Henry Moore at Hatfield House

Hatfield House

I can’t read maps and now I know where I get it from: my mum. She’s kept this under wraps until now as my dad does all the navigating in our house and actually asks for maps for Christmas. If he ever doesn’t know where he’s going, he pretends he does.

Mum’s cover was blown on Sunday, though, when she and I were left to our own devices at the Henry Moore exhibition at Hatfield House. My Dad had dropped us off, having taken an unusual route through a housing estate about which he chose to make no comment.

The various sculptures were dotted around the garden and woodland, and a handy map showed where they were. Most of them were called something along the lines of ‘Figure, Reclining’ and they did all look like, well, figures reclining.

Then we arrived at a sculpture that was we were expecting to be called ‘Torso’ but was indisputably a ‘Mother and Child’. And that’s when we realised that something was amiss.

Turns out we’d oriented ourselves wrongly from the off, mistaking the huge (and unmissable) knot garden on the map for a tiny fountain in a garden room. But never mind. It was great to get up close and personal with the sculptures, which looked very much at home in their temporary setting.

Bees and fruit

People may be tapping on their smartphones throughout it but the Jardin du Luxembourg is very traditional with boules, a carousel and old fashioned swings.

I’d never noticed these traditional beehives before, or the orchard (below), originally tended by monks from the Chartreux monastery. It’s home to over 600 varieties of apples and pears, many very old, all trained as cordons, espaliers, U shapes and pyramids. It aims to show the public just how many varieties can be grown in France. Some of fruits were shrouded in paper bags – to keep them unblemished, maybe?

One pear tree even had its own obituary. A ‘Louise Bonne D’Avranches’ died at the age of 111 in 1978.

But if you don’t have an iPhone…


There’s a TV ad in France at the moment which shows everything you can do with an iPhone – do your shopping, check cinema times etc. It ends with: ‘But if you don’t have an iPhone… well, you don’t have an iPhone.’ I can’t remember if we had the same ad in the UK.

On a beautiful autumn day in the Jardin du Luxembourg, some people were busy tapping away at their smartphones or talking on them. Others were snoozing or reading books and newspapers. I’d say the split was about 50:50.

Esther and I had gone for the low-tech option of a snooze in the low, olive green chairs (sitting on the grass is mostly interdit in France). Neither of us have smartphones. Esther reckons she definitely doesn’t want one and I’m wavering. I know it would probably be handy but all that endless tapping and stroking looks a bit tedious to me, and I feel like I’ve got information overload anyway.

As the sun went down, we decided it might be nice to go to the cinema that evening. But of course, in the middle of the park, we didn’t have a clue what was on. But if you don’t have an iPhone, well, you don’t have an iPhone…



I walked around the E17 Art Trail with Mel, a garden picture editor turned gardener. She got what I was trying to do with this blog perfectly, and we had fun spotting potential subjects. We saw some godawful gardens, and a good many more that were just neglected – Mel was itching to give them some TLC. We also saw some sterling gardening efforts in unpromising spots, such as these brightly coloured pots on a drab path.

Mel reckons I should do a parallel blog about truly terrible gardens, and even made me take a pic of a tiny cordyline in a huge terracotta pot with big holes drilled in the side (why??) in preparation.

It’s certainly a tempting idea – it could be along the lines of the Angry People in Local Newspapers. But the idea of this blog is to celebrate, not denigrate, and there’s enough ugliness in the world without me adding to it. Although I could start a ‘Horror of the Month’ feature…

The Olympic site


I went to Stratfield today – not to go to Westfield with the masses, but to the Olympic site. I donned a hard hat and hi-vis jacket and was shown around by Nigel Dunnett, who is playing a key role in the planting there.

The planting at the park is not an afterthought – it’s integral to it. In fact, you could say the Olympic Park is an urban park with some buildings in it. After the Games (or ‘Games’ as they’re known to those in the know – without the ‘the’), many of the temporary buildings will disappear, but the park will remain.

Nigel is part of an expert team that really knows what it’s doing and is united in its aim to create something truly groundbreaking. It’s taking controlled risks, calmly experimenting with plant mixes and sowing times, its eye on the 2012 deadline all the while.

This is a modern park that most British people won’t have seen the like of before. There are no rose beds or garish annuals but wet woodland, swathes of annual and perennial meadows and native plants and trees. The highly designed yet naturalistic-looking borders combine familiar and less familar plants in unusual ways – a modern take on the traditional herbaceous border. The site has its own bespoke soils and sophisticated drainage and irrigation systems, and ticks every biodiversity box. Wildlife is already moving in.

The sheer scale of the planting means that it’s pretty showstopping – especially the River of Gold, a long corridor planted with an annual meadow mix of coreopsis, californian poppy, annual chrysanthemum and cornflowers. But it’s not showy or brash and doesn’t feel like a theme park. The plants, even those from far-flung parts of the world, look very much at home.

The design team hopes that the Olympic site will change our view of the urban park forever. It might also change the way we garden, too.

Becky’s garden


Also on the E17 Art Trail we passed this little gem, which belongs to Becky Wynn Griffiths and her partner. From the Art Trail map we weren’t sure whether the art in the house was going to feature cats crying blood (yes, really) or championship farm animals. We were relieved to find it was the latter. Becky’s art centres around photographs and paintings of prizewinning cows, sheep and pigs.

Needless to say I tarried awhile in the front garden. It’s home to some bright annuals and perennials in pots, a big phormium, nasturtiums spilling out of windowboxes and an acer. The burnished shades complement each other perfectly.  There’s even a bench, topped with interesting objects. The whole garden is a great lesson in what you can achieve in just a few square metres.

The street of blue plaques


This weekend, I had a legitimate reason for ogling at other people’s front gardens. It was the E17 Art Trail and my friend Danny had transformed his road into the Street of Blue Plaques. He had trawled old census records to come up with a plaque for almost every house, commemorating an ordinary person who had previously lived there.

It was a simple yet brilliant idea which was great fun and also strangely affecting. In just 100 years, most of the jobs that people used to toil away at have ceased to exist: dairyman, for example, and fur cutter, and (my favourite) train ticket printer. Some people were working with materials I’m not familiar with, such as Xylonite and mica, and one chap built Britain’s first motorcar. In the spirit of the art trail, most houses in the street were sporting a plaque, and where a house had been bombed in the war, Danny hung a plaque on a nearby tree or railing. Those that weren’t claimed adorn Danny’s own windows (above). You can see them all here.

The art trail, of course, was also another chance to have another look at Danny’s garden. It was looking as lovely as ever, and there was a small gathering of garden aficionados out the back cooing at his imaginative plant combinations. The patio is surrounded by a trellis that’s draped in a large-leaved vine, Vitis cognetiae, and Clematis armandii. I would never have thought of putting a trellis in that spot as it obscures the view of the rest of the garden, or of covering it with such bold plants, but of course it all works brilliantly.

Faking it

South Bank

As I’ve mentioned before, fake plants really get my goat. My heart sinks every time I see a plastic box ball, and it’s sinking quite a lot at the moment as they seem to be getting more and more widespread.

I don’t think there’s any need or excuse for fake turf, either – even if it was allowed at the Chelsea Flower Show for the first time last year. God only knows the environmental implications of the stuff.

But conversely, this artificial grass I can live with. Of course I wish it was the real thing, but that wouldn’t be easy on a concrete base in the middle of the South Bank (although they have managed it a bit further along in the fabulous rooftop garden on top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall). But I like the fact that it introduces an element of green, and invites people to lounge about and play – key elements in a real garden.

Let’s just hope people don’t feel so inspired that they go home and promptly install a fake lawn in their back garden.