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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 canapés.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....

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Festival days in Fotheringhay

Fotheringhay. Until a couple of months ago, I knew only two things about this Northamptonshire village . The first was that Mary Queen of Scots was incarcerated and later executed in the castle there in the 16th century, and secondly, it was where King Richard III was born in 1452.

During the last few months though I've visited Fotheringhay a number of times and am increasingly attracted by its charm, its church and some lovely people who live there.

It began with a phone call from a woman called Claire . " Would you be willing to take part in a garden quiz in a  local church for charity?"

 Well I've hosted quite a few of those for BBC Radio Leicester's gardening quiz called Down to Earth so I said Yes. The next thing was,  I found myself on a committee which is organising the very first Fotheringhay  Festival which is taking place from 4 July until 8 July.

There's events every day of the week, ranging from water colour painting classes during the day led by the oh so talented Norma Gregory , plus felt craft workshops  during the afternoons of the 4th and 6th.
There's three evening events too, all very different.

The first is "Quiz the  Gardeners" which takes place on Tuesday 5th July in Fotheringhay Church at 7pm.  It's very similar to Radio 4's Gardeners Question Time, and several of the experts from that  programme will be at this event. This is not the local church quiz type thing I was first expecting!

Mind you, Lady Victoria Leatham is the Chair of the Friends of Fotheringhay Church - she's assembled a wonderful panel, consisting of  garden designer and writer Bunny Guinness, writer and broadcaster Nigel Colborn , and Lady Ursula Cholmeley, who has transformed Easton Walled Gardens, across the border in Lincolnshire. The quizmaster is Lord de Ramsey, and I will be there too, introducing the panel and being in charge of the roving mike.
A drink and canapés are included in the ticket price of £12, plus you get the chance to ask the experts about anything gardening related. All are extremely knowledgeable and likeable, so it should be a really good evening.

The following night in the church, there's a music recital , costing £10, which features James Parsons, an internationally known church organist, and solo harpist Eleanor Turner.

And then on Thursday, there's Fizz and Jazz in the private grounds of Garden Farmhouse, with, yes you've guessed, fizz , canapes and a brass band, with the chance to look at the lovely gardens which are being opened to the general public for the first time. Tickets are £18 each ...oh, and there's s an auction too, including artwork such as this beautiful original painting by Norma Gregory

and featuring the vibrant artwork of Market Harborough based artist, Mikki Longley, which always cheers me up.

So why has the festival come into being? Firstly, it's being held to raise money for the beautiful and historic St Mary and All Saints Church in the village. Built in the 15th century, there's now serious issues with damp , and a major programme of general refurbishment is underway costing £1.5million
Even though that's a lot of money for such a small village to raise , well over a million has already been promised and donated. Hopefully , this festival will attract more money and interest in the church.

This is the most important Plantagenet church in the country. I first saw it one evening in March. the sun was about to go down, and I crossed the bridge towards the village, the church seemed to rise out of nowhere, bathed in a rosy glow. It was such a stunning sight, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up...

Simon Jenkins describes it as "the church seems to float on its hill above the River Nene, a galleon of perpendicular on a sea of corn"

There's only 105 people living in the village of Fotheringhay these days, yet the church looks so grand.  Why? Well, Fotheringhay was an important place strategically in mediaeval times,  inhabited by around 1,000 people. Kings of Scotland had owned the Castle there before the Plantagets. In fact the church of St Mary and All Saints was far larger when Richard III was alive, with a staff of 34, including 11 chaplains, and choristers who sang all of the services.

 Richard III would have known this church very well, as a young boy he would have come here often, and indeed this is where Richard III's mother, Cecily Neville and his father Richard, 3rd Duke of York are buried.

After the Reformation though,  the Duke of Northumberland removed the lead from the Quire Roof and several of the Collegiate buildings before dismantling them. Even so, what remains is an important church with impeccable Royal connections. 

 And that Richard III connection means that , like me,many visitors who love history are now making their way to the church from all over the world, to see where Richard was born.

Fotheringhay Church isn't just for tourists to come and look at though, it's a focal point of the community, a working church, and in former times, had a reputation as  a cradle of sacred music. It's hoped that what will be an annual festival , will not only raise money to keep the building in good working order, but celebrate its musical heritage and attract even more visitors to the church.

If you're interested in any of the events above, please email to book tickets or find out more.

I'm looking forward to this first festival in Fotheringhay, and I'd love to see some of you there, especially at the Quiz the Gardeners event!.

It's interesting where one phone call  and saying Yes can lead you. I've learnt more about Richard III's birth place, I've fallen in love with the special calmness and light of Fotheringhay Church, and I've also made some lovely new friends, namely Claire McFadden, Lady Victoria Leatham, Simon Leatham, Michelle Dalby and Tim Stimpson.

Here's to a manic week in July!


Monday, 13 June 2016

A day in Grantchester

A week ago today I spent my day off in the sunshine with a group of writer friends .It involved my favourite pastimes - walking, talking, eating, mooching about in a garden and laughing .

I've written before about my group of friends who I meet up with- once a month for a writing workshop and once a month or so we meet up at each others houses for a book group and lunch..

In the summer we usually go to Pippa's house in Cambridgeshire for a visit. This time there were only three of driving over, Josephine, Alex and myself. After a volley of "Hellos, come in, and How lovely to see you all" we sat basking in the sun with a drink and immediately started talking about and swapping books.

And after a while, before we baked completely, we went to have a look around in the shady part of the garden, to admire the raised beds filled with fruit, flowers and vegetables. Pippa only moved here about four or five years ago,  where her husband Mick designed their own house, so it's been really  interesting to watch the garden develop...

It was still rather hot, so we went upstairs, through my favourite spot in the house, the book lined sitting area which leads onto another favourite place, the upstairs balcony. We sat out in the shade there with a cool drink and nibbled on salted almonds, olives and pieces of parmesan.

 More talking too, of what manuscripts we're working on, who's just got another book deal, and how now there are three among us who are teaching children's writing.
Then lunch, downstairs - salmon baked in pesto, new potatoes and salad, followed by the most perfect panacotta with berries. By now, we needed to walk off that lunch, so we all strolled down the road ,to walk along Grantchester Meadows, and follow the River Cam.
It was such a gloriously warm afternoon and it was so good to see so many others enjoying such a perfectly lovely English summer's day... punters, walkers, and families picnicking by the river.
 After a smart turn right, we reached our destination
 I do so like this tearoom. Where else can you sit out in a large orchard under the apple trees and have tea, coffee and scones, or lunch?
Alex was obviously in her element...
 Although there were lots of students from Cambridge about two or so miles away, there were tourists and locals, of all ages...just enjoying the atmosphere, like generations before us.
The orchard was opened in 1897, and was home to the poet Rupert Brooke for two years in the heady days before the beginning of World War 1. Others followed ...such as Augustus John, Virginia Woolf, E.M.Forster, Alan Turing, J.B.Priestley, Ludwig Wittgenstein....and it's so easy to picture them all, painters, poets, philosophers, mathematicians and writers, sitting in deckchairs under the trees like we were.
Members of the Cambridge Spy Ring were all patrons here  too...Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess and John Caincross, all Cambridge students who were recruited to pass information onto the Soviet Union. In this beautiful , most quintessential English tearoom ,they sat here drinking tea...and perhaps plotting to betray their country during World War II and into the 1950's.
We sat for an hour, chatting and people watching, before eventually rousing ourselves from the deckchairs and walking back to Pippa's. We walked past Grantchester Church, immortalised in the books of James Runcie, and on our  television screens in  the "Grantchester" series featuring James Norton.
Pippa and her husband have been drafted in as extras for both series now, and really enjoyed their filming experiences. We wandered through the walled churchyard

and stopped to remember Pippa's father who lies here. A simple, but beautifully engraved headstone marks his resting place....a man who was a Cambridge professor, a President of the International Court of Justice, a loving father.

We walked across the fields back to Pippa's, still chatting away, until it was time to wave goodbye and speeding up the M11 back to Leicestershire.

A lovely, special  day with a great group of friends .