Sunday, 29 July 2007

Flanders Fields: wheat and poppies

A field of ripening wheat is a beautiful sight: jade green stalks around the edges of the fields enclose the sea of wheat, a soft dun colour. When there is a slight breeze the ears sway in unison like dancers on a ballroom floor.

When it's not raining (which it's doing a lot lately) one of my favourite walks with Freddie is along a footpath that cuts right through the middle of a large wheat field. But first I have to negotiate the kissing gate without Freddie noticing either the hens or the giant pet rabbit asleep in the adjoining garden. That accomplished I can relax.

From the top of the field there's a 300 degree panoramic view: the land falls away to hedges and trees, a stream at one edge. I never fail to stop awhile and admire the wide open landscape, the large sky – a perfect scene - and marvel at how lucky I am to live in such a beautiful, peaceful place.

When the sun shines the wheat takes on a golden glow, the green of the hedges and trees in deeper contrast, the blue of the sky an excellent foil for the wheat: opposite sides of the colour spectrum. In years gone by, before fields were sprayed, the bright contrast of poppies was a lovely and common sight among the corn but now such annuals are an undesirable contaminate.

Freddie is less impressed with aesthetics. When he first enters the field his eyes scan the horizon: he's looking for prey. I pull him on and he adapts to nice smells mode. When I stop to admire the view he's happy to stay still for a minute and immediately adjusts to micro hunter: eyes to the ground, he's motionless, waiting for some movement among the stalks.

As we approach the farm we surprise the geese, lying in the shade of an elder. The downy yellow goslings of a few weeks ago have turned into handsome snowy white geese, small feathers on their necks still those of an adolescent.

They have not yet learned the art of the guard dog, either that or my dog and I have burglar's tread. Freddie shows no interest in the geese: it's possible that he's been on the receiving end of a goose's beak. It's a long time since we kept geese and I still miss the eggs but not the gander's battle cry.

Wild flowers, in muted shades, fill the verges of the road we follow: tall stems of meadowsweet wave fluffy heads of rich cream, pale pink bristles and spiky thistle leaves overshadow the small yellow flowers of rattle and buttercup in the grass.

But, ahead, one stab of searing colour. Where a car went over the hedge just opposite my house a stray poppy – bright scarlet – has appeared: some escapee seed from a neighbour's wildflower bank. The spinning car wheels did the job of the plough.

Poppy seed can lie dormant for years and years just waiting for a lucky break. I have gravel paths in the garden and this constantly disturbed surface is the perfect medium for poppies. I leave them wherever they appear, never knowing where they will come up next year. There are soft red poppies and mauve ones and various ones in shades of pink from cross fertilization. Some are frilly doubles, others simple singles.

I dry the heads of the poppies I like and plan to scatter the seeds immediately. Unfortunately, I often forget and find them the next year. Nevertheless I throw them onto roughed up bits of ground, if they come up it's a bonus, if they don't it didn't cost anything.

They look particularly good growing next to tall grasses – it's that old combination poppies and wheat. When the wheat field is ploughed it brings the poppy seed to the surface and allows it to germinate: tanks did the same on the Fields of Flanders.

July 31st is the anniversary of the main battle of Passendale (3rd battle of Ypres, 1917). Shelling, tanks and unseasonal heavy rain – very similar to the rain here this year - made the battle ground into a mud bath which was horrific and caused the death of many.

One of Siegfried Sassoon's poems sums it up, "I died in Hell – They called it Passchendaele". Not peaceful fields of wheat but Flanders fields of poppies must be on the minds of many: such a moving sight. Life and death: wheat and poppies.


Book Note: the poetry of those who died in the First World War, Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, Isaac Rosenberg, and those that survived it, Robert Graves, A.E.Houseman, Edmund Blunden and Siegfried Sassoon, quite changed the language of poetry: romanticism was replaced with reality.

The darkness crumbles away -
It is the same old druid Time as ever.
Only a live thing leaps in my hand -
A queer sardonic rat -
As I pull the parapet's poppy
To stick behind my ear.

'Break of Day in the Trenches' Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918)

The American civil war and then the Boer war had exposed the reality of modern warfare but it wasn't until the Great War that the true horror of it was so movingly expressed in poetry. And the poems of these soldier-boy poets, which convey the horror of war so graphically, still have resonance today.

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) is one of the best known of the British war poets. His six volume autobiography is a semi-fictional account of his life, the first three volumes entitled The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston. There are at least five biographies of Sassoon and, for those good at 'googling', there is a wealth of information out there about him.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Findings by Kathleen Jamie

In a further quest for something other than a novel, our Scots groupie suggested a 'sort of book' for our July book group choice: Findings, by the award-winning Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie.

Jamie obviously loves the Scottish landscape and wildlife and this book is a series of 'essays' that investigate different themes. Whether they were essays or not was a subject for discussion: all agreed they probably were although not of the 'school essay' type. So, fond of getting it right in my head, I looked up the word in the trusty OED
essay: noun 1. a short piece of writing on a particular subject.
2. formal an attempt or effort
essayist noun 1. a person who writes essays, especially as a literary genre

On a simplistic level I thought the essays were about the landscape and nature but Jamie says Findings 'is a book about being human, conscious, implicated.' She doesn't recognise the idea of 'the outdoors' or of 'nature' because she contends that we are nature, and are not – or should not be - divorced from it.

Well, of course she's right but most readers will probably enjoy her being at one. This comes across in her writing when she feels it imperative to be part of her surroundings, to interact, to get closer, whether moving along on her bike or sitting still up close on a bank.

But whether Jamie is cycling along a lane, on an island, in a boat or by a river bank she is listening as much as watching. We hear the mewing of a buzzard, waves sucking on rocks, the wind sloughing and so the reader is given a very complete picture.

She is a curious, keen and close observer and one who loves to use her binoculars to magnify, her telescope as an eye that can sweep in close. Like a camera. And I found her 'seeing' quite detached: unemotional. Like a scientist. Perhaps that's why she can put her observations into words so clearly.

Although, now and then, we are allowed odd glimpses of Jamie's personal life and views – her husband ill, her daughter's accident, her ageing grandmother: her politics, relationship with her mother.

Jamie doesn't do God, but she has a beneficent view of the natural world and a very philosophical one at that. When her husband was seriously ill she didn't pray to God to save him but concentrated instead on the minutiae of life - cobwebs and the play of sunlight – and wondered if 'noticing', paying heed to small things, was a kind of prayer.

It takes a bit of getting used to, this Kathleen Jamie view of life: she waited for hours to see a corncrake and when she finally did, one expected her to be delighted but she merely remarks 'That's that. I do not punch the air'. However, when an unexceptional man visiting the corncrake field described the small, modest birds as 'little gods of the field' she says she felt like punching the air, obviously delighted with his appreciation of the small things upon which all of nature is reliant.

Reading the book one can understand why Jamie's a lecturer in creative writing: her descriptions of the natural world are sharp and fresh, her similes humorous and original. Corncrakes don't like bad weather and are described as 'the kind of bird who'd want to be excused games'. Brilliant.

Her ability to pare down her writing – which must be part of a poet's art – is impressive in prose and the way in which she leaves her readers to draw their own conclusions shows amazing restraint.

One of my favourite chapters was Darkness and Light, describing her visit to the Neolithic tomb of Maes Howe, Orkney. Quite apart from the wonderful descriptions of the natural landscape – sky, birds, light, wind – she also explains how five thousand years ago the Stone Age builders were so skilled they lined-up a narrow passage so that on a few mid-winter days, at solstice, a beam of sunlight fell directly along that passage and illuminated the tomb. In those days darkness – black - was not associated with death as it is now. She wishes it was still so.

In The Braan Salmon the descriptions of the salmon leaping and the water they are leaping about in is superb. The river Braan is not a natural salmon river: tourists watch the salmon and admire their brio as they try to get back upriver to spawn. Is it survival of the fittest, is a conundrum Jamie raises. Few know that, try as they might, the salmon will never achieve it. It is impossible for them to clear the falls. The fittest fish die in the attempt and those that survive are those that give up and spawn where they can.

Jamie also likes to introduce us to a wider vocabularly: there are the Scottish words, of course, which pepper the text but never exclude the reader but there were also a few words that were new to me. Which perhaps indicates her love of finding out, pushing boundaries: knowing.

Findings was thoroughly enjoyed by the whole book group: 'beautifully presented book', 'an easy read', 'a gem', 'worth re-reading', were some general remarks. More specifically it was described as: informative, clever, with a wonderful sense of place. And every one understood when one groupie remarked that she had been 'transported by the descriptions'.

So, "Beam me up, Scottie", this sort of book is a real find.


Sunday, 15 July 2007

Kirstenbosch - Botanical Excellence

When the weather is wet and gloomy here and I can't out into the garden my thoughts immediately turn to South Africa, sunshine and the glorious landscape. One place I always visit there is Kirstenbosch, the country's premier botanical garden.

When Cecil Rhodes died in 1902 he left his farm - part of his Groot Schuur estate - to the nation. In 1913 the site became the first South African botanical garden devoted to indigenous plants: set on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain, the garden is in an incomparable position and is open an impressive 375 days a year.

Locals tend to use the garden as a park either for hiking up the eastern face of the mountain or for outdoor summer concerts and picnics. But all visitors enjoy the art exhibited by local artists and the sculptures in the garden and I believe bird-watching is quite a popular pastime.

Because of the wealth of the vegetation birds are everywhere in the gardens: guinea fowl and geese are always there and I've seen sugarbirds and sunbirds, bulbuls and even kestrels and kites. To find out from a real bird expert that's been to Kirstenbosch visit

But it's the planting that is the real star: there are 89 acres under cultivation and plants are grouped together according to type, all of them indigenous. This is not the norm for many botanical gardens, some of which choose to grow unusual plants from different countries and continents. So the ethos of Kirstenbosch - indigenous sustainable planting - was far ahead of its time.

Water from natural mountain springs feed the garden, several of which meet in the first area to be cleared: a small pond was built there and the surroundings were planted with, among other things, tree ferns and a collection of yellowwood trees.

One of the Western Cape's most famous group of plants are the native fine bush - fynbos - which are hard, small leaved shrubs that can withstand wind and even fire and these feature widely in the gardens.

Other species are grown according to habitat: by the main pond cycads grow, a fossil of the plant world; succulents that prosper in the Karoo are in the rockery. The medicinal garden has herbs and healing plants used throughout the Cape; a braille trail is planted with fragrant plants and the upper slopes show off the country's national flowers, proteas.

If you visit the website you can find out about all the species grown there and see the wonderful scenery for yourself. Although the website pictures beautiful scenes it is a fact that many indigenous plants are not showy - except the short lived carpets of one species - so don't expect to see the colourful, overflowing perennial and annual borders of western Europe at Kirstenbosch.

But what you will see are the individual species that make up a large proportion of our herbaceous beds: these are such a large part of our gardening heritage now that we quite overlook that so many come from South Africa.

Gladioli, asters, ericas and many members of the lily family hail from South Africa: red-hot poker, agapanthus, freesias, anemone blanda, pelargoniums, amaryllis and many, many more are all plants we associate with European or American gardens yet this flora is indigenous to the Cape.

In the West we are being introduced to those plants that have for centuries been valued and used by South Africans as herbal remedies and infusions. The most famous is probably a native fynbos, rooibos: redbush tea is caffeine free and has various medicianl benefits. Another is hoodia, a native plant that is now grown commercially as a drug.

So perhaps this is an example where we can learn from South Africa. From its inception Kirstenbosch has championed sustainable planting, been involved in research that develops beneficial products and many children regularly benefit from the educational programmes there: botanical excellence.


PS To see a photo of Rhodes farm circa 1900 visit, on The Story page scroll down to Excerpts and find it there.

Book Note: a small niche-market publishing company in Cape Town - Fernwood Press - produces some beautiful reference books on southern Africa's culture and natural history. There are wonderfully illustrated books about landscape and ecology (including, surprise, one entitled Kirstenbosch), the animal world, African art and artists and various memoirs.

Mailships of the Union-Castle Line is one of their publications that I should like to read because my family sailed regularly between Durban and Cape Town -and sometimes to England - on Union-Castle ships.

Visit to find out about their other publications.

Monday, 9 July 2007

Lavender Blue

As cyclists on the Le Tour de France whizzed along Kent roads this week-end they by-passed a landscape feature more often recognized in Provence than Kent: fields of lavender in bloom.

The Romans originally brought lavender from the Mediterranean to Britain: it was prized for its medicinal qualities and, as it contains camphor, was used as an insect repellent. The name lavender comes from the latin, lavare, to wash, as it was used in laundry processes. For hundreds of years thereafter it was planted in monastery gardens and by the 16th century was found in most private gardens too.

By this time dried lavender was valued for many uses: as well its antiseptic qualities it was scattered on floors, cupboards and beds to deter vermin, used to purify the air, in washing and as a water to scent linen and clothes. When food was not always fresh, and spices were expensive, it was also used to flavour food and as a garnish for meat and fish dishes.

The historical importance of the plant is still apparent in the names of places throughout the south east of England - Lavender Hill, Lavender Court, Lavender Cottage – and those whose ancestors were laundresses (la lavandiere) still carry the family name of Lavender.

The plant requires free drainage and chalk soils provide similar growing conditions to that found in the south of France. A chalk seam runs through Kent and in the late 19th century there were thriving lavender fields in Seal, near Sevenoaks. In those days there was hardly a household without bottles of lavender water, lavender linen sachets hanging in wardrobes, lavender soap or perfume.

In the Seal lavender fields Victorian ladies in wide skirts, high necked blouses and hats picked the stalks by hand to provide these products. But, unfortunately, the lavender fields failed although the variety Seal Lavender (Lavandula x intermedia 'Seal'), which has green foliage and strong stems of pale mauve flowers, still survives.

Lavender fields in Norfolk were the most famous during the 20th century but now farmers in West Kent are producing lavender on a commercial basis again. Steam distillation is still the most widely used method of extracting the essential oils, inherited from the Arabs hundreds of years ago. However, technical improvements mean that the reliability and quality of the product has improved.

Lavender oil is still used for traditional toiletries but it is now big business as an ingredient in aromatherapy products, desirable for its calming and relaxing properties. It's also a natural antidote: yep, it's antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-depressant and anti-convulsive. In addition lavender has had a renaissance for culinary uses: cooking essences are used in breads, puddings and preserves and cold essences in ice-creams and drinks.

Driving or travelling by train to Shoreham in Kent there can be seen a wonderful purple haze across the landscape: lavender fields in bloom instantly transport the commuter to the south of France. Rows of lavender spikes create stunning mauve hummocks that run down a south facing slope right up to the sixteenth century farmhouse of Castle Farm.

You can see how beautiful these lavender fields are by visiting their website, (yes, you've guessed, they grow hop bines too), and can find out about the many activities provided for visitors. This week-end they had a Lavender Festival and visitors could buy lavender products, try lavender flavoured foods, visit the distillery and take a tour of the lavender fields.

Art courses at the farm tempt painters to try and create the quintessential Provence landscape, but lavender bushes and lavender scents are as English as English can be. If you don't believe me, on yer bike.


Book Note: long before Peter Mayle's book A Year in Provence (1990) was written there languished on my mother's bookshelves a slim purple covered book entitled Perfume from Province, by Lady Winifred Fortescue (1935). Finding it one day, I read the delightful record of the renovation of her small stone house near Grasse, surrounded by olive groves and lavender bushes, in which she gave a warm account of her experiences with the charming, if sometimes trying, local craftsmen.

The whole tenor was a more gentle – less scathing – version of Mayle's later book on the same subject, in the same area of Provence. However, a small consolation: Perfume from Province was republished after the roaring success of Mayle's book and it too - belatedly - became a best seller.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Flooding: the little boy and the dyke

The British talk about weather a lot: weather affects everyone and its very changeability gives us constant material for small talk. And, unlike politics, it’s a safe subject that nearly everyone can agree – and moan - about.

I have been asked why, as a landscape architect, I describe myself as a garden designer on this website. Well, many landscape architects like myself do design gardens too, but mostly it's because I find that a great number of people confuse 'landscape architect' with 'landscape contractor'. The former designs outdoor spaces; the latter physically implements such designs.

So excuse me now if I put on my professional hat and have a mildly political rant about the interaction between landscape design and the weather. Generally Britain has a mild climate and we can usually take the seasonal highs or low in our stride. But the very occasional whirlwind, earthquake, snowstorm or hurricane take us very unawares and find us totally unprepared.

In April this year we had weather that was better than is usual for June; in June we had not only April showers but some areas of England had appalling spring floods. For most of us it's been annoying but for some homeowners it's been disastrous.

However, there have always been floods and the fact that these seem more frequent and excessive is to some extent down to changes in planning policies, farming practice and lack of sustainable design.

Government policy has encouraged out-of-town shopping complexes with acres of non-porous parking surfaces; town and parish councils have not objected to housing with hard outdoor surfaces in place of free-draining ones. As a result the water goes straight into the drains and the rivers: when these rivers break their banks where does the water go.

For many years now district councils have given permission for developers to build on flood plains and sports grounds and landowners have drained water meadows. Historically these would have coped with most flood threats as large open areas of grass and gravel allow the water to drain away slowly.

Admittedly, recent floods are due to unusual rainfall but the traditional methods of controlling flooding could possibly have minimized the present damage in some areas.

It takes a disaster or two before policies and practices change and the current pre-occupation with global warming may be just the thing to get the policy makers and planners to pull their fingers out.

But it's not all down to the big boys: everywhere one can see the green grass of home covered with asphalt, paving blocks and stones (those landscape contractors again). This all adds to water run-off and the risk of flood. So part of the solution is in everyone's hands.

It was only a little boy that stuck his finger in the dyke and saved the land from flooding.


Book Note: weather is often used as a device in fiction. Many novelists – Jane Austen or Thomas Hardy for example - used descriptions of weather to impart a mood or sense of foreboding to great effect.
If we work indoors we tend to think of the weather as something that's going on 'outside' and, as we communicate with the wider world from the comfort of our computer chair, we sometimes forget that before the days of the car or the aeroplane the weather impinged on people's lives to a greater extent.
Perhaps this is why 'weather' is so often alluded to in historical novels: is it used less in modern novels?