Tag Archives: history

The Eye-Catcher

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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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Inexplicably…

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…in the trees at Varna Botanical Garden/Ecopark…

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…Having a few technical problems here – if anyone has Instagram, it seems to be easier for me to post pictures there – I’m at lindafrancebooksandplants

 

 

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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)

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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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Botany Bay

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One of the places I knew I wanted to visit before even coming to Australia was Botany Bay, the place where Cook and his men first landed in 1770.  On board the Endeavour were two naturalists, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, who gathered examples of local species of plants and insects.  In just eight days Sydney Parkinson, the ship’s artist, made as many drawings as he could of kangaroos, birds and flowers, as well as of the Aboriginal people they encountered. Altogether he made 243 drawings of Australian plants that have survived; although he didn’t, dying of dystentery and fever on the voyage home.

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No one I spoke to had been to Botany Bay; most looked askance, muttering about oil refineries, heavy industry and the working harbour.  There is no train station at Kurnell, the nearest settlement – getting there would involve a train ride then a bus.  There’s a cycle route from where I’m based but it’s too far to walk.  Many places in Sydney are harder to reach than they look because of all the inlets – it’s taken me a while just to get my bearings, to know where people mean when they talk about ‘the North Shore’ and the ‘Inner West’.

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In the midst of preparing myself for my departure, my lovely friend Donna kindly offered to drive me there on her day off.  We went south on the Princes Highway, crossed the Captain Cook Bridge over the George River and travelled down the peninsula to Botany Bay National Park.  They have renamed it Kamay Botany Bay to honour the original Aboriginal ownership and this sensitivity to its history is reflected in much of the interpretative information, created in consultation with local Indigenous elders.

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When the Englishmen set foot on their land, the Aboriginals went into hiding, watching from a distance.  That has been their strategy ever since as the White man has claimed governance of the colony, refusing to countenance a world view other than their own – anthropocentric, rationalist, linear, hierarchical and competitive.  Only in very recent times have gestures begun to be made towards apology and healing, allowing the Aborigines to come out of hiding and start to share some of their wisdom.  In the midst of the current global environmental crisis, their deep understanding of the rhythms of the natural world has an important part to play in managing change.

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When Banks took his inventory of the plant species at Kamay – first named Stingray Harbour by Cook, then Botanist’s Bay or Botany Bay because of the rich diversity found there – there was indeed a wealth of different trees, shrubs and flowers, recorded by Sydney Parkinson, and later added to Banks’s Florilegium.  In the subsequent years of clearing, development and industrialisation much variety has been lost and many individual species are in danger of disappearing altogether.  Work is underway to conserve as much as possible and regenerate ‘the bush’ here and elsewhere.  Although I’m afraid it will take a while – I’ve heard too many stories of a widespread scorn for anything ‘green’, seen as anti-patriotic and un-economic by many Australians.  Meanwhile scientists continue to report major extinctions of plant and animal life across this vast and beautiful continent.

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There’s not much botany at Botany Bay but I’m glad I saw it.  Maybe I’ll go back some time and do some of the longer walks they’re creating in the National Park.  It feels an important place – where something noxious started that can’t be erased but that can, like a bushfire, set in motion a whole new beginning.

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Garden in the City of Cutlery

On a day when the world’s turned white and wintry, I’m sifting through my notes from the autumn trip south.  This is an abridged version of my notes on Sheffield Botanical Gardens.

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A Monday morning, the end of October.  Up to now it’s been ‘I’ – today it’s ‘we’.   Across the busy road, we walk through the open gate, under the arch of milky stone, neo-classical and confident.  Everything about this invitation to enter communicates certainty, stability and security, announcing itself as Victorian and Yorkshire, with a brusque, no-nonsense pride.  The northern flank of the gatehouse is a shop selling postcards, books, pocket money toys and botanical ‘souvenirs’, many of which seem to have very little to do with actual flowers.  The southern flank is an information office, closed for half-term.

Passing quickly through, we are welcomed on the left by a strawberry tree, fat scarlet berries next to waxy cream flowers amongst sturdy evergreen leaves.  Arbutus unedo – we eat just one, as the name suggests.  The taste is nothing like a strawberry – no juicy citrus edge – plain and business-like, better than nothing but best for jam, wine or hungry birds.  It is so pretty and surprising, a treat to see it there, the first thing in the garden.

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We decide to make a circle of the triangular-shaped gardens, restored to their original ‘Gardenesque’ style, and stroll anti-clockwise, beginning parallel to the road just on the other side of the railings, which used to be a high wall when the gardens were first built in 1836 and you had to pay a shilling to get in, beyond the pocket of most of the working people of Sheffield.  Along that top edge they’ve made a Four Seasons Garden, designed to provide plants of interest all the year round.  The most striking shrub has small pinky-red fruits, rather hard and patterned with dots like a cone.  It is unfamiliar, mysterious and has no helpful black label telling us its name, introducing itself and allowing us to feel as if we ‘know’ it. We’re drawn to investigate this alien plant but it resists interpretation, impossible even to know if it’s safe to eat the fruits.  We collect one that’s fallen on the ground and later when we come across one of the gardeners, all dressed in green, he tells us that it is Cornus kousa ‘Norman Haddon’.  He also says that you can eat the fruits but he’s heard they don’t taste very nice, although he’s never tried one himself.  We don’t either – not driven by hunger to risk it.

P1030176A landscaped mound planted with ornamental birches marks the far corner of the garden.  Below it there is a restored version of the original wrought iron turnstile gate, the word ‘IN’ set in the stretch of shiny black verticals.  At the end of each day a bell is still rung to let folk know the garden is closing.  Like a short, concentrated walk across the globe, we pass borders dedicated to plants from the Mediterranean, Asia and the Americas.  Most of the flowering plants are dying back now and it’s the trees that are getting all the attention.  The tame grey squirrels are busy being busy as if it were their best time of year too.  The ground is carpeted with swirls of yellow, brown and rust red – the strongest colour in the garden, despite the efforts of the gardeners with their leaf blowers and wheelbarrows.

P1030184Illuminating the layers of leaves, there are some patches of cyclamen and autumn crocus.  We are drawn to them – as if, like bees, we need to suck up their nectar to store against the winter dark.    At the southern corner, joining Thompson Road, we climb back up into the centre of the garden, past the sweet little South Lodge, set like a Wendy house by the side of the path.  All the buildings in the garden were designed to to be pleasing to the eye and add to the illusion of a ‘natural’ landscape, even though every square inch is clearly carefully managed by the curator and his crew of gardeners and the fleet of volunteers.

P1030190The heart of the garden is marked with a cast iron fountain, a heavy Victorian design, more interested in engineering than beauty.  But the energy of the cascading water is undeniable, refreshing and vigorous, and provides a focal point at the end of the Broadwalk.  Bordered by beds of herbaceous plants, this is a place to promenade, people-watch and take the air with family and friends.

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A rather offputtingly named AGM Garden showcases plants that have been awarded the RHS ‘accolade for excellence’.  Sheffield houses the National Collections of Weigela, Diervilla and Sarcococca – shrubs that wouldn’t look out of place in a suburban garden.  The Marnock Garden, named after the original designer, is an area intended to inspire visiting gardeners with ‘ideas to take home’, particularly involving tender climbers and scented plants.  There’s a wooden sitooterie in the shape of an apple and a silver insect nestling among the plants.  A circular raised bed shows fragments of terracotta leaves, imprinted with words no longer legible, part of a poetry trail.

The Evolution Garden reflects the impact of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species in 1859.  A series of signs direct the visitor to pay attention to how and when plants and animals appeared on the planet and evolved into the arrangement we’re familiar with today.  There are several examples of fossilized trees, clearly reminding people of how much longer plants have been on the earth than man.

P1030226The statue of Pan next to the Rose Garden is intriguing. This version is slightly sanitized, with human legs rather than the hairy haunches of a faun.  More Peter Pan or St Francis than satyr, he is surrounded by his friends, the birds and the mice, bronze worn shiny from much stroking by passing children of all ages.  A god of nature, Pan was earthy and sensual, unrestrained in his appetites.  Sexually predatory, he even managed to seduce the Moon, Selene.  From his name we get the word ‘panic,’ originally expressing the terror experienced in wild and lonely places.

We leave the garden by the turnstile gate.  I want to find the sign that says ‘Botanical Road’.  It sounds strangely literal, like so much in this garden, straightforwardly informative, like ‘Station Road’ or ‘School Lane’.  But in my mind it summons up images of plants and flowers, burgeoning and irrepressible, cleaning our air, stabilizing our soil, providing food for our bodies and minds, lifting our spirits with their natural beauty.  I take a photo, aware I want it to be a talisman, a signpost directing me on the course of my botanical adventures.

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The Garden in Winter

A weekend in London and a visit to the wonderful Garden Museum

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Tucked away next to Lambeth Palace, the Museum is housed in a converted church.  The 16th century plant hunters, gardeners and collectors, John Tradescant the Elder (c.1570-1638) and Younger (1608-1662), are buried in an ornate tomb in the garden.  Apparently they used to have a small botanical museum in the area, which they called the Ark.

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At this time of year everywhere’s rather bare and back to the bone, but I look forward to returning to see it during the summer.  The knot garden and its surrounds are planted with species introduced by the Tradescants – such as the scarlet runner bean, red maple and tulip tree – and many others grown by them in their Lambeth garden.

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A great way to spend a winter Saturday, looking at old spades and hoes, mowers and watering cans!  Lots of quaint adverts reflecting changes in horticultural fashions.

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As well as the permanent collection, there was also an exhibition of art inspired by gardens over the centuries.  I found a lovely book in the shop recording Charlotte Verity’s year as Artist in Residence – beautiful, delicate paintings and drawings.

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I envied her the chance to observe the changing seasons in such a small but resonant space – time to go deep into it and let it go deep inside her.  I felt something like that during my time at Moorbank.  Looking more widely now at a range of different gardens, I am missing that sense of a clear boundary.  Poetry for me works best in sharp focus, in miniature.  The absences associated with winter also make for a certain spareness just now.  Perhaps the turn of the Solstice will shift things…

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What Love is Like in Winter

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