Thursday, April 29, 2010

A great partnership

The creative world is full of great partnerships. Gilbert and Sullivan, Rodgers and Hart, Gilbert and George. And now we have Victoria and VP. We've collaborated on a garden guide for this Saturday's Independent, so if you're UK-based, make a note to rush out and buy it.
The 50 Best series runs each week in The Information section of The Independent. This week, the 50 Best is Gardens.
It's always very difficult to choose one's favourite gardens. There are so many, for a start, and there may be gardens that, while not generally considered world-class, may touch something inside you that draws you to that place.
Alternatively, some of the great gardens may leave you cold. They may lack intimacy, or that sense of retreat that many of us treasure. Or they may be so manicured that you find yourself longing for the odd weed or shaggy bits around the edges.
Personally, while I admire the great 18th-century landscapes created by Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton and William Kent from an aesthetic point of view, they don't really strike an emotional chord in me.
It's a bit like looking at a beautiful painting - which indeed is what they were intended to replicate. The nobility of the time came home from their Grand Tours and wanted something that would reproduce the antique glories they had seen in Rome and Greece, as depicted in the classical landscapes of Claude Lorrain.
I'm much more drawn to the cosier, more domestic scale of gardens such as Great Dixter, or Sissinghurst. I like gardens that take you on a journey through archways and round corners, rather than something that is designed to be seen from a rather grand drawing-room.
I'm saying all this because I'm very conscious that people may not agree with our choices. On the other hand, VP and I are not setting out to become garden critics, nor are we aiming at a specialist, garden-enthusiast audience.
We're trying to encourage people to get out and see things, and because of this we've split the list into five sections: must-see gardens, rose gardens, kitchen gardens, gardens for walks and gardens for children.
I'm very grateful to VP for finding time in her busy schedule to help me with this. She manages to do so much, she reminds me of one of those circus performers who keeps plates spinning on the end of a pole.
I am hopeless at spinning plates. In fact, I'm very good at breaking them - I broke three the other day while we were having a barbecue without any practice whatsoever.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Well, he gets my vote

No, not Nick Clegg, but Matthew Wilson, presenter of Landscape Man, which began this evening on Channel 4. To be honest, I was a bit put off by the advance publicity, which made it sound like Ground Force on a grand scale. But the programme itself did not disappoint.
This week's episode was about Keith and Ros Wiley and their amazing garden at Wildside. Keith is the former head gardener at The Garden House and Ros is a painter. As well as creating the garden, they also run a nursery, so they're experienced horticulturalists. But Wildside is a garden on a vast scale.
Created from a flat four-acre site, Keith has sculpted the land into a series of hills and hummocks, precipices and ponds. The area of garden that is already planted up is beautiful - a naturalistic sea of waving grasses and flowers. Matthew followed the couple, who live in a "glorified shed" on site, as they created the next phase of the garden - a water garden and a Mexican courtyard while battling with lack of cash and in Ros's case, tendonitis from too much weeding.
The programme had some similarities with Grand Designs, Kevin McCloud's series about building houses. There was a lot of will-they, won't-they-make-it? to heighten the dramatic tension. But basically it was a story of one man's dream - to impose his vision on the surrounding landscape and by doing so, put down the roots of a new life.
It was fascinating and moving and above all, satisfyingly intelligent viewing. (Though I could have done with a bit more about the plants.)
Personally, I could have watched six programmes about the Wileys. Well done, Matthew!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

More dash than ash

My friend Ollie - scourge of bamboo roots, layer of paving stones and lender of pressure washers - is one of the Stranded. He flew out to Heraklion, on the island of Crete, on a working trip last Wednesday and was supposed to fly back last Friday but was delayed by the eruption of the Icelandic volcano.
After hanging around waiting for news for a couple of days, he was told by EasyJet that even if the restrictions lifted, he would not get a flight home until this weekend.
So, never one to sit around twiddling his thumbs, he set off an odyssey across the Mediterranean. On Sunday night, he caught the overnight ferry (nine hours) from Crete to Piraeus, the port outside Athens. Then he took the bus across Greece to the western port of Patra(s).
From Patra, he took the overnight ferry (21 hours) to the Italian port of Ancona. He arrived this morning and immediately took a train to Bologna, where he was advised to make for Milan, as extra trains for Paris were being laid on there.
As I write this, he is - I hope - on a train from Milan to the French capital, which gets in around 9am tomorrow. When he gets to Paris, he can either try to get a seat on a London-bound Eurostar train (fully booked until Thursday) or make for Calais and hope that he can wheedle his way on to a ferry across the Channel.
Along the way, he has made friends with four other Victims of the Volcano. Thanks to the internet and mobile phones, they have kept in touch throughout the journey, and the first two to reach Milan bought the precious tickets for Paris for all five. I sense a lifetime's friendship being forged here.
I'm confident Ollie will be home by the weekend. But just in case he hits any snags, please join me in cheering him on. Go, Ollie!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Now you see it, now you don't

I've never been a great one for garden gadgets. I'm not crazy about the idea of using electrical power unnecessarily, when a bit of elbow grease would do the job just as well. I once tried out a friend's leaf-blower and I swear my arm vibrated for about three days afterwards. But if you think this attitude a tad puritanical in today's labour-saving age, you'll be delighted to hear that I have succumbed to the lure of the pressure washer.
I haven't bought one, just borrowed one. The paving outside had got to the stage where I risked breaking my leg every time I ventured out. A combination of long winters and wet summers, combined with bird food and the avian digestive products arising from it, had turned the terrace into something resembling a dark-green ice rink. So a friend very kindly lent me their Karcher washer.
What a revelation! You can see the difference in the picture below - the dark areas are where I have yet to clean. Apparently you can use detergent in the washer, but I drew the line at that, which meant that I was left with a kind of green acne which required a lot of scrubbing.
I did ask myself whether I felt a bit guilty using all that water. Nope, I replied. Not after a winter like this one.
I have scrubbed the patio before using a stiff broom and a hose, but it was nothing like as effective and 10 times as much work. Mind you, even using a pressure washer was hard work. Really hard work. (Just in case you thought I was taking the easy way out.)

Here we are (below), all wet and clean. (Meanwhile, I am all wet and dirty...)

Ta-dah! The finished result (below). I don't think it's looked so clean since the day it was laid.

Ironically, I really like the lichen-encrusted, mossy look, with plants growing in between the paving slabs. It looks great in a country garden, or on York stone. I just don't think it works very well on the sort of plain concrete slabs that I have.
I also think that when you have a jungly garden, a plain area, such as the lawn or the terrace, acts as a visual breathing space that throws into contrast the leafy mayhem around it. So will I be using the pressure washer again? As Lauren Bacall once reputedly said to the Shah of Iran: "You bet your ass."

PS: Could I please apologise to everyone for not commenting on your comments or on your blogs? I love reading them and I think it's only good manners to reply if someone has taken the trouble to say something. However, something odd has happened to my life recently - there seems to be hardly any of it. (I'm writing this when I should really be doing something else.) Finding time to keep pace with the garden is a struggle, let alone writing about it.
However, I wanted to say how much I appreciate your input and encouragement. Thanks, everybody.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Goldfinch in my garden!

I didn't win anything on the Grand National today, but I did see a goldfinch in my garden this morning, which was far more of a thrill. The first one ever!
I'd been trying to encourage them with niger seed, but despaired of ever seeing anything other than greedy squirrels and greenfinches.
And then this morning, there he was, with his funny little clown face. He wasn't even eating niger seed, but just stuffing himself from the normal feeder.

The picture isn't mine, by the way. I was so excited, I would have dropped my camera.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Happy Easter

Awake thou wintry earth - fling off thy sadness! Fair vernal flowers, laugh forth - your ancient gladness!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Ralph Hancock: the story of a garden in the sky

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the Roof Gardens in Kensington. Robin Hull, who is an expert on Ralph Hancock (pictured left), the designer of the gardens, commented on my blog and I asked him if he would like to write a guest post. Not only has he written a fascinating account, but he has also provided me with some wonderful pictures. Enjoy!

If you read Trevor Bowen’s book, A Garden in the Sky, you would be forgiven for thinking that it was Sir Trevor who had designed and built the world famous roof gardens on top of what was then the Derry and Toms department store on London’s fashionable Kensington High Street.

There is one, single, reference in the book that leads the reader to the name of the man who actually designed and built was has become the Kensington Roof Gardens. And that is Ralph Hancock. So, it is with no surprise that after Hancock’s untimely passing in 1950, his name, his work and, more importantly, his legacy is little known to the gardening world.

(Clarence Henry) Ralph Hancock was born in Cardiff in 1893, the eldest of three sons to Clarence Hancock, an auctioneer and estate agent. His unremarkable early life gives few clues to the man he was to become - an ambitious self-starter who, after moving his young family to Sutton, Surrey in 1927, found himself gardener to Princess Victoria, daughter of King Edward VII.

Just three years later, in 1930, Hancock was in the United States, making stunning gardens and winning major competitions for his innovative designs. A well-known figure on the lecture circuit, he was also a favourite on the radio where he regularly gave talks about horticulture.

A founder member of the North American Rock Garden Association, he built gardens for JJ Newberry, the east coast rival to FW Woolworth and for Lydia Duff Gray, a New York Socialite. That garden now forms part of the Gardening Club of North America. In 1935 he found himself working for John D and Nelson Rockefeller on their ambitious skyscraper project on New York’s Fifth Avenue.

Hancock had been commissioned to design the
Gardens of the Nations (above) on the eleventh floor of the Rockefeller Center. These incredible roof top gardens were inspired by garden designs from Europe, Japan and America.

As well as his internationally themed gardens, Hancock built a 200ft babbling brook complete with a menagerie of wild animals that he imported from upstate New York. The designs also included a modern geometric garden and his own private piece of old England, with turf shipped from across the Atlantic. He even brought stone for his rock garden from the Cumbrian Lake District and his trademark Cotswold stone for his low retaining walls.

He was also responsible for two other ‘low level’ roof gardens on the International and the British Empire Buildings as well as the famous street level esplanade.

Soon, Hancock was recalled to England to design similar roof top gardens for Trevor Bowen, the managing director of Derry and Toms. Bowen had been in the US on a fact-finding trip and had seen Hancock’s designs at the Rockefeller Center. He wanted the same for his flagship London store.

This time Hancock designed three distinct gardens. A Spanish garden based on the Alhambra with a court of fountains, Moorish pergolas and the well of St Theresa; A walled Tudor garden right out of Hampton Court; and a woodland garden planted with native British trees. And just like his gardens in New York, Hancock also had a stream, this time with spectacular cascades made from stone brought from Pennsylvania (ideal for London’s pollution) and crisscrossed by two bridges and stepping stones. A pond, complete with gnomes and goldfish greeted visitors as they emerged onto the roof from the store below.

The gardens opened in May 1938 and over the next three decades the shilling (5p) entrance fee raised over £120,000 for local hospitals – that’s the equivalent of 2.4 million visitors. Meanwhile, the gardens thrived. Shoppers at Derry and Toms would take tea in the pavilion and promenade in the three gardens. Stopping to write one of the many postcard designs available to buy.

During the Second World War they became a focal point for raising comforts for service men and woman. Hollywood’s finest movie stars could regularly be seen partying in the gardens.

Two visitors' books, now housed in Kensington library, contain the signatures of the celebrities of the period including Sir John Gielgud, Leslie Howard, Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Ivor Novello. Royalty too were often seen at Derry Gardens. The green Moroccan leather books also contain the signatures of Queen Mary, King Haakon of Norway, Queen Marie of Yugoslavia and Prince Bernard of Holland.

Enemy action, in the way of air raids, resulted in some damage to the gardens. A 250lb bomb exploded in the Spanish garden destroying the campanile, while a 1,000lb parachute mine landed on the tea pavilion but failed to detonate.

After the hostilities came to an end, the gardens were replanted and the bell tower repaired. They remained largely unaltered until 1973 but were soon to see dramatic changes. More about that later.

During the war, Ralph served as a Captain with the Pioneer Corps in North Africa. His wife, Muriel, drove ambulances during the Blitz and his two sons served overseas. Like many other families during the war, Ralph and Muriel lost a son in action. Denys, aged just 21, was killed in a tank battle against Rommel's forces in Libya.

When the war ended Ralph went into partnership with his remaining son, Bramley. The two forged an incredibly successful team. (Later, Bramley became the sole importer of aluminum greenhouses and made a fortune.) The 1949 Chelsea Flower Show guide shows Ralph pictured with the King and Queen confidently explaining his formal garden. As Hancock and Son, he and Bramley gained numerous commissions from their exhibition work including a walled garden for Welsh entrepreneur David Evans-Bevan at his home in Margam, just outside Port Talbot. Another project was a Rose Temple for the Festival of Britain built on land donated by the bloodstock company, Tattersalls, at Knightsbridge Green, London.

Ralph Hancock with Queen Elizabeth (the late Queen Mother) at the Chelsea Flower Show in 1949

Sadly, Ralph never fully recovered from the death of his youngest son, despite his continued success and popularity. He died in 1950 after a short illness linked to diabetes and his ashes were scattered on the Thames by his wife and daughter, Sheila, at Charing Cross embankment.

Today the Gardens of the Nations remain only as pictures in old postcards and guidebooks and the memories of those lucky enough to have visited them. They were drastically altered sometime in the 1970s to make way for television transmitters. But in London, the 72-year-old roof gardens at Derry and Toms thrive. They were awarded Grade II status by English Heritage in the 1980s and today they form part of Virgin Limited Edition and are the playground of Sir Richard Branson, their current owner.

The Derry Gardens today

During the second half of the 20th century, the department store Derry and Toms - along with Barkers and Pontings - had been operating as three separate independent stores within the John Barker Company. But after the purchase of the company by House of Fraser it was quickly decided to sell off the stores. Pontings shut in 1970 and Derry and Toms soon after in 1971. Barkers closed in 1973. The site at 99-101 Kensington High Street was sold to British Land - Dorothy Perkins for £4 million.

There soon followed a brief revival in the fortunes of the Derry and Toms building when Biba, the smart boutique owned by the flamboyant designer Barbara Hulanicki purchased the property as part of their expansion. In a furious five months the interior of the store was transformed by Markwell Associates, better known for their theatrical and television work. Escalators were installed and many whimsical features introduced. During this short period the gardens once again became the place to be seen. Music stars such as David Bowie, the Rolling Stones and Marc Bolan were regulars at this modern Babylon in the sky.

Over £14 million was spent, but the investment proved rash. Having opened in a blaze of glory in 1973 the store closed just two years later. When Biba left the site in 1975 the store itself was divided into separate retail outlets. The roof garden became the property of Rama Superstores, which meant they only received the minimum of attention. In 1976 Kensington and Chelsea Council placed a Tree Preservation Order on the now mature trees to ensure that unnecessary removal or harmful pruning works were not carried out.

In 1978 the gardens became the subject of a redevelopment. The tea pavilion gave way to Regine’s restaurant and night club. New lifts were installed, destroying the rear part of the garden and necessitating the removal of a bridge across the river. The cascades went too (their Pennsylvania rock was later used in an unattractive grotto opposite the new entrance to the roof gardens). The addition of a new air conditioning chiller unit also destroyed the line of the Tudor (cloisters) walk.

Root penetration from the maturing trees started to cause problems for the floor beneath.

In 1981 the Virgin Group, headed by Sir Richard Branson, purchased the gardens. Regine’s was replaced by the Babylon restaurant and a members-only night club. In 1986 the gardens were awarded Grade II listing by English Heritage. This meant that no work could be carried out without permission and under their supervision.

Today, 72 years after they were opened, the gardens have been restored to their former glory. Thanks to head gardener David Lewis, and a small team of volunteers, the Derry gardens look as they did when Hancock designed and built them.

Robin Hull

Above, Hancock's design for the English Garden at the Rockefeller Center in New York City. Note the similarity to the stonework detail in the Tudor Gardens at Derry Street, below.

Yet more similarities between the Spanish Garden at Derry Street, above, and the Spanish Garden at the Rockefeller Center, below.

The Spanish Garden as it looked during the Biba era, nearly 40 years ago and, below, as they look today, following an extensive restoration by Virgin.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

You got to have friends...

Yes, yes, I know I haven't posted anything for a couple of weeks, but I have been busy. One job was writing what will be an occasional gardening notebook for the Independent, which you can read online here. In between all the other stuff, I've been getting on with the garden. I have:

Clipped back the miscanthus.
Cleared out the pond.
Chopped off all the bent phormium leaves.
Carefully snipped off any brown or disfigured leaves from evergreen climbers such as the hardy clematis and the jasmine.
Carried the two flowering prunus in their pots to a new position on the terrace while they are in flower.
Cut the grass.

These are all jobs I am perfectly capable of doing by myself. However, there was one job I dreaded tackling without help, and that was the paving on my terrace, which was slowly lifting thanks to bamboo roots exploring beneath it.
One paving slab - right in the middle of the terrace; right where I tripped over it every time I walked past - had risen up nearly two inches. And where the steamer chairs sit in the sun, the paving was at an angle of 45 degrees, which not only looked unsightly, but had already wrecked the mechanism on an old steamer chair, thanks to years of trying to adjust the angle of the back when the chair wasn't sitting straight in the first place.
Luckily, I was able to enlist the services of my friend Ollie who is not a keen gardener, but is very keen on "projects". He's seen the garden before - and admired it - but his eyes really lit up at the thought of a bit of problem-solving involving the use of power tools and brute force. Needless to say, I encouraged this attitude like mad.
The first slab we attacked was the one in the middle of the paving. This is what we found underneath.

It's rather beautiful, isn't it, in a sinister sort of way? I'd always had difficulty digging out bamboo shoots which are as tough as steel cables and stick to the ground like superglue. But Ollie chopped through them in a matter of minutes while I made us a cup of tea.
By the way, the spade is a border spade from Homebase that I bought at least 20 years ago for the equivalent of £5. It just shows you don't always have to buy expensive kit.

You can just see Ollie's feet in the rear of the picture. If you look to the left of his heels, you can see a slab that is yet to be de-bambooed, which gives you some idea of how bad the problem was. We had to resort to an angle-grinder to cut out some of the shoots, in order to get a nice straight line to put the slabs back again.
Ollie was worried that it might damage the rest of the bamboo and I'd wake up next morning with a dead plant outside. You know what? I don't think I'd have cared very much.

Last year - on 12 April, to be precise - I wrote a post entitled: "It's Easter, so that means it's raining." This year I could have written the same title again (in fact I nearly did). It is raining. It is cold. It is quite miserable.
I don't know why we expect nice weather at Easter - according to the Met Office, snow is more likely in the UK at Eastertide than at Christmas time. Somehow, I don't find that information very cheering.