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Sunday, 8 October 2017

A day at Sulby Gardens


A new garden to explore is always a joy isn't it? A weekend wander around a garden with cake and coffee at the end of a visit is a pleasure for so many of us.
To get a chance for a private visit to a garden with two friends who happen to be gardening experts, and enjoy a ramble around with the owners, is even more of a treat.
That's why I loved going to Sulby Gardens, to record a programme for BBC Radio Leicester's gardening programme, "Down to Earth" doing just that. Derek Cox and Josie Hutchinson , from the programme's panel of experts were with me.
Tucked just inside the Northamptonshire side of the border with Leicestershire, Sulby Gardens consists of twelve acres of formal gardens, kitchen gardens, orchards, a wood and even an ice house.
Alison has lived here since 1976. She and her husband Chris were fired with enthusiasm after reading John Seymour's 'The Complete Book of Self Sufficiency' and were inspired to buy a walled garden and live in the Head Gardener's Cottage there.
There were glasshouses and old storerooms which still bear the pencilled notes on the doors detailing how many fruits and carrots were picked in the early 1900's.
Part of the old apple store is now a conservatory where expertly trained (according to Derek) grapes festoon the ceiling.
There's a rather large glasshouse from 1904, which was the original carnation house.

 A place to sit out of the rain, looking down to part of the kitchen garden

Alison's husband Chris died nine years ago at the age of sixty. However he's left quite a legacy and they both have amassed a wonderful collection of sixty three varieties of apple trees .

There's a certain romance to the names of the old and new varieties of apples grown ...and there's also a dozen varieties of pear trees .We tasted two or three varieties as we munched our way around the kitchen garden and then found ten varieties of plum trees on the verge of ripeness.

Bill Barker has been the Garden Manager here for twenty years or so, and he too has played an important role in the development of the garden, especially since Chris's death. In fact Alison says he's an important reason why she has been able to stay here - she simply couldn't have done it on her own.

On the right hand side of the walled garden, glass houses previously abutted the walls for a couple of hundred yards or so.

And that's why Sulby Gardens is so interesting...because the gardens belonged to a minor stately home built in 1792 and designed by Sir John Sloane. Echoes of its gardening past are all around, but the house itself is no more. It was demolished in the early 1950's .

We winced and shuddered as we heard this - having seen photographs, it was a beautiful building. Yet we were able to admire what remained of the more formal area of gardens

It's ironic, because so many owners of old houses have, over the years, sold parcels of their estates or gardens for housing or development. Alison and Chris did the exact opposite, they managed to buy extra land to increase their garden, to build a wood and seven ponds.

 With the wood, they inherited an ice house. I was dying to see this...Josie walked over it without knowing at first!

This dates from the late eighteenth century and is listed.

 We all trooped down the stairs and inside in single file, the temperature immediately dropping as we did so. No torches, but fortunately I had my trusty iphone to light our way

This was where tons of ice, were hacked from the stream running through  the gardens by the gardeners, and thrown into the hole. Meat, game and fish, butter and other foods were kept here on the ice until needed for the table.

By now, we had spent two hours wandering around the gardens, enjoying the views and the plantings. We'd also admired the way that Alison, Chris and Bill have enhanced the gardens over the years and developed flower meadows and wildlife habitats for mammals, insects and birds.

By now, the drizzle and wind had died down and we were able to relax on a garden bench in the sunshine.

Left to right...Bill Barker, Josie Hutchinson, Derek Cox, me and Alison Lowe

Such a lovely day and such an interesting garden, with so much to see . You can hear the programme we recorded by clicking this link

You can also see the gardens for yourself as they are open on Thursday 12th October from 1 pm to 4pm and again on  Friday 13th October from 11am until 4pm...

Alison and Bill will be around, and you've got the chance to buy some bottles of fresh apple juice too, which is pressed and bottled by Bill, but only sold to garden visitors at open days for the National Garden Scheme. There's plenty of apple cakes to taste too!

Here's just three of the varieties, and Sunset, the bottle I have tasted is absolutely delicious and addictive.

Sulby is worth a visit any time of year though and opens do check with the Northamptonshire branch of the National Garden Scheme to find out next year's dates. You will be so pleased you did!

Friday, 29 September 2017

Days on the road less travelled

I realise I haven't blogged since the beginning of August, and there have been questions asked by some of you. Where have I been and what have been doing? I've even been sent an article on the importance of posting blogs regularly!

No, the dog did not eat my homework, and I haven't got any of the usual excuses. There's been plenty I could write about and there were certain events I will cover,  albeit belatedly, but life has just got in the way.

I did spend ten days away, but I didn't venture far or to somewhere hot....I was down in North Somerset looking after Mama, my Mum, after an operation. At 87, she had been getting very breathless and in pain after walking  - even just after 50 yards or so. There were large blockages in her calf and groin which needed to be sorted out.

At 87 years old, Mama was prepared in case anything went wrong...she had written instructions for her funeral service and other things were discussed, however much I didn't want to talk about them.

Luckily she sailed through the operation, and going to her hospital room, I could see her through the open door before going in. Smiling at the sunshine streaming through the balcony windows, propped up in bed, with full eye make up and rosy lipstick, she looked as if she popped in for a pedicure rather than a big operation!

Being with her as she recovered was a joy, she's such a positive person, and a very patient patient even as I fumbled doing her dressings every day. We laughed, she walked her first steps around her garden, and as I was on chauffeur duty for shopping, to take her to the doctors. I also became her social secretary as an army of her friends rang to speak to her.

 When she rested, I caught up on some reading. I got quite a lot of writing on another project done, the old school way. With a pen and notepad. There was no wifi at Mama's and I don't know about you, but I cannot write blog posts in my i pad or phone even with the Blogger app.
It was also great to catch up with my brother and his family.

When I left to come home, Mama was feeling much better, and so did I,  after a time in the slow lane.

Coming back home, I was at full pelt work wise, both in the newsroom and making history and gardening programmes. Great fun, squeezing the most out of sunny days,  as well as going off to Glee, the last hurrah in the gardening calendar for the trade at the NEC .

More about Glee and the people I met there in another post, but I had a wonderful time there. When I got home that night though, there was a jolt in the form of a white envelope. I had been for a mammogram a few weeks before, now I was being invited to go Leicester's Glenfield Hospital for a recall in three days time.

I won't lie, I was uneasy. I 'd had one before, which involved a quick mammogram, and I was out within minutes with good news at the end of it. This time, things weren't quite so straightforward. I had one mammogram, a long wait, and then on to another machine for two different types of mammograms. Then an ultrasound, and as I walked in to the room, my images were up on the screen, and it was obvious that something wasn't quite right. I could see a lump, bump or nodule or whatever you call it.. My heart sank, but the wonderful staff, after more tests, told me it definitely wasn't cancer.

I didn't take in much of what was said after that. I was so elated, as my husband drove us home. It was grey and drizzly, but to me the sky was blue, and I just wanted to shout to the world how wonderful life is. Oh, and how amazing the staff are and the service is at Glenfield Hospital Breast Care Centre.

Now I'm having some more of my annual leave to look after my husband, who had a back operation at the beginning of last week. A fusion of his spine involving bolts and rods and something (cement?) to shore up his spine, digging out lots of arthritis,  and preventing trapping of nerves in his legs.

All went well for a few days, until he became unwell ...and after a scan, was found to have multiple blood clots in both his lungs. So a delayed discharge from hospital, and he's now on the mend after clot busting injections and medications,he even walked to the end of the lane this morning. He's now having a rest before we're off to another hospital check up.

So there you have's been an interesting few months one way or another.  I have seen more of hospitals than I expected, but I've also seen some incredibly dedicated nurses and doctors . I've also been really valuing the little things and understanding only too well how we can never take life for granted either.


Friday, 4 August 2017

A day of bees and meadows

It's a well known fact that there's been a substantial decline in the numbers of honey bees in recent years.

Here in the UK, we've already lost three of our native species and now there's only twenty four species left. Apparently we've lost a third of our British bee population in the last ten years, and I find that frightening.

The varroa mite caused the deaths of entire bee colonies and climate change hasn't helped. But the disappearance of many of our hedgerows and meadows since the 1930s has meant that there's less food for the bees.

One woman who's passionate about bees is wildlife artist and businesswoman Sharon Jervis who lives here just inside the south Leicestershire border. Her MA was all about bees and since then, they've led her on a mission.

She's been looking after bees at her home for a long time, but two years ago, she decided to transform a couple of her six acres of land at home into meadows to encourage more bees.

"I'd been meaning to develop a meadow for ages, but when my mother died, I realised, you have to get things done before it's too late. Her death was the impetus for what you see now"

It cost about £500 in seeds, but Sharon says it has been worth every penny in attracting huge numbers of bees since and is now making plans to convert another two acres to meadowland.

Mind you she's already made a huge commitment to encouraging wildlife, with the creation of a small lake a number of years ago.

 A pair of very friendly tame swans live there and now there are families of breeding ducks.

But back to the well as painting bees, Sharon runs a  company called Beefayre, selling honey, body butters, diffusers, candles and cards. Three per cent of the profits are donated to bee conservation.

 To hear more about my visit to Sharon's gorgeous garden and meadow, click here....

Friday, 28 July 2017

A visit to David Austin's private garden

I've already written about my Garden Media Guild trip to the David Austin Roses in Shropshire, and I really was delighted by the gardens there and beguiled by certain roses.
But after a delicious lunch and gossip with other guild members (we talk a lot) it was time for another treat.....a look around David Austin's private garden surrounding his home.
There's always something so inviting about a gate ajar and a glimpse through to what lies beyond


From the back of the house your eye alights first on the water and then the statue in the distance draws you deep into the garden.

Like all good gardens, you can't see everything all at once,  you must seek and then you shall find...

While we were walking around , David Austin came into the garden to meet us...

and it was a pleasure to meet him. This after all is the man who has created over 200 English roses and developed  the National Collection of roses here. A man who developed his boyhood  passion to a business with three generations of his family working as world leaders when it comes to rose breeding. What a legacy...

As you would expect there were plenty of roses in his own private garden...and Constance Craig Smith, who organised our trip, was busy photographing just a few of them.

Making my way around the garden towards the front of the house,  I slipped through here

and found this charming piece, sculpted by David's late wife Pat

and then found two peacocks strutting their stuff

 before making my way back to the water lilies

and to wander around the roses one last time.


 A magical afternoon.....

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

The day I went to David Austin Roses

When my children were young, I didn't really appreciate roses. There were two trained up the arch to the lawn from the courtyard when we first moved into our cottage. A yellow and a pink one - don't ask me what they were, there were no accompanying labels.

I had to prune them back hard each year after all of my children got scratched by the roses. One eventually gave up the ghost (the pink rose, not my darlings) and the yellow one still looks as if it's on death row.

But in recent years, I've begun to adore roses for their virtues, not concentrate on their thorns. Their scent and the sheer beauty of those I've seen in gardens and at the big shows recently have made me determined to put in some more roses.

I've already written here about The David Austin Roses stand at Chelsea in May, and how beautiful it was.

So last month, I joined other members of the Garden Media Guild on a special visit to their nursery, based near Wolverhampton.  I took a wrong turn and took an impromptu tour of the perimeter of the  nearby air force base before skidding in just before the tour. Fortunately there was still time to stuff a croissant down my throat and visit the loo before Michael Marriott , the Head Rosarian, showed us . around.

From small beginnings on this Shropshire farm, this family nursery now sell between two to  three million roses a year all around the world. It's an amazing story of one man's determination (David Austin) to develop a rose which would repeat flower, be disease resistant yet capture the glory of the
old fashion English roses.

Michael  has been with the company for many years, and he's obviously very proud of what is being achieved here, especially in the glasshouses. These are full of possibilities....around 120,000 seedlings and plants being grown on , all potential stars of the future. Or are they? It takes a very special plant to make the cut and to be put on the marker....eight only out of 120,000 actually make it. I was staggered too by the time it takes to create a new rose and get it on sale to the public.  Hazard a guess? I tried but was way out. It takes ten years.

Fifteeen people work in the breeding programme  So who decides which roses go to market? David Austin senior and his son David do.

Across the road from the nursery is a field, with rows and rows of the roses being trialled which have made it this far. Under grey skies, the colours shone out, and it was like being a child walking through a pick and mix selection of sweets. Which ones did I like best? Which had the prettiest colour, which had the most attractive scent?

They're all factors in deciding which specimens to trial further, but being resistant to disease and adverse weather conditions is also important. That's why in the distance I could see a large sprayer, spraying copious amounts of water over the lines of roses. Would they be able to cope in this field's sandy soil?

A few of us rather liked a pale yellow rose at one end of the field...we called Michael Marriott over to show him and one of us, I can't remember exactly who, suggested a name for it...."Lemon Sherbert"
Michael stuck his nose as close as humanly possible into the petals, murmuring "Mnnnn". He said it had its merits, but that could mean anything!

We then walked back to the nursery, which was very busy with visitors. No wonder, this is not just a nursery where you wander around pots of plants deciding which ones to buy. This is a feast for your senses ....gardens planted with hundreds of roses, all carefully labelled, growing in situ, so you can see their spread, how they look when they are mature.

This is the view as I sat on a bench with Michael whilst I interviewed him for the gardening programme I was presenting the following week. The scent was intoxicating as we chatted about the nursery, the breeding programme and much more.

Afterwards there was a chance to walk around the gardens on my own

feeling heady at the fragrance and beauty of the roses

and admiring the design of the gardens which showcase the different types of roses beautifully....

and very importantly, there were plenty of places to rest, to chat, and admire the vistas.

There are also distinctive sculptures to admire...they were created by David Austin's late wife Pat.....

Back to the roses, this was a favourite - The Ancient Mariner

and this ...Olivia Rose Austin

Mind you, I also liked the cool calmness of the white climbing rose Claire Austin. As Alison Levy who blogs as the Blackberry Garden said to can always tell the really best plants when they're given the name of  one of the family. I agree, only the best for them.

By now, I was in the area where visitors were selecting their plants...I have a list of my favourites that are on my wish list...Olivia Rose Austin, Claire Austin, The Generous Gardener and Gertude Jekyll and James Austin.

But decisions decisions...there are so beautiful scented roses to choose from.

By now it was time to join the others for lunch, and as I scurried to the marquee, I could 'nt help laughing as I saw these satisfied customers taking their newly found treasure triumphantly back to their cars.

Their visit was over, but I had an even greater treat in store after lunch  - a private tour of founder David Austin's own garden.  You'll have to wait until my next blog to see how beautiful that is.....

But in the meantime, why not listen to my interview with Michael Marriott ? Click here.....

Monday, 17 July 2017

An afternoon of open gardens in Lubenham

Yes, I love going to open garden events through out the summer.

Especially when the sun is shining. Even when it rains.

There's nothing like seeing other gardener's hard work or pinching some of their ideas. Sorry , I meant to write "gaining inspiration" there.

And there's nothing like paying a few pounds or so to have carte blanche to be as nosy as you like , seeing how others live their lives in their gardens.

So yes, last month I was eagerly off to Lubenham where there were over twenty gardens open in aid of All Saints, the village church.

I started off  by viewing the largest garden , just outside the village at Thorpe Lubenham Hall. This wasn't intentional, but a tractor had just pulled up on the village green , ready to take people up there.

 It was hot and as I was feeling downright lazy, I joined the others as the tractor chugged its way up the hill for about there quarters of a mile. The boys sitting opposite were loving their tractor ride, and so I was I especially when we had to duck out of the way of some branches in our way and the boys "oooohed "and "woohed"..

Thorpe Lubenham Hall is a gem of a house....Queen Anne style but built around 1800 and owned at different times by the Cunard family, Lord and Lady Kemsley and Sir Harold and Lady Zia Wernher. Apparently the Queen and her family were frequent visitors in the 1950's. Nowdays it is owned by Sir Bruce and Lady MacPhail who own the hall and fifteen acres of gardens.

 The ancient moat leads to the garden, where the terrace at the back of the house overlooks a large circular pond and fountain which is edged with lavender, alliums and  clipped yew.


There's a timeless quality to the gardens no fancy pants modern ideas ...just a quietly serene air
Mind you, I did like this gate at the side of the house, the grille made of horseshoes -so effective.

|I also appreciated this quiet spot, planted with pale pink roses and alliums Christophii

The other side of the brick wall pictured above is where the swimming pool now is, was this the former walled kitchen garden I wonder>

Teas were being served next to the pool undercover....and  amid the laughter, sounds of crockery clinking and shouts of "How many cream teas?" I had to leave suddenly as my eyes filled with tears.
Memories had come  flooding back of an open garden here which my friends and I helped at a number of years ago. There was a gang of us on a British Red Cross committee who used to bake and run open garden events throughout Leicestershire for a while to raise funds. Gill K, Jill P, Alanda, Kim, Lorna, Jackie, Lucy, Lucinda and I were on duty here at Thorpe Lubenham Hall , and as usual we'd had such a laugh...Jackie was in charge of the tea urns and Jill P as usual was the Queen in the counting house, counting all the money raised. Lovely Jill P died suddenly on the Friday before the Lubenham Open Gardens event.
So I declined the offer of the tractor ride back and took a solitary stroll  down the hill and stopped to watch the local cricket team playing a match alongside the lane.

The first open garden I came to was the Tower House, which was originally a Georgian farmhouse until it was enlarged as a hunting box back in 1865 . Stables, and a tower were added to watch the horse racing nearby.

I loved this tree with the leaves as big as dinner is supposed to fruit, but never has...and I've quite forgotten the name of the darned thing.

There was tea and cake at Adams Farm which was attracting a crowd,

but the bees and I were attracted to the border on the right of the garden 

The afternoon was marching on, so I'm afraid I had to whizz past a number of gardens, to this one on Mill Hill. A large garden with plenty of space to sit in the sunshine and admire the newly hatched chicks.

There were also fruit, flowers, a pond without fish, but with this rather gorgeous piece. I also had a chance to catch up with the garden's owner, Diana Cook, who had organised the whole event. How she found the time to run the event and get her own garden ready I just don't know.

A few doors away was a small cottage garden which was incredibly busy. Everyone was there to grab a bargain from Peter Shelton who restores old tools. There were rakes, dibbers, spades, forks, all lovingly refurbished and something which looked like an offensive weapon, but was a Victorian tool of some sort.

When I say Peter restores these, that's not his job, he was a biologist, but for a number of years now  he's spent hours and hours doing so to raise money for Lubenham Parish Church. He's good at it too...he's raised thousands on the tools alone.

What a lovely Sunday afternoon it was, even though there's so may gardens I missed. I didn't miss the Undle Project though which is a three and a half acre co operative small holding. Wow....a wonderful work in progress which I shall write about another time...

You've got to hand it to the villagers in Lubenham, it was a really good Open Gardens event, with gardens of all different sizes to inspire and interest everyone, and genuine friendliness towards all the visitors.
And yes, I will be making a return visit next year should too....