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Monday, 15 August 2016

Sister Act days!

Every time the film Sister Act came on the TV,  my gang of three children would sit on the sofa and sing along with delight as Whoopi Goldberg (Doloris van Cartier) ditched her lowlife, married lover Curtis and the chewing gum for a non voluntary spell in a convent. They sang along to the songs word for word, as within days Whoopi got the sisters singing sensationally and pulling in a full crowd every Sunday into the church.

As a plot it was unbelievable to say the least, but the characterisation, great soundtrack and its warmth pulled the film together. The musical too has been attracting audiences  around the world for years, so something's right. But what could director and choreographer Craig Revel Horwood and this new production bring to the Sister Act party?

Thanks to the lovely Linda, who offered me a spare ticket, I was off to see Sister Act on a sweltering  Saturday afternoon for the last matinee  - what was called  "a relaxed  performance" on the last day of the show at Curve in Leicester.

What? No Alexandra Burke as Doloris?  She'd been getting some great reviews. Well no, her place was taken by Joanna Francis who I absolutely adored for her sassiness, her verve and her singing.

Mind you, I knew as soon as the nuns filed on stage singing loudly and excruciatingly out of tune, right at the start, we were in for a treat.

What a hardworking cast, playing multiple roles , playing musical instruments , dancing and acting with real brio and humour - bringing a new meaning to multi tasking.

I particularly liked Jon Robyn's Sweaty Eddie, the policeman who has fallen for Doloris. As he sang "I could be that guy" to the perfectly timed sounds of the down and outs heaving (on stage, not in the audience) , he showed a real tenderness...and got whoops of delight from quite a few ladies in the audience.

What can I say about the nuns? Having being in a convent school myself for a year or two, I have some very interesting memories about nuns. Rosemary Ashe as Sister Mary Lazarus though, the deadpan head of the choir was a joy as she rapped, bumped and grinded her way through several numbers, and Karen Mann as Mother Superior  played her role with poignancy.

Call me shallow, but the scene which stole the show for me was "The Lady in the Long Black Dress" where TJ, Bones and Dinero, Curtis's three henchman, discuss how they're going to take Doloris from the convent .

It's a fantastic Floaters esque parody with lyrics like  "Forget Jehovah, cause the wait is over, come to Casanova for romance". I've seen this number done times before, but this is the funniest and filthiest version yet!

Such a laviscious performance from Ricky Rojas, Samuel Morgan Graham and Sandy Grigelis. Sandy (playing TJ) especially made me howl with laughter - the things he was doing with his guitar...
Craig Revel Horwood, this had your paw prints all over it...and it was fabulous.

The whole show was  -the audience thought so too,  giving a final standing ovation and singing along and clapping to a final, final number.

By now ,the cast and company will be in Monaco, playing  five nights at the Casino de Monte Carlo, before a huge UK tour visiting over 40 towns and cities during the next year.

Book your seats now, and no, I'm not being paid to say this. It's a great show - don't miss it!


Saturday, 13 August 2016

A day at Barnsdale Gardens


Years ago, when my children were tiny, I used to pray that they were all in bed by 8.30pm on a Friday night. I would sink into the sofa with a glass of wine and a notepad and pen to watch Gardeners World on the BBC and for half an hour I would watch Geoff Hamilton at Barnsdale, his home in  Rutland, guiding me through the seasons in the gardens.

I was one of millions who tuned in for good advice, inspiration and  to learn from a master. Yet it's twenty years ago this month that he died at the age of 59, and he's still missed by so many.

His gardens became a nursery owned by his son Nick, who took on his father's legacy and today thousands arrive to see the series of individual gardens created here during the television series and which Nick has lovingly maintained and reworked as time has gone by.


On Tuesday , Carol Klein, who now co presents Gardeners World, was at Barnsdale to open the new Geoff Hamilton winter border which has been redeveloped  and which is made up of plants donated by his friends, gardening colleagues and family.


She gave a very emotional speech about Geoff's influence, not just on her but on millions of other gardeners and then planted something from Glebe Cottage , her own nursery.

What a lovely atmosphere in the sunshine, interviewing Carol and Nick, and watching them being
surrounded by visitors who obviously adored them. Increasingly though,  the clouds came  over, followed by a shocker of a downpour after a buffet lunch.

This was the time Nick Hamilton was taking a few of us on a guided tour of the gardens! Our group included the Associate Editor of Garden Trade News, two gardening lecturers, Jayne and Christine who worked on Gardeners World with Geoff Hamilton ,and of course Carol Klein.

It was fascinating...with anecdotes and insights into how Barnsdale developed, about the dynamics of the relationship between Nick and Geoff , and how Nick and his team are carrying on and enhancing Geoff's legacy.

As we wandered through the individual gardens, there was a sense of deja vu, recognising gardens featured  years ago on the telly. I really admired the beautiful and vigorous above, Madame Gregoire  Staechelin, trailing over the fact, I need one!

Allotment envy also came to the fore as we walked past Barnsdale's allotment, which keeps Nick in vegetables all year round, and I was taken with the hot box.

So many gardens to see, but so little time.All too soon, it was time for our tour to end, but there's no doubt about it, I need to go back, for a more detailed look at some of my favourite gardens, to take notes and more photographs, and to view the gardens we didn't see. There's so many good ideas here.

So, a lovely day ..and Barnsdale , I will be back!

My full interviews with Nick Hamilton and Carol Klein will be broadcast tomorrow on BBC Radio Leicester on Down to Earth from 12 noon til 1pm, but in the meantime, why not listen to a shorter version here, right now....

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

The day of history, food, drink and smashing coconuts.


Leicester's such an interesting place to work in these days. So many positive stories (think Richard III and Leicester City Football Club for starters) , and there's a real buzz about this city.
The area where I work, around the Cathedral, has been changing over the last few years, with a pride in our heritage. Likewise, new cafes and bars are springing up everywhere.
Which brings me to this building below, which is the Bank of Ireland Savings Bank, built in 1873. It's a historic listed building , but it's lain empty, unloved and decaying for the last ten years.
Dry rot, water damage, a glass dome, still dirty and opaque from the black out paint put on World War II, this building was becoming a problem, in an otherwise really vibrant area.
Until now that is. It has become a deli after the new owners were given a grant by Leicester City Council from a fund called the Greyfriars Townscape Heritage Initiative, which is looking to restore at least twenty historically important buildings dotted around the city..
Well, the old bank turned deli (called Delilah) was officially opened last week by the City Mayor of Leicester, Sir Peter Soulsby . In addition to the usual speeches and a Hindu tradition which involved smashing coconuts with owners Richard and Sangita Trynor.
Inside, the roof has been completely restored and refurbished


What a transformation inside....

It was a busy evening...with champagne, wine, locally produced gin and artisan beers to well as lashings of ginger beer and other refreshing soft drinks such as Cloudy Apple and Rhubarb from Franklins and Son.

Many of the artisan producers were there to showcase their was good to meet Emma, the Managing Director of the Welbeck Bakehouse in Nottinghamshire. Such a tasty array of breads and pastries - no wonder their four seeded sourdough loaf and Christmas pudding have recently been awarded  Great Taste awards..
From bread to cheese, and there was a lot on offer to taste. The creamy, oh so moreish gorgonzola was excellent, and I may have helped myself to more than a tasting stick of it. Well yes of course I did.. I felt like cutting the whole cheese in two, and  walking away with it , it was that delicious.

But I can't just single one cheese out ...Jane Hewson was there from the Belvoir Ridge Creamery out at Eastwell. She and her husband make the most fine cheese...Slipcote is an absolute winner, which slips down your throat, leaving a creamy aftertaste from the raw milk it's made of.
There were pates, cold meats , olive oils infused with hazelnuts, balsamic vinegars with figs and pomegranates (I bought some) ..and the hot bites kept a coming from the kitchen. Bruschettas, jamon Iberico de bellotta, honey glazed chorizo....I'm salivating just recalling them all.
 Now, I will always prefer savoury treats rather than sweet ones, but I was so taken by the lemony treacle tart, I had to have two bites.

A good launch, but the deli is already doing well serving breakfasts and lunches, based on the tried and trusted methods of their other Deliah deli in Nottingham. I left a crowd sitting outside enjoying the buzz, and wandered back through Cathedral Gardens  to what was next on my Friday night agenda....


Monday, 1 August 2016

Days of admiring and eating artichokes

Yes, I know I should have harvested my globe artichokes back in early July. I didn't, and although I've never let an artichoke plant flower before, the result is stunning.

I've been mesmerised on the allotment this week by the sheer beauty of watching these artichokes flower.

They really do make a statement don't they? Standing upright, aloof almost , ignoring their more humble thistle cousins which are also on the lottie, and posing saying "look at me" 

I 've been doing exactly that - from all angles, at different times of the day, marvelling at how they look in different lights.

Artichokes are so good natured too, not being fussy about the soil so long as it doesn't get waterlogged. I confess that I haven't mulched them with well rotted manure as you're supposed to and I've left the watering to the heavens above, but still they stand and produce.

I'm going to divide them next year....and not let them flower. After all, they're now a superfood, brimming with much so, I'm told they're better than blueberries and broccoli.

If they're easy to grow, they're so easy to cook too...I just bung them in my large stockpot filled with boiling water until they're tender...about 45 minutes or so for the larger ones, and serve with a vinaigrette dressing or melted butter.

That's where Uncle Barry comes into the story. I cannot eat an artichoke without thinking of him.

It was the year of my friend Jenny's fiftieth birthday in France. She threw a beautiful and civilised  lunch party  in a chateau in the Charente Maritme  which was followed by a riotous barbecue at her family cottage, which Iachieved legendary status for many reasons.

We took our two youngest with us, and afterwards motored over to near Limoges to stay with my husband's Uncle Barry. When I first met him, he must have been in his forties, he'd flown over for his mother's funeral...looking oh so Left Bank Professor, a velvet jacket, a cravat, Cuban heels and windswept longish dark hair tinged with grey. I adored him.

By the time he was living in Limoges, he was in his sixties, such a gently spoken man, who hesitated occasionally when speaking in English, to catch the right  word. He'd been living in France since his twenties after a stint with the Special Boat Service. Two lovely French wives and two gorgeous daughters later, he'd come to Limoges for a quiet life, to fish, to enjoy life.

And that was the night I remember....after arriving late afternoon, wine thrown into our hands , a walk and then a meal. But everything took a long time....and when he brought out the first course about 10 pm, we were all ravenous.

He placed the artichokes on the table, with a bowl of melted butter and one of vinaigrette. My boys looked  at their plates...I'd never served them artichokes before.

Barry taught them how to eat them...."carefully take off each leaf scale, one by one yes that's can't rush this. Dip each one in the dressing...., slowly now..."

All I can say is they tried, but didn't like the artichokes. Barry was sorrowful...."they're English" as if that explained everything.

And I suppose it did, for the next course there was a huge vat of curry, which, being English , we love and adore and which we devoured. By now it was midnight, and the boys drifted off to bed.

I got up too, to take the plates back into the kitchen before toddling off to bed, but then Barry appeared with a tray .Three iced glasses and a bottle of  frozen vodka , a nightcap to toast our visit.

At 2am, we were still sitting out under the stars....somewhat worse for wear, but chatting and laughing about everything and anything, including a gentle reminder, that artichokes are good for you, and the boys should really learn to like them.

The following night, artichokes didn't appear on the menu, but another huge vat of curry did.........


Sunday, 26 June 2016

Two very different days at Easton Walled Gardens

Once upon a time, there was a large country house at Easton in Lincolnshire. Owned by the Cholmeley family since 1592, fourteen generations of Cholmeleys have lived here, but the estate has changed radically since the 1950's.

The gatehouse and stables are some of the very few buildings which survived.

The once productive and beautiful four hundred year old gardens had also suffered and by the time Lady Ursula Cholmeley and her husband Fred came to live here, the gardens were, to quote Ursula, "in freefall"

In a remarkable turn around, in 2001, Ursula began to revive the gardens and it's been fifteen years of hard and back breaking work. Easton Walled Gardens is now enjoying a renaissance which members of the public can see for themselves.

I've visited the gardens twice now in the last couple of weeks, and they've cast quite a spell over me.

I was here to record an edition of Down to Earth for BBC Radio Leicester , which is local radio's longest running gardening programme. Some programmes are like a Gardeners Question Time format where a panel of experts go to locations all over the county .Sometimes we have phone ins, and in the summer we go out and visit nearby gardens of interest both large and small.

For this edition,Derek Cox, a veteran nurseryman and garden landscaper, and Karen Gimson, a garden designer and I were taken on a personal tour of the gardens by Ursula, on the left of the photo below..

As you enter the walled garden, you're immediately seduced by the vivid colours in the Pickery, a cutting garden and intoxicated by the scent of the sweet pea collection. Ursula is growing over a hundred varieties .

We wandered through the Pickery into a series of small garden rooms, through the viburnum hedge and the yellow acquilegas which I haven't seen before . 

to charming little corners

and through to the alpine garden

But it's when you suddenly see the true scale of the mediaeval gardens, that there's a real "Wow" moment....three acres surrounded by the walls of the Tudor enclosures. Yew pyramids edge the steps leading you down to the bridge across the small river - it's such a glorious sight that for the first time I actually lost the power of speech for a few moments.

 All I could say was " Wow"

Ursula led us through the vegetable garden (such precision planting of lettuce by gardener Nick), with more sweet peas growing up hazel, past the asparagus bed and the runner beans

 to a lovely little spot for a ponder. And that's what I like too, the thoughtful positioning of seats and benches dotted around.

We wandered down the valley and looked at the eighty foot borders just past the river

before heading back up the hill to the proud turrets and what remains of the original house.

But there's still more to see...and although we didn't mention this on air, (we ran out of time) I was rather taken with the White Space garden

Karen Gimson, Derek Cox and I were most impressed by the gardens here...and it was a privilege to be there when the gardens were closed, to meander around so informally with Ursula Cholmeley and hear how her dream became reality.

Last week, we all returned to the gardens for a very different kind of day. Members of the Garden Media Guild were there in force for a Midsummer lunch and a tour. These were could tell by the size of their equipment. Huge lenses ....all the better to take the perfect photos with my dear. I hid my trusty I phone out of sight .Prosecco and chatting with like minded people who enjoy nothing better than being in a garden and talking about it was great fun.

After a delicious lunch in the courtyard, it was time to hear Ursula talk about her vision for the gardens and how she has transformed them.

Matthew Wilson was also there, a garden designer from Rutland, to talk of his Chelsea journey this year - he was awarded the People's Choice garden..Quite rightly so...

 We also heard about the exciting plans for Bridgewater, the new garden acquired by the Royal Horticultural Society, from Guy Barter, the society's Chief Horticultural Advisor. These gardens belonged to New Worsely Hall, a Victorian estate just seven miles from the city centre of Manchester, and like at Easton, the house was demolished after World War II. I 'd love to see this garden as it is now.

Another talk, this time from Laura Garnett who works for Perennial, the charity supporting people working in horticulture from gardeners, to groundsmen and tree surgeons. They help 1,200 people a year.

Once the talks were over, it was good to talk to two of the three gardeners. Stephen, the head gardener of the left has been working  here since the second season...he's been involved in years of  backbreaking work, but says it's remarkable what has been achieved.

All in all, a perfectly lovely day.

If you'd like to hear  Ursula Chomeley taking  Derek Cox, Karen Gimson and I on a tour of these wonderful gardens at Easton, then click here - the programme is available for the next three weeks.

And if you'd like to see Ursula  who's on the panel of a Quiz the Gardeners Event on 5 July in Fotheringhay then contact to say you are coming, or turn up on the door.

It's being held to raise money for the church in Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire, the birthplace of King Richard III. Bunny Guiness, gardener  designer and author  is also on the panel as well as writer and broadcaster Nigel Colborn. I'll be introducing them, and their quiz master Lord de Ramsey. It should be a really informative and fun evening. Tickets cost £12 to include a drink and a few canap├ęs.It starts at 7pm. Why not join us?

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

A day at an empty beach, apart from a body

Any visit to see my daughter in Southsea, no matter how short, always involves a walk at Eastney Beach. Right at the end of the beach, just before the naturists take over the next section of beach. No further daughter is not a naturist.

At first glance you may think there's nothing much there, just shingle down to the beach, and perhaps a few scrubby plants. Your eyes are drawn to the Isle of Wight in front of you and Hayling Island to your left.

Oh, and some beach huts.

But come rain, come shine, it's a great place for walking the dogs, to throw a few stones for the dogs to chase into the water. Rudi, my daughter's dog, and son of my dog Boo, loves this game and gets a good work out with both running and swimming for as long as you will let him.

The last few times we've been here, it's been in the depths of winter, or early spring, so it was lovely on Friday to see what's growing on this vegetated shingle beach.

Sea kale,so bluey green and so rare.

Valerian...slashes of red against the brown and sand coloured shingle....which highlighted the colour of Rudi's collar.

This part of the beach is designated as a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation , containing rarities such as the sea kale, sea holly and sea bindweed.

Holidaymakers  sunbathing on the shingle are rarities too, but this time, we did see a body stretched out by the shoreline. You couldn't miss it, dressed in a yellow high viz jacket, and as we walked closer, shorts and trainers. We knew this person wasn't sunbathing, as it was overcast with a slight drizzle. As we walked closer, there was still no movement. We were hoping that this body would sit up . She didn't, we observed for a moment,  keeping a respectful distance, then all of a sudden, she waved us away without speaking.

Was she an exhausted runner who, completely knackered, had simply flopped down on the rather uncomfortable shingle, or was she communing with nature and the elements?

 We never found out.

We had a ferry to catch to the Isle of Wight, for a rather important wedding....