Last Sunday St Nicholas Church Kenilworth held a ‘Naturewatch’ in the churchyard.
The church is close to the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey and Abbey Fields, which feature in my book Paranormal Warwickshire. The Naturewatch took us on a walk around the churchyard identifying a variety of beautiful and curious things – flowers, trees, gravestones, herb garden, secret steps, Celtic cross, abbey ruins, fallen wall and old tree which have become wildlife havens. This churchyard has long been one of my favourite places, and yet I learned many new things. An enchanting and fascinating churchyard hunt.
A vast parkland, a major historical house which has so many associated buildings clustered around it, alongside its own church, it seems like a village in itself – and a garden of ingenuity, beauty and variety, which surprises and delights you as you explore its paths, its structure and colourful planting: this is Lanhydrock.
Closer to the house and church, on our July 2020 visit, we could see that the gardeners have been hard at work during the UK Covid19 lockdown, preparing the beds for new planting, which shows us the perfect symmetrical layout waiting for the lines to be softened with a kaleidoscope of colours and shapes and textures.
With every bend of the path we come upon new vistas which satisfy our innate sense of proportion and design, please the eye and fill us with a sense of peace and harmony.
In an age of information where we are bombarded with news and facts and false facts and opinions, both genuine and prejudiced, I find we tend to select our own blind spots, to filter out the onslaught. Which is why, sometimes, although something and somebody can be publicised hugely in innumerable ways, it’s still possible for some of us to say, “I didn’t know that,” or “Never heard of him.”
Perhaps it’s unsurprising my subsconscious had blocked Dennis out previously; I would not have been at all interested in his underground publishing activities or magazines called OZ in the late sixties and early seventies, or in the obscenity trial that he was involved in with two colleagues in 1971.
Over the years I’ve been aware of other big creative personalities who have indeed made an impact on me – author Adrian Plass, poet Adrian Henri, artist Graham Clarke and actor Brian Blessed among them – and now, rather late (four years after his death) I’ve discovered Felix Dennis. I bought a book about his 2010 nationwide poetry tour, Did I Mention the Free Wine? by Jason Kersten; and looking at pictures of him, I can see his physical appearance in later years reminds me of all of those four. And not least he reminds me of Sir John Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 & 2. A man with a gift and an instinct and an appetite for making money, he amassed millions and when he died in 2014 he ultimately bequeathed them to the creation of a forest.
What an amazing and wonderful legacy, a legacy for the future of humankind. And I also discovered his poetry, beginning with those poems that were engraved on shards of glass in his poetry garden.
One of them,written not long before his death, particularly struck me:
I’ve plucked all the cherries Chance would allow, Take them, and welcome – I’m done with them now.
His bluntness and honesty, expressed in poetry, immediately appealed to me, as it has to so many who enjoy the gallows humour in his rhyming couplets. But the poems contain much more than gallows humour: sharp observations on life expressed in unpretentious, witty poetry that lends itself beautifully to live performance. Being a fan of live performance poetry, I can only wish that I’d found out about Felix years ago, and actually attended his poetry performance in the Bridgehouse Theatre, Warwick in 2010.
I am enjoying the book Did I Mention the Free Wine? – it is the most fascinating account of how to organise a book promotion tour on a grand scale, among many other things – and watch out for my review of it on Amazon and Goodreads! Meanwhile I shall be deepening my new-found interest in his forest, his garden and his poetry. Somehow, discovering him after his death has a poetic irony which he himself would probably have enjoyed greatly…
Just off the road between Warwick and Kenilworth you will find Guy’s Cliffe Historic Walled Garden. It used to be the kitchen garden for Guy’s Cliffe House, the atmospheric mansion about which I have already written on this blog. You can read my post here. But after the last heir to the estate, Sub-Lieutenant Algernon Percy, died in the First World War, the estate was broken up. For years this walled garden was lost beneath thick undergrowth, but in the last few years, the garden has undergone restoration by a team of devoted volunteers.
I’ve visited the garden a few times, sited behind Hintons Nursery off the Coventry Road, Warwick; and my son Jamie, a horticultural student, has also spent some hours volunteering in the garden.
The garden now is testament to the dedication of those who’ve freely given their time and expertise and hard work to bring it to its present state. It’s an ongoing project and has been featured on Gardeners’ World.
Recently the gardeners have installed a new poppy wall mural to commemorate the Battle of Jutland, in which Algernon Percy, the last heir to the estate, died.
What an inspiration this garden is; and it is also full of atmosphere, invoking a strong sense of the lives of those who worked here and loved the garden and nurtured it in the past.
How to find it:
The Walled Garden is at the back of Hintons Nursery.
I have long loved wildflower meadows, and thought how lovely it would be to have one instead of a garden. But creating a wildflower meadow isn’t just a matter of buying a few packets of seeds and scattering them over a piece of unwanted lawn. Several years ago I did just that and waited, hoping for a glorious profusion of wildflowers several months later and the result was – nil.
In May 2016 we attended a Plantlife talk at Highgrove, the Prince of Wales’ beautiful garden near Tetbury, Gloucestershire, and came away with two packets of wildflower seeds.These seeds were a special Highgrove mix – enough for a small patch of wildflower meadow in the garden.
We now knew that to plant a wildflower meadow in your garden you need poor soil, perhaps an area of “old lawn”, and certainly not lawn or soil which has been fertilised and carefully tended in the past. So we chose a wild area.
Last August my son Jamie (a budding horticulturalist) sowed the seeds in a a patch measuring 4 square metres in our back garden.
We didn’t expect much in the first year; a wildflower meadow may take a few years to become fully established. In fact I must admit I expected that during the first year we’d have just a small jungle of weeds, and would need to wait and trust that the beauty would emerge in a few years.
But this July we’re delighted to see the wild grasses tall and shining in the sun, and among them, a few of the first wildflowers to appear.
It gives us great pleasure to look out beyond the more “domesticated” beds of rose and lavender, past the newly-sown area of lawn, to our little area of Highgrove wildflower meadow.
It will be mown for the first time in September, and then after that four times a year.
Next year we hope to see a profusion of colours and perhaps a small version of the lovely wildflower meadow at Highgrove!
For more posts from me about wildflowers and Highgrove, click here and here
I’d love to know what you think about wildflower meadows! Have you ever tried to create your own meadow in your garden? And how successful have you been?
Last week I visited HRH the Prince of Wales’ garden at Highgrove for the third time.
Each time I’ve visited – the first time in pouring rain in August 2015, the second time near the end of the wildflower season in June 2016, and now in October 2016, we’ve been led by a different guide and each has chosen a different slant. On this occasion our guide (a gentleman in his eighties) told us that HRH the Prince of Wales takes his guides round the garden and tells them all the stories and points out the things he wants them to mention to the visitors. Inevitably, however, each individual will have his or her own angle onto the garden.
So this time I was able to notice not only those aspects of the garden this particular guide was focusing on, but those which carried stories told on my previous two visits. One of the tales told by today’s guide (tongue-in-cheek) portrayed the Prince as an unexpected visitor to Highgrove whose favourite occupation, having turned up without prior warning, is to hide behind the hedge and listen in on what visitors say about his garden. In fact most of the time the visitors are silent with either admiration, delight, puzzlement, bemusement or even, dare I suggest, indignation, when they realise that they are not in the Land of the Immaculate, and that weeds are not treated like public enemy number one in this garden, moss is allowed to multiply to its fullest extent on stone, and different principles apply, other than those we might expect, perhaps from National Trust gardens, or those associated with Capability Brown.
This time I felt able to say which are most definitely my favourite aspects of the gardens at Highgrove. For those who have visited, this list will be meaningful, but for those who haven’t, then I suggest either reading this book on the subject, or just letting your imagination play with the images the list suggests:
I love the stumpery, and the little gnome that is to be found inside one of the stumps there; the temple garden, with its two statues to ward off evil spirits, and the network of dry sticks and twigs in the temple pediments, that manage to look like intricate wood carvings; the goddess of the wood; the wall of gifts; the four daughters of Odessa; the pond with redundant stonework and limestone topped by gunnera, the topiary frog and snail.
To me, this is a garden that is playful, quirky, eccentric; a fantasy made real by someone who has the means, the time, patience and heart to achieve it. As I wander through the garden, I can’t help expecting trick fountains – such as those which King Ludwig of Bavaria incorporated into his own garden, in the gardens of his dreamlike palace.
Isn’t it lovely how many different moods and themes can be captured by garden designers and landscape architects?
A week ago I was speaking to the guide who led our tour around Highgrove Gardens about how HRH The Prince of Wales viewed Capability Brown. And the answer was that he realises in some contexts the ideas of that great eighteenth century garden designer might be appropriate, but personally it’s not his “sort of thing”. For when Capability Brown was brought in to transform the surroundings of a stately home, he would be thinking of sweeping lawns flowing seamlessly into the extensive parklands via the ha-ha, dotted with majestic parkland trees, and would of course throw in a cunningly-situated lake, which would create a perfect vista from the house. This is a profoundly different approach to that of the sequence of interconnected rooms full of quirky and unexpected things, which is itself a very popular style of garden design among the great gardeners (such as Vita Sackville West with Sissinghurst Castle Garden, of course).
However yesterday I was in one of my favourite Capability Brown landscapes at Compton Verney in Warwickshire
And again I thought how calming and uplifting it is to be in this spacious parkland, which wraps around the house perfectly, providing an ideal setting.
But there’s now a new feature in the landscape, of which HRH the Prince of Wales would wholeheartedly approve: a new wildflower meadow on the West Lawn, with mown paths running through it corresponding to a William Morris design, relating directly to the theme of the excellent Arts and Crafts exhibition currently showing inside the house.
As we visited it on the last day of August the wildflowers were long past their best; apart from a single patch which gave some idea of what the entire meadow will look like next May:
Highgrove Garden made me think of the plot of a children’s book, quirky, fun, playful. At every turn there is a new surprise, like something dreamed up by Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear. It was an odyssey through a quirky and unpredictable environment.
Vistas and views and angles, abundant ferns and eccentric topiary, temples, thatched tree house and giant slate pots abounded.
The downpour intensified as we went round, yet everyone was so entranced by the garden, it remained a minor issue – even when we waded through deep puddles on the unmade paths.
Moving through the garden is like progressing from one chapter to another in a beguiling story. If fairies inhabited this garden they would be the wild, anarchic spirits Shakespeare portrays in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I particularly loved the juxtaposition of wilderness and artistry. HRH The Prince of Wales has invited artists and sculptors to run wild with their imagination; everywhere you may see the evidence of free expression and creativity.
In summary, this is a unique and profoundly inspiring garden.