Digging and musing, I think about a man I know and his mid life delusion: leaving home for an ex-council bedsit, smoking, the Affair. They say that clinging to the death throes of youth is a temporary fix - like Botox. What if the energy could be channeled into something really productive .......like gardening? Clubs even where you can ` Dig for a new lease of life` Nurturing a pumpkin patch could be so much more rewarding than lusting over Janet in Accounts. And pumpkins make good soup.
I stab the bramble roots at the thought of the colossal parking fine I paid after yesterday`s visit from the bailiffs. How so I didn`t see the previous warning letters? It`s not unusual for stylists on shoots to help themselves to my stuff for props in a shoot scene. Parking tickets lost in a Day in the life of British Gas or Moshi Monsters Christmas. Or is it just a case of me throwing them in the bin by mistake?
Fresh air, light, space. ... suburbia is the place to be. Screened-out I can tour the last rose buds, pick a green tomato, (see above) and fennel (see below) for fish, or check on the sweet pea seedlings in the shed to revive me. How I used to pace from room to room in our last flat high above the City where one fragile weed on the roof top opposite was the only spot of green. It`s only a bus and a tube ride away from the bright lights. Recent highlights: more al fresco swimming at the Oasis in Covent Garden followed by clams and razor clams at Barrafina as fresh and garlicky as they could be outside of an Andalucian beach bar; Tim Wright`s figurative paintings in Shoreditch and last night`s treat a groovy basement bar The Social with readings by Faber Man Booker authors, Adam Foulds, Deborah Levy and Sarah Hall .
Wouldn`t it be fun to create paint colours for each season. Autumn references of golden yellow, ,orange, earth brown are here, leaf confetti at my feet. And all in a morning`s dog walking across the dew grass in Brockwell Park.
I feel the air miles when a man with a festive beer in a plastic cup offers a seat on the packed late train to Ronkonkoma and questions with some incredulity " You`ve come all the way from England for Thanksgiving ?" I have and it`s my first. The blazing fire, turkey with a turkey flavour from a North Fork organic farm and the warmth of the Foley family to whose Long Island Thanksgiving I am invited the next day will meet all of my expectations and more.
With my body clock somewhere after lunch, I wake rather suddenly to the crack of gun shots from the duck hunters across the lake. ( It is never wise to think the countryside is peaceful) But it`s tranquil enough, absolutely blissful in fact, drinking hot coffee on the porch ,watching the melting pale pink early morning sky and all around the earthy woodiness of damp leaves. I`m at the white house, the simple white wood clad home (and location space) of Trish Foley the American queen of white and natural decorating. Her first book the Natural Home published in 1995 was ahead of its time, and is as inspirational today.
Trish`s 3rd pop up shop event for her New General Store takes place with soup cider and cookies over the Thanksgiving weekend. It features white and natural home ideas on sale in Trish`s studio and white cabin tucked amongst the surrounding winter thin woods.
There`s a gang of us to pull the last minute threads together: stirring the spicy pumpkin soup (cumin, coriander, chilli, toasted pine nuts and croutons make this a particularly delectable pumpkin idea), wiping down the thick glassy beads of overnight dew from the outdoor benches and sweeping leaves off the huge outdoor plank table. The sun feels warm again on my face, a remnant of summer and as in London, everyone is saying how unseasonable the temperatures are.
Matthew Mead sets up his stall in the White Shop, and signs copies of Holiday magazine- his brilliant and visually inspiring take on crafting and making that comes out quarterly.
I have my eyes, on white pots filled with bulbs and moss, but can`t exactly see getting past airport security A narcissus- scented candle will do very nicely instead. And there is a gorgeous collection of vintage white Ironstone china, platters, cups and bowls, that I could also happily pack to take home - if only.
We say clothes pegs you say clothes pins.
As well as delicious flavoured vinegars and olive oils, there`s flowery and scented Rugosa Rose jelly made by The Taste of the North Fork. I have some dollops of it on toast with butter for breakfast to keep me going.
I am on duty signing books in the studio, suffused with the scent of flowering paper white narcissi, and bathed in the long low sunlight pouring through the south facing wall of glass window panes. It`s good to meet the New York/Long Island crowd and find that there`s common ground - simpler living is as much on the agenda in the economic downturn as it is at home. I`m glad that all my favourite things: parrot tulips, rhubarb, roses, chestnuts and lemon meringue pie seem to be appreciated across the pond. The books are a sell out and so I celebrate with walnut shortbread baked by Michael Jones.
The next day I`m 0n the road again, heading to my next signing at Loaves and Fishes, in Bridgehampton. This is a wonderful treasure trove of a cook shop with the best of its type, from coffee making machine and shellfish picker to sharp knife and dinner plate. Run by the charming and welcoming Sybille van Kempen Loaves and Fishes is also noted for its food shop and cookery school and is as much a Hamptons landmark as all the gorgeous beach houses*. It`s Sunday lunchtime, and so my samples of chocolate and chestnut cake are a great crowd drawer, and another of the book`s recipes that seems to travel rather well. * Ralph Lauren designer, Ellen O`Neill`s heavenly red and white house ( American country house style meets Bloomsbury ) is another Long Island location shoot`s dream.
Time for some R and R and I head off to the City via the Long Island Rail Road ( it`s all so American- the toot tooting of the train when it passes the unmanned barriers reminds me of every cowboy movie I`ve ever seen) and Penn Station. The avenues of Manhattan await me and my wheelie bag.
Suffused in pools of light and shade this May afternoon the garden seems to take on an air of secrecy and serenity. It is my place of shelter and repose from the roaring traffic and sirens on the South Circular, just two streets away. I turn on the hose and give everything a good drink (drought conditions continue, and gardeners are being asked to create mud pools so the house martins and swifts can build their clay like nests). The arc of water plays like a silver stream over the last tulips, rosemary, alliums and clumps of purple chives. It leads my thoughts to a piece I have read about Islamic gardens, and how we owe a huge debt in the West to the Muslim ideal of paradise. This is encapsulated in the design of the Persian `chahar bah . This enclosed garden has a central fountain which flows into water rills which represent the four rivers of Paradise. Famous examples include the Taj Mahal garden in India and the Court of the Lions in the Alhambra, Granada. In his book` Gardens, An Essay on the Human Condition`- the academic Robert Pogue Harrison argues that it also provides a key to understanding Islam in the modern world. He suggests that where paradise is imagined as a garden of perfect tranquility our incurable Western agitation takes on a diabolical quality. It would be wonderful to have world peace and understanding through gardening.
On a personal level, working in my garden takes me away from just about every mental annoyance that happens to be swirling around. I enter a calm non judging head space when having to concentrate on the delicate and precise task of lifting fragile radish and bean seedlings into position for the next stage of development. My senses are energised: bad or dull feelings float away with the smells of damp earth as the hose plays across the beds, and I feel more in touch with the elements as my legs are lightly tickled by lavender that has spilled voluputously over the brick path.
The Constance Sprys, are in themselves a vision of petally paradise, tumbling luscious pink blooms over on both garden fences. Not only visual balm, but with a scent that is so light and sweetly fragrant that I feel I want to drink it .
Then there are the equally fabulous frilled and frothy pink peonies, (below) the ones I lifted and divided from my childhood suburban garden after my mum died. It is reassuring that she lives on, in a way, through this yearly renewal in the garden.
I`m always coming up with ideas for Pure Style this and that - one dream is a heavenly little hotel with a walled garden and bright white bedrooms. If there was to be a Pure Style scent, of course `rose` would get a first look in, but I have to say that if anyone could help me bottle the delicate vanilla fragrance of my wallflowers this spring( see below) I am sure we could be on to a winner, too.
I wake early with the encouraging limpid blue of an English Spring sky. Since I`ve been away in Olhao the apple tree has blossomed in a candy floss of fluffy pale pink petals.
The morning sun warms the worn red brick paving tiles and spills across the newly opened array of tulips. I can`t remember planting quite so many gorgeous varieties. (Not that surprising because when I did so, the garden was coated in a thick white icy coat of snow and it was all I could do to force the bulbs randomly into snow rimmed earth holes before it all became too cold and unpleasant and I had to scurry inside, toes and fingers numb.) It is so exciting to watch this blast of petally colour unfold.
See above from left to right: Spring Green; Black Parrot ( a straggler from bulbs that I planted three years ago ); Lilac Perfection.
The purple and white striped `Triumph` tulip reminds me of the purple and white colourings of red onions; it has to be the most stylish of my tulip flock.
Hardly have the bags been unpacked and the weeds attended to, then our spring jaunt continues with a large family get together in Suffolk. By now the air feels midsummer balmy and the weather people are in high excitement about the early heatwave that is hitting northern Europe. Whilst I am ambling along dewy lanes, alive with cuckoo song , lilac, and wild asparagus (see above), a subdued text from our tenant in Olhao describes great winds and rains and a request for wet day activities in the area. Wow, we had a narrow climatic escape.
We visit Walberswick, rather like an English east coat version of the Hamptons, on Long Island, all beautiful picturebook, wisteria-clad houses and cottages with immaculate picket fences. There is a village green with swings, well behaved children and a horizon with simple beach huts. We crunch along the pebbly beach and some of the party, plus the dog, embrace the unseasonal warmth and swim. Of course, the sea is still winter cold and we drive home with the heater full on to keep hypothermia at bay. I negociate a detour to Wootton`s nursery which has everything from agapanthus to old fashioned cottage garden plants, and the most amazing selection of auriculas (see above) all massed together in a light white greenhouse. I come away with a box of cat mint and lavender for the potager beds, blue geraniums for ground cover, and an exquisite lemon secented old perlagonium called Mabel Grey which I shall keep in a pot to sit on my desk through the winter.
Sufffolk (and going over into Norfolk) is also very blissful with its wide flat watermeadows around Harleston and Beccles, where cows swish their tails in the shade of ancient willows and the river Waveney is cool and meandering. We bike past hawthorn hedges frothing with white blossom and look over to into fields where hares leap across the furrows. The county`s vast field aspect can be overwhelming, as are the electric yellow swathes of rapeseed. Sometimes I catch the whiff of a more industrial and stinky smell than anything with more rural connections. There are clues in the anonymous green lorries thundering past gnarled greening oaks to what is probably hidden away landfill. We eat well on Suffolk honey, the new season`s asparagus, cod landed at Lowestoft and rhubarb for pudding. The Ship inn at Dunwich serves the best fish and chips of the week, and is also a only a few minutes walk to the beach , where it is said that divers can hear the ghostly clang of church bells that succumbed to the sea.
Arriving back in London through steamy streets where the thermometer is hitting 27C, I am almost bowled over by the riot of colour (see above and below) that that has taken over the garden. All the tulips are now full and voluptuous on leggy stems. I watch their cups open up lazily in the sunshine and close in the shade as as if to keep warm.
New this year to my bulb order are `Silver ` parrot tulips (see below right) which when they first came out weren`t in the least bit silver, more bright raspberry ripple. Now that they`ve matured, the pink has faded a little and is rather fabulous.
I wake to the mass twittering of sparrows and a distant bell. The air is sea salty, the breeze warm and the sky is bright morning blue. Olhao. We’re here again for the spring holiday with a case full of books for revision and fabric to make cushions for summer. Breakfast is toast with soft springy sourdough-like bread which they slice for you from the café on the corner. I have a jar of orange flower honey from which I spread a thick coating onto a slice along with curls of butter. We eat outside in the quintal and squint at the sun which is glowing with promise for the day ahead. Oranges are so good and fresh here; so much sweeter and more intensely orange flavoured because they`re not long picked from a tree. We squeeze juice with the 13 euro juicer - a definite qualifier for what I think is a `best buy`- and pour it into small glass tumblers. So much more of an enjoyable experience than opening up a carton.
I throw black jeans, sweater and thick socks to the back of the wardrobe and feeling expectant for a first of the season session at the beach pull out last summer`s floaty cotton dress, sandals in which to brave winter feet, and straw hat. I’ve been through quite a few hats here, one or two have blown into the sea whilst on a boat of some sort; one was washed away by a rogue wave, and another met its end with an uncontrolled puppy. The fading terracottas, yellows, and greens of Olhao’s crumbling façades are balm to my tired city eyes. Most luminous are the pale cobalt blue lime washed walls that give the buildings a mediterranean seaside flavour. My friend Piers mixes blue pigment with white cal (lime) to create this timeless effect.
At the Saturday market the senses are hit with the aromatic smell of mint and the fragant childhood summer smell of strawberries. Wrinkled men with flat caps look after stalls groaning with oranges, pumpkins, broad beans, and peas. Cages with live rabbits and uncomfortable looking hens are clustered by the sea wall. I want to take to take it all home, all of this colour, and sensation. We settle for eggs, a bag of plump peas shelled by the vendor, a bunch of radishes with pink roots slashed rather stylishly with white, more sweet oranges and a kg of plump and richly coloured strawberries for the picnic.
It’s been a whirlwind of a week in location house land: the walls are purple one minute, then lavished with paper in stylish patterns, the next. And that’s not including the 15 people who organise the Queen of Craft’s natty cushions and heart shaped jam tarts. It’s good to get out of the way of drying paint and have the first hits of the season on the tennis court. I like Fabian the coach because he says lots of ‘well dones’ unlike the slightly tutting new accountant who I meet to discuss the bulging packets of receipts. The air is marzipan-and-lemon-scented. Spring has gone into overdrive in the last few days, and the white beads on the apple tree might blossom too early if this luscious warmth continues. Gardeners are always paranoid about the risk of frost at this time of year, but I for one, can only luxuriate in and enjoy the myriad hues of blue in skies that have been leaden for too long.
As well as enjoying the bundles of grape hyacinths (see last week) I walk the dog through glades of delicate blue Scillas (above, and another cousin of the hyacinth family) that is so much a part of spring. I’m a blue girl as much as a green one when it comes to having splashes of the colour around the house. I love old faded blue and white floral china (above) it looks great against white walls. Coastal blue and white Cornishware stripes are always smart. I buy it both new, and secondhand when I can find it at a good price. Readers of my books can’t fail to notice my passion for blue and white checks. I think small check patterns are easier on the eye for accessories such as cushions and pillow cases. See an example here on the new Swedish style bed from Feather and Black. This is the one that replaced the vast low slung circular Ikea number that was great for 12 year olds on sleepovers, but hopeless for arthriticky relatives.
PS. No thanks, I don`t want any more royal wedding paraphenalia in my inbox: "A bed that is fit for a Queen, King sofa and Queen armchair`, or, believe it or not `Knit Your Own Royal Wedding` etc etc. But I don`t mind reading the low down on clever Emily Chalmers of Caravan whose new book, Modern Vintage Style, is out soon.
Ha Ha! I am right on trend in my several-seasons-old canary yellow buttoned J Crew cardigan, as the March issue of Vogue proclaims ‘fashion’s new love for colour’. Of course we all know it’s not really new, as fashion is all about an ongoing passion with colour in some form or other. But there is something particularly resonant about the newness and vibrancy that Spring brings to everything. A sense, too, of optimism and possibilities - from the leggy amaryllis by my kitchen window (see above) about to unfurl in a whirl of striped pink and white petals, to the Spring pages of fashion mags washed in bright shades of tangerine, raspberry and quince. (I look forward to the first swim of the season at the lido and have my eye on a hyacinth blue retro spot halterneck swimsuit in the Boden catalogue that plopped through my letter box last week.) When I haven’t seen my children for a while and we meet after a fortnight away or longer, there’s a sense of seeing them as new people, almost like getting to know them all over again. That’s how I feel, in a way, when I hold the neatly bound sections of the new book, all ready to be sent off to the printers in China. Is it really three months since I turned in the final acknowledgements? I am excited, because I now see the book with a fresh eye. It’s not tiring to scan the spreads that I checked over and over during the editing process. I hope it doesn’t sound puffed up to say it’s looking good!
Feeling buoyant I am inspired to revisit a piece of half finished patchwork that has been lying in my large turquoise canvas remnants bag for the last year or so. It’s made up of blue and white pieces cut from various sources: pairs of worn out children’s pyjamas and tattered jeans. There’s also a bit of floral Liberty print from a dress that I cut up because I grew tired of its shape. (Although quite expensive, I also like the idea of pre cut Liberty patchwork squares sold by the bundle.) Foot on the accelerator I motor along on the rather battered Elna Lotus SP that my parents gave me for my 21st birthday. The process of pinning and stitching, trying to steer not only a straight path but also fingers away from the dagger effects of the speeding needle, are all good for freeing the mind of muddle. As good as digging the garden, or beating egg whites to frothy peaks. Once everything is sewn together I hem the edges of what is to become a kind of patchwork loose cover for the seat of the chesterfield. I say, loose, because the dog, and the cat, are very fond of this surface, and it would soon look very sad, very quickly if I couldn’t whip it off to be washed and revived. NB Must catch the British photographer E.O. Hoppe’s modernistic portraits (Vita Sackville West, John Masefield) at The National Portrait Gallery. NNB I made pheasant and pea (frozen petit pois are delicious) risotto last night, with the leftovers and home made stock from a brace of pheasants from the Farmer’s market. It’s good not to have to be a hunting shooting fishing type in order to enjoy the mildly gamey flavour, and lean texture of these inexpensive birds.
From almost-hysterical queues to silhouettes of trees and church towers against white fields: this contrast from urban shopping frenzy to rural peace has been one of the best things about our Christmas, spent in the depths of Somerset. Charades, a melee of dogs plopped in front of the fire, and Blackadder on the TV are pretty good festive ingredients, too.
There’s a feeling of relief that all the present searching and sorting is over. I am using the post Christmas calm to get stuck in to Before I Go To Sleep With a bizarre form of memory loss as its key theme, the story is a gripping psychological thriller which kept me up all night, because it was too tantalising to close the pages and not get to the clever ending. But enough of the adrenaline. I am thrilled with my copy of Second Nature: A Gardener`s Education by Michael Pollen who brilliantly promotes the garden rather than the wild as the most appropriate place for rethinking our relationship with nature. He says that a garden is the place for being in, rather than looking at. Lawns, for example are not part of Pollen’s landscape: “The more serious about gardening I became, the more dubious lawns seemed” he writes and goes on to say “For however democratic a lawn may be with respect to one’s neighbours, with respect to nature it is authoritarian”. I know what he means, but you do have to tough it with nature too - I’m thinking of the groundelder and lemon balm that engulfs my summer garden, of which I have no qualms at hacking down to maintain order.
With more musing on my unseasonal train of thought I do so miss the summer herby lavender scents of my garden which is looking so spare and flattened now that there is a bit of a thaw in progress. The closest I can seem to get to a summer sensory experience at the moment is the gorgeous Primrose Facial Hydrating Cream with lavender, sage and rosemary from Aesop. I don’t usually find huge words of praise for beauty treatments (having worked as a beauty editor some years ago and tried out products that came with extraordinary claims, even more extraordinary prices and yet didn’t seem to be any better than E45 cream from the chemist) but this cream is delicious in fragrance and good to my frazzled winter skin. Whilst I’m on the subject of beautifying I shall keep you posted with the effects, if any, (who me, sounding a touch cynical?) of my Yuroll which bills itself as a jade facial massager – not unlike a small rolling pin on a long handle – and is supposed to ensure a “lean re-contoured wonderfully unlined face: thoroughly toned and with improved elasticity”. I can’t see anything, apart from a very large dose of Botox improving my ‘laughter’ lines and general wear and tear, much of which occurred when I sunbathed furiously in my teens. But, hey I’m going to give it a go!
We’re all nursing extremely full stomachs, and yearning for something lighter and more fragrant than Christmas turkey fare. My sister in law gave me a jar of her preserved lemons, which I can’t wait to add to a spicy tagine with some fluffy hot couscous. I must also pay a visit to Persepolis our local taste of Persia in Peckham, where there are many aromatic middle eastern delights. After an extremely bracing walk across Hampstead Heath, it won’t be over indulgent in this season of indulgency, to enjoy some ice cream at Marine Ices in Camden, a family tradition that goes back to when my children were small and seemed to disappear behind their two huge scoops of chocolate tottering on wafer cones.
The snow comes and the last roses are topped with fairy queen ice bonnets. I embrace the way the snow, the hoar frost, the cold, slows everything down: idling in front of a blazing fire to thaw out, or the ridiculously slow driving speeds needed to avoid the neighbour’s brand new Fiat are all rather welcome. I crunch around the garden in Wellingtons and think it timely to invest in a pair of the recycled cashmere gloves that I spied on the nydesign room site. The dog loves the new white world and takes up goal post positions saving the snow balls we chuck in the air. “Look at that dog jumping” squeals a boy in the park and I feel the sort of maternal pride normally reserved for my children when they were young and doing some sort of athletic trick. I think she deserves a Liberty print collar even if it’s not quite the butch streetwise look that most dogs sport around here.
The extreme weather conditions have encouraged the squirrels to excel at survival tactics. They line up on the garden fence, tails juddering, twitching and eyes greedily fixed as I attempt to plant the bulbs that didn’t get dug in before the blizzard. I am not taking chances and put down barricades of wire netting to stop their mining efforts.
The shoots are tramping in slush and so I rush round laying down covers hoping it doesn’t seem too unfriendly. It is not a little disorientating to be watching TV on Monday in the sitting room painted in Dulux’s aubergine vision for winter 2011, and then by Wednesday, it’s spring again and all pale walls, tulips, and hyacinths for a magazine feature that includes a gorgeous arm chair upholstered in olive green from Laura Ashley. Another theme on all things British, includes very simple white jugs from Burleigh that are ideal for a Pure Style kitchen, and simple block printed fabrics from Tobias and the Angel.
This Christmas I am stocking up on Spanish fig and almond slices from Brindisa and more membrillo as book writing meant that I didn’t get round to making it this autumn. For more Iberian pleasures such as simple woven Portuguese shopping baskets try Feitoria. For a present of simple everyday drinking glasses you can’t beat the dumpy French Duralex ones from Labour and Wait. And any lover of English food history will have their head happily buried all over the festive period in a copy of Dorothy Hartley’s classic Food in England: A Complete Guide to the Food That Makes Us Who We are
I might think the moment for scented room candles could come and go forever if it weren’t for Diptyque who make ones with authentic smells. My favourite is Oranger, and almost as aromatic as the real thing. The Christmas tree is going up tomorrow and with it woolly pom poms that are very satisfying to make with children because the effect is very quick to achieve. I also make rag balls with fabric strips from my remnants bag that are pinned to floral oasis. The look is simple and homespun.
Packing up for the hols’ may be palpitation inducing: thundering down the motorway to take the dog for her summer billet with my sister, racing through a month’s paperwork in the early hours, and making the house ship shape for a magazine Christmas shoot . But boy it’s worth it! Exchanging city shorts for beaten up espadrilles and t-shirts is as good for the soul as the summer diet based around grilled sardines and hunks of watermelon. Just scraping under the 20kg limit as usual, my suitcase is stuffed with books for long spells of reading under the beach umbrella. Favourites include The Surprising Life of Constance Spry by Sue Shephard; Outliers ‘the story of success’ by Malcolm Gladwell, and The Algarve Fish Book by Nic Boer and Andrea Sieber. I’m also inspired by Reinventing Letter Press by Charlotte Rivers, a stylish little book with fabulous printing ideas.
Along with the reading matter, there’s just enough room to slot in a few bars of Green and Blacks chocolate bars. It will head straight to the fridge as soon as possible after we meet the sauna temperatures of Olhao in August.
I’ve also tucked in the dolls house sized Indian terracotta pots that the returning traveller produced from her mighty backpack. Perfect for salt, pepper, and chopped herbs, they are also a tangible reminder of just how far my middle born has spread her wings in the last six months.,
1’m counting on the Spanish lodgers to nurture the courgettes and tomatoes all swelling nicely in the warmth and damp. One of them is a specialist ham carver, so I hope his talents for precision extend to the vegetable patch. They’re already under instructions to feed and water Miss Bea, the cat who will lord it over the sofas, spreading her black fluff, with the dog safely out of the way.. One last look around the flowerbeds, to enjoy the sweetly scented white nicotiana- another unexpected success from last year’s seeds, which in turn were produced from the previous year’s blooms that i collected. And even the agapanthus managed to defy the winter’s ravages and has just put out some glorious blooms. I’ll miss the sweetpeas, too, their delicate soapy fragrance is so much part of an English summer garden. .
Before I snap the case shut I must tell you about three new finds: Feitoria.com.pt sells a cleverly edited collection of Portuguese accessories, such as leather slippers, donkey milk soap,(yes, honestly) and cork ice buckets - so much more inspiring than the usual souvenir stuff. Closer to home ther`re simple Welsh blankets and other celtic home ideas from Blodwen And molly-meg.co.uk sells stylish child sized chairs: a good idea for anyone want ing a nice bit of scaled down Ercol in the nursery.