Category Archives: gardens

The Eye-Catcher


I heartily recommend this fantastic one man show about Capability Brown at the Moot Hall in Hexham on 12th October.  See details below.

I saw it at Kirkharle, Brown’s birthplace – in a marquee within a barn – and we were all entranced by John Cobb’s evocation of this literally ground-breaking landscape gardener.  Not much is known about the man himself, allowing plenty of room for poetic license, some beautifully inventive physical theatre and a rollicking text to remind you of the great number of commissions Brown undertook during his lifetime and his skilfully-cultivated connections with influential clients – all against the dramatic backdrop of eighteenth century history.

Catch it while you can  – a marvellous way to celebrate Capability Brown’s tercentenary.




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The Scale of Change

On Saturday I visited Transition Tynedale’s Community Garden (in the grounds of Hexham Middle School) for the first time.  Despite the freezing temperatures and snow on the hills, a few sturdy souls had turned out for their regular twice-monthly garden session.

Garlic and onions were planted, fruit bushes pruned and leaves cleared.  Matty was even able to take her supper home with her.

My contribution was mostly admiration.  I particularly appreciated the ancient cherry tree and the grass sofas and willow den.  And the super-organised shed…

Really it’s the ‘wrong’ time of year to be immersed in a poetry project all about growing food.  In our workshop sessions in the Library on Monday tea-times we’ve tended to concentrate on the eating side of things.  which, along with reading gardening books, is what’s meant to happen in winter surely?

But, fair weather gardener that I am, after Saturday, I was shamed into doing a bit of tidying of my own patch – currently an uneasy limbo of snow and geraniums.  In the Community Garden too there were a few spots of colour and I found myself drawn to them like a starving bee.

Professor Stephen Blackmore (the Queen’s Botanist in Scotland) says that gardening can save the planet.  If everyone looks after their own bit of green, be it a garden or a hanging basket, the cumulative effect will make a difference.

‘…so much of the state of our planet hinges on the state of our plants and vegetation.  Often we are overwhelmed by the scale of change to the planet, and we think ‘What can we do to change anything?’, but your little patch of garden is part of the processes of nature, supporting wildlife and replenishing the atmosphere.’


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From the Notebook


What are poets for in these destitute times?

Heidegger IMG_9945

Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.

Katherine Mansfield

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Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found its words.

Frost IMG_0017

I, the sculptor, am the landscape.

Barbara Hepworth


In life, in order to understand the world, you must die at least once.



There is God. There is no God.

Simone Weil

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One Week in May

Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are.

Alfred Austin

– for Karen and Joe – 


am I dreaming

this garden

or is it dreaming me?


the sudden marvel

of a cactus bloom

white peacock tail


starburst and curl


a clematis unclenching


modelled in wax


from Mars



the fin de siècle scent

of lilac


behind glass

Nerys’s peonies always

on the point of opening


what to love most


or their shadows?


a bowl of stones

blue lavender

raven skull and wingbone


a spiral

of green thoughts

going nowhere


something French

about their flicked tips

just so, chic


the ramparts

say what they mean

and mean what they say


a second spiral

going nowhere



a whole afternoon

reading the trees

binding their torn pages


to a house of flowers

I bring flowers –

two kinds of lilies


after rain

the smell of green

rinsed awake




Holly Hill


1 – 10 May 2015

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New Moon


On the brink of a New Moon, I’m pointing you in the direction of some new writing that has recently become available online.  There are some unpublished poems from my botanical travels on the Poetry International site, with an introduction by Katy Evans-Bush.


Since the beginning of this year,  I have been visiting Cheeseburn Grange, just outside Stamfordham, and writing about the gardens and artworks there.  Much work is going on behind the scenes so that next year it will be open to the public.  It’s a wonderful place and an exciting venture.


Regular visitors to this blog will have noticed that I’m posting less and less these days.  The Botanical project officially came to an end in May, after my marvellous visit to Pisa.  I’m currently concentrating on the various strands of writing arising from my research, poetry and prose, and so will only be posting sporadic thoughts and news as I go along.  The plan is that I will emerge again in the New Year…


The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.

William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun


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The garden is a paradox, combining mathematics

and magic, history and myth, science and art,

reality and utopia.

John Dixon Hunt

Yesterday I enjoyed an unexpected outing with the Corbridge Gardening Society to two gardens in Border Country – Floors Castle and Mindrum. It was a gorgeous summer’s day, ideal for exploring these two very different gardens in the company of some expert gardeners and plantswomen.

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I wanted Floors to be Scots for floo’ers but I suspect it’s too grand for that. The scale of the place – gardens, grounds and castle – was astonishing. And only 3 permanent gardeners to keep it in such immaculate condition, when back in the 19th century they had 100!   As we sat and drank our coffee, we had plenty of time to enjoy the blue and silver border. I thought this was my favourite bed until we turned the corner and saw the ‘hot’ border – a stunning stretch of reds and pinks, yellows and oranges. And then taking a right by the ‘rose chains’ (great swags of pink ramblers), there were more delights – the softer pastels of the spring and summer borders.

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Mindrum was more modest, but equally original. Working with the shape of the land, falling away down to the winding Bowmont Water, one of the Tweed’s tributaries, the garden doesn’t waste an inch.

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The more formal upper gardens, lush with clever planting and traditional sculptures, soften as they descend, incorporating a variety of perennials, trees and bamboos along the riverside.   Afterwards we were treated to a wonderful tea in a big white tent, looking out onto the beautiful Northumbrian countryside. Perfect end to a perfect day!

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Tune In


A couple of sound pieces are now available online…

Just back from the lovely Ledbury Poetry Festival, where, as well as hearing some fantastic readings (Sharon Olds, Sujata Bhatt, Anne Micheals, Brenda Hillman, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Maggie Sawkins, Glyn Maxwell and Robert Hass), I took part in two events. One for the Poetry Society was a showcase of this year’s National Poetry Competition winners and I read alongside Josephine Abbott and Elaine Gaston. Ed Doegar asked us about writing ‘winning poems’ and there were questions from the floor.

You can hear a podcast I recorded with Mike Sims last month at the Poetry Society here.


The other event at Ledbury was called Moon & Meadow – with sound recordist Chris Watson. We revisited our 2008 collaboration The Moon & Flowers, as well as creating a new piece from a recent sequence, set closer to home but also charting the cycle of the seasons, called Stone Meadow. The mono recording is rather plain compared with Chris’s audio wizardry where the songs of birds and gentle sounds of weather rippled through the packed Baptist Church on a balmy summer evening. Later we watched a plump pale orange moon rise in the sky above the town.

You can listen to Moon & Meadow here.


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Flowers and the Female

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I’ve been very much enjoying having some Cerinthe in the house (or Honeywort – as they’re beloved by bees) – a present from my friend Susie, grown in her beautiful Allendale garden. Although only an annual, it is has survived all through this winter.  I have a new plant of my own, with no flowers just yet, but it’s looking happy enough.


I was pleased to learn that the name Cerinthe comes from the Greek – keros, for ‘wax’, after the almost fleshy texture of the leaves and bracts;  anthos means ‘flower’ (which gives us the word ‘anthology’).  To my ear it still sounds like a woman’s name.

Why is it girls are often named after flowers but no one thinks to name a boy after one?  I can only summon up Rowan Atkinson (strictly speaking a tree, for which there might be different rules) and Lupin in The Diary of a Nobody.  Anybody know any more?

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In Pelion

Opening into May – one of Northumberland’s most glorious months – I am delighted to introduce a new guest piece brought home from the other side of Europe by a talented young writer I have worked with over a number of years.  Still only 16, Marcie Winstanley is passionate about words – reading and writing – and committed to what I’m sure will be a lifetime of putting pen to paper (or increasingly fingers to keyboard).

I heard that Marcie had written a short piece while on one of her family’s regular visits to her aunt’s cottage in Mainland Greece, looking out onto the Aegean, where the nearest town is Volos.  I was particularly intrigued by the mention of a Judas Tree (Cercis siliquastrum).  I had to look up the musmula (Mespilus germanica) – and discovered that it is a mediterranean medlar, a cross between a pear and hawthorn, which sounds delicious.  So, enjoy this small taste of a garden in Greece, caught just at the end of April.  The photos were taken by Marcie’s sister, Nina (age 14).  


On a bee’s hum I hear an echo of things that have been, of memories. And I zoom in as if through a camera’s lens on the present, the sense of now, the moment.

Trees grow, thick and leafy and from here I can see the shades that make up the view that shares itself with me, allows me to capture a fragment of its beauty. I see the spring shoots and tendrils of the vine, fresh and light amongst the weathered brown of its trellis and I see the deep green of the musmula leaves, so close I can almost touch them. The grass is speckled with daisies, white.


The Judas blossoms blush pink and petals drop at intervals onto the stones of the terrace below, joining the violet of the wisteria flowers, tumbling from the growing plant, which pokes its head towards the balcony.

A few light drops of rain begin to fall amongst the leaves, touching their edges like tiny feet, and my gaze wanders towards the sea. The mass of tangled green branches of olives seem to run to its edge, merging with the shimmering grey that matches the clouds. A pale blue haze on the horizon fades and ever changes.


Marcie Winstanley


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Auricula Theatre

I am fascinated by the way many aspects of the horticultural world are so arcane and specialised, marked by an obsessive attention to detail. National Collections and Plant Societies are just a couple of ways this manifests itself.  I stumbled upon a reminder in the glasshouses at Temple Newsam in Leeds last week.  Even the method of display reflects the emphasis on order and classification beloved of a certain type of gardener.  Apparently this particular type is called an Auricula Theatre – there is indeed drama in it, a striking sense of mise en scène.

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Lines To An Auricula, Belonging To –


Thou rear’st thy beauteous head, sweet flow’r

Gemm’d by the soft and vernal show’r;

Its drops still round thee shine:

The florist views thee with delight;

And, if so precious in his sight,

Oh! what art thou in mine?


For she, who nurs’d thy drooping form

When Winter pour’d her snowy storm,

Has oft consol’d me too;

For me a fost’ring tear has shed, –

She has reviv’d my drooping head,

And bade me bloom anew.


When adverse Fortune bade us part,

And grief depress’d my aching heart,

Like yon reviving ray,

She from behind the cloud would move,

And with a stolen look of love

Would melt my cares away.


Sweet flow’r! supremely dear to me,

Thy lovely mistress blooms in thee,

For, tho’ the garden’s pride,

In beauty’s grace and tint array’d,

Thou seem’st to court the secret shade,

Thy modest form to hide.


Oh! crown’d with many a roseate year,

Bless’d may she be who plac’d thee here,

Until the tear of love

Shall tremble in the eye to find

Her spirit, spotless and refin’d,

Borne to the realms above!


And oft for thee, sweet child of spring!

The Muse shall touch her tend’rest string;

And, as thou rear’st thine head,

She shall invoke the softest air,

Or ask the chilling storm to spare,

And bless thy humble bed.


Sir John Carr    (1772–1832)


The National Auricula Society

From the early years of the 17th Century there have been shows for florist flowers – including Auriculas. The early shows were held in public houses…

The National Auricula Society was founded in 1872-73. With the support of the Manchester Botanical Council the first revived exhibition of the National Auricula Society was held on Tuesday the 29th of April 1873. The prizes at the first show were of cash and appear to have been extremely generous. Class A for six dissimilar show varieties, one at least in each of the classes Green, Grey, White Edged and Self, had a first prize of 60s (£3.00). In the single plant classes the premium prize was 10s (50p) and first prize was 8s (40p) – these prizes would be more than most people could earn in a week.

The fact that only subscribers of over 10s could enter the multi-pot classes tells us that the early members must have been comparatively wealthy. In fact they were often manufacturers and professional gentlemen.  Ladies were still absent.

In 1890 it was resolved that supports, i.e. staking, would be allowed in all classes but packing in the truss was not to be allowed… In 1912 three cups were purchased: one each for Show Auriculas, Alpine Auriculas and Gold Laced Polyanthus, together with three medals and a die.  The total cost was £18-8s-3d…

The word Primula was added to the society title in 1948 and so became The National Auricula and Primula Society (Northern Section). 

(extract from the Society’s website)

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