All my Gardens: part 2 Garsington Manor and beyond.

My first garden, as a grown up, was the grandest garden I shall ever know.

In response to an advert in the Oxford Times we found ourselves renting the converted top floor of a monastery  bake house in the grounds of Garsington Manor in Oxfordshire.

It was incredibly cold and impossibly right and romantic. The story was that it had been converted for DH Lawerence to live in as an “agricultural labourer” on the land of Lady Otoline Morrell and thus avoid conscription. However, his unflattering description of her in as Hermoine Roddice in “Women in Love”had resulted in a falling out and  he never took possession of flat.  Ottoline Morrell continued as a famous hostess of the  intelligencia during  WW1 and her guests included Aldous Huxley, Siegfried Sasson, Virginia Wolfe, Henry James, Bertrand Russel, WB Yeats, TS Elliot and of course the troublesome Lawerence.

The beautiful gardens  she had laid out around the Tudor Cotswold manor house were open for us to enjoy and we timidly explored the lower reaches away from the big house and could hardly believe our luck.

At the furthest end was a lovely natural pool full of fish always ravenous for bread crumbs where I watched an equally hungry cat lean further and further over to catch them, until it fell head first in the water. It’s expression of outraged indignation as it hauled his sodden body out on the other side of the pond, was a delight I have never forgotten.

Beyond the fish pond was the Italian lake, which was large enough to swim in and to boat around a central island.  The water was cold and green, but we braved it sometimes, floating briefly on our backs to admire the statues set into the deep green hedge. I would have looked more closely at the plinths upon which the statues stood if I had known the story that accompanied them. It was apparently common knowledge that Ottoline Morrell had an affair with the stone mason who made them and that their trists in the shed were the inspiration for the gardener and the lady in “Lady Chatterly’s Lover ” by DH Lawerence.

Beyond the lake the gardens sloped up to a formal parterre of 24 squares of geometric control,  punctuated by tall yew trees and above that there were fabulous herbaceous borders of riotous colour and exuberance.

If you are trying to visualise this, it is maybe easier than you think, as some TV programmes and films with shots of perfect English gardens lapping honey coloured manor houses; were actually filmed at  Garsington. So if it sounds oddly familiar, that is because it is. If you are an opera fan you may of course have strolled in the grounds during the interval as the opera festival held in the grounds annually, came to rival Glynbourn.

The opera came after our stay and in fact the monastery bake house flat was later used as offices for its administration (they also complained it was cold!).

During our brief stay  their was a lovely performance of “Twelfth Night” on a perfect summer evening in the garden. We were helping taking tickets and as I stood by the gate, the youngest daughter of the owner came running up in great distress, as she had noticed that the toadlets in the pond had chosen this very evening to emerge from the water and thousands of the tiny creatures were hopping unnoticed between the polished brogues and stiletto heels of the oblivious audience. In my best school teacher voice I ordered the visitors to, “Look down at your feet!  Notice the tiny toadlets and move slowly away from the pond!” Meekly they obeyed and clutching their glasses of wine, they obediently tip toed back to the paths and the great toad massacre was averted.

We were allowed to garden a dark patch of grass behind the bake house, but I didn’t dare actually dig anything up or try to plant anything in this lightless spot.

My only intervention was to ask for the grass not to be cut. This was allowed and as we had guessed a  couple of wild common spotted orchids  that had been waiting for years for the chance, flowered and  then set seed on this bit of old meadow land. Their delicate wildness could be considered my second little contribution to this memorable, magnificent garden!

Photo thanks to




For all the Birds Every where.

This is garden bird survey weekend in the U.K. and also here in France, when bird lovers are encouraged to send in the records of every bird that they see in their own garden . This weekend snap shot is amazingly valuable for estimating populations of common and not so common birds, for seeing regional variations and for correlating numbers against weather conditions.

It has been bone snappingly cold here for over a month and I am frankly amazed there are any birds left alive, but it seems those fragile feathers fluff up enough to keep most of them warm and today I can record:  blue tits, great tits, coal tits, mash tits, black birds, mistle thrush, field fare, robin, goldfinch, chaffinch,wren, red kite and ravens flying over, sparrow hawk, house sparrow, tree sparrow, buzzards, great spotted wood pecker, magpies, crows, a single brambling and a tawny owl when I stepped out last night to admire the stars.


The Kazakh cold is finally abating and warm air is melting the snow at last. I like to think the bags of seed and apples I have put out for the birds have done their bit to keep a few more birds alive in this bitterly cold winter, but I know that what birds really need is healthy countryside with hedgerows, forests, orchards and clean rivers. I am doing all I can to make my tiny corner of the earth a friendly place for birds, but we  need conservation organisations like the RSPB, the County wildlife trusts and all the wonderful wildlife charities across the world.

So today I remembered to renew my lapsed membership of LPO.

This is the  French equivalent of The RSPB (

It runs nature reserves, educational programmes and collects vital data on the status of French birds. The big difference is how tiny it’s membership is in comparison.  There are only 45,000 members of LPO in France to protect the birds of such a huge country.

Birds don’t know about national borders, but they all need the protection of any friends they can get – so why not put out some bird food and join up your local bird protection organisation today?




These extraordinary patterns were on the inside of glass house in the village. The complexity and decorative exuberance of the ice crystals looked like the most expensive etched crystal. Each pane of glass had a different pattern: some like sea urchins; some like ferns ; others like samphire or horsetails and some like nothing I have ever seen before,  all drawn in ice by organic random chance.




In Cold Time (All my gardens :part 1)

Spring seems such a long way off. A huge pall of freezing weather seems to have fallen over everything this week and it is hard to be hopeful, so in the long tradition of human survival in dark times I turn to memory and imagination.


                                                                       All my Gardens:

Part One

The first garden I remember was around a suburban house in Cheshire. The house was newish and the garden was only a few years old and still raw around the edges. My mother planted roses and scented pinks in a raised bed above the lawn.   My father constructed a swing on the neat lawn and I could swoop high above the fences and look down for an omniscient moment onto the gardens of our neighbours.

To the left was a garden full of red hot pokers. That was the first flower name that I consciously learnt and I was immediately fascinated by violence inherent in it and the obviously alien nature of the column of compacted flowers designed to be pollinated by humming birds that would never find Cheshire.

To the right was a garden with a dense sweep of shrubs around a circular lawn. This was interesting.  Everybody else had square or rectangular lawns; a circular lawn seemed like a clearing in an Arthurian forest and who knew what might happen in this secluded ring.

What actually did happen was marvelous, but did not involve knights in shining amour. My first pet was a small tortoise.  We let it out on the lawn to feed and brought it lettuce. It of course escaped and much wailing followed.  Eventually it was decided it was dead and I forgot about it in the way that children do. One day, when peering over the larch lap fence, I spotted it traversing the secret lawn slowly ,  nonchalantly.  It was resurrection. It was a miracle and a marvelous mystery that it could have been so close for so long, without my knowing.

The tortoise later came to a sad end due to Blue Peter, but that is another story for another cold day.

When the roses flowered I was fascinated by their huge perfumed petals and I greedily collected every one that fell and sometimes before they fell!   My father owned a racey ash tray that had a naked little figure of a woman reclining along the dish. When the roses bloomed I would take her out into the garden and dress her in the petals which would stick to her figure with a little water. A red petal for a skirt, an orange petal for a top and a pink petal for her hat. The variations on contouring her nakedness were  intoxicating .  Surplus petals were collected to make perfume.  Covering them in water produced rose water of which I was inordinately proud and presented to my mother in a bottle with a ribbon round it. Of course the liquid was soon brown and rank, but she told me she would wear it sometimes.

Whenever I smell pinks or carnations their heady spicy perfume transports me back to that first garden. I have tried to grow them in my own gardens, but with little success.

Some things are of their time and place and cannot, it seems, be recreated.

W. is for Winter.

Some winters don’t really deserved the name, being just muddy and  greyer versions of autumn; but this year deserves a capital W . After months of hard frost , now we have snow in all its guises and as soon as a path to the bird feeders is shovelled and swept, down it comes again in all it’s infuriating smothering simplicity.

So it is a time for reading and at the moment I am reading Helen MacDonald’s

H Is for Hawk “. The book is outstanding and her prose is razor sharp. It is an unlikely description of training a female goshawk to distract the writer from what threatens to be overwhelming grief after the death of her father. Rather like my description of most winters, this explanation does not begin to do justice to her visceral, uncanny imagining of the inside of a bird’s brain, the need to kill and devour and the need of both bird and woman to be free.

I am also reading “Falling Awake ” poetry by Alice Oswald. She also has an extraordinary clarity when describing the natural world, but there is an emotional distance between her words which leaves greater space for an intellectual juggling of creatures and shadows.

It has started snowing again. A few parrot faced goldfinches are still delicately pulling niger seeds from the feeder. A blackbird is gorging on a cut apple before the snow covers it over again.

Next week the temperatures are going to plummet to record lows according to the forecast. I hope we will all survive the coming cold.

Wild dog chase .

Today it is British snow : white out and wet. The snow came exploding down on that momentary hinge between exuberantly fat flakes and dispiriting sleet. All day it flumped down on the right side of sublime and all was white – for a while.

In the woods I continued to try to identify the animals that had walked before me in the snow. We noticed double light tyre tracks that we decided were from a pram or buggy. We admired the intrepid parents who had pushed their offspring out in such weather. We followed the increasingly erratic path, as it veered strangely from side to side. Were the parents trying to tip the child into the snow? Was their child particularly annoying?

The tracks  went on and on, up passed the chapel at the site of the abandoned plague village  and up to the Swiss border stones almost unnoticeable in the trees. We were turning back to get warm and dry and then I remembered. In the village there is a dog with crippled back legs. His doting owner has fitted him with a trolley to keep him mobile. We were not following an homicidal parent, or a wild creature unknown to man, but a lucky old dog hopping wild on a wet snowy day!

Cleaning Carpets Kazakh Style.

I had the pleasure of living and working for three years in Kazakhstan. After a fresh fall of snow, in sub zero temperatures, I watched from my apartment window as my Kazakh neighbours dragged their carpets out into the snow filled court yard to clean them.

I soon learnt that the snow must be fresh and soft, not compacted and the temperature must be low enough that nothing is melting. Then you simply rub the carpets in the snow or walk about on them face side down and then beat the snow off with a beater or stiff broom. The dust and dirt clings to the snow and is lifted out with miraculous ease. The colours of the carpet are completely unspoiled as the snow is long gone before it melts. After a warming beating , the rug is dry and ready to go back in front of the fire.

As temperatures today never  got above minus three, it was the perfect opportunity to clean two silk and two wool rugs. My neighbours had been celebrating trois rois and stepping out for a cigarette, still wearing their paper crowns, watched me in bemusement. I tried to explain in bad French that this was the perfect way to clean a rug and they smiled . I am sure this will add to the stock of village tales about the odd English.

Central Asians make the most beautiful carpets in the world. Their intricacy and rich colours are legendary. These carpets kept the yurts , surrounded by vast steppes of snow, warm and snug. They also know how to clean them and my faithful rugs now look like new!



Squeaky Snow and Frozen Flags

Today was wonderfully cold. Minus 10 overnight and utterly clear and bright during the day. The snow is squeaky and every blade of grass poking above brandishes a tiny banner of ice.

Our footprints carve their mark on the fresh fall and all around us are the patterns of creatures that were out before us. Most of the marks are rabbits, who I now realise feed much further from their burrow than I appreciated; deep neat marks are deer ; round footprints are cats and light prints are martins. Some longer prints maybe hare and small dog like prints maybe fox. Out in the open three grassy circles with smooth snow edges would seem to be the spots were deer lay down as the snow fell heavily, though why they stayed out in the fields, when the shelter of the forest was so close, I do not know . Under apple trees a mole hill is brown and fresh above the snow although the soil  is already frozen hard. Coin sized round holes in the snow indicate where voles had emerged at some point from their runs under the white blanket which now keeps them safe and sheltered from the hungry buzzards wheeling above in a cold blue sky.


Dead and alive.

First snow has fallen and the world seems dead under its soft white pall. Each twig is freaked with it and each branch heavy with a defining stark line. And yet on close inspection not only are the leaf buds for the spring already formed and waiting, but hazel catkins were ready on the twigs before the autumn leaves had even fallen. There is no dead time, the cycle never stops: only the speed changes.




New Year wishes.

This massive gun turret is on the top of a maginot line WW2 bunker in the next village. It is testimony to the wars that have raged over this corner of Europe time and time again.

Now the bunker is lapped by a brown ploughed field and shaded by a few tall trees. The trees are frilled with the white seeds of old man’s beard and mistletoe is yellow and green in the winter sunlight. On the top of the bunker; which is still pock marked by bullets and shells; a rough grass land has formed with ant hills where green woodpeckers hunt.

May all remnants of wars meld back into the countryside like this.