Friday, 26 February 2010

The Real Vicar of Dibley

When a new comedy television series called The Vicar of Dibley hit British television screens in 1994, Dawn French, the actress who played the part of the vicar, was already a familiar and much loved face. Less well known, was the situation of the village of Dibley. Was it even a real place for surely nowhere could be that idyllic and unspoilt? Well, yes, it is real.

Turville, is a tiny village, hidden deep in a valley in the Chiltern Hills and is close to where I was born and spent the greatest part of my life (I only came to the secret valley nine years ago). The Chilterns is a place of steep hills, thick with beechwoods that seem to hang onto their very sides - many use the word in their names: Old Hanging Wood near Hughenden, for example. The villages, as a consequence, seem tucked away and forgotten, yet they lie only some 30 miles west of London.
Chalk and flint are the geological features that make the Chiltern Hills what they are and you are never far from them for the topsoil is thin, as all Chiltern children soon learn. Childhood games need chalk for drawing hopscotch and the flint cuts deep into knees when falling over. Flint also is, or was, the favoured building material for houses and Turville has plenty of fine examples, even the church is made from it.

No English village is complete without its pub and Turville is no exception. The Bull and Butcher stands almost in the road. Less common are windmills and Turville lays claim to Cobstone Mill (which really 'belongs' to the neighbouring village of Ibstone), standing high above on a steep hilltop. The windmill, like the village has been used in many films such as Chitty, Chitty, Bang Bang and the 101 Dalmatians. In the latter, when the road outside became covered in machine made 'snow' I drove past confused - for there were still traces of the snow and it was midsummer. We also had no water for several hours as the filming had used up the village supply in the making of it.

Turville is popular both with the film crews and visitors because it is so ancient and unspoilt. To get photos like these you have to visit on a grey, winter's weekday as weekends, especially fine, summer ones, find the narrow lanes choked with cars. The village is so unchanged that even the warning roadsigns, like this old schoolchildren one are decades out-of-date!

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Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Snowdrops and Aconites

The winter may have been one of the snowiest and coldest for a long time but it hasn't made the slightest difference to the displays of snowdrops and aconites which are now at their best.

There has been a great upsurge of interest in the different varieties of snowdrops in recent times. To those of you who just thought there were singles or doubles, it may come as a surprise to learn that there are more than 500 named cultivars derived from the 19 or so species found in the wild. All are variations on a theme, basically white petals with green (or occasionally yellow) markings. The Royal Horticultural Society Plant Finder lists 251 as being available in the UK and prices for the more unusual ones start from a few pounds per bulb to large sums of money for the very rare. Personally I am quite happy with the simple purity of the common single type and am also aware of the difference, namely the 'frilly petticoat', of the common double one.
Now people get very excited by upturning the flowerhead so they can see a slightly larger speck of green on the bloom or scrabbling about on their knees in search of the single rarity that lurks amongst the ordinary - and good luck to them. Call me boring or unimaginative if you want but just give me bog standard Galanthus nivalis any day - preferably in their thousands. This really is a case where more is best as the carpets of snowdrops that flower in the garden of the house that was built for me two hundred years ago proves. (Readers of this blog may remember the post describing this house, along with the possibility that I have been reborn and finally reunited with it - most of the time I say this tongue-in-cheek, occasionally I half believe it). According to tradition the nuns that took over the property upon 'my' death planted them and now they have spread to cover many acres. Is there any better way for 'me' to be remembered?

Well, yes, there could be. My death next time round should be marked with the Winter Aconite, Eranthis hyemalis. There is something very cheering and positive about their bright yellow, perhaps it is because we crave some strong colour after a long winter. It is the same shade as the yellow daffodils and also of forsythia. By the time these have finished, weeks later, we are fed up with it and find it all rather garish. But in January we start to notice the little ruffs of green leaves pushing through the ground and, quite suddenly, the flower is opening its blooms. I hadn't noticed before just how similar the individual flowers are to a buttercup when fully open. Not surprising really, as they all belong to the same family, Ranunculaceae. The aconite, I assume, is so-named beacause of the similarity of the leaf with the tall herbaceous aconites, Aconitum.

Neither snowdrops or aconites are native to the British Isles although both naturalise well and, given time, will occupy large areas. Conditions in this country must favour the snowdrop for snowdrop woods, whilst not common, are found with relative ease and are nearly always associated with a large country house. A much greater rarity is the aconite wood and I know of only one and heard of only one other. To visit it is an extraordinary experience for it is difficult to walk through the tens of thousands of plants that carpet the ground. This wood is also attached to a country estate but rarely visited and away from public paths. Perhaps that is why it has survived.
Sold as 'in the green', both snowdrops and aconites establish in the garden best when transplanted now, that is with their leaves and flowers still lush. A grower recently told me that snowdrops naturalise more quickly when aconites are grown amongst them, perhaps because the yellow flowers attract more pollinators. However, snowdrops in grass benefit from an annual feed whilst aconites detest it. A case of 'you pays your money and you takes your choice', perhaps?

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Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The Ugly Thing in Life is Set Up....

It is strange how curiosity sets you down a path that you do not expect. From childhood I have been fascinated by a set of six embossed postcards that my father brought home from Germany after the Second World War. Like many of his generation, he did not like to speak of those times and the postcards were kept in an envelope inside his desk, only to be taken out and looked at on rare occasions. Consequently, the colours are as rich today as when they were first printed. I found them again recently, tucked away and near forgotten, for my father died 30 years ago and my mother more recently. And these days, what do we do when we are curious – we Google. First searches threw up nothing until I entered the text Das is im Leben hässlich eingerichtet which, translating to The ugly thing in life is set up, whilst sounding not very promising, turned out to reveal part of an epic poem by Joseph Victor von Scheffel, written in 1853. Don’t worry, I hadn’t heard of him either! The poem was The Trumpeter of Säckingen.

The town of Bad Säckingen (the Bad was added to the name in 1978) is in southern Germany on the banks of the Rhine, between the Black Forest and the Swiss border. In 1854 von Scheffel published his epic but it was not until some years later that it became popular. By 1884 it had been turned into an opera with music by Nessler and in 1918 a silent movie had been filmed using over 200 local people as extras. The opera is still performed today at the open air festival (Festspielgemeinde) in the town. There is also a museum devoted to Scheffel and the Trumpeter.
So who was the Trumpeter? Franz Werner Kirchofer was born in 1633, of common birth, who fell in love with Maria (Margarethe), the daughter of a noble family that resided in the town’s castle. Against all the family’s wishes the couple were finally married in 1657, raising five children. Their gravestone beside the cathedral tells the story of their love – a truly romantic tale and one with a happy ending. The castle still stands, now owned by the town, and is surrounded by public park and gardens, it also houses the Trumpeter museum.
A trip to Germany now seems probable at some time in the future so that I can see the castle that I first came across fifty years ago but only very recently knew existed. The power of the internet, as we all often mention in our blogs, never fails to throw up surprises. And it led me to the town’s interesting website where much of this information has been found. The postcards, by the way, which aren't shown in any particular order, date back to 1910.

I leave the last words to von Scheffel: it seems appropriate to print it in its native tongue. If you want the English version or more verses, Google it!

Das ist im Leben häßlich eingerichtet ♦ Daß bei den Rosen gleich die Dornen steh´n ♦ Und was das arme Herz auch sehnt und dichtet ♦ Zum Schluße kommt das Voneinandergehn ♦ In deinen Augen hab ich einst gelesen ♦ Es blitzte drin von Lieb und Glück ein Schein: ♦ Behüt dich Gott, es wär so schön gewesen ♦ Behüt dich Gott, es hat nicht sollen sein

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Friday, 12 February 2010

The English Hurricane: 20 years on

English people constantly talk about weather. It's in our makeup, our genes - we can't possibly walk past someone, even a total stranger, without saying something about it. We can't help it, no matter how much we realise that the person isn't that interested (or even doesn't speak English). We rattle on about too much rain, too little rain, too much sun, no sun, cold for the time of year, how warm it is. And to prove the point, this post is about weather and, no, I'm not going to apologise about it. By the way, we had a fantastic sunset in the secret valley a couple of days ago.
I think the reason we may behave like this is because English weather is nearly always gentle. The landscape that makes up England is beautiful and can be dramatic but not in the way of so many other countries. Take the USA, for example. Where's our Grand Canyon, our towering redwoods, our Rocky Mountains, our Great Plains and our Niagara Falls? We have them in miniature and, perhaps, that is just as well as we are such a small country. And likewise, our weather: we have heatwaves, we have floods, we have blizzards. But they are rarely anything truly spectacular (except to those poor people affected by them, of course). And so when we were told by the weather men in 1987 that reports of a hurricane were completely exaggerated, we believed them totally. And despite the fact that much of the country was hit hard by it when it arrived, my part of the Chiltern Hills where I lived at the time was not much affected, even though it is one of the most wooded parts of the country.
The night in January 1990 was different. This time we had winds, whilst not as severe as three years earlier, which created total havoc with the already weakened root systems of the trees. Great swathes of the magnificent beech woods that are the very heart and soul of the Chilterns were flattened in a couple of hours. (I am reminded by my partner, that as the rest of the world cowered in their beds as the trees came crashing down all around, I woke up to say "a bit windy out there" before falling asleep again). As dawn broke the true damage could be seen.

Fast forward twenty years to 2010 and the woodands are transformed. Those of us that remember the 200 year old beech know that the majority are gone and, in their place, are new trees of mixed species. It will be many years before the magnificence of the woods return but they are healing. This photo below is taken from the same spot as the one above. Some of the biggest old stumps have been left, too difficult to move - time has hardly changed their appearance apart from their 'roof' of mosses.

One of the unforeseen benefits of the hurricane is the increased amount of light reaching the woodland floor, for beech trees cast a dense shade where little can grow, other than where the canopy is lightest. Apart from the view to the valley below, which was unseen before, many wild flowers are better now than ever. Roll on April when we can see the blue carpet of tens of thousands of bluebells disappearing into the distance.

Oh! And I nearly forgot to say, the weather today is a mix of sunshine, cold winds, rain and sleet. Don't forget to tell the next person you meet!

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Friday, 5 February 2010

Plant Combinations in the Summer Border

When I designed the summer border (featured in the last post) I made a conscious effort to experiment with plant combinations. Mostly, the results were pleasing - to my eyes , anyway - and sometimes surprising. The brief from my client was to keep the planting relatively low and to give the border a cottage feel rather than, say, the new 'prairie' style. They were not plantsmen or even keen to garden themselves: the only plant they really knew they wanted, and in quantity, were lavenders. This gave me my starting point.

The lavender hedge not only gave me plenty of lavenders, it also softened the curved and hard edge of the stone path that extended the whole length of the border. An unforeseen bonus was with the reflected heat from the stone - it seemed to heighten their scent, filling the air along with myriads of bees and butterflies that were attracted to it. Another good bee plant was Purple Loosetrife, Lythrum salicifolium, a native plant normally found in damp places and by pond edges. This is a garden cultivar 'Robert', which is shorter than the type and was quite at home in ordinary garden soil. The ground cover rose 'Magic Carpet' was a close match in colour, the result quite strident but tempered by the lighter centre of the rose flower. I wouldn't describe this as me at my most subtle!

A much quieter planting and taking cottage style to it's extreme was this combination of Icelandic poppies and scabious. I didn't notice the bumblebee at the time but it really 'makes' the photo! The Magic Carpet rose looks much easier on the eye planted against lavender and red sage.
Climbing roses are a passion - no garden should be without at least one. This is a David Austin variety called Snow Goose and is one of my signature plants: it goes into many of the gardens I work with. It is easy, disease free, relatively low growing (about 9ft) so ideal for all sorts of odd corners. It sadly lacks scent which normally would rule it out for me. Certain plants such as roses, sweet peas and pinks, for example, have to have scent, for surely that is their 'raison d'etre'. Here Snow Goose is growing through Photinia davidiana 'Palette' which is being trained as a wall shrub. I love the way the tiny white flowers of the Photinia mimic the rose and the white splashes on the leaves are emphasised by the flower colour.

Rosa glauca is another rose that I use regularly. It is grown mostly for its wonderful foliage although the flowers are pretty, if somewhat fleeting. This shrub rose will grow to 6ft or more but to get the best foliage and stem colour it is best to prune it hard. Cut back severely it sends out these long, dusky wands which are perfect for cutting for use in the house. Here it is teamed with the Oriental poppy 'Patty's Plum'. The poppy was planted inside a trio of the roses which hides the poppy's leaves as these tend to become rather shabby. The thorns of the rose also hook the floppy stems of the poppy flowers which means that there is no need for staking and tying in: why bother with a chore like that when nature can do it for you?

A combination of blues against a blue sky using Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella), Salvia nemerosa 'Rugen' and two Iris, 'Jane Phillips', pale blue with a pleasant scent and 'Deep Blue' with its dark, almost black flowers. The tall, ferny foliage in the background is the giant scabious, Cephalaria giganteum. Its pale yellow flowers give a complete colour variation to this part of the border as the iris fade and the Cephalaria opens to glow like moonshine behind the nigella and salvia.

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