Saturday, October 20, 2012

Goodbye to the Backyard

As some of you will know, I have sold my house in London and I am moving to Gloucestershire. I've been a bit superstitious about telling everyone until I exchanged contracts (I don't know why - as Lucy Corrander remarked to me: "If only we people had the power...")
But to quote an old proverb, "there's mony a slip twixt cup and lip", and I didn't want to tell everyone about this great upheaval if, a few weeks later, I had to tell them it wasn't actually taking place.
Everyone asks me the same questions when I tell them I'm moving, so to save your poor little fingers typing them out, here is my attempt at a helpful FAQ:

Does that mean I'm giving up my job?
Yes! I've resigned from my current job which is editor of the Saturday edition of the i newspaper. I will still carry on writing about gardening, mainly for The Independent and the i, but I'll be able to work from home rather than have to go into the office.

Will I miss London?

Yes, of course! I think London is the greatest city in the world. (Well, I'm biased.) But it is a tiring city in which to work, and sometimes it feels almost as if people go out of their way to make one's life far more stressful than it needs to be. Just the simple act of getting up and going to work, or coming home from the office, can sometimes seem like an obstacle race.

Will I miss my friends?
Yes, of course! But I hope they'll come and stay with me in Gloucestershire. It's less than two hours' drive from London, and the train to Chippenham or Kemble takes less than an hour and a half. And you have to remember that, because of the hours I work, I hardly ever see my friends in London. There are many friends - not to mention family - I will see more of when I move.
I'll miss my colleagues too - I've worked at The Independent for nearly 13 years. There are many things about office life I love - the banter, the silly running jokes, the excitement of a breaking story. However, I've tried to imagine myself missing work as I sit by my fireside looking out over the meadows on my Gloucestershire hilltop, and somehow I can't see it. I certainly won't miss the canteen...

Will I miss the Backyard?
I don't think so. In a way I feel as if I've got to the end of the road with my current garden.
I'm very excited about having a new garden, which will be totally different. In London, you can create your own landscape, but in Gloucestershire, the surrounding countryside demands a much more appropriate garden. I already have plans, and I'm looking forward to telling you how it all goes.
I will keep the Victoria's Backyard blog, however, and I think I will use that for discussing gardening issues and news and so on. 
I also now have a new blog, Tales from Awkward Hill, which will specifically be about life in Gloucestershire.
I've written a piece for next Saturday's Independent Magazine about leaving my garden, and I have to say they've done a fabulous job on it, so do get a copy if you can.

Will I be taking lots of plants with me?
I don't think so. Many of them wouldn't survive outside the London microclimate. Bibury is about 2ºC colder than London most of the time, and the garden is not nearly as sheltered. Having said that, I will still need an extra removal truck just for the garden...

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Revenge of the Yellow Book

Anne Wareham tells me that her garden, Veddw, has been dropped from the National Garden Scheme's Yellow Book next year, apparently as a punishment for the piece she wrote in the Spectator earlier this year.

She say the Chief Executive of the NGS, George Plumptre, told her: "I don't think you have any concept how many hundreds of humble, innocent garden owners and NGS volunteers were deeply hurt by your diatribe in The Spectator earlier this year."
Anne has a reputation for being controversial; some would say abrasive. That's what she does; in the cosy world that is British horticulture, she is the grit that helps create the pearl in the oyster. Perhaps a better analogy would be to compare her to the stone in your shoe that stops you in your tracks and makes you question your preconceptions.
The NGS, on the other hand, is a charity. It has no business being controversial, abrasive or - apparently - vengeful. I don't know George Plumptre very well, but he has always seemed to me to be a sensible sort of chap, so I very much hope that this is a misunderstanding.
Personally, I don't always agree with Anne's views. We differ greatly on the subject of lawn edging, for example. However, I think she has very interesting things to say about garden design, and about the way we appreciate gardens.
I went to a lecture by Sir Roy Strong during the Olympics, and he was talking about how the British inhabit a landscape of the imagination - a make-believe world which has more to do with sentiment and nostalgia than it has to do with reality.
He cited The Haywain (below) by John Constable - one of the most famous paintings in the world - and pointed out that Constable didn't paint it from life, but in his London studio. Not only that, he painted the scene as he remembered it from his childhood.

We British have a very irritating tendency to look back, like Lot's wife, or Orpheus (and remember what happened to them!), at past glories. Gardeners are always trying to recreate a Sissinghurst or a Hidcote, and public taste applauds and colludes.
I'm not at all convinced that it is healthy to wallow in les temps perdu. Tempting, yes, but ultimately unexciting and uncreative. At least let's not get cross when someone tries to prod us out of our Edwardian daydream.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Harvest festival for hipsters

I had a rather novel experience yesterday evening - I went to an RHS show and found I was one of the oldest people there. It was the RHS London Harvest Festival Show, and for the first time ever, the show was open until 9pm.
Now, this was good in itself. I can rarely get to the London RHS shows because they are held during the week, during the day. I have to take a day off, or slope into work a bit later. The idea of being able to go to a show on the way home, instead of lugging my purchases onto the Tube and into the office, is brilliant.
Not only that, there was a cocktail bar. Yes, a cocktail bar! It was Lottie Muir's Midnight Apothecary bar, which Lottie, aka the Cocktail Gardener, started at the Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe, and which has already become an institution.

There was a huge queue for cocktails, with hardly a person over 30 to be seen. Being a cynical hack, I suspected that the RHS had drafted in some of their younger members of staff to swell the crowds. However, this was not the case: the two women behind me said they'd read about the event in Time Out, while the women in front of me had seen it advertised on an events listings website.

While waiting in the queue for our cocktails, we were entertained by the London Vegetable Orchestra. I'd seen them at Hampton Court a couple of years ago, but had never heard their full repertoire.
It wasn't all cocktails and courgette clarinets. There was the usual Fruit and Vegetable Competition, with specimens of quite extraordinary size and length laid out on the tables. Wesley Kerr pointed out to me the rivalry between the Duke of Marlborough (known as "Sunny") and the Duke of Devonshire (whose prep school nickname was Stoker), who compete every year to see who can win first prize for their grapes. I love the idea of "Sunny" and "Stoker" jostling for first prize with their bunches of muscats. Talk about pistils at dawn.
There was food too: cheese, from Godsells in Gloucestershire (whose cheeses include The Three Virgins and Singing Granny); mushrooms and sausages, plus apples from the Wisley orchards.
Anyway, if the RHS is still concerned about ways to encourage the under-30s into gardening,  I reckon they can stop worrying. All it takes, apparently, is a few cocktails and a group of men fingering weirdly shaped vegetables.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Britain in Bloom

I'm ashamed to admit I've never been to the Channel Islands. My knowledge of them is limited to the 1980s BBC detective series Bergerac, which was set in Jersey. So I was thrilled when the Royal Horticultural Society invited me to attend the annual Britain in Bloom awards, held in St Peter Port, in Guernsey, at the weekend.
Britain in Bloom is seen by many as a rather cosy, middle-class affair - a kind of Neighbourhood Windowbox Watch. This is a bit unfair. Taking part in Britain in Bloom can effect a genuine transformation in neighbourhoods, not only aesthetically, but economically, environmentally and socially. It's not surprising, then, that the judges aren’t just looking at the quality of the summer bedding but also at the level of community participation and environmental awareness.
Take Herm, for example. One and a half miles long and half a mile wide, with a population of 63, it lies between Guernsey and Sark, and it was one of the gold medal winners in the 2012 awards, as well as carrying off  the RHS Britain in Bloom Tourism Award, presented to the finalist that demonstrated the most effective use of their "In Bloom" participation as a means of supporting tourism.

Herm could be said to have more in common, horticulturally speaking, with Madeira than Manchester. A holiday island paradise, brimming with sub-tropical specimens such as echiums, brugmansia and osteospermums, it might not be the first image that springs to mind when you hear the phrase “Britain in Bloom”. However, as with many places in the British Isles, the beautiful surroundings it can offer visitors are crucial to bringing in tourist cash. If the only way people can get to you is to take a three-mile boat trip from Guernsey (itself a 40-minute flight from Gatwick), you have to be able to provide something with a bit of a wow factor once they get there.

Two full-time gardeners, Brett Moore and Roseanne Wheeler, ensure that the tiny island looks its best from April to October, and as well as the sub-tropical plants, there’s a wealth of wildflowers – dog roses, foxgloves and rare orchids.

Perhaps the economic imperative explains why the affluent south-east doesn’t figure as prominently as you might expect (given its mild climate) in the Bloom awards. The number of long-range commuters and the prevalence of second homes also means that it is difficult to build the sense of mutual endeavour that glues a community together.
The only finalist south of Watford in the Champion of Champions category for 2012 was Thornbury in South Gloucestershire, while the outright champion of champions was the Northern Irish village of Broughshane, in Country Antrim.

It’s been a tough year for anyone involved in horticultural endeavours. The weather was horrible and money is tight, so all the participants deserve credit, believes Roger Burnett, chair of the RHS Britain in Bloom judging panel, for rising to the challenge.
He said: “I love seeing the imaginative ways communities overcome challenges. It was reported that groups were pulling out of Britain in Bloom because of these problems but, in fact, we had a ten per cent increase in the number of groups signing up, making it a record year.”
For the St George’s Crypt homeless shelter in Leeds, joint winner of the RHS Britain in Bloom Young People’s Award, the emphasis is on cultivating pastoral care rather than pansies and petunias.
There has been a homeless shelter at St George’s since 1930, but three years ago, following a huge refurbishment, the charity decided to redesign the garden  and incorporate it into their Social Enterprise scheme.
Chief executive Chris Fields explained: “The theme is nurture, and we offer either catering or horticulture. Anyone who comes here is offered 15 hours of personal development to see if they like it, and at the moment we have six ex-offenders and six ex-addicts on the scheme.”
The trainees run a small market garden, and are just about to take delivery of 30 chickens. They’ve taken part in guerrilla gardening projects in the city, liaising with local developers to plant up unused plots, and they also provide garden maintenance for local people – under supervision, of course.

Mr Fields said: “I don’t believe in the Playstation/pool table culture. Getting back to nature really suits certain individuals, who wouldn’t benefit from sitting in a room with a group of people talking about their problems. For addicts, especially, it can be helpful, because they can measure their progress against the growth of the plants and the passing of the seasons."

Hearing about this sort of scheme is quite humbling. Indeed, being at the dinner in Guernsey on Saturday made me very aware of the astonishing efforts that are being made through the UK, by ordinary people, to make our cities, towns and villages better places to live.
All the Britain in Bloom volunteers I spoke to had one thing in common; a huge pride in their local community. I was on a table with the group from Spofforth, a village near Harrogate. They weren't in it for the money (they themselves don't get any), or the publicity. Their idea of reward was to get a certificate with an RHS gold medal, and when they won their gold, they all burst into tears. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Gardeners' World comes to Victoria's Backyard

"Hey, the garden is going to be on Gardeners' World!" This piece of news failed spectacularly to excite my son and daughter, who were packing for the start of the university term, and more interested in whether they'd remembered to buy teabags than in my horticultural hooplas.
“You gonna be on it, Mum?” asked my son, barely lifting his eyes from a tangle of cables, clean socks and phone chargers.
“No, just the garden,” I said. “…K,” he mumbled, visibly losing interest.
No one is interested in you – as a person, I mean – if you are showing off your garden. People want to know about the plants, and how you grow things. You could be a scarecrow for all they care (although if you were a particularly efficacious scarecrow, capable of clearing entire allotments of pigeons and other thieving avians, they'd be very interested indeed). Gardening is very good for keeping one's ego firmly in its place.
I'd been rung up by BBC Gardeners' World before, a couple of years ago, but nothing came of it. A couple of times, photographers have contacted me, but then decided my garden – a subtropical jungle in South-west London, full of bamboos and hardy bananas – wasn't suitable for their purposes. Oh well, another blow to my self-esteem.
This time however, the GW advance party came round, they enthused about the garden, and they said they'd ring me. Yeah, right, I thought. To my astonishment, they rang a few days later and said they'd love to come and film. So at sunrise one day last week, I found myself mowing the lawn, sweeping the terrace and fishing dead leaves out of the pond. At 9.30am, the crew arrived, along with presenter Joe Swift (below). I set about making copious amounts of tea.

 I open my garden for charity under the National Gardens Scheme, so I'm used to seeing strangers in it. I love watching how they react to it – where they sit, what they look at, how they use the space that I have created. With a film crew it was even more fascinating. I kept wanting to say things like: “The sun hits that bit of the garden in about an hour,” but I didn't dare. What with all the mowing, and sweeping, and tea-making, I felt a bit like I was on work experience.
The idea of the segment they were filming, apparently, was to show how to achieve layers of planting in the garden, so there is a seamless transition between low-growing plants and gigantic ones. So, was my garden an example of how to do it, or how not to do it? I'll have to wait until it airs to find out. After all, I'm only the gardener.

I've been trying to find the time to blog about this for ages, without success. So do please forgive me for recycling this piece, which appeared in the i newspaper last week. As soon as I know when the programme is going out, I'll let you know.

Choir tour: VENICE!!!

Saturday 14 July dawned hot and sunny - just the sort of weather you want when you have to spend most of the day in the coach... There were lots of wistful backward glances as we left Lake Bled, nestled amid misty mountains, but huge excitement at the prospect of our next stop. Venice. The Queen of the Adriatic, the City of Light.
The journey took about four hours, with a quick stop for water and loos, and by late lunchtime we had arrived at what must be one of the most charismatic cities in the world. No traffic is permitted in Venice, so your first impression is of an enormous car park, situated across the lagoon from a oil refinery. Lovely.
Don't let it put you off, though, because once you're on the boat, heading for the Piazza San Marco, it's impossible not to fall under the Venetian spell.
George Bernard Shaw once said that youth is wasted on the young. I suspect he might have agreed that travel is also more rewarding when you are older. I hadn't visited Venice since I was a teenager, when I spent most of the time trailing round freezing cold churches looking at Tintorettos, and the rest of the time shivering in a cheap hotel with stone floors (we were there in early April). Far too little time, in my opinion, was spent lurking in coffee bars, warming my frozen fingers on a cappucino.
We went in spring, because there is a general belief that Venice in high summer is unbearable, with smelly canals and squillions of tourists. And in winter, the city is often flooded, so all in all, the opportunities to visit seem limited.
We arrived in the middle of the Redentore festival, which meant that the city was busier than ever. It was a bit of a nightmare trying to herd 42 children of varying ages through the crowds, but despite the tourists and the heat, it was fabulous.
We stopped at the Piazza San Marco, in front of the cathedral, to make a note of our meeting place and then we dispersed into the alleyways around the square before meeting up again to eat.
If you've never been to the city before, do not be tempted to hang around in the open in the piazza. It's quite safe, but there is very little shelter from the sun. In any other city, one might be a bit wary of diving into dark narrow passageways surrounding the main square, but in Venice these are where you will find the nicer shops, the quieter canals and perhaps even a peaceful piazza.
It's impossible to get lost, because there are yellow signs on the street corners giving you directions to the major landmarks: "Rialto" (for the Rialto Bridge) or "San Marco".
Venice is unique. It even has its own brand of tourist tat: the shops are laden with carnevale masks, Murano glass and gondoliers' hats. I wanted a Murano glass bracelet and Kitty wanted a cup of coffee, so we wandered over to the Rialto and found a cafe. The cafe prices are eye-watering - but then so is the view.
We were due to sing at Mass at St Mark's at 6.45pm, but we still managed to have a coffee, buy a handbag or two, and some gloves. On a previous visit, Kitty had found a glove shop where they could tell your size just by looking at your hand. Amazingly, we found it on our way back to the cathedral.
Kitty bought a plain black pair, but I splashed out on a dark brown pair trimmed with a strap in Hermes orange. I then found a bright orange leather handbag for 60 euros. We had a fantastic time.
We weren't allowed to take photographs inside St Mark's. Indeed, we weren't allowed to do anything other than sing at Mass - we were ushered into the building just beforehand and out again at the end. But it was a wonderful feeling - even if the deacon did glare at us all the way through.

 It's very exciting when the smudgy skyline you can see across the lagoon starts to take shape as you approach Venice by boat. Little by little, the rainbow colours of the houses, and the domes and spires of churches come into focus as you speed across the water.

The unmistakable outline of the Campanile (the bell tower) and the Doge's palace, which looks like a beautiful Oriental jewellery box. The Doge was the ruler of Venice, but not in any royal sense. He was elected, and strict rules were in place to ensure that powerful men did not turn the position into something that they could pass on to their sons.

Look at the ant-like procession of people on the quayside. You can see how busy it is. 

Before you've gone more than a couple of yards in Venice, history steps forward to greet you. The church on the right, with the big columns, is known as the Vivaldi church, because it was here that Antonio Vivaldi taught at the Ospedale della Pieta, a combination of convent, orphanage and music school. It was a girls' orphanage, and the girls had to sing the tenor and bass parts as well as the alto and soprano lines. The present building was completed after Vivaldi's death, but the Metropole Hotel, on the right, stands on the site of the original.

Here is the Bridge of Sighs, which connects the Doge's Palace with the New Prison. It was named by Lord Byron, who romantically imagined prisoners taking their last view of Venice through the windows before execution. Apparently this is poetic tosh - the New Prison was full of Venetian ne'er-do-wells and pickpockets, not tragic victims of oppression.

As we approached the Piazza San Marco (St Mark's Square) the crowds seemed to get thicker. As we turned the corner, and got our first glimpse of the cathedral, it was only possible to take quick snaps before someone bumped into you, or got in the way.

Here's the winged lion, the symbol of Venice and of St Mark the Evangelist.

Here's another symbol of Venice - the gondola, with its attendant gondolier in his traditional straw hat.
Here's Kitty - never happier than when she has a cup of coffee in her hand!

And here's the Rialto, traditionally the centre of commerce in Venice and even now a busy shopping centre. There are tourist stalls galore, but if you step off the main alley you'll find yourself in a market place, with Venetian buying their groceries.

The view from the Rialto. Isn't it beautiful? Venice really is one of those cities that looks just as good in real life as it does in the brochure.