Wednesday 28 July 2010


I haven't posted a word since 9th July. I'm mortified, ashamed, filled with remorse, shocked and contrite. Sorry. Sorry. And sorry, too, for being so behind with everyone else's post. I see there are Garden Monkey posts. Goody! But no JAS posts - or am I missing them since he went all Wordpressy.

BTW - the title refers to the dragon in the Mediaeval Tapestry of the Apocalypse, at Angers.

The garden at L'Hôpital Saint Jean, Angers - in Anjou - built by Henry the Second as penance for having Thomas Becket bumped off. It now accommodates a museum featuring the work of tapestry artist Jean Lurcat. See about him here.

The garden was dry and dead. Now it's wet and dead. I walk like The Curse of the Mummy and will need surgery on spine and hip. Harrruummmph!!!! My days are made tolerable by iPod, iPhone, iPad and iBuprofen - ha! ha! The latter I take in gargantuan doses, but I'm more seriously addicted to the iPad which I absolutely love apart from one or two MADDENING things . . . but there'll be some serious colborning on that one, soon.

The hyped up ibuprofen pills are a shockingly bright pink, presumably designed as lures for small children and have to be taken with food - pills, that is, not children. I find whisky a good accompaniment, especially if there's also some dark chocolate.

Our most riveting garden event since 9th July was the flowering of my tuberose Polianthes tuberosa. The fragrance is complex and erotic and for some days, Wendy has been smelling like a scene from the Tales of a Thousand and One Arabian Nights. She's also burgeoning with tomatoes and cucumbers, both kinds - 'lunch box' and 'impressively endowed.'

The best tomatoes are 'Sungold.' The new variety 'Cherry Falls' has as much flavour as a tissue moistened with distilled water. It's high-yielding, but what good is that if the flavour is so feeble? I shan't grow it again.

The old variety 'Tigerella' tastes almost as bland as 'Cherry Falls' but it looks prettier when ripening. The big, Marmande tomatoes I bought in Carrefour, in Calais, last week, tasted better than all of mine mine, apart from 'Sungold' which, as I've already said, is the best.

I promised a little more about Angers and Terra Botanica. I think it's best told in pictures so I'll keep the wordage brief.

The interior of the Saint John (Jean) hospital, now serving as a museum whose main treasure is a modern Apocalyptic Tapestry by Jean Lurcat. It was inspired by the Cold War. Lurcat served in trenches, in the First War and was a member of the Resistance during the German Occupation in World War 2.

The city is totally charming, with masses of ancient buildings - cathedral, one of France's largest Mediaeval castles, the Cathedral of Saint Maurice, abbey, churches and much more besides. Narrow cobbled streets in the old part of town are almost traffic-free and the view from the river bank, looking back to the oldest part of the Angers is delightful.

Outside the Musée de Beaux Arts. Sorry, I didn't record the name of the artist - rubbish journalism!

My assignment was to write a travel piece about Angers and particularly to report on Terra Botanica, a new theme park occupying a 17 hectare site on the city's outskirts. What a dream of a job!

Terra Botanica - the restaurant, looking through the animated fountains. The food was designed by local Chef Pascal Favre d'Anne (see him here) and and includes top notch hamburgers - yes, hamburgers BUT eco-friendly and made exclusively from local farms. He calls them 'Hambur 'verts'

The 17 hectares are divided into four big theme gardens covering plant hunters, crops and economic crops, botany and horticultural science and local Maine-et-Loire horticulture crop farming and viticulture. There are lots of gardens, film shows, animated shows and boat rides. You can learn more here.

Stylised washing as an art form in Terra Botanica

A quiet place - unusual in this frenetic theme park.

Grass gardening at Terra Botanica

I'm Listening to, would you believe, the Yin Tong Song from the Goon Show. Ying tong diddle I poh!

This time last year I could walk five miles without aching. Now I do well if I can cover five hundred yards.

The film - well, Telly Programme was Sherlock, the new BBC 1 drama. It was OK, up to a point but irritating at many levels. Great story, intelligent transmogrification from Victorian Baker Street. BUT - the filming drove me nuts and a taxi chase, with the anaemic looking Holmes and Watson on foot was daft. But thank heavens for a Dr Watson who isn't a knucklehead - now that's far closer to the real Conan Doyle. Plus, they're sort of metrosexual, type thingies. Tom Sutcliffe gave it an orgasmic review in The Independent. I wonder if he's a good friend of Mark Gatiss????

Good Byeeeee

Friday 9 July 2010


NOW THEN, NOW THEN! (Why do people say 'now then?' It's nonsensical - a self contradiction in two words. Barmy. We should think up a new way of ahemming for attention.

But to get to the point:

The image below is included mainly for the delectation of Ms Arabella Sock, in recognition of her illustrious blogging achievements in food, gardens and other mises en bouches of this extraordinary life, and in particular as a mark of congratulation on her NEW FENCE.

The piccy is of a wall made entirely of gabions - those abominations of engineering, crafted to stop cliffs falling onto motorways but snatched up gleefully by assorted garden designers, and those who go through the motions of design (you know who you are.)

Named after 'gabbione' which is, according to Wikipedia, Eyetie for 'cage,' these objects, like vertical gardens, black granite kitchen surfaces, carpetless restaurants and those things that super-chefs use to turn perfectly good food into cuckoo spit, will eventually be recognised for what they are - banes, rather than boons to Mankind, and to Man Unkind as well, for that matter.

Anyway, as a mark of respect, I dedicate this gabionic construction to the Sock who, I suspect, actually has a tiny gabionini somewhere about her garden.

I have to say, that this particular wall of gabions, with its streaks of coloured stones, including limestone, slate from schist and some reddish stuff I wasn't able to identify is rather impressive.

I spotted it in the new Terra Botanica, an 'Edutainment Park' at Angers, in Anjou. More on that later, when I've picked up the rest of the piccies from Boots. (The PG stayed at home, so the pics will probably be substandard.)

Joyful things.
1. The swallows have flown their nest - all five - and now zoom about the garden by day but rush home to Mum and Dad for night roosting in the garage. They've crapped all over the barbecue which will probably improve the flavour of my burnt offerings next time it's wheeled out for use.

2 Last summer was such a pile of pants, weatherwise, that I don't think we barbecued once. This year, each week end, we sacrifice sausages or chicken with veggie kebabs and sweetcorn which is nicer, if almost but not quite burnt to ruination, rather than boiled up in a saucepan in the kitchen.

3. Wendy, the greenhouse, has produced a tuberose flower spike, despite my inept plant management in which I managed to rot off two of the three bulbs.

4. The mock orange in the shelter belt which hides our back garden from the village street is full of blossom. We can't see a single flower - they're all on the street side - but when in bed, with the windows open, the entire room is filled with delicious scent.

5. The iPad is amazing. I'm reading Penelope Lively's Family Portrait on it. The book cost a little less than a paperback but is more convenient. I can alter the font, the type size, can book mark where I got to and so on. What an absolutely brilliant gadget this machine is.

A very, very sad thing.
I looked out of the window this morning and saw that one of the swifts which nest in our roof had fallen. Swifts live almost every moment of their lives on the wing, landing only when they nest. They even sleep on the wing. This one had probably been hit by a raptor - we have a marauding hobby which swoops over frequently, trying to snatch up swallow or house martins and was lying, with a few feathers round it, on our terrace.

I picked it up and tried to launch it - that's what you do with a fallen swift. The tiny legs, almost vestigial, end in long, sharp claws which grip with amazing tightness and pierced my skin. That surprised me because it had seemed very weak. It was a young bird, hatched this year and until now had obviously been healthy and in good order. I tried a launch, but alas, it was too badly hurt and unable to fly. My attempts merely caused it further distress, and there was, very sadly, only one further option.

That put a big black cloud over the morning. Nature is a vicious, nasty, ruthless bitch and there are times when I really hate her. It shouldn't have to be so agonising, but it is. Damn it.

My meadow thrives, despite the drought. Lady's bedstraw and field scabious are flowering for the first time this summer but our star wildling was still the spotted orchid which we spotted - ha ha - earlier. It's the one place where I'm actually allowing lesser bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis. I think it will do no harm and you cannot deny that the flowers are exquisite. Distinctly prettier than C. sabateus, which we pay good money for, and also rather more variable.

I'm listening to Schubert's Der Winterreise, A legendary recording with Benjamin Britten accompanying Peter Pears. Britten's playing is riddled with verve and vim.

This time in 2006 I had gout in my right foot but managed to prune a big Ceanothus dentatus and a small Brachyglottis greyi before watching Federer beat Rafael Nadal. The PG and I watched Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, that evening.

This week's adventure was to travel by train from Peterborough to Kings Cross, to Saint Pancras, to Lille and thence to Angers. What a thrill to be in Anjou, the epicentre of the Plantagenet Dynasty and to bathe in Angevin culture for three delirious days. And to think I was paid to go there! More on that later.

The TGV train broke down about 20 minutes short of Angers station but had the good nature to stop so that my window looked out onto a patch of trackside wildflowers. I watched Marbled Whites, a fast flying fritillary of some kind, Chalk Hill Blues and other intriguing butterflies for the hour we had to wait while they magicked up another locomotive.

Despite the breakdown, I'd recommend the train over beastly aircraft any day. Civilised travel, what?

Bye bye.

Friday 2 July 2010


What a gut-churning mix of sadness and joy this week!

On Wednesday, the PG and I paid our respects to friend and colleague Professor John MaCleod.

John died at 70, after a valiant fight with cancer, a few days before retiring from RHS Council and was about to become one of the Society's Vice Presidents. His scientific reputation was massive - he had been Director and later, Trustee, of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany as well as having served as RHS Professor of Science for almost ten years.

He was the friendliest of men, tweedy and leonine in appearance, with a fiercely honed intellect, effervescent sense of humour and a startling ability to absorb a mass of information, sift it, digest it and come up with a thorough analysis in a bewilderingly short time.

The church, in a Cambridgeshire village – nice rood screen and curious pulpit – was packed with friends and colleagues. No fewer than five speakers paid tribute to him, unfolding stories about the man, his times and achievements in such a way that his stature grew with every sentence and our sense of loss cut deeper.

But as always, with such experiences, there was great pleasure in remembering joyful moments with John. No one could demolish a plate of sandwiches with such speed and gusto, though his manners were perfect. And the thought of confronting him on the Rugby field - he was a front row forward - would have filled me with dread, if we'd met 50 years ago.

The 'story teller's chair' in the Teaching Garden at RHS Harlow Carr. The Bramall Learning Centre is in the background.

The bittersweet flavour continued to shape the week but at a far more trivial level. My time as a member of the Royal Horticultural Society's Council has come to an end.

Still wearing somber garb, we drove from John's service up to Harrogate for a tour of the brand new Bramall Learning Centre at Harlow Carr Garden. You can find details here but there's nothing like seeing it for yourself. What impressed was the way in which natural light floods the rooms. You feel that the garden is in the room with you, and when the trees lose their leaves and the skyline drops, in winter, the lower light source will create a different effect.

The library, in the Bramall Centre, is one of the most attractive I have ever entered. I kept sneaking back, pretending to look things up in books, but in reality, admiring the layout, the airiness and the accessibility. It's almost impossible to tear yourself away.

The building itself, we were told, is one of the greenest in Britain, complying with all the latest carbon-related diktats and recommendations. (Details here.)

At Betty's Restaurant, Harlow Carr, enjoyed a slap up dinner. This was given as a gesture of thanks to those of us who are leaving Council, and particularly to the retiring President, Giles Coode-Adams.

Giles was hastily handed the reins when Peter Buckley died so unexpectedly and so shockingly late in 2008, and found himself steering the Society through a rather difficult patch. He proved to be a strong, stable hand at the tiller, always maintaining a positive stance, always expressing calm confidence. I'm going to miss his wisdom and his positive attitude enormously.

At yesterday's Annual General Meeting, in a tent at Harlow Carr, I handed back my badge of office, along with the other outgoing Council members and walked away feeling a huge sense of relief, mingled with almost unbearable sadness.

There was also a sense of guilt – still is – because I had completed only eight of my allotted ten years. My dodgy physical condition, plus the need to take on more paid work than I expected to be doing at 66 – thank you, bankers, pension funds and other financial advisors! – meant that there was less time to give to the RHS. And it is never right to commit to any volunteer job, unless you are prepared to give it your all.

I'll still be doing lots for the RHS, but it will be less pressured.

I can also be far more objective when discussing the Society, or writing about it. And far less in inhibited about criticising, whenever I think it's going wrong. Perhaps some remarks about children? (But not now, not here and not - well, not yet, anyway.)

Thalictrum delavayi - my current favourite meadow rue.

The garden is a disgusting, weedy mess but some of the plants are looking wonderful and Wendy if busting out in tomatoes and cucumbers. I'm trying not to weep at the seeding sow thistles, but it's not easy.

I grow our native meadow common meadow rue, Thalictrum flavum which is quietly handsome, but not a patch on the delectable Asian species. It grows wild, in the Fen, so I feel it deserves its place on our side of the hedge, too.

T. delavayi is my current fave, though, pictured above. The tufted purple tassels of F. aquilegifolia make it a close second. There's also a double-flowered T. delavayi, but all I can say to that is why? When the single, lilac flowers are such a delight.

I'm listening to Beethoven's String Quartet Opus 59 no. 1 One of the Rasumovsky Quartets.

Film of the week was. Salon Kitty, a 1976 rudery by pornographer-cum-director (whoops, pardon missus) Tinto Brass. It's long, and dwells rather lingeringly on genitalia, perversions and abnormalities of a sexual nature. (Whatever normalities might be.) The piece also creates a preposterous vision of the Third Reich. But it is not nearly so bad a film as first appears. It begins with remarkably Cabaret-like sequences, borrowing from paintings by Otto Dix (also worth looking at here) and continues to undermine one's security with hideous visions of exploitation and deceit. Helmut Berger, as the immaculate, but repulsively degenerate 'model Nazi' is utterly convincing. The rest of the plot is weak as water, but the compelling, self-destroying process is hypnotic.

This time in 2002 I was in a state of mild shock, having just become a Council Member of the RHS. At Hampton court, that year, retiring member - Christine Skelmersdale and the ex-Treasurer, Martin Slocock wined and dined the PG and me, along with fellow council rookie and whizz kid landscape designer Michael Balston, at Hampton Court. No nancy table cloths or frilled waiters for us, thank you very much. No no! We formed our own little enclave, by the water, in a quiet corner, with our own hamper.

We had a table of sorts, and chairs, but more important than any of that, we had wine, wit, merriment and warm companionship. Two lasting memories of that night - apart from all the joy and stuff - was a gigantic basket of luscious, dark cherries and finishing the evening sipping a magnificent vintage white bordeaux. I'm pretty sure it was a Sauternes, but can't recall which estate it came from.

Oh, and here's the blushing confession: while everyone was watching the Hampton Fireworks, I discovered that I had absent-mindedly grabbed one of the bottles of the delectably raisiny, musty, golden wine and was swigging directly from it. Disgraceful! But then, at every good party there's always someone who just goes that bit too far.

Bye bye for now.