Tuesday, 14 September 2010


A fly struggles in vain, on an American sundew, Drosera filiformis, at Hampshire Carnivorous Plants' nursery.

A jaunt to Hampshire recently, mainly to visit the Hampshire Carnivorous Plants Nursery but more on that in a moment.

We also toured the fascinating Silk Mill, at Whitchurch – surely the world's most elegant factory – and strolled along the banks of the River Test. (Piscators among you will acknowledge that the Test is probably the world's finest chalk stream and therefore offers the best brown trout fishing that a shedload of money, or the having the right relatives, will buy.)

We watched several large trout lying in wait for floating flies, their thrush-speckled flanks showing against the fluorescent green of the water crowfoot. Wickedly, I imagined how sweet and delicate their flesh would taste, if swiftly cooked as in Truite au bleu and served with a flinty Pouilly Fumé, or perhaps flash-grilled in foil on a barbecue, right there on the bosky river bank, helped down with a light summer ale.

Anyway, with tea and Whitchurch behind us, we arrived at our B&B, a working dairy farm of some 90 milkers, nestling in the beautifully folded, wood-sprinkled Hampshire country side. We knocked on the door but no one answered. We wandered round the house, calling. Suddenly, I was reminded of those aimless wandering scenes round the gardens in Last Year in Marienbad – what was that incomprehensible film all about???? – and began to feel rather silly. A horse hung its head over the fence and nodded sympathetically and outside the back door, an enormous shaggy cat lay, relaxed but with one yellow eye open and suspicious, fixed on us.

Suddenly the back door burst open and a small boy of about nine emerged. He had a wafer cornet in one hand with a huge, precarious mound of vanilla ice on top. Adults and girls open doors to enter or exit; small boys explode through them, just as they crash land into chairs.

'Ah!' he exclaimed, looking startled. 'Um. . .'

'We've come to stay,' the PG explained. I could see that she was about to go motherly.

'Yes . . . I'll . . . um, have to phone Mum,' he said, dubiously, taking a quick lick at his ice cream and eyeing us. He darted into the house and was seen juggling the unstable ice cream and a mobile phone. The angle of repose, on the cornet reached critical point, but miraculously, the vanilla blob stayed in place. It's a wonder he didn't shove the thing in his ear and munch on the phone.

There was a brief exchange and he re-dialled, another feat of co-ordination. More phone conversation, for some reason, yelled. The signal was bad, he explained. Mum was at Tesco's. He showed the PG the bookings list and said 'Would you know if you were on this list?'

'I think we probably would,' she replied, with exemplary diplomacy. 'I think that's our name, there.'

'Then I'm to show you your room,' he said, and with the icecream melting by now, and running over his small, starfish hand, he replaced the phone and rummaged for a key. It was rather sticky, when he handed it over.

Moments later, his father came charging over, presumably from the milking parlour, it being late afternoon, and took over. He made us a cup tea, chatted briefly to make us welcome and scarpered back to his beasts. Mum double checked that we were all right, and that our room was acceptable, as soon as she returned from Tesco. She also recommended a fine local pub for dinner and then left us to soak up the beauty of rural Hampshire.

So, which would you rather have? A family reception like that, or to check in at an impersonal, sterile, overpriced hotel chain dump?

You know the sort of thing:
"Welcome to – insert choice of hotel chain – your satisfaction means everything to us! Later, we'll flog you cheap supermarket plonque at £8.75 per glass, service not included, in the 'Ride 'em Cowboy Saloon, or the 'Rinky Zinky Cocktail Lounge' or the 'Low-light Fake Library with Hunting Scenes Bar' at £8.75 a glass, service not included.

After that, you can tackle and inedible meal chosen from our recently ponced up menu! We use important words like 'jus,' 'coulis' and 'drizzled' and, more recently, 'local' and 'from sustainable sources' to make you think our crap is prepared by imaginative chefs and not slammed from freezer to microwave to table, every portion controlled to the nearest milligramme. YOUR PLEASURE IS OUR BUSINESS!"

Drosera aliciae - I think. The droplets are exquisite when they catch the sun.

Anyway, as I was saying, the PG and I had driven down to spend the morning with the remarkably plant-erudite but refreshingly un-nerdy Matthew Soper, and with fellow guests - all members of the RHS Tender Ornamental Plants Committee.

Matthew owns and runs Hampshire Carnivorous Plants and has a comprehensive collection of pitcher plants, bladderworts, sundews, flytraps and so on. He likes to get his hands on pretty well any member of the plant world that is non-vegetarian and showed us some of the secrets of propagation, management and breeding of these potential cast members of Little Shop of Horrors.

The key to all is rain water. The slightest trace of chalk or chlorine will do his plants a terrible mischief, so he has elaborate rainwater gathering devices and grows everything in soil-free mediums - or, if you must, media.

And his plants are anything but tender. They have evolved successfully by adapting to mossy peat bog habitats where soil nutrients are virtually unavailable. Catching insects provides a source of nitrogen and other mineral elements and enables them to survive where other plants would perish. Some of his plants come from as far north as Canada - I've seen one species of Sarracenia wild in upstate New York, myself, so I know he speaks the truth. So it would be wrong to assume that these toughies need mollycoddling in a greenhouse at home.

Matthew showed us bladderworts which spring traps for catching tiny invertebrates in wet ground, or in water, using tiny hydraulic trap doors which snap open on a hair trigger and suck passing creatures in, to a slow death. We photographed beautiful, but deadly sundews, sinister Venus' fly traps and greatly enjoyed learning so much from Matthew. After our visit, he joined us in the local pub for more 'teach-in' over a pleasant lunch.

Moment of demise, a greenbottle being caught by a Venus' Flytrap.

I'd like to be listening to Wagner's Wesendonk Songs, sung by Jessye Norman, but think I've accidentally dumped the file.

This week's film was Sin Nombre, Fukunaga's finely crafted but dark work about gangs in Mexico. In view of the awful recent bloodshed among drug gangs, it was an apt choice. The horrors of gang violence and their inverted morality have been covered again and again, since cinema was invented, but this was a deftly told, beautifully shot piece which pulled no punches.

This day in 2007 we had the plasterers in, to 'do out' our new utility room. They were months late but worked superbly. And I was writing a book for the RHS about the new Glasshouse.

Bye bye for now.


  1. I would prefer your B&B to somewhere like a premier inn any day where all the rooms are identical, you could be anywhere in the country and the receptionists are Barbie clone with that strange fixed smile.

    Fascinated to learn that these plants arent necessarily tender. Find myself drawn to them at shows so I might have a go now

  2. I prefer your B&B most of the time. Other times I hanker for the anonymity of the chain hotel as then I do not have to chat to anybody.
    Cheery welcomes and kitchen table small talk is all very well except when actually all one wants to do is lie in the bath watching The Magnificent Seven.

    Matthew Soper is a sterling fellow: I interviewed him many years ago for the Express, I don't think the rotters ever published it. He was relatively new to the scene then and I am always pleased when he gets yet another Gold Medal.

    I see you are being wise at the Malvern Autumn Show, hopefully I will see you there as I am making a flying visit on Saturday morning.

  3. I am inordinately delighted by your description of the boy's hand as a "small, starfish hand" - that is beautiful.

  4. Hi there, long time reader, first time commenter(commenting, with comments?) I loved the description of boys exploding through doors and crash landing into chairs. I have a 7 year old laying about at home who does exactly this( when he isn't laying about). I will remember this post for a long time. Thanks

  5. Whitchurch also has a wonderful dolls house shop. We nearly bought a house there but were rather put off by the huge number of very noisy nearby roads (that accounts for most of Hampshire actually).

    I also used to live close to the banks of the Test (not On The Test as that would make me a multi-millionaire). Wherwell is another utterly beautiful village everyone should see once before they die.

  6. PS actually I've realised we did buy a house in Whitchurch - trouble is it was 1:25 scale and is now sitting in my daughter's bedroom stuffed with very odd looking people eating from unfeasibly small teasets.

  7. Constant Gardener - lucky you! Hampshire is so gorgeous, once you get beyond Basingstoke. We'll 'do' Wherwell next time we go down that way.

    HappyMouffetard - thanks! I probably subconsciously lifted the metaphor from somewhere, but a child's hands are a bit like starfish, I think - slightly more pudgy and less veiny than adults' and with more splayed fingers.

    Anon - thanks for your comment. It'd be lovely to know who you are - but don't feel obligated.

    Patient Gardener - do try growing something carnivorous, and good luck! I'm sure I'd kill them off in a day, if I tried, despite their being easy.

    James - you're getting outrageously spoilt. And anyway, the Magnificent Seven is absolutely not bathtime material. For that, you need something soporific or at least, distinctly un-stimulating. Yul Brynner has the tightest trousers and the campest walk ever filmed, in the Mag 7 and I'm not at all sure you should be watching that sort of thing in the bath, if at all. See you at Malvern.


  8. Tx for your comment - and - yes to Pel fugidum, but I put that on Cape Columbine post. Are the poppies a problem? They are grown in our gardens, but overflowing in drifts from wheatfields makes me a bit nervous.
    There is something enticing about sundews, but I prefer that murder and mayhem on the mountain, not in my face, in my garden.

  9. What a coincidence!

    I've just got back from a stay near Whitchurch, but the Shropshire version rather than Hampshire and our canalside cottage just happened to be slap bang in the Whixall Moss National Nature Reserve, which is a haven for Drosera. So much so that Drosera is designated as Shropshire's county plant.

    Our cottage was stuffed with books about the local area, including a very comprehensive one about the nature reserve. It contained a fascinating description about Spahgnum mosses adaptation to the acid conditions of our mires and bogs. So much so, it even modifies the environment where it is growing to become even more acid and waterlogged.

    Sadly my camera isn't up to doing the sundews I found justice, so it's rather good to find you've posted some fine shots in my absence - thank you!

    It was a marvellous area to be staying - particularly as our cottage's garden also contained damson and perry pear trees, so I've returned home loaded with booty :)

  10. Hi Nigel, I'm Donna. I live in Adelaide. I love reading your Blog. I also follow JAS.I have no clue who either of you are, although James must think he is a bit famous. Can you confirm? If you do the Facebook thing you can see me over at Hot to Trot Gourmet.Thanks again for your post. This weekend I smiled indulgently as #2 crashed landed in chairs and exploded through doors. Sometimes the best parenting tips come from the funniest places. Boy will be boys. Hooray.

  11. Donna - nice to meet you. You're right, JAS is a massive superstar in the Greenfingered world, here, and regularly hobnobs with other equally illustrious gardeners, garden designers and greenfolk.

    He has also been winning prizes for his blog, on an annual basis. Much of his fame stems from his habit of wearing outrageously conspicuous head gear. This is usually a hat with a brim wide enough to accommodate his burgeoning intellect, but worn at an angle which ensures that the handsomely manly features are subtly lit.

    He does, it has to be admitted, design some superb gardens and has done much about this in the world of television.

    I know of few vices - even though we shared a stage show for a while - other than an inordinate attraction to cakes and biscuits of the cheapest and nastiest kind. If, for instance, he were to call on you in Adelaide, he'd want to know where the best Lamingtons could be obtained. Over here in the UK, he is known to scoff down Mr Kipling's abominations with supreme gusto and to hanker after Jaffa Cakes - a tendency to be pitied, rather than disapproved of.

    That should give you an accurate portrait of the great man.

  12. James? In Adelaide? Is that likely? Anyway I would delicately advise against Lamingtons and suggest ANZACs. Much nicer in my opin. I'm sure I could rustle up some cheap, nasty ones if needed. I've been rude. Asking about J's famousness, and not about yours. I bet it's all book signings and media dos for you too. I am cluttering up your comment section? Do you mind?

  13. I met Matthew Soper in Hampshire a few years ago, when my son was 11 and heavily into carnivorous plants, and I can recall the delighted look on Mathhew's face when my son was able to name many of his beloved plants. I didn't have a clue!

    The Test is one of those few rivers that also have some decent pubs along its banks, something that is a bit of a rarity these days. The pubs, and also the B&Bs in that area, are usually very good, with excellent food.

    I sound like a tourist board advert!

    No, I enjoyed your post, it brought back pleasant memories of when I lived in Hampshire.