Sunday, September 20, 2009

Never mind Leslie Caron, where's Anna Pavord?

To Woodstock in Oxfordshire today, or more specifically to Blenheim Palace, where the Woodstock Literary Festival, sponsored by The Independent, was being held. I'd got tickets to hear Anna Pavord and Ursula Buchan, two of my favourite gardening writers (indeed, two of my favourite gardening people) talking about their new books and anything else they thought might be of interest.
Anna, as you may know, has just published a book called Bulb and Ursula's latest book, a collection of her gardening columns entitled Back to the Garden, is published this week. So there was plenty to talk about.
I was going with my friend Penny, who lives in Oxford, and we decided to get to Blenheim fairly early, have a cup of tea and wander round the gardens. This turned out to be an excellent plan: it was a lovely day, and Blenheim fairly sparkled in the warm September sunshine.
It's funny how often September is a really nice month in the UK. In fact, we've had so little rain in the south that lots of gardeners are beginning to complain about having to water all the time.
The palace was built to celebrate a famous victory over the French by John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, in 1704. Apparently, the first Duchess wanted a cosier, less grand residence, and I have to say I sympathise. Blenheim bristles with martial grandeur and, beautiful as it is, it seems more like a parade ground than a home. It's also the birthplace of Winston Churchill, who was the grandson of the 7th Duke.
During the last 200 years, successive Dukes have added to John Churchill's flamboyant palace. The 4th Duke commissioned Capability Brown to design the parkland, but there are also formal gardens and fountains galore, as you can see in the picture below.

A view of the lake. This was originally a small river, over which Vanbrugh, the architect responsible for Blenheim, built the most enormous bridge. Vanbrugh felt that his patron deserved nothing less, but his critics poked fun, saying that it was completely out of scale with the marshy trickle that ran beneath it. When Capability Brown landscaped the parkland, he built a dam which transformed the river into a lake, flooding the lower part of the bridge and reducing it in scale. It was the sort of thing they did all the time in the 18th century. River in the wrong place? No problem, your Grace, we'll just re-route it. Village in the way? No problem, your Grace, we'll just knock it down and relocate it.

The view of the lake from the terrace. You can see why Blenheim is often described as the epitome of an English landscape.

Here is the Orangery, where the literary festival was taking place. This looks out onto yet more formal gardens. I was so busy admiring them, I was quite taken aback when my colleague John Walsh walked into the room accompanied by a small dark-haired lady who was greeted with rapturous applause. Was this the woman who was going to chair the discussion, perhaps?
No. John, beaming proudly from ear to ear, got to his feet and introduced ... the film star Leslie Caron, who was going to be interviewed in front of the audience about her new autobiography, called Thank Heaven.
"S***," I hissed to Penny, "we're in the wrong room!" and got up and belted out of the door, followed by a bemused Penny. Outside, a smiling gentleman asked us "if there was a problem, ladies?" "Yes," I said, "we're supposed to be listening to Anna Pavord and Ursula Buchan."
"Ah," he said, "you want the Marlborough Room. It's just on your left. But at least you got to have a glimpse of Leslie Caron!"
"B***** Leslie Caron," I said (rather rudely, it must be admitted) "we want to hear Anna and Ursula."
We scampered into the next room and there beneath a humungous portrait of the First Duke, were Anna and Ursula, talking to a rapt audience. Anna told us about her trips to Kazakhstan to see species tulips growing in the wild, and the story of how the plant hunter Ernest Wilson brought back Lilium regale, now a staple in traditional English gardens.
Travelling in Szechuan, he came over a mountain to see a valley filled with these beautiful flowers. (Can you imagine? A whole valley filled with lilies!) Sadly, on his way back up the mountain he fell and broke his leg, and though his porters tied him onto a stretcher and he eventually made it to a doctor, the leg didn't set properly and he always walked with what he called his "lily limp".
Ursula reflected on whether, at a time where we can grow virtually anything we want, thanks to the services of the internet, we lived in a kind of golden age of gardening. She thought not: more a silver age. Yes, there was huge interest in gardening, and a cornucopia of plant varieties to choose from. But gardens are getting smaller, and the pressure on housing is such that many properties now come without gardens at all.
There was a Q&A session too: I grabbed the opportunity to ask Anna if there were any bulbs other than daffodils that squirrels didn't like. Sadly, the answer was no. Anna explained that daffodils contain a substance designed to put animals off eating them, but other bulbs had no such protection. (Deer don't like daffodils either, apparently.)
It was a fascinating discussion. As Penny put it, it was the sort of chat you imagine the Gardeners' Question Time presenters have before the programme begins: just two people who really know their stuff having a really interesting conversation.