The trials and tribulations of
An independent designer.
An independent designer.
o, last month I went to Chelsea flower show…
It coincides with a friend’s birthday and attending has become a bit of a tradition. Over the years we’ve developed a well-oiled routine which consists of tea, and or coffee, cake, plants, Pimms, then more plants and on until they shut the gates and we float out. This year it was just as fantastical; crackling with colour, dazzling fashion, scarlet Chelsea Pensioners, and that subliminal, background, hum of insects taking advantage of the sudden appearance of all those flowers; oblivious to the riotous circus that accompanies them. All set against an avenue of huge, plane trees, full of chattering parakeet; swaying and whispering in the breeze, seemingly breathing in and out like huge lungs, distributing their silent, barbed, seeds down onto a sea of sneezing and coughing people. So, just as bonkers, just as fragrant; just as magical.
In previous years, I would have had a long shopping list, more often than not, yet another impossibly blue Delphinium from Blackmore & Langdon, which, upon receipt, I would instantly feed to the slugs. And nearly always, a Hosta from Bowden’s nursery… because, you just can’t have enough of those. This year I found myself on their stand looking at some rather frivolous ferns and before I knew it, money was changing hands and plants were ordered, this time, curtesy of my friend. Whilst we were taking a break; soaking up the ambiance, I found myself wondering, what on earth it is about gardening that draws us all there year after year? Why are we so passionate about plants? and it can’t just be about the Pimms, although, I’m sure thaathelptzsz. I suppose like many things; the answer is slightly different for every person. I grew up gardening with my dad and it’s something I’ve always done. I didn’t think about it much when I had a garden, but now I’m living in a flat; suspended; separated from the ground, the desire to re-connect with it has become all consuming. My son keeps saying to me, as he catches me smuggling just one more pot onto the balcony, “Mum please don’t spend any more money on plants, we really can’t afford it at the moment” He’s right of course; isn’t it annoying when your child is more grown up than you? I try hard to explain to him why it’s important, but I’m failing, I’m not sure I really know myself. So, I thought I would try and explain it here and then maybe he will read it one day, or maybe he won’t because, it’s my job to show understanding and listen to him, and his job? is to do the absolute opposite; and that’s how it should be… but for what it’s worth? here goes:
I often feel that people emit a kind of energy, frequency if you will. You will meet someone and you might say, “We’re on the same wave length”, another will, “give you a bad feeling” and I think the same is true of things and places. Some places make you feel “At peace” others jar and fill you with unease. But if you’re lucky, maybe once in a life time, you will find a place that resonates at the same frequency as you, and you cancel each other out; then? there is silence; ground zero. Such a place was my garden.
Now my world is often full of clatter and noise, the cacophony of other peoples’ lives but while I’m working around plants, I can bring this down to a dull hum. Of course, I’m privileged, really privileged, to still have access to this greater environment, and it wraps itself around me like an old familiar coat. But each day when I leave, I must hang it at the gate, often forgetting, it’s no longer mine…and the noise begins.
And that’s it really, for me? Gardening brings calm. Growing things grounds you and resets your perspective when there is none to be had. I think it’s also humbling to be part of something that’s far bigger than you. In a way, gardeners are horticultural Time Lords, reaching into the future, then watching while the future comes to them. Bringing plants to our balcony is, for now anyway, fulfilling this need.
So how is that balcony?
Well, as far as the planting has gone, it’s early days, but on the whole, I’m pleased with the results. Conscious of the weight distribution, I’ve kept the planting to the edges and corners, leaving space for an extreeemely small table and chairs; which I’m saving up for. I’ve discovered that it’s getting more sun than I was expecting, and have expanded the planting a little to take advantage of this. I estimate that by the summer equinox, on 21st June, the sun will be on 1/2 of it for about 6 hours a day. And on this day, table or no table, we must rush out and spend all day eating creams teas and/or drinking champagne because, on the 22nd? It’s all downhill. In hindsight, I was perhaps a little optimistic about how far the rose would grow in a season, but have planted a couple of things that should fill the gaps. I was also wildly optimistic about my carpentry skills; I should never get involved with carpentry, it never ends well. I’d seen a planting tower in a garden centre, but it was heavy and I couldn’t justify the cost, so thought, as I often do...” I will make one, how hard can that be”? I asked someone If they would cut me 3 small shelves but, misunderstanding their purpose, he cut them out of MDF...the single, most absorbent substance known to mankind and, if nailed into horizontally…has the architectural properties of a bag of dust. I spent days priming, undercoating and painting them so they would be able to cope with moister, but I needn’t have worried because, the first time I put a pot on them one of the legs developed a nasty bow; they are going to give up waaay before the MDF has a chance to disintegrate. I’ve given my drawings to a real carpenter now. I’ve also decided that the corner where the planting tower is/will be, is very dark. so, added a handful of Mediterranean tiles. This has given the area a visual lift, it also plays with perspective a little, squaring what is, in the end, a deep, narrow, space. I’ve complimented this by using blue and white Spode plates underneath the pots. I’ve got to be honest, it’s beginning to look like the Isle of Capri in that corner.
So, ask me “why”? In a green and white planting scheme, I’ve chosen to introduce Mediterranean blue...go on ask me…. I’m not going to tell you, you’ll have to wait until next month.
Early days yet...
(On order) Bowden’s Nursery.
These will replace the hostas as
they will require more space to flower.
Mediterranean Tiles: Seville Persian Blue.
Porcelain Super Store.
I’m having to be mindful of weight here, but they are a mixture of my own, pots gifted to me from the Victorian glass house at work, and this company.
Available from most garden centres, but I bought them, the hanging baskets, and the mixed planting, from Aylett’s Nursey.
Impossibly blue Delphiniums:
Blackmore & Langdon’s
I haven’t got any of these, but you have to take a look.
Spode plates and any mixed china:
Charity shops and far, far too much time on ebay.
If you’ve just stumbled on this blog, you might have to scroll down to the last entry, otherwise this one will make absolutely no sense.
o, it turns out, you can remove the gardener from the garden, but you can’t take the garden, out of the gardener. As spring moves forward, the urge to plant, prune and deadhead things becomes overwhelming and I’ve decided the best way around this? is to cram as many plants as possible onto the tiny balcony attached to my flat, but it’s going to need quite a bit of planning.
My first instinct would be to plant something that’s familiar and recreate elements from my lost garden however, over the last few weeks I’ve come to realize, like so many gardens, some of its’ magic lies in its’ context. Set within a tiny estate village, dotted with ancient wood land, then land locked in a sea of fields and meadows, the air was always full of birdsong and thick with aromas. Jewel like Wall flowers in early Spring, clouds of scented bluebells in May, and then in quick succession, avenues of blousy rhododendron and woodbine. In summer, garden honeysuckle, hot, drying hay and roses, always roses. A place for all the senses, slightly out of time with the world, but in time with me. I loved these heady scents when I lived there…they’re stronger now I’ve left.
So, if not my old garden, what? A starting point could be the plants that came with me, which I love. But, these are plants whose roots were laid down in another time, it’s important now to plant something that puts down roots in this one, and so, as on so many occasions I’ve turned to the rose. I ordered a beautiful, white scented variety from David Austin Roses, over time this should slowly wrap itself around the edge of the balcony…the inside? well that’s a blank page, full of endless possibilities. I could recreate the gardens of Versailles, or maybe the breath-taking parterre at Hampton court, even one of the sunken, tudor gardens. As I’m at altitude I could attempt an Italian garden… but then I would need statues, there would have to be statues. I’m joking of course, the magic of these gardens lies in their relationship to their buildings, in their vastness and spectacular vistas; even I know I can’t create anything that requires a vista…not even a vis., and the only relationship my balcony has with its building, is that it is so close... It’s almost inside. But, I think it’s still ok to dream big, and ok to pinch an element here, take inspiration there, that’s what all gardeners do.
In the end, It was while I was looking at my newly arrived rose, willing it to shoot, that it came to me, I will evoke the spirit of Vita Sackville-West, by recreating her famous white garden at Sissinghurst Castle. The real artistry of this garden, lies in the rich variety of greens and foliage, these provide a canvas for those lovely white blooms. and that’s something anyone can create. Having a palette of different greens and textures can give the illusion of space, and white planting brings light to darker more shaded areas, heaven knows I’m going to need both of these tricks on, at best, an optimistic 4 x 6’ balcony, which I’m not 100% sure will ever get the summer sun. But I know what you are thinking…” Where will the hedges go”?... No?... well anyway, I don’t think it really matters whether you are choosing plants for a garden or a window box, the principles are the same. Choose plants that suit the environment, give them good soil, feed them and give them water and in theory? they should thrive. If you don’t have room for hedges, just suggest it by adding a pot planted with box of some other small leaved plant.
So, here we are, by harnessing Tardis technology, I have produced a planting plan which should bring scent and flowers for me and the insects way into late summer, and, as it’s Chelsea month… a plant list and supplier’s links below.
I don’t think this is going to get much sun, so it may not flower,
but it will be a lovely shade of green in the summer, and rusty red in autumn /winter.
Varieties unknown, but they were grown by
who also supply ferns and bamboo.
grown from seed, but also available from https://www.woottensplants.com/plant-shop-category/plantlist/agapanthus/
Mixed planting and box:
Most good garden centres will also sell the above and can provide you with an excellent variety of plants for hanging baskets and pots, but I think it’s worth choosing somewhere that is also a nursery. I’m lucky to have several garden centres locally but, for what it’s worth, my preferred one is Aylett’s Nursery. They are a family firm and are specialists in growing Dahlia, which has earned them many Chelsea golds over the years.
Of course…any other plant I can cram in the gaps.
Ive so got this!
sn’t it strange how some things lead to other things?
I like to think that I’ve had a dynamic master plan all these years that will take me straight from A to B, and I always start out with that intention, but of course life’s not like that, is it? Well mine never seems to be, it’s more like being stuck in a pin ball machine, pinging off in all sorts or directions, some high scoring, others not so, proving over and over, that it’s never about the destination and all about the journey.
You’ll know if you’ve read any of my other blogs that, like a skylark, my life is governed by the season, by my garden, and what my bees are up to. I’ve spent 17 years, planting fruit trees, vegetable patches and herbaceous borders, planning what will be flowering this year and what will be there next, and as every tree and plant took root, so too did I. But, in the last 6 months, almost without warning, I’ve had to leave my beautiful garden behind. Of course, in comparison to world events it’s of no consequence, but on a personal level? It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, knowing that now, someone else will be enjoying the warm, Spring sun in the shade of a tree that I planted and witnessing the blooming of flowers that I chose to grow.
All great artist will teach you, that if you truly want to capture the essence of your subject, you must make your darks dark and you lights, light, only then can you convey the volume, depth and emotion in your image. And I suppose life’s a little like that. In order to appreciate the light, you must first have shade. And light, I’ve discovered, can take on a rich variety of colours and forms. This I have found in my amazing friends and neighbours, none more so than one such neighbour, whose family occupies a grand old house near to my old home, and who leant me a corner of an old walled garden to house one of my displaced hives then, went on to welcome me into her environment, providing me with a safe place to work from and, access to the most extra ordinary of worlds.
Before I left, I managed to take 3 plants: A scented, climbing rose, a pot of agapanthus, grown from seeds given to me by the beekeeper at Tresco Botanical Gardens, and some Iris which belonged to my Dad, given to him by his Mum, my Nan who, I rather think, “acquired” them from Saville Gardens in Windsor around the 1920s... she always maintained, “The King hadn’t missed them”. In keeping with their Royal heritage, the Iris are destined for pots in the walled garden. The other two are holding their collective breaths on the tiniest of balconies, all of us refugees from another life, waiting for the day when we are reunited on more permanent ground.
But for now? my bees and I work amongst the whispers of Victorian gardeners, beneath fruit trees that have seen a 100 Springs. Each day I walk down corridors, as shadows of scullery and lady’s maids brush against me while they go about their timeless tasks; and on, into music rooms where Edwardian ladies, in clouds of gossamer, tulle, swirl past to music barely heard between my heartbeats. Blink and they evaporate, absorbed by the present…but I fancy, when I’m gone, they dance on. This beautiful old house has seen many families, and generations, all adding a little to its depth, to its story, ever evolving, but somehow always the same. And I find it kind of comforting, looking through its’ bleary glass, onto a courtyard, where once grand carriage stood, knowing that over time, 100s of people would have witnessed the same scene. And now, thanks to this generosity of spirit, I am, for while at least, part of the laminate history of this unique existence.
f you’ve ever looked at my Instagram account, it won’t have taken you long to realize that I’ve got a little bit of a grass hopper mind. As well as all my work, hobbies and interests, I’m often developing several things at the same time, and this trait has earned me the nickname of “La La”. However, every now and then, I will go waaay off-piste and end up doing something I hadn’t intended, and these silk flowers are a good example of this.
I’d started by making a single silk rose for a Christmas present. Innocent enough you may think, but in order to do this, I made the huge mistake of opening my trunk of silk scraps, left over from making costume through the years. So dangerous is the opening of this box, that it’s stored way up high up in a cupboard so it’s difficult to get at…but “get at it” I did… and before I knew it, a single rose had turned into several, and several, a bouquet…a necklace, or three, and then finally these heraldic, rose, brooches. And that’s something else it won’t take you long to spot on my Instagram feed, or this blog page come to that… I quite like a bit of heraldry. It’s a theme I return to time and time again and it never takes me long to find an excuse to use it.
I’ve always been especially drawn to these iconic flowers, rambling across medieval, manuscripts, lovingly embroidered on ancient pennants and tunics and carved into our most precious historic buildings and palaces. Over time, these single red and white roses, used so often amongst the emblems of the Plantagenet, have come to symbolise the struggles between this most dysfunctional of families. The elegant white rose in particular made so famous in recent years by the discovery of the remains of King Richard III under a car park in Leicester. And, although the Tudor rose was first created by that master of spin and propaganda, Henry VII, you only have to look at it, to evoke the image of his larger than life son, Henry VIII and his many misfortunate wives.
I say “finally these heraldic rose brooches” … but the box hasn’t gone back yet, and I’m busy working on two more necklaces with anemone and nasturtium. And of course, despite having silk in every colour under the sun, I never do quite have the right shade for the job at hand so end up buying “just a little bit” more. Whenever the time comes to put that box back, it always has slightly more in it than when I took it down. Strange how that happens.!
o, I’ve been thinking about heraldry…as you do.
I’m always drawn to it, it really is the most perfect example of “branding” through iconology that has ever existed.
After finishing my Wars of the Roses scarf. I’d thought that I’d like to create a scarf using the flags and banners from the English Civil War. I had this grand idea that I would use the standards from each army and advance them from either end of the design finally meeting in a swirl of colour and heraldry in the centre. As always, what seemed like a good idea, now requires a great deal of meticulous research.
Wars, of any age, are complex and rarely definitive, so if you wanted to tell a story about the individuals it becomes even more complex because, combatants who start the war on one side, sometimes end up on the other; some hedge their bets until the last moment and fathers may fight for one cause, whilst their son will support another. This was particularly true of the English Civil War, so pinning a particular family name down to one flag is highly problematic, also, when a war lasts for many years, regiments can be amalgamated or disbanded. Add to this the mists of time; differences of historical opinion and the image equivalent of Chinese whispers, and what you have is a minefield of potential misinformation on a subject that many people are absolutely passionate about.
I faced a similar minefield whilst researching the heraldry from the Wars of the Roses, when I’d hit a brick wall and needed some verification on a couple of items. Someone recommended I contact the “College of Arms”, a place I’d hadn’t given much thought to before. I’ve thought about it a lot since because, time moves differently at the College of Arms.
I contacted them from the 21st century, via an on-line form, but they replied from the 1400s with a hand-written letter, delivered, I fancy, attached to an arrow, shot by a knight, seated on top of a horse. The letter said that the answer was, “In the negative” they could not help. In the end however, I wore them down and a short correspondence ensued. In fact, they ended up being of great help. I hadn’t realised at the time, that unlike so many other languages, the language of heraldry is absolute, and infinitely beautiful.
Some weeks later I was privileged to get access to the garter stalls in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, and as I clambered around, I realised that the whole narrative of the Wars of the Roses was right in front of me, played out in heraldry. As these ancient arms began to half and quarter, you could see the displays of greedy acquisition from noble families as they devoured others’ arms, lands and titles, either through marriage or conquest. Like most conflicts, in the end it was consume, or be consumed.
It dawned on me then, that even though the college itself was divided by the Civil War, that it is the constant, not the Knights, Aristocracy, or even Kings, whose fortunes ebb and flow. And the Heralds, dressed in their ancient tabards, like playing cards from Alice in wonderland, are there, documenting it all. They, and their predecessors are the spine to which our society’s genealogy is attached. They have, from the very beginning, stood apart, unseen, and without comment, meticulously documenting in imagery, our whole nations genetic family tree. They have, without a single word written the loudest history of our island, for those who would care to see. And there they are still, in our world, but not of it. like heraldic “Doctor who’s”, able to travel back to a fixed point in time with the turn of a parchment page. And I had travelled with them for a short while.
Of course, although they followed the main rules of heraldry, the insignia and flags of the civil war were not always "heraldic", so I wonder to myself why I just couldn’t whack a few banners in a row and be done with it? But I can’t… there is a story to be told, and these affiliations still provoke passionate responses, like all flags, they remain powerful and emotive. Remembering always, that under these colourful standards, whipping in the winds of history, lives were lost and families torn apart; respect is due.
I would like to have dedicate this blog to Mr Robert Noel, the Lancaster Herald, but I don’t believe the World Wide Web, reaches past the front door of the College of Arms, so there’d really be no point.
Wars of the Roses scarf
ver the last few days, I’ve posted some images of my Steampunk design, and a few people have asked me what “SteamPunk” is? So here is a brief background, and some further ramblings on the subject.
Born as a direct reaction to “Cyber Punk”, “Steam Punk” gives us a retrospective view of the future. Taking its inspiration from Victorian writers such as Jules Verne this genre projects itself forward into a fantasy future where technology, as we know it, has never existed. Just like H. G. Wells’ “Time Machine” we enter a Victorianesque world pre-occupied with time travel and exploration, where everyday objects are driven mechanically, powered by the rhythmic click and whir of brass cogs.
I was brought up watching the Jules Verne films such as “The Time Machine” and “20.000 Leagues under the Sea”, and I’ve always felt there was something seductive about these evocative, Victorian worlds, upholstered in velvet and filled with the endless possibilities of clockwork. So, it seems to me that “Steampunk” is just an extension of these imaginary worlds. But actually, in recent years, for me, these imaginary worlds have become more substantial and tangible and the concepts of wheels within wheels, and the rhythmic movement of time easier to imagine. Because, for the past 16 years, I’ve been keeping honey bees, and there is nothing on the planet that will ground you more, or connects you to the endlessly turning of the seasons, than a bee.
I’m now privileged to be able to mentor new beekeepers and one of the first things I say to them is that, “To become a good beekeeper, you must first become a good bee”as these tiny, industrious, insects, live in complete darkness, communicating by touch, sound and scent. They exist on a microscopic level and are so hard wired to their environment that they are reacting and adapting to it before we’ve even realised the wind has changed, and to truly understand them, you need to first understand the seasons, the atmosphere, weather systems, etc. and then how these all effect the flowers, trees and crops.
After a few seasons of doing this you quickly come to realize that there are far greater natural, forces at work here, far bigger and older than the human race. Relentless forces, marching on in never ending circles, driven by lunar rotations and on into the universe, ever revolving, ever spinning, always ticking. And if the universe where driven by clockwork, then these insects and bees are an integral and essential cog in this greater revolving machine, and it’s humbling then, to finally understand, that the human race… is not.
Of course, time and clocks are human concepts, but these, natural, seasonal cycles are clock like, so it’s not such a leap of faith, for an active imagination, to then picture it all driven by celestial cogs. whirring and turning, and my “Steam punk” design is an imagining of this universe, full of maps, and gears, and scurrying clockwork jewel beetles feeding on brass and amber flowers.
I’m now working on another design which explores these changing seasons, and the cycles of my bees. I thought it would be nice idea, to photograph the plants around my apiary as the seasons moved on, and then to use these in the design, but it’s turned out to be a lengthier and more involved task that I first thought… I’m still working on it. Sometimes I’ve wondered why I’ve given myself such a lengthy project, when all that will happen is someone will roll up the scarf, wrap in around their neck and never know that it pictures a year in the life of my wonderful bees. But then I think…I will know…and now, of course…so do you!.
originally designed this scarf to help raise funds for the restoration work taking place on the St Albans Old Town Hall. This magnificent Regency building, in the centre of St Albans, was undergoing a major restoration project to turn it into a world class heritage venue. Over the last two years a team from Willmott Dixon carefully undertook this mammoth task, which included, excavated a basement, by hand, one bucket at a time, and adding galleries and external glass workways and the restoration of the fabulous function rooms.
The finished, gleaming building finally reopened to the public on 8th June, providing galleries, function rooms, a wonderful gift shop and the chance to have coffee in the Victorian Courtroom Cafe. Its new galleries are equipped to be able to receive exhibitions from other national museums.
I am absolutely tickled pink to have my original scarf for sale in the new gift shop and to have collaborated with the Museum team and British Museum to create a range of products also based on my design, and hugely proud to see it all on display in the shop.
If you get a chance to visit this amazing new museum, don’t pass it up I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.
St Albans Museum Scarf