New Book: Spirit of Warwickshire

Now I’ve begun work on my new book Spirit of Warwickshire, here’s a taster of what you’ll find in it.Baddesley Clinton 26 Mar 18 image 2

The book, which I plan to release later this year with Luminarie, will contain a selection of articles about places in Warwickshire which I’ve visited and which have spiritual resonance. These will be places which carry meaning, places which have power, and places which set off chains of reflections, memories, dreams.

Each of my articles will be accompanied by a full colour original photo of the location by my photographer daughter Abigail Robinson.

This will not be a traditional tourist guide, but an individual take on various places that visitors to Warwickshire may well want to include on their itinerary. This is a guide for travellers of spirit, not just tourists. Here’s a glimpse of just some of the places that will be on my list of contents:

  • Holy Trinity Church, Morton Bagot: Water, Rock, Moon & Ancient Stone
  • Guys Cliffe House: Romantic Ruin
  • St Peter’s Church, Wootton Wawen: Saxon Sanctuary
  • Upton House: A Watered Garden
  • The Saxon Mill, Warwick: a Writer’s Delight
  • The Saxon Mill, Warwick: A Snowy Walk
  • Enchanted Kenilworth
  • Kenilworth Castle: Boxing Day
  • Kenilworth Castle: Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Garden
  • Kenilworth Castle : Christmas Wreath Making
  • Kenilworth Castle: A Dream Arising from Ruins
  • Kenilworth Castle: Elizabeth and Dudley
  • St Mary’s Church, Warwick: Inspiration from the Tower
  • Spring at Baddesley Clinton
  • Shakespeare’s , New Place, Stratford-upon-Avon: Garden of Curious Amusements
  • The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon: Sir Antony Sher and Shakespeare
  • Folk Festival, Warwick
  • St James’s Church, Old Milverton: Country Graveyard
  • House of Bread, Shipston-upon-Stour: Sheep and Lamb
  • Compton Verney: Capability Brown Landscape
  • The Castle Inn, Edgehill

Spring is Starting to Win… at Baddesley Clinton

A few photos from Baddesley Clinton, one of my favourite National Trust properties, a short drive from my home in Warwick.

My Son Jamie in the Young Gardener of the Year Competition at the Ascot Spring Show 2018

I’m delighted to say that Jamie, my son, will be representing Pershore College along with his fellow horticultural students, to compete with five other top horticultural colleges in the Young Gardener of the Year competition at the Ascot Spring Show  in Windsor Great Park 13-15 April 2018.David Domoney launches the Young Gardener of the Year 2018 competition at Ascot

The competition was launched by TV gardener David Domoney on 16th January 2018 at Ascot Racecourse.

In the photo above, Jamie is standing just above David Domoney (in the blue jacket).

The horticultural colleges will compete to design and build a garden incorporating an equestrian theme.

Jamie’s interest in gardening began during a vocational year in secondary school studying horticulture. The picture below shows him at Charlecote Park National Trust during his work experience placement, five years ago in 2013.

Jamie in front of the children's play house at Charlecote Park NT 2013
Jamie in front of the children’s play house at Charlecote Park NT 2013

The teams will be building their gardens during the two weeks prior to the show. Buy your tickets now to see the student gardens, to find out who won the Gold, the Best-in-Show – and to vote for your favourite garden in the People’s Choice!

I’ll be blogging about the Spring show during the run-up and reporting on how the work is going for the Pershore College team… without giving away any secrets of course. And finally I’ll blog about the show and the gardens when they are revealed!

Springtime Beauty at Dunham Massey, National Trust

A few images from Dunham Massey, a National Trust property in Cheshire. These were taken on 19th February – just at that time of the year for us in England where the spring flowers are arriving, heralds of joy and new hope. Daffodils at Dunham Massey, National Trust 19 Feb 2018Lake at Dunham Massey, National Trust 19 Feb 2018Pale blue Irises at Dunham Massey, National Trust 19 Feb 2018Snowdrops among birch trees at Dunham Massey, National Trust 19 Feb 2018Snowdrops at Dunham Massey, National Trust 19 Feb 2018Purple irises at Dunham Massey, National Trust 19 Feb 2018

A Gift to the Future – One Man’s Vision to Create Hidcote Manor Garden

I love Hidcote Manor Garden, near Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire. It’s one of the National Trust’s greatest gardens and was created by an American horticulturalist Lawrence Johnston, between 1907 and 1947.

The Beech Allee at Hidcote Manor Garden image 1 (photo credit SC Skillman)
The Beech Allee at Hidcote Manor Garden image 1 (photo credit SC Skillman)

 

One very special element in the garden is the Beech Allee – an avenue of majestic beeches.

Lawrence Johnston planted it knowing he’d never see the mature avenue – it was a gift to the future.

 

 

 

The Beech Allee at Hidcote Manor Garden - image 2 (photo credit SC Skillman)
The Beech Allee at Hidcote Manor Garden – image 2 (photo credit SC Skillman)

For me, it’s very moving to walk along this avenue reflecting upon how much we owe to one man’s vision and imagination.

 

What an encouragement this is to any creative person, who imagines things and works to bring them into reality, perhaps without ever being able to experience the final outcome, or to know how their creation may be received.

view from the end of the Beech Allee onto the Great Lawn at Hidcote Manor Garden (photo credit SC Skillman)
view from the end of the Beech Allee onto the Great Lawn at Hidcote Manor Garden (photo credit SC Skillman)

Faded Splendour, Unfinished Grand Schemes, Unfulfilled Dreams

I visited a National Trust property a few days ago – Lyveden New Bield near Oundle in the heart of the Northamptonshire countryside.

Lyveden New Bield (creative commons)
Lyveden New Bield (creative commons)

This is an unusual property in that it was build by an Elizabethan gentleman who left it unfinished. And it hasn’t fallen down, or been looted, or demolished, or built over, in the intervening centuries – but has just remained as it is.

There is something haunting and eerie about properties like this. The only similar one I can think of is Chastleton House near Moreton-in-Marsh, which has been left exactly as it was 400 years ago…..  It hasn’t been specially prepared or restored by the National Trust to look as it would when at the height of its glory. It has just been left, like Sleeping Beauty’s Palace. There is a faintly sinister air as you explore its rooms and passages. You get the feeling that those who lived there have just vanished and it has remained suspended in time. A curious melancholy hangs in the air.

In the case of Lieveden New Bield, the designer and developer of this grand garden lodge, Sir Thomas Tresham, a wealthy and ardent Catholic, died before it could be completed. And his son Francis, instead of completing it and fulfilling his father’s dream, made a fatal error: he became implicated in the Gunpowder Plot, got arrested, confessed, and lost the entire family fortune.

Touring this unfinished, roofless property with all its elaborate Catholic symbolism, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Sir Thomas and all his hopes and dreams. As I walked around, and listened to the audio-tour, I wasn’t thinking of the massive differences between ourselves in our modern world, and those in the early seventeenth century, with all the passions and concerns of the beleagured Catholics. I was thinking of the things I shared – which many of us share – with Sir Thomas. A grand scheme, a big dream, starting to come into reality…

In Sir Thomas’s case it was cruelly cut short. Yet he died with all his ardent Catholic faith and hopes intact. And all the elements of his original design for his garden and lodge are now being rediscovered, and might even be realised in the future: who knows.

To me, this is the value of visiting historical properties – enabling us to enter imaginatively into the deeply personal stories of those who lived centuries ago, and feeling not the things that separate us but the things we may have in common.

And You Will Be Like a Watered Garden…

Enjoying a shady 'small enclosed space' in a private Kenilworth garden open for the National Gardens Scheme 1 Sep 2013 (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)
Enjoying a shady ‘small enclosed space’ in a private Kenilworth garden open for the National Gardens Scheme 1 Sep 2013 (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

A well-watered garden is a powerful image of creativity, abundance, fruitfulness.

When asked to describe or picture heaven, I often see it as a garden.

The Prophet Isaiah, wrote these words:  And the LORD will continually guide you, And satisfy your desire in scorched places, And give strength to your bones; And you will be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.

Isaiah’s choice of a garden for his image here is perfect, as are many of the images he chose for his prophecies: an image which is profound and powerful.

A few months ago during a visit to Hidcote Manor Garden, one of the National Trust’s greatest gardens, we heard the Head Gardener say that because we’ve had a late spring this year, 2013, the plants, like people, benefit from “a good long kip” and so later on, when they flower, they will be more plentiful, more colourful and more abundant.

And so it has proved in three outstanding gardens I’ve recently visited: Upton House, near Banbury; the garden at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon; and a private garden in Chase Lane, Kenilworth, Warwickshire, part of the Open Gardens event  run by the National Gardens Scheme.

flowers in Upton House Garden 23 Aug 2013 (photo credit Abigail Robinson)
flowers in Upton House Garden 23 Aug 2013 (photo credit Abigail Robinson)

As I spend time wandering around these gardens I reflect upon what engages me most in gardens I love:

* a series of small enclosed spaces which are like outdoor rooms – little ‘dens’ where you may sit and contemplate or dream or write or do anything else creative, which are shady, secret, beautiful, tranquil, hidden;

Spending time in the garden - contemplating, dreaming, in a little 'den' (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)
Spending time in the garden – contemplating, dreaming, in a little ‘den’ (photo credit: Abigail Robinson)

*  a number of vistas and points from which you may glimpse things either near or distant which may intrigue or surprise;

* in a grand garden with a stunning planting scheme, I’m most enchanted by combinations of depth & colour & shape which evoke different emotions in the beholder; low misty feathery plants in front, then the tall bold gold shapes behind, and finally the purple spiky angular plants at the back: a profusion of different contrasting and complementary shapes and textures.

This is what I saw in the gardens at Upton House when I visited on Friday 23 August 2013.

A predominance of pink and gold with occasional glimmers of white, lilac, purple, burgundy.

A gentle, warm fragrance filled the air; butterflies flocked to the lavender, bumble bees feasted in every direction I gazed.

Upton House Garden 23 Aug 2013  photo credit Abigail Robinson
Upton House Garden 23 Aug 2013 photo credit Abigail Robinson

The whole  was in dynamic motion, appearing to me as a vibration of life, shimmering above and around the blossoms.

We are all indebted to those whose gift is to design gardens, select plants, and work hard to create paradise on earth: surely the goal of all the great garden designers. In this life, there is a place for all of us; those who work, those who act, those who  are practical, and those who come to see, and to drink deeply, who dream, who draw inspiration, who see visions, and who believe.

Great gardens are places that feed the imagination, provide a source of inspiration, nurture creativity, enrich our dreams, lift our hearts to the divine.

For paradise is a garden.

Places of Inspiration Part 4: The White Garden at Sissinghurst and the Flambuoyant Spirit of Vita Sackville-West

The White Garden at Sissinghurst, Kent
The White Garden at Sissinghurst, Kent

 Near Sevenoaks in Kent we find the house formerly owned and occupied by writer Vita Sackville West and her husband Harold Nicolson. Now handed over to the safekeeping and care of the National Trust (something Vita once swore she would never do!) this house and its much beloved White Garden is a place which has inspired many. And I am among them.

Vita as depicted on the cover of "Portrait of a Marriage" by Nigel Nicolson
Vita as depicted on the cover of “Portrait of a Marriage” by Nigel Nicolson

I learned much of what I know about Vita from two books: “Portrait of a Marriage” written by her son Nigel Nicolson, and “Orlando” by Virginia Woolf, in which the central character is based upon Vita, and which has been called “the longest love letter in literary history”.

Though Vita was herself a prolific writer, she is not considered among the great novelists or poets. Instead she is known for the profound influence she had on many who encountered her and became entranced by her bold and flambuoyant personality. The idea behind Orlando serves as a metaphor for Vita’s character: “an English nobleman who lives for hundreds of years before falling asleep and waking up as a woman”. 

Vita was a member of the early 20th century Bloomsbury Set, and courted controversy through her lesbian love affairs with Violet Trefusis and Virginia Woolf. When my parents were young, Vita would have been well-established as a scandalous figure in the media – though I never took the opportunity to ask them what their views had been of her behaviour.

In many ways Vita’s character shines out to me through all that I have read of her. Snippets I remember are that her mother was a Spanish dancer (immortalised, by the way, in a Tussauds wax figure at the Edwardian Weekend House Party at Warwick Castle – she occupies the lace-festooned lady’s boudoir).

Vita's mother Pepita
Vita’s mother Pepita

Vita’s father was Lord Sackville West. Of her siblings, Vita was the one who most deeply loved and appreciated Knole House, her childhood home; yet she was prevented from inheriting it by the law of inheritance which demanded that it should go to the first son. This was the reason of course why she eventually bought the house at Sissinghurst.

Vita for me is an exhuberant, emotional, colourful character whose abundant imagination eventually found expression in the White Garden at Sissinghurst.

Harold and Vita were a perfect garden creation team. Harold was concerned with the overall design whereas Vita’s wild imagination led her to insist on planting in huge clusters. She hated regimented rows. She believed in great mass of each kind of plant, thus creating the life-enhancing White Garden.

Vita’s original idea was for pure white but she was eventually persuaded to include greys and light blues and light greens as well. This garden stands for her eccentric and individual character; one of the greatest memorials to her romantic spirit.