered lights and bio-fuelled generatorsto produce rather beautiful and mysterious displays. Here are some photos that give an impression of the effects.

Jaume Plensa: Beyond Limits

Jaume Plensa: Beyond Limits

When we visited Chatsworth last Saturday, we found an exhibition of  modern and contemporary sculpture from Sotheby’s – Beyond Limits. This is the fourth year that the exhibition has been mounted at Chatsworth and is increasingly recognised as one of the most prestigious platforms for displaying monumental modern and contemporary sculpture in Europe. This event featured works by Henry Moore, Antony Gormley, Marc Quinn, Manolo Valdés and Jaume Plensa set against the backdrop of this magnificent English estate. A Sotheby’s video about the event can be viewed here.

These are the two Plensa pieces on display at Chatsworth – Heart of Trees (top) and Song of Songs. Heart of  Trees consists of a life-size bronze figure, with a tree growing from the centre. The skin of the figure is covered with characters spelling out the names of composers. The other installation Song of Songs was interesting, but probably not displayed to best advantage – viewed behind bars in the Game larder. When previously exhibited, people have been able to walk through the steel curtain of suspended letters spelling out the words of the Biblical text.

I’m highlighting the work of Jaume Plensa here because this is not our first encounter with the sculptor’s work. In June his monumental piece, Dream, was unveiled on the old Sutton Manor colliery site at St. Helens (see my earlier post here).  In 2007, working closely with a group of ex-miners, he was commissioned to create a new work on the site of the former colliery as part of the Big Art Project, a major national public art initiative linked to Channel 4. The proposed sculpture titled Dream takes the form of a young girl’s head with eyes closed, seemingly in a dream-like state. It is fabricated in pre-cast concrete, with a white, marble-concrete aggregate mix, so that it has a luminescent finish.

“My work is first and foremost about celebrating life and the human experience of standing in between past and present, present and future, knowledge and ignorance. I fell in love with this site in St Helens as soon as I saw it. The spectacular setting, proud heritage, vision for the future, and the warmth, humour and passion of the former miners I have met are all inspirational. To capture the essence, hopes, and aspirations of a whole community on this scale is a great honour but also a responsibility.” – Jaume Plensa

We also encountered Plensa in Nice last year, where his Conversation in Nice is displayed on the Place Masséna. The square was renovated in 2007, accompanied by the installation of the artwork along the tramway: seven statues devised by Plensa, representing the seven continents.

Jaume Plensa, born in Barcelona in 1955, is one of the leading sculptors in the field of plastic arts. He works in a wide range of media including drawing, sculpture, print-making, opera scenery, video art, acoustic installations, text and light. Plensa is a Catalan artist born in 1955. He’s worked all over the globe and frequently, but not always, uses the human form. He also manipulates the effects of natural elements such as a light and water in his work.

A significant part of Jaume Plensa’s production is set in the context of public sculpture, a sphere in which he has permanent works installed all over the world. The Crown Fountain, in Chicago’s Millennium Park, is one of his latest and most renowned projects.  According to Plensa, the Crown Fountain was inspired by the people of Chicago and the city’s historic connection with water, including the Chicago River and the great Lake Michigan. The fountain features two 50-foot glass block towers at each end of a shallow reflecting pool. Plensa used faces of 1,000 Chicago citizens projected on LED screens, with water seeming to flow from their mouths through a water outlet in the screen. This is in reference to the use of gargoyles from whose mouths water flows out in traditional fountains. Each image is shown from four to five minutes all year round, while the water is on from mid-spring though mid-autumn.

Another work is Blake in Gateshead, a laser beam that on special occasions shines high into the night sky over the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art.

On 16 June 2008 Jaume’s sculpture Breathing was dedicated by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, as a memorial to journalists killed whilst undertaking their work. The sculpture in steel and glass is situated above a new wing of BBC Broadcasting House in London. At 22:00 GMT each evening a beam of light is  projected from the sculpture extending 1km into the sky for 30 minutes to coincide with the BBC News at Ten.

El Alma del Ebro was created for the International Exposition in Zaragoza, the theme of which was ‘Water and Sustainable Development’. It is eleven metres high, the sculpted letters representing cells of the human body which is over 60% water. Its white letters and hollow structure invite the view to look inside and reflect on the relationship between human beings and water.

Finally, a gallery of some of the other exhibits in Beyond Limits at Chatsworth:

Three Piece Reclining Figure: Draped by Henry Moore

Dancers by Fernando Botero

Buddha by Niki De Saint Phalle

Angel of the North (life-size maquette) by Antony Gormley

Air Gets into Everything, Even Nothing by Ugo Rondinone

Mariposas by Manolo Valdes

Ariadna 1 by Manolo Valdes

Archaeology of Desire by Marc Quinn

Narcissus Garden by Yoyoi Kusama


‘I came to love my rows, my beans…’

Vegetables from the garden

It’s such a simple thing…but there is so much pleasure in gathering in the season’s growth in the vegetable plot. When we retired, R started deep beds in the back garden and this is a snap of today’s mouthwatering harvest.

It’s interesting that we seem to be part of the zeitgeist; last week Nigel Slater’s new BBC TV cookery series began, in which the dishes draw on the products of his home vegetable patch and friends’ allotments. This is part of the BBC’s Dig In campaign to encourage us to ‘grow our own grub’.

And last week in The Guardian, Madeleine Bunting, commenting on Michelle Obama’s first harvest from the White House vegetable garden, observed that ‘over the last two years, vegetable growing has gone from being a grandad’s hobby to hip’. There are unprecedented waiting lists for allotments (estimated at 100,000 earlier this year) and the sales of vegetable seeds, with UK companies reporting increases of 30% in 2007 and another 40% in 2008.

In his new book, Nigel Slater writes:

We have damaged this planet. We have plundered its natural resources, emptied its seas, scorched its earth, turned its beating heart into a toxic rubbish tip. There have been decades, if not centuries, of take rather than give. I do not wish to relinquish entirely the deep sense of fulfilment I get from eating meat and fish, but I now place less importance on them in my diet than I did. It is the meat and the crackling rather than the vegetables that are now on the side. When you lift the lid of my casseroles, peer into my pots or read my plate, it is the veggies that play the starring role.

And yes, it is worth “reading” our plate before we tuck in. Where did that food come from? Does it sit comfortably with our conscience and what we believe good food to be? What, other than our immediate appetite, does it benefit, and crucially, what damage is that plate of food doing?

If digging up our gardens, getting an allotment, shopping at farmers’ markets, growing organically and eating sustainably is seen as a sign of our collective guilt for what we have done to the planet, then so be it. We can never totally undo what has been done. But there are some of us, hopeful, deluded, possibly a wee bit mad, who are happy to try to put in more than we take out. One of the ways we can do that is to eat a greener diet…

The land on which the house sits had, until the early 1800s, been pasture for the local dairy farms. The remains of dairies are scattered all over this part of London. There has been a cheesemonger, in various guises, further along the terrace since Victorian times. Mostly laid to lawn that had gone to seed, the garden had but a single fig tree, its grey branches stretched out like spindly, adolescent arms across the brown grass, and an old and graceful golden robinia. The space was basically a clean slate. At the stroke of midnight, I sat down on the back steps and vowed to dig up my lawn and grow at least some of my own vegetables and fruit.

Cabbages catch at the moon.

It is late summer, no rain, the pack of the soil cracks open, it is hard summer.
In the night the cabbages catch at the moon, the leaves drip silver, the rows of cabbages are series of little silver waterfalls in the moon.

Carl Sandburg, Nocturne Cabbage

‘And he gave it for his opinion, that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together’. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels

‘Can the garden afford any thing more delightful to view than those forests of asparagus, artichokes, lettuce, pease, beans and other legumes and edulous plants so different in colour and of such various shapes, rising at it were from the dead and piercing the ground in so many thousand places as they do, courting the admiration or requiring the care of the diligent Gardiner’. Stephen Switzer, The Practical Gardener, 1727

‘I came to love my rows, my beans, though so many more than I wanted. They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus’. Henry David Thoreau

‘The first gatherings of the garden in May of salads, radishes and herbs made me feel like a mother about her baby – how could anything so beautiful be mine. And this emotion of wonder filled me for each vegetable as it was gathered every year. There is nothing that is comparable to it, as satisfactory or as thrilling,as gathering the vegetables one has grown’. Alice B. Toklas

We spray the fields and scatter
The poison on the ground
So that no wicked wild flowers
Upon our farm be found.
We like whatever helps us
To line our puree with pence;
The twenty-four-hour broiler-house
And neat electric fence.

All concrete sheds around us
And Jaguars in the yard,
The telly lounge and deep-freeze
Are ours from working hard.

We fire the fields for harvest,
The hedges swell the flame,
The oak trees and the cottages
From which our fathers came.
We give no compensation,
The earth is ours today,
And if we lose on arable,
The bungalows will pay.

All concrete sheds around us
And Jaguars in the yard,
The telly lounge and deep-freeze
Are ours from working hard.

John Betjeman, Harvest Hymn


Powis Castle

Powis Castle

Powis castle

On the way back from Brecon we stopped at Powis Castle near Welshpool and walked round the gardens.

The castle was bequeathed to The National Trust in 1952 by the 4th Earl of Powis, but dates back to the 12th century. It was built by Welsh Princes near the border with England. Sited on a hill and built of red gritstone, it dominates the landscape.

During the Civil War, the Earls of Powis supported the Royalist cause and the castle was captured by Parliamentary forces in 1644 and not returned to the Herbert family (who purchased it in 1587) until the restoration of the monarchy in 1661.

The gardens with the terraces, lead statues, yew hedges and  fine lawns are considered to be the best in Wales. The terraces were built in the seventeenth century. The valley floor has been, successively, a water garden, a landscape park by William Emes, a kitchen garden and, now, a flower garden.

Plas yn Rhiw

Plas yn Rhiw

Plas yn Rhiw

On the way from Aberdaron to Harlech we stopped to look round the gardens at Plas yn Rhiw,  a 16th century small manor house near the village of Rhiw, restored to its former glory by the three Keating sisters who bought it in 1938. The grounds, which have great views over Hell’s Mouth and Cardigan Bay, also include ornamental gardens which contain many interesting flowering trees and shrubs, with beds framed by box hedges and grass paths.

This house was continuously occupied for a thousand years and for most of that time it was in the ownership of a family that eventually took the surname Lewis. The house, which stands on the foundations of a fortified building dating back to 900AD, was originally a farmhouse, and a house of some importance, indeed it is mentioned in the court records of the 16th and 17th centuries. Over the years the house was gradually enlarged until by 1800 is assumed the structure it has today.

Sarn Rhiw by RS Thomas

So we know
she must have said something
to him–What language,
life? Oh, what language?

Thousands of years later
I inhabit a house
whose stone is the language
of its builders. Here

by the sea they said little.
But their message to the future
was: Build well. In the fire
of an evening I catch faces

staring at me. In April,
when light quickens and clouds
thin, boneless presences
flit through my room.

Will they inherit me
one day? What certainties
have I to hand on
like the punctuality

with which at the moon’s
rising, the bay breaks
into a smile as though meaning
were not the difficulty at all?

Plas yn Rhiw was bought by the Keating sisters, Eileen, Lorna and Honora, and their widowed mother Constance in 1939. They set about a comprehensive programme to save the old Welsh manor house and re-create the garden, while campaigning to protect its whole environment. They bought various smallholdings in the area to restore the estate to something of its former glory, and in 1946 in memory of their parents Constance and William Keating, the sisters donated surrounding land to the National Trust, followed by the house and further land in 1952. They continued to live there, however, until the death of the last sister Lorna in 1981.

The Keating sisters, Eileen, Lorna and Mary Honora, first came to Rhiw as children with their mother in 1904. At that time they rented a house name Pen yr Ogaf, a small cottage situated on the hillside overlooking Hell’s Mouth Bay. The house was rented from the North Wales Iron Ore and Manganese Company at the cost of £8 per year. At that time there were extensive manganese workings on Mynydd Rhiw, with tramways, overhead carriers, winding engines and jetties to carry away the ore at Porth Ysgo and Port Rhiw. Their home was in The Park, Nottingham, and their father, who had been a surveyor’s architect, had been involved in the design of Jesse Boot’s first shop in Goose Gate, Nottingham. He was unfortunately killed in a traffic accident in the 1890’s when the sisters were small children. Their mother and grandparents raised the girls. One grandfather was an accountant, the other a lace manufacturer. The sisters came regularly to Rhiw for their summer breaks, buying the house Ty Uchaf. When their mother broke her hip in 1934 whilst on holiday, they decided to live in Rhiw permanently. The frame of an old wheelchair, thought to belong to Mrs Keating has been found at Ty Uchaf by its present owners and has been preserved.

In 1939 the family were able to purchase Plas yn Rhiw which then only included 58 acres of land, and by single minded endeavour, restored the house, and repurchased much of it’s original land, to a total of over 400 acres.

Rooted in history, the garden is run along organic lines, as it was by the Keatings, and although today it’s less overgrown than it had become, many of the plants survive either in their original form, or as progeny of specimens brought in by the sisters. Large overflowing flower beds are contained by box hedges deliberately cut by the sisters in asymmetric patterns. They brought in plants from the wild such as teasles; iris pseudocrus, (which has unusual blackcurrant margins on the flowers); various poppies; myrtle; the poisonous monkshood; sheep sorrel (related to the culinary sorrel but with much smaller leaves) and foxgloves. Other ‘weeds’, such as the gardener’s nightmare, ground elder, are welcome.

Star players in the garden include the specimen Magnolia campbelli. It’s said by sources who spoke to the sisters themselves, that the tree was grown from seed Honora was given when she visited the Far East.

Nymans: a garden in Suffolk

Nymans: a garden in Suffolk


Our final destination on our Kent trip was over the border in Sussex: the gardens at Nymans, considered to be one of the best in the area. It’s the result of  work by the Messel family covering the period from 1890 to 1992.

In total three generations of the Messel family have lived at Nymans, from the late 1800’s until 1947 when the house was tragically destroyed by fire, resulting in the dramatic, overgrown ruins you see today.

The garden covers approximately 30 acres set on the side of a valley at 500 feet and although partly sheltered by the woods of the Sussex Weald, suffered much damage during the Great Storm of October 1987, losing 486 mature trees and many of the shrubs. The restoration of the garden continues within the overall plan laid out by Ludwig Messel.

The garden is laid out in a series of rooms the different levels connected by stone steps or grassy slopes, the ‘rooms’ are separated by hedges walls or trees which provide shelter for the rare and exotic plants for which the garden is renowned. The individual gardens include the Wall Garden (the oldest), The Knot Garden, The Rose Garden, The Top Garden, The Sunk Garden, The Pinetum and several others.