So the weather for the start of Chelsea week was heavenly, seeming to ‘teeter miraculously between spring and summer’ according to Dan Pearson in the weekend’s Observer. Furious with myself for missing the chance of a ticket, I prowl the Botanic Garden looking for solace, and of course there’s plenty. The meadow plantings in front of Cory Lodge and at the eastern end of the garden suddenly burst into colour. Lovely iris are still very much in evidence, pale mauve Iris pallida and Iris sibirica ‘Caesar’s brother’ (I can’t find an explanation for the common name) jostling for space with the cobalt and white spears of Camassia leichtlinii, myriad grasses and new green foliage and the ubiquitous Anthriscus sylvestris – cow parsley – also known as wild chervil, wild beaked parsley, keck and Queen Ann’s lace. According to Mike McCarthy, writing in The Independent, cow parsley is experiencing a boom, at the expense of other species which used to grace our hedgerows, largely due to soil improvements – apparently many wild flowers thrive in infertile soil. Whilst it may look pretty, it’s a monoculture and as such disappointingly one-dimensional.
The Chelsea garden I’m most sorry to have missed is Sophie Walker’s Cave Pavilion. Sophie, the youngest woman in history to design a Chelsea garden, was inspired to study horticulture while travelling in Bolivia. Her garden, designed to emulate a ‘dreamlike jungle Eden’ was described by one commentator as ‘a rainforest in a giant Perspex box’, with a viewing window at one end. The structure, says Dan Pearson, is a ‘21st century take on the Wardian case’, the kind of portable mini-greenhouse used by 19th century plant hunters to transport plants from their native habitats. The plants, supplied by Sue and Bleddyn Wynn-Jones of Crûg Farm Plants, included new species and one genus completely new to cultivation, Uocodendron whartonii, which they discovered in 2003 in Taiwan. This is apparently the first Chelsea garden where the plants are fully traceable, each having its own collection number, and is designed to raise awareness of international plant conservation. I caught a television interview with the Wynn-Joneses, who spoke about the importance of plant-hunting, both historically – many of the plants we assume are native species come from China, for example – and now, for plant conservation. In many cases it’s a question of getting in before the bulldozers, they suggested, preventing the loss of species before we even know we have them.
The Bank Holiday weekend sees me off on the trail of E.H. ‘Chinese’ Wilson (see February post ‘Where’er you walk’) whose intrepid journeys provided the seeds for rhododendrons at Norfolk’s Sheringham Park. I persuade my long-suffering brother to take a break from his regular birding routes and we brave the crowds to see the results of EHW’s expeditions. In many ways they are spectacular: great banks of colour, from deep crimsons and purples to delicate pinks and whites, and opportunities for the long view from the top of a series of viewing towers. Possible to imagine for a moment standing in the foothills of the Himalayas and seeing such a sight for the first time – were it not for the hordes of holiday-makers/pushchairs/dogs all on the same mission. And where were the species? Or the plant labels? The plant history? Humphry Repton’s garden design was the subject of a small exhibition in the visitor centre – an intriguing quirk of his process was to produce a ‘red book’ for each of his designs with explanatory text and watercolour illustrations with an overlay to show ‘before’ and ‘after’ views – but nothing about Wilson or the plants, and a brief paragraph only in the guide on sale in the shop. I suppose that’s a good reminder of the different priorities in a National Trust visitor centre, and a university botanic garden with an emphasis on the science. At any rate, I found myself as usual preferring the incidentals – sunlight through saplings in the wood or the architecture of the twisted trunks – rather than the main show. And what a relief to get back to the less peopled salt marshes and shingle shore of Cley and Salthouse! Never thought I’d be so glad to see a sandwich tern!
My own travels recently have taken me to Norwich, twice. On Saturday I was delighted to be reading in Words and Women’s garden festival in the city’s beautiful Plantation Garden, a Victorian gem restored in the 1980s – well worth investigating if you haven’t seen it. I wasn’t able to stay for the whole event, but loved Lois Williams’ reflections on the gooseberry and Anna Mudeka’s wonderful Zimbabwean music – what a voice! Now London is next on my list: in particular the Open Garden Squares Weekend (14-15 June) when over 200 garden squares will be open to the public. According to Jo Thompson, whose London Square Garden won a gold award at Chelsea, it’s the capital’s gardens that keep us breathing. There is also a magical secret garden feel to these spaces: I remember Sunday afternoons when I lived in Woburn Square as a student, letting ourselves into the garden with a residents’ key, and this reminds me of Cambridge Botanics’ own quaint tradition of the Sunday key holders. And back to London, towards the end of next month a chance to hear Dan Pearson and Tom Heatherwick talk about their fantastic Garden Bridge project, as part of the Seeding the City initiative.
My most recent adventures were closer to home: a day’s walk in full sun over the cliffs to Sheringham, the air shrill with skylarks over drifts of the lovely sea thrift Armeria maritima then inland along wooded lanes to Cromer. And on Sunday evening I passed up on an invitation to hear quail singing (good decision: they didn’t) but went along with the outing to look for nightjar. We set out just before sunset under an almost cloudless sky, along lanes whose verges were crowded – yes, with cow parsley. The challenges for conservation were echoed as we drove past Sandringham Park, the flat purple of Rhododendron ponticum stacked and towering either side of the road. The origins of this ‘British rhododendron’ are unclear. What is certain is that the Victorian taste for the exotic led to the spread of a plant which will out-compete most native species and hence is responsible for the destruction of native habitats.
In contrast, our destination: Dersingham Bog Nature Reserve. I have to admit my heart sank as we set off down the track in the cold near-dark and what looked like wasteland materialised in the dusk before us. We joined a handful of other seekers and at least a million hungry midges and whispered and loitered. And loitered. Eventually, the call – a mechanical trrrrrrr trrrrrrrr – and occasional flurries of sotto voce excitement, – "flying left coming towards us now, left, flying right"... I saw – an unidentified bird miles high and far away, which might have corresponded to Andy’s description of the nightjar’s ‘floppy’ flight, and the briefest flash of something lightish in the darkness. Oh, and the insectivorous sundew: yes there really is such a plant, alive and well in the Dersingham bog. In fact, Drosera (commonly known as the sundews) comprises one of the largest genera of carnivorous plants, with at least 194 species. If there were a photograph, it would be of a kneeling human figure, bottom raised heavenward in the gloaming, nose down beneath the duckboard, peering at a tiny rash of red dots poking out of the marshy ground.
If April is the cruellest month – and according to Eliot it is – then May is the purplest, at least in my book. And there’s nothing understated about purple. In the Botanic Gardens the gaudy pompoms of the allium are standing tall in rose garden and the bee beds and the first of the foxgloves Digitalis purpurea are suddenly open and are as tall as I am. Aquilegia and Ajuga reptans vie for attention. And iris, all shapes and sizes and shades. The raised beds in front of the café are punctuated with the dusky furls of Iris barbata ‘Sable’. The name Iris, from the Greek goddess of the rainbow, reflects the range of colours found in the many species. And, since Iris also linked Mount Olympus with the mortal world, perhaps the name places the plant somewhere between earth and heaven. The genus was the subject of a monograph by Richard Irwin Lynch, Curator of the Garden from 1879 until 1919. The Book of the Iris, published in 1904, had the twofold aim: to offer ‘all the useful information on culture’ and to provide ‘an easy and efficient means for the verification of names’. In his preface Lynch thanks ‘Mr. E. Allard, my foreman of the Indoor Department’ for ‘almost all the photographs’ and ends with a quotation from The Winter’s Tale:
All faults I make, when I shall come to know them
I do repent.
In the Glasshouse Range the extraordinary jade vine Strongylodon macrobotrys has its signature blue-green flowers exploding from hanging purple racemes just now. The Botanics’ specimen is one of the best-flowering in Britain. Clearly a member of the Fabaceae (pea) family – see the claw-like flowers – in its native Philippines it reaches more than 20 metres in height, though extensive deforestation has made it vulnerable to extinction. The vine is pollinated by bats, probably attracted by the ‘luminosity of the flowers in the tropical twilight’ according to the Garden’s own notes. The bats hang upside down on the purple stems to feed on the nectar. Another member of the pea family, Hardenbergia violacea is also in flower on the north wall of the glasshouse corridor: look for its sprays of small, intensely lavender flowers with two lime green spots in the centre. Common names of this Australian climber include purple coral pea and happy wanderer
Outside, the branches of the Judas Tree Cercis siliquastrum in the Gilbert Carter Memorial Area are packed with pinky-mauve flowers. And then there’s wisteria, not just in the Botanics but spilling over college walls and house fronts all over Cambridge, palest mauve to vibrant purple, filling the air with its scents. Within the garden it drips off the Brookside building above the shop, whilst the group of free-standing Wisteria sinensis near the Judas Tree is covered in long arching tails of flowers, the characteristic pea-shape of upper banner, wings and keel clearly visible in each floret. Loveliest is the elderly shrub near the stand of mixed lilac: its wrinkled limbs and faded flowers sprawl comfortably in its wadding of cow parsley, the weight of its flower clusters matched by the upward thrust of the neighbouring lilacs, their combined fragrances a delicious mix.
There wasn’t much purple in evidence last weekend when I strayed back to my other life in Cumbria for a joint fiftieth party, although our brush with fame added a bit of a shine. Simon met me off the train, and introduced me to the only other alighting passenger. My friend Mark, he said. I recognised him, of course, just couldn’t quite place him. I asked him if he’d come far.
The celebration began with a walk, a group of twelve or so retracing the circular path we’d trodden with our children so many times. For those new to the area, this was a first meeting. So this is a tarn, Mark said, looking out across our northern waters. We walked and talked, then back to the house for tea and cake and conversation.
Do you think he’s the most famous person ever to be in the Lacy Thompson Hall? Nancy says.
I guess so, I say. It’s the evening do and our faces almost collide and then veer apart amongst the other grizzled heads moving to the snappy rhythms of the band. Too loud anyway to confess that I can’t put a name to this familiar face even though I’ve spent the afternoon in his company.
Later, I wander to the back of the hall in search of a drink.
Is it really him? Chris says. Tom says it is. She whispers the name with reverence and of course as soon as I hear it it’s obvious. It really is, I say, enjoying the reflected celebrity. He’s Simon’s best friend. I told you, Tom says.
Now he’s on stage, he remains until the end of the set, alternately strutting his stuff with the other fiftyish celebrants and skulking with concentration on the sidelines in what might be a particularly tricky riff. In the dark red dark of the flashing lights, his presence adds a kind of glamour on the bare staging: he’s big, muscled in his black T-shirt, all style and cool with his shiny guitar slung low and his unmistakeable hair. The hall is bare, apart from a square of patterned fabric on the back wall behind the band.
I like the juxtaposition of The Clash with the quilting, Nancy says.
We bounce on, a heady mix of old friends and old music reminding us how we have loved and not quite lost over the years; and he’s there on stage still, letting us believe for an hour or two that our loyalty has paid off and we’ve all made it into the warm glow.
The following morning Chris returns from the shop, her tiny granddaughter strapped to her chest.
Aimee’s beside herself, she says. She’s his Number One fan. She knows all about him – she’s done a project on him and everything. Guess who was in the village hall yesterday evening? I said to her. Have you heard of him? She’s desperate to meet him. Do you think he’d come up here to see her?
The morning erupts in a flurry of emails and phone calls, interspersed with elaborate fantasies about the village acquiring its own notoriety on Facebook and Twitter. Eventually, Aimee is whisked away from the Co-op – I’m still in my uniform, she says – and into Pete’s car. We leave Chris standing in for her and hurtle down the hill. We don’t have long: Aimee’s shift in the pub begins at 12.
Our arrival is breathless. There’s a terrible moment when I think we might have overstepped the mark and broken some code of privacy or respect. But he comes out of the kitchen and steps smartly up to her expectations. There’s a lovely photo of the two of them in the hallway, worlds apart in more than geography and years, Aimee looking up at him and he, arms folded, returning her gaze. Laughter, chatter, cameras clicking. Then Aimee is back in the pumpkin, Nancy arrives with tulips, Mark sets off for the first of his five trains home and the party returns to the serious business of celebrating Simon and Ginny’s birthdays.
The following afternoon, heading east along the lovely South Tyne valley to pick up a southbound train, I sift through the pictures in my head: afternoon light on the tarn and the blaze of gorse, the excitement of the band’s double finale, ‘Teenage Kicks’ romping neatly into my all-time Ramones favourite ‘Sheena is…’, and a glitter of stardust settling for a few moments on the roofs and fields of Hallbankgate.
As Writer in Residence, thoughts from the garden