Sunday, 26 April 2015

SECRET GARDENS OF THE COTSWOLDS by Victoria Summerley with photographs by Hugo Ruttison-Thomas

Loose and Leafy photo of cover of Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds

Don't bother to read this review - just go and buy the book. Make haste. Do not delay. Just buy it. 

Unlike many of my readers (I suspect) I don’t like visiting gardens. Not usually. I like poking around in ditches and hedges. I value surprises above choice; nature when left to its own devices rather than careful planning. So what on earth am I doing liking this book? Even the wild-plant meadows in it have been put there on purpose by enthusiastic gardeners and enthusiastic owners.

Loose and Leafy photo of p.79 of Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds - with Stephanie Richards
Stephanie Richards of Eastleach House, Eastleach. (p.79)
Well, for a start, one’s own life experiences influence how we react to anything and two are relevant here. The first is that I opened the book in the expectation of a good read because the text is written by Victoria Summerley whose blog about her London garden I followed from its very first entry. When she moved to Gloucestershire I drifted off a bit; in part this was because her focus shifted as she took up her new life in a rural setting; and partly because the frequency of her posts grew erratic. There were long gaps. Perhaps because she was writing this book. And quite right too for blogs are ephemeral. This book isn’t. There’s such a strong sense of history one feels this is but a stage – the story so far – and that readers in the future will be bound to want to read it as a way of understanding their present – just as it leads us to ours. For the people who live in these houses are there as real people; they have interesting ancestors (both genetic and in the sense of previous owners) who fought in wars and got ill, who ran out of money, who died.

The other reason I was more open to this book than usual is that I recently visited the National Trust gardens at Kingston Lacy in Dorset. I didn’t expect much to like it. It was there so I went.

Loose and Leafy photo of text about Snowdrop Thieves. p.48 of Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds
p.48 Chapter on Colesbourne Park, Colesbourne
Visiting National Trust properties doesn’t rate high on my list of enjoyable ways to spend a day. It reminds me too much of being dragged round them as a child - when the idea of ‘Educating the Family’ oozed from every parental pore so strongly it was never clear whether my parents really liked stately homes any more than we children. And once I had grown up? Well, I associate it with late-middle-aged couples wandering round in lace-up shoes and peaceful awe; something they do together after lives of separate work-places; a diversion for the semi-geriatric who haven’t anything better to do.

Loose and Leafy photo of p. 71 in Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds. Orangery and Daylesford House
Not Kingston Lacy but p.71 in the book: The Orangery at Daylesford Houses, Kingham.
But Kingston Lacy won me over. The first thing I saw was the largest lawn I’ve ever seen. And I don’t like lawns. But this lawn . . . one’s immediate impulse was to run across it. And that’s what we did (two adults and two teenagers). And because we dived straight into an open treasure chest of games (we chose quoits and played beside an old tree with branches swooping swingingly close to the ground) we felt properly at home before we explored further. So I was in the right mind to appreciate this garden as a garden rather than an adjunct to a historical visitor attraction; and found that admiring those who choose plants and trees and decide where to put them needn't be a distraction from enjoyment but a proper part of it.

Loose and Leafy photo of p. 63 of Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds - lemurs and bamboo
p.63: in the chapter about
The Cotswold Wildlife Park, Burford

Now, the gardens in Victoria’s book (apart from one with a zoo) are not the kind you can pay to see on a regular basis – if ever. They are privately owned and privately cared for. That’s what’s secret about them. Nor are they of the Frances Hodgeson-Burnett kind - wild and neglected places behind walls with locked gates. They are gardens lovingly tended by the people who live there and their gardeners. For these are ‘posh’ gardens. Gardens owned by wealthy people who can afford ‘staff’. People from another world than mine.  - If I were rich and had a big garden maybe I wouldn’t be as struck as I am by ditches and hedgerows!

There are outbursts of topiary (disgustingly ugly in my eyes). And there are knot gardens of box (elegant and entrancing from my inconsistent view).
Loose and Leafy photo of sculpture by and of Antony Gormley from p.41 in Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds
Antony Gormley sculpture - p.41
Burford Priory, Burford
There are sculptures and ornamental buildings.
But for the most part - sometimes despite the artifice and sometimes because of it - these gardens have an air of spontaneity. Not that this feeling of nature itself being the artist really comes from nature; it comes from effort and wealth and a sense of time. And you need to know time to create gardens like these. (And money!) You sort of have to know where you’ve come from and what a tree looks like when it is old to make them this way. I don’t know what I should do with my left-wing principles here so I’ll put them temporarily aside. But the people, the history behind these gardens, is why the text is important. This isn’t a picture book with text thrown in. The text is engaging. It’s well written. It’s interesting. It’s the basis of the book.

Loose and Leafy photo of photo of Pergola at Eastleach House in Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds
Pergola path. p.83
Eastleach House, Eastleach
None the less – the photographs. The photographs! The photographs from Hugo Rittson-Thomas! I have books with very muzzy pictures. I bought one specially so I could identify seaweeds and can hardly make out anything so it’s pretty much useless. But these are fabulous. Each one is a proper picture, not an illustration. Just as the gardens have been skilfully designed to look informal, the photographs are works of art that perfectly complement the text rather than distract from it; they are neither rubbish nor pretentious. Whether they are of glades, arbours, frost on grass, mist in valleys or vegetables and fruit trees - they catch and hold the eye.

Oh, just go and buy it.

It’s published by Frances Lincoln,  costs £20 and its ISBN number is 978 7112 3527 4. No excuse!

P.S. The publishers sent me this book absolutely ages ago (January).
Apologies for the delay.
But better a late review than never. 

Tuesday, 21 April 2015


Clump of tall dandelions by gas meter box.
People who leave dandelions to grow
outside their houses instead of weeding them away
are right to appreciate such beauty.
My laptop has come back from the menders with a new vocation.

While away it was sent back to factory settings so it's decided to dedicate its life now to incessant up-dating. Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow.

Still. It's pleasant to have a new keyboard; and for the mouse pad to work; and not to need to press the same buttons over and over before anything happens.

There are, of course, masses of things to catch up with so I'm only partly here. There are on-line bills to check, emails to send and a general gearing up. Over this non-computer period I've been doing different things and it's odd how odd it feels to be returning to normal. It's that funny kind of feeling at the end of the long summer break from school. It means you will be seeing your friends again - but affection for being on holiday lingers on.

The sun has come out to celebrate so I've been on a quick look around for plants growing in the streets.

Dandelions where playground and pavement meet
Where playgrounds meet pavements - that's a good place to look.

Dandelions come at the top of my list of favourites and, all of a sudden, there are loads of them.

White flowers and dark brown seedpods on Shepherd's Purse plant

Shepherd's Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) with its tiny white flowers and heart-shaped seed pods also comes pretty high on my street-plant list.

Purple leaves crossing dried earth and stone edge to pavement

Then there are the leaves of an up-and-growing Smooth Sow Thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) with a purple so astonishing it doesn't see quite 'right'. Such a colour would be a surprise in petals. But these are leaves! Leaves! (It will grow greener as it grows taller.)

Dry grass has flowered at foot of blue leg of slide

And then there is grass in its many states and varieties. I really do like the single plants which pop up through tarmac, grow beside bench legs and establish themselves between paving stones. This little lawn has already dried out and gone to seed.

Have you been noticing new plants in the streets near you?

If so, why  not post about them and put a link in the box below?

It will be good to see what you see too.

The box will be open till 7pm on the 25th April.

* * *
Apologies to everyone who's been waiting for me to reply to emails or for their trees to be added to the Tree-Following list. I'll be catching up gradually.)