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Saturday, 23 June 2018

Days at Monsoon Valley Wines, Thailand

Summer, and it's the time to enjoy all those chilled glasses of rose which are so perfect for a picnic, for lunch and especially before supper on a warm evening out in the garden.
I like them dry, especially from Provence, but there's a rose from somewhere quite different which I absolutely adore.

Brace yourselves, it's from Thailand. Yes, hot and humid Thailand - from the Monsoon Valley Vineyard, set in the hills about twenty five miles from Hua Hin.  It's a Shiraz Rose which earlier this month won the title of "The World's Best Rose" in Thailand - ahead of eighty others from all around the world in a blind tasting..

I've been to that vineyard on my last three trips to Hua Hin, to taste the wines and to have lunch. The rides around the vines are optional, by elephant or jeep . Go before lunch because it's just too hot afterwards, and you will, whether you intended to or not, have drank some fabulous wines which don't mix well with the undulating motion that comes with being stuck on top of a walking elephant. That said, I wouldn't take an elephant ride in the first place.

Chalerm Yoovidhya is the very successful Thai businessman who had the vision to create Monsoon Valley Wines back at the beginning of the century, even though it wasn't a given that it could succeed.

Last year, my husband and I were in the south of Thailand in January and February, amid the terrible storms which caused widespread destruction and we were stuck on roads which had been swept away. So when we made it to the vineyard on the way back from the islands a few weeks later, we were only too well aware of the difficulties that winemakers here face weather wise.

It was a very warm and muggy Saturday, not a hint of a breeze and we couldn't wait to sit in the shade of La Sala for lunch.

Thai and European food is available - we usually stick to light dishes and salad and pair them with a flight of three wines. 

With a starter of satay pork, we drank the crisp white Columbard. It's zingy freshness worked well with the peanut and lime sauce. Then came the Shiraz Rose, which although slightly sweeter than I usually prefer, was bursting with flavour -  wild strawberries and happiness in a glass.

I also liked the Shiraz red, spicy and plummy and so likeable with a lightness of touch.

After ending our meal with a mango and sticky rice pudding with mango ice cream, we decided we weren't quite ready to go back to our hotel in Hua Hin.

We ordered a bottle of the Shiraz Rose and spent the most delicious hour chatting, eavesdropping on some very interesting conversations at nearby tables and drinking in the views across the vineyard.

My husband is already planning the next trip to Thailand - he leads a golf tour there every year, and no doubt another visit to the vineyard will be planned. Next time though, I will insist we buy a few more bottles of the Shiraz Rose to keep in our hotel fridge!
You can get to the Monsoon Valley Vineyard from the seaside resort of Hua Hin by minibus or taxi, easily arranged by your hotel or by contacting the vineyard direct. Alternatively there is a shuttle bus which runs from Villa Market twice a day  and the journey takes about 40 minutes.
One final word, do book a table for lunch as it's a long way to go and find that they are fully booked!

Thursday, 14 June 2018

A day at Barnsley House, Gloucestershire

Yesterday, I was at Barnsley House in Gloucestershire with some friends from the Garden Media Guild to visit the garden. Some of us had seen this quintessential 17th century Baroque mansion before, but for me, this was my first visit to such an iconic garden.

It was Rosemary Verey, the garden designer and writer, who created  the eleven acre gardens here adn lived here from the 1950s onwards. After her death in 2001,  Barnsley House became  a very welcoming hotel.

Set in a picturesque village, as I arrived the sun was shining and everyone was in the world famous garden for a tour around by Richard Gatenby, the Head Gardener.

 He's an engaging guide, obviously very proud of what is here, and of what Rosemary Verey achieved.
 "Gifted amateurs have no boundaries. Mrs V found the experts and made her own mind up." he said.
It was Percy Cane the garden designer who told her  to include as many vistas as possible, using the longest distance, and that's exactly what she did here  - pictured from outside the temple.

He's working with Rosemary Verey's legacy and says it was the hedgerows and edge of woodland which turned her on - that and successful planting.

 My eyes were darting here and there, as we made our way along the laburnum walk, the temple and  the herbaceous borders.The tour wasn't just an elongated recitation of a plants list thankfully, he took us all along with him by his enthusiasm, and letting us admire the garden at a leisurely pace. "I'm a hopeless romantic who sees the magic not the mechanics " he said.

 I really liked that, and I soon found the magic behind this gate.

Rosemary Verey created this potager and in turn inspired thousands of other gardeners. It is simply and utterly gorgeous, no wonder it created a trend in ornamental kitchen gardens.

Outside the walled potager, the field is the powerhouse for the kitchens of the hotel with beds of spinach, chard, rhubarb. peas, winter squash Crown Prince plus this glorious array of herbs.

There's polytunnels full of tomatoes - mamande, sungold and rosella, plus, as if on guard outside one of the tunnels, the largest, most vigorous lemon verbena I've ever seen.

I  nipped inside one of the polytunnels  to see what the chefs could pick this week , hoping to get a clue of what might be on the lunch menu.

Lunch was very jolly, all of us enthusing about what we had seen while we ate raw broad beans and freshly baked bread and  "Oh, a glass of wine?Well I don't mind if I do..."

This was followed by a delicious lunch using ingredients picked earlier in the day. Cotswold chicken, sun blush tomatoes, peas, broad beans and roasted rosemary and garlic potatoes for most and a deliciously creamy pea risotto for those of us who requested the vegetarian option. Lemon posset to die for afterwards ....all served expertly by a friendly team .

But our visit wasn't over yet. We then made our way to the Temple  where Davina Wynne Jones,
 Rosemary's Verey's daughter talked to us about her mother and the influence she had on her and so many others.

Prince Charles and Elton John both admired her greatly and she was very influential in America.
"Sh could be very difficult and utterly charming , both at the same time"

Meanwhile, Richard Gatenby was back in the Rosemary Verey garden he loves, and that with an attention to detail...

What a revealing and interesting day at Barnsley House.  As I made my way past hotel guests sitting in the sunshine, I wished I could stay overnight too. I simply wanted to stay in the magic which Rosemary Verey and Richard Gatenby have created and kept alive . Another time I hope.

As I drove home I decided it was a day of the four Ps..... a sense of place, planting, personalities and perfection.

You can find out more about Barnsley House at

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Days of rhubarb and gin

I'll admit it - I hated rhubarb as a child. Usually served as a very tart tart, smothered in a  virulent yellow congealing custard, the mere thought of being forced to eat it made me feel sick.

This wasn't my lovely Mum's fault, I'm talking about the dreaded school dinners of long ago.
So for years and years I wouldn't and couldn't eat rhubarb, until I went for Sunday lunch at my parents in law as a newly wed.

BB (we share the same initials ) was a wonderful traditional cook, and I'd enjoyed the array of puddings she'd served up before, but this day I froze as a dish of chilled stewed rhubarb was put on the table.

"No thank you" I said politely but my mother in law wasn't deterred. "Do try some - it's lovely with ice cream. Perfect for today as it's so warm."

I didn't like to upset her so I put three scoops of ice cream into my bowl, two rhubarb pieces, the smallest I could find, and ladled a couple of spoonfuls of the sugar syrup in too.

I numbed my mouth with the ice cream first, tried a piece of rhubarb - mmn, a hint of ginger there,  and then the chilled syrup. I began to smile, I actually liked it.

I became a convert , and even planted my first rhubarb crowns about eight years ago at my allotment.

I grow two varieties, champagne was the first and the other is Timperley Early.

Rhubarb really is the plant which just keeps on giving. I know you're supposed to divide them after four years or so, and that they prefer a rich soil. Mine though have thrived on neglect and continue to offer up pounds and pounds of fruit every year.

Unfortunately the rest of my family don't like rhubarb, although one of them will eat the odd slice of rhubarb and orange polenta cake at a push. I carry on making crumbles and cakes but my favourite is still stewed rhubarb. Not with ginger, but with a star anise added. Delicious!

Both rhubarb plants are prolific this year, I've given quite a lot away, but then came a light bulb moment.
Gin!  Within a flash I was off to Waitrose (other supermarkets are available)  and bought a bottle of the cheapest. That day Gordons was on special offer. My next stop was the allotment to pick rhubarb and within minutes I was beginning to make my first batch of rhubarb gin.

Such a speedy and painless process, mixing rhubarb and sugar together. The following day the sugar has dissolved....
Then you put the jar into a dark cupboard for four weeks. Yes, only four weeks.

After four weeks and three days, I decided to bottle the gin. Of course it's important to have a teeny tiny glass to see if the gin reaches your expectations, and I find a little piece of shortbread just the right accompaniment...

Perfect, although it's very good too with lots of ice and some soda water but don't be too be heavy handed with the water darlings.

Meanwhile, I've decided that more rhubarb needs to be picked and more gin purchased.......

There's quite a few recipes on how to make it floating around, with some slight variations but here's mine


2 pounds of rhubarb stalks , cut into one inch lengths
a bottle of gin
12 ounces of sugar , I use plain white granulated but other recipes say caster sugar


1. Put the cut rhubarb into a large jar, kilner jar or whatever you have, with a screw top lid and add the sugar.
2.Shake it all about and put away until the next day, when you'll find all the juice has seep out of the rhubarb.
3. Add the gin, stir well ,  put the lid on .All you have to do the is put it away in a cupboard somewhere - and give it the occasional stir
4. Four weeks later, strain through a fine mesh sieve, bottle and  that's it!


PS My husband - the one who never eats rhubarb,  has tried some and was stunned to find - and I quote  "it's very good."

Monday, 16 April 2018

A day at Belvoir Castle

Early April and a rather windy day to go for a tour of the gardens at Belvoir Castle and to see the site for something rather exciting which is going to be happening in July.

I wasn't alone....

left to right John Stirland, Grace Milham, Tom Webster, Karen Gimson, David Greaves and Andy Tudbury.

Tom Webster who's the Head Gardener at Belvoir Castle and Grace Milham, the Commercial Director, were taking a few of us on an entertaining and interesting tour of the formal gardens.
The snow,  the sheer sogginess of everything after rain and more rain, plus the complete absence of anything remotely yellow in the sky had reduced my expectations of seeing a vision of colour and loveliness. However, the sheer grandeur and commanding position of the Castle is quite breathtaking.

The family of the Dukes of Rutland have lived here for nearly a thousand years but this castle was designed by James Wyatt and erected on the site in Regency times for the 5th Duke and Duchess of Rutland .

The gardens here at Belvoir were regarded as one of the greatest gardens in the early 18th century north of London, along with those of Chatsworth and Trentham. There's still so much to admire in the formal areas and in the 500 acres of woodland gardens and 15 acres of lakes and ponds.

 And then in the Japanese woodland, there are over 250 specimen camellias, rhododendrons and magnolias, and some were in flower.

Many of these were obtained from the original seed collection from Charles Williams of Caerhays Castle in Cornwall. I visited there last year ...see here

So why were we there for a tour and what else were we doing?
Making a radio programme for a start....partly on the gardens and we were off to see the site of the first ever Belvoir Flower and Garden Festival which will take place on 14th and 15th July .

What a glorious site for such an event, where you'll be able to see the results of the original Capability Brown designs for the landscape here. These plans which were lost over 200 years ago, found in 2013, and since developed.

So to the festival itself. Andy Tudbury is a well known garden designer based in Nottinghamshire and you'll have seen over 20 of his show gardens at many big shows over the years. I

Designing a show garden is a very different kettle of fish though to creating a whole new event. So why now, and why here at Belvoir Castle?

Well, Andy feels that the East Midlands has been crying out for an event like this for years. Granted RHS Chatsworth was set up last year, but according to Andy there's nothing this side of the M1!

So, Andy's dream has become a reality - there will be over ten show gardens and two marquees for exhibitors from top class nurseries such as Hardy's Cottage Garden Plants from Hampshire  ( I hope they bring some phlox divaricata "clouds of perfume" with them - I saw them at RHS Malvern last year...divine!)

Flowers and crafts will be on display too, there'll be live music and food stalls. In short, Andy envisages it as a celebration of horticulture with a party atmosphere.

Sounds good to me, and there's such a willingness for this to succeed from so many people and organisations  including  charities such as Perennial, the gardeners charity and Rainbows, a Leicestershire hospice which cares for life limited children.

Karen Gimson, who is a garden designer and one of the expert panel on BBC Radio Leicester and John Stirland from BBC Radio Nottingham will taking part in live Gardeners Question Time over the weekend along with gardening experts from further afield.

Karen is also designing a show garden for Rainbows Hospice which is being sponsored by David Greaves, a landscape designer from near Melton Mowbray whose team will be generously supplying manpower, materials and more besides for the garden.

As this a completely new venture, Andy Tudbury has a lot riding on this emotional and financial investment, and so has Belvoir Castle. It's a leap of faith for everyone.

Tickets for the Belvoir Flower and Garden Show on 14th and 15th July are available from - tickets are limited to 5,000 visitors each day.

This is the view you'll be seeing from the showground... and I can't wait for the festival itself, and another , longer tour around the gardens of Belvoir Castle.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Holi on a winter white day

Some of my  friends are celebrating Holi today.

I rather like this Hindu festival - it's fun and always make me smile even though it can be quite chaotic.

Celebrating the energy of the season and new life, it's known as the Festival of Colours. So how do you celebrate it? Well at its simplest, you gather with family, friends and neighbours , smear them all  with paint and throw coloured dye and powder around and over each other.

Of course there's far more to it than that to this annual tradition celebrating the start of spring, but a bonfire to gather around marks the start of the festivities.

No one is allowed to escape having paint over their face, it's all part of the fun and this is one of the most joyous and friendly of festivals. I love it, especially as during Holi, your religion or caste don't matter,  everyone joins together and has fun in a sea of colour.

The photos above are from a few years back, but today is totally different...its a white and snowy world.

I'm at home in my tiny, silent village, I didn't see one car on my walk down the hill towards the next village, probably because no cars can get up the hill.

Sheet ice under fresh snow and a high gradient don't make driving easy, and the only sound I can hear is the wind rattling through the trees sounding very sinister.

Elsewhere though, there is music, colour, joy and laughter today and tomorrow ,so a very happy Holi to you all.


Sunday, 11 February 2018

February days

Yesterday was cold and dank, with a high windchill factor. I left the village early to do my weekly shop at the bakers and the supermarket. I dashed home with car heater on high and windscreen wipers banging to and fro fiercely as the rain lashed down.

I couldn't get warm all day, and when I climbed the stairs to bed last night, hot water bottle in my hand, there was such a gale a howling and growling around the cottage, I couldn't get to sleep. My bones ached and I wished for spring, summer and sunshine, before giving myself a talking to. After all those days will come and life's too short to wish time away.

At least it was sunny this morning as I walked the dogs, Boo, Eric and Winnie, although the biting wind inspired us to walk just that little bit faster. Before going inside though, I had a quick walk around the garden in the sunshine to check for wind damage.

None fortunately, but I noticed the dusky pink hellebore at the side of the house has not come up this year after eighteen years of long and loyal service. I swore. The purity, beautyand hardiness of all the snowdrops at this, the grimmest time of the year, made me feel thankful though.


The pot on the table in the courtyard filled with iris reticulata was a welcome sight too....such a vivid splash of colour before the tete a tete daffodils open, followed by the bluebells.

Meanwhile it was lovely to see the crab apple beginning to blossom , a sign that spring will come.

Sometimes it 's the little things that change your mood. I came into the house feeling much more cheerful, until the hailstorm, with the hail hitting the sitting room windowpanes like bullets. Then came the sleet....

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Days before Christmas - gifts for gardeners

As I write this, looking out onto a white world, it really does feel wintry, and yes, so Christmassy. With only thirteen days to go until the big day though, I can assure you I'm not one of those who is already smiling smugly knowing that every single card has been written and every present chosen and wrapped.
Oh no, this year I'm one of the "Oh it can't be that time already, and what the hell am I going to buy for  x, y and z " gang. Before you start tut tutting though, I have bought the cards, and even written over half of them.
So if you're like me and a little  tardy shall we say, I thought I would suggest some perfect presents for anyone interested in gardening. ....items that I've already road tested by reviewing,and by buying.
Firstly, if anyone asks me what I would like for Christmas, books are usually top of my list. Cook books, gardening books, history books, novels by favourite authors, or book tokens make me a very appreciative person!
Here, I've chosen three gardening books which have made me smile, think and given me inspiration.
The first is "The Hidden Life of Trees" by Peter Wohlleben. I have loved reading this paperback which talks about trees not only communicating with each other through their roots, but supporting each other . In the author's eyes, trees in forests form a real society where older trees look after younger ones and other trees living close by.
Apparently they can definitely feel pain (and I now so dreadfully guilty about having my old ash tree chopped down after it was severely damaged by Storm Doris.) I'm not surprised at that statement but do they have  emotions? Peter Wohlleben says they have, and his book is so persuasive, I believe him.
This is a fascinating book about why trees growing in a forest grow stronger and can learn from each other. It may sound provocative, but I 'll be certainly looking at trees in a different way.
Published by William Collins Books and costing £9.99 , this will certainly get you talking over Christmas! 

A glossy, beautifully photographed and well written book is a joy, and this is one of my favourite gardening books this year. Ideal for a present, "The Secret Gardens of  East Anglia" by Barbara Segall and photographed by Marcus Harpur shortly before his death this summer, is packed with inspiration.

Although these gardens are described as secret, many of them open their gates for charity each year.
The photographs here are beguiling ,capturing the wonderful light in this part of the country, secret corners, lavish borders and grand vistas.

  Barbara takes you on a magical journey through such different landscapes with stories of how these gardens were designed or evolved. It's as if she's introducing you to the owners and you are there in the gardens with them having a private tour. You also get a feel of the challenges involved too....which I always relish, because then I don't feel so inadequate when things go wrong .

There's only one garden in this book that I've actually visited, and that's The Manor at Hemingford Grey in Cambridgeshire, so I was particularly interested to read Barbara's take on this. Her opening sentence is
"If only gardens could talk. Were it so, then the garden at the Manor, Hemingford Grey would have more stories to tell than most, for it surrounds the atmospheric home of the late Lucy Boston, an acclaimed writer of childrens novels."

That sets the tone for this garden  and house with the echoes of ghosts throughout the centuries, both real and imagined, but as well as dealing with the  historical and fanciful, there's practicality too with the names of striking plants.

A fair number of the gardens selected are quite large, some are rather grand and I'd love to see inside the houses too - but then I'm insatiably curious. However, there are so many ideas which could be scaled down successfully to smaller plots and there's lots of ideas to be inspired by.

Whether you are seduced by a parterre, a rose bower, a knot garden , a herb garden, terraces, kitchen gardens, or innovative planting, there's something for everyone in this book. Barbara's keen eyes have spotted everything...and I know because I've actually walked around a couple of other gardens with her. She immediately hones on little pockets of beauty or will stand and stare, taking in  the bigger picture.

I'm already planning to visit some of the gardens featured next spring and summer.
The Secret Gardens in East Anglia" by Barbara Segall and photographed by Marcus Harpur is published by Frances Lincoln and costs £20.00.

"Growing Self Sufficiency " by Sally Nex is an ideal present for anyone thinking about growing their own fruit and vegetables, and taking things one step further.

Written in a very straight forward, engaging style, this introductory guide gives immediate suggestions of what Sally calls "the easy hits" - the things you can grow on a window sill or an allotment and get immediate success.

This book then romps through how to sow, plant, make a hot box, grow your own drinks or medicine cabinet or even how take on a few animals for meat and eggs.

Broad brushstrokes may be, but Sally is enthusiastic and motivating through each chapter, and she knows what she's talking about, moving on from a tiny handkerchief London garden to keeping chickens and sheep and acres of land. An enjoyable read, and I've picked up some useful tips. This book could be the springboard for someone to dive into a life of self sufficiency!
Growing Self Sufficiency by Sally Nex is published by Green Books and costs £17.99

Onto a very practical present now for the gardener in your life - a pair of gardening gloves. Now don't go thinking these are the gardening equivalent of being given socks and pants for Christmas. These aren't just any garden gloves  - when I was given these back in September, it was like finding the Holy Grail.

I've got through so many pairs of gardening gloves in the cotton ones for the summer and when I say the summer, they last for exactly that long, one summer only.

I tried thicker gloves, always finding the right fit a problem and tried gloves  which made my hands sweat terribly. I've never found the right pair specifically for dealing with thistles, holly, brambles and my ever expanding collection of nettles on the allotment until now.

These though fit wonderfully well, I haven't had a single scratch on my hands (a miracle, they're warm enough in December, and they still look remarkably good considering how much I've been using them.

Tough Touch Ladies deerskin gardening gloves, from Gold Leaf Gloves cost around £25 depending on where you buy them. Men's  gloves in the same range are available too.

Onto some stocking filler presents now , and I love these seed tins full of seeds from Suttons for successional sowing. Try saying that on air....I did try , but made a real hash of it. I must have sounded as if I was drunk but obviously that wasn't the case darlings....

 There's six different varieties of veg seeds to sow- carrots, red and white spring onions, beetroots and spring onions and each tin costs £4.95 for 2,000 seeds divided into three different packets. Very practical. If you buy alll six though , the cost is £24.95.

I always think you're never too old or too young to get a kick out of watching something grow, and these packets of seeds would be lovely for children to sow. Brightly packaged, there's added value with a paper tape measure in with the sunflower seeds, and bug stickers to accompany the calendula seeds for example..
Obviously, there's lots of other seed collections from other seed companies which are available which would also make fabulous prezzies too!

So, Happy Christmas shopping....and whatever you buy for the gardeners in your life, remember to treat yourself at the end of your shopping expeditions too.  I find a glass of fizz always perks me up a right treat.....Cheers!