We arrived just before the garden opened on a blisteringly hot day. Sissinghurst is so famous and in my mind I had been there many times through TV programmes, books and photos. Yet nothing really prepares you for the real thing. With its famous design scheme of long alleys and separate rooms, I had expected it to be a little like Laurence Johnston’s magnificent Hidcote which was an influence. But it is even more intimate and beautiful. Everything seems in such perfect harmony that it’s hard to imagine it not existing 100 years ago and easy to overlook the challenge Harold Nicholson faced of mapping out straight lines in a garden which is not a perfect rectangle, using only a tape measure and string. And you feel Vita’s presence everywhere – in the rich abundance of her remarkable planting schemes and in her room in the Tower which remains as she left it so many years ago. Lingering in the extraordinary rose garden, which captivates you with its colours and scent, or in the much imitated but never equalled white garden, I pictured her and Harold working each day in the gardens or observing the changing light and seasons from her window. An earthly paradise.
We met by the statue of John Betjeman, that great poet and traveller whose efforts many years ago saved St. Pancras, and who today stands with his suitcase ready to embark on another journey. It’s strange thinking back just a few years to when blogging was fairly anonymous and you would wait nervously on the station platform, not knowing what each other looked like but hopeful you would eventually find one another. Thanks to Instagram, we recognised each other at once. Amanda (who writes the wonderful blog Minutiae Review) in a pretty top with colourful patterns which reminded the woman in the Chanel boutique of a dress from their collection a few summers back, me in an orange red dress which left me worried about getting sunburned shoulders on the hottest day of the year.
We had the whole day to spend together but knew from the beginning it would go too fast. And it did. There was a brief foray into the Great Court of the British Museum, stuffy under that glass dome, and the Egyptian galleries. We glimpsed the blue trails of the jets flying overhead on the Queen’s birthday as we stopped for lunch on Covent Garden. We pondered whether to choose Juniper Sling or Ellenisia at Penhaligon’s, astonishing the sales assistant that we could be torn between fragrances that were so completely different, before deciding upon the famous bluebell scent (Amanda) and Blenheim Bouquet (me). At the travel bookshop on Long Acre, we talked about places we have travelled to, books we love and most of all about our old city, Berlin, which has a special place in our hearts.
I don’t often get a chance to share my passion for perfume and beauty. Few friends are interested at all but we had the best time shopping for fragrance at Chanel, Harrod’s and Liberty. Amanda introduced me to Byredo fragrances by purchasing the exclusive Cuir Obscur while I was unable to resist the lure of Chanel’s Bois des Îles, Guerlain’s Liu and Frédéric Malle’s Lipstick Rose, along with two more red lipsticks which I need like a kick in the head but never mind. The heat by the afternoon was overwhelming, especially on a short but brutal ride on the Tube to Oxford Circus which explains the lack of great photos and also why I was content to collapse into a chair in the children’s section in Liberty, surrounded by all my purchases, while Amanda scouted out a fabulous animal print washbag and sweater by Scamp and Dude. We were just too tired to even contemplate going to Selfridges afterwards and had a bite and a cool drink in the quiet corner of a nearby café, saying our goodbyes in Green Park Tube station, before heading off in different directions. At St. Pancras waiting for my train, I wished it was still morning with the whole day ahead of us and felt sad that we live so far apart but later in the taxi ride home with the colours of the sunset still on the horizon and the smell of cut grass coming in through the window, I felt glad that we had met at last and that it had been such a special day. Smelling any of the new perfumes is enough to bring it back.
It could have been a little warmer but the dazzling sunshine peeking over the rooftops as I set off on my journey at 6:30 am made me optimistic as I shivered in a summer dress and thin cardigan. I have a special fondness for Wales despite not knowing it very well and being unable to read the names written in its beautiful language. But my paternal grandmother was Welsh and my father often rode his motorbike from the family home in Liverpool to North Wales, especially Conwy. Bodnant Garden is justly famous for its stunning laburnum arch which is even more remarkable in real life. But what captured my heart were the roses. Endless rows of them in white, various shades of pink, crimson, peach turning to purple, bright yellow, all of them exquisite and with different scents ranging from intoxicating to delicate. No other place has quite captivated me this much.
Of course, around every corner there is a feast for the senses – tall blue Himalayan poppies, white wisteria, water-lilies on the pond, blue and brown bearded irises, extraordinary hostas in every shade of green, with the sound of a local Welsh choir singing gospel music from below the terrace as we explored all the different avenues. I wished that we could have stayed all day to wander through the meadows and woodland beyond.
We stopped on the way home at Conwy, climbing up to the ramparts of its remarkable castle, looking down at the beautiful bay below and the suspension bridge which my parents knew so well from all their earlier holidays. It felt sad to leave the sea and mountains but my mother had kindly bought me an exquisite old rose named after Gertrude Jekyll to plant in the garden so that a little of Bodnant could return with us. Its heady perfume accompanied us throughout the long journey home and I look forward to seeing it bloom each year and being transported back to that heavenly garden of roses.
Big Sur, 1946, by Ansel Adams
I never long for my school days and would hate to be 17 again, but I look back with more than a touch of nostalgia at the school holidays. Six whole weeks, free from from any worries or obligations. There were family holidays abroad in Spain, France and Switzerland, lazy days in the garden and hours of television – trashy MTV, and plenty of American shows like Saved by the Bell, My So-Called Life and Beverly Hills 90210. While summer generally doesn’t live up to expectations – British ones are generally a wash-out, Roger Federer doesn’t win Wimbledon, people ask my constantly why I’m so white and mosquitoes drain the blood from my arms and legs whenever I go abroad – I still feel excited around this time of year thinking about it. Long evenings, dinner in the garden while listening to birdsong, the chance to wear summer dresses and go out without a jacket, picnics and cool drinks. So I thought I’d put together some of my favoute summer things for inspiration. I’d love to hear what your essentials are.
My favourite summer drink along with Bellini which reminds me of being in Venice last year, sitting on the terrace watching the sunset. Although I must admit to also enjoying a large glass of Pimm’s whenever Wimbledon is on.
The perfect summer dresses
This one, with a pattern inspired by the Royal Porcelain collection, is for me the essence of the perfect English summer and ideal for tea in the garden.
Royal Worcester Jacquard dress, £78, Oasis
And I can’t resist polka dots
Navy spotted ruffle sundress, £22, Dorothy Perkins
Red shoes to brighten up any outfit
Lily suede flats, £198, J.Crew
The best facial sunscreen to wear under makeup
Murad Luminous Shield, SPF 50, £55
A perfect orange red lipstick
Nars Audacious Lipstick in Lana, £25
A straw shopper for that Jane Birkin feelingStraw shopper, £17.99, H&M
A cute hat for protection from the sun
Marl Scarf Summer Hat, £17.50, Marks and Spencer
The perfect tea
This delicious blend can be served hot or cold as according to the Fortnum and Mason website, it’s also excellent for iced tea.
Afternoon blend tea, from £5.25, Fortnum and Mason
The most delicious summer scent, as worn by Cary Grant, David Niven, Ava Gardner and Audrey Hepburn
Acqua di Parma, from £66
And of course, books for summer
It goes without saying that I’ll be reading the blog written by my friend Jan over the summer.
As for books, this year, I’ve got my eye on The Riviera Set about all the glamourous people who spent time at the Château de l’Horizon near Cannes, from Coco Chanel to Rita Hayworth. There’s also Dolce Vita Confidential about 1950s Rome and I’m dying to read The Unfinished Palazzo which tells the story of the three women who lived in the Palazzo Venier in Venice – Luisa Casati, Doris Castlerosse and Peggy Guggenheim.
Or if you prefer fiction, can I recommend something by Patricia Highsmith or Ross Macdonald (I love gripping books in summer), some John Cheever short stories, My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell about his eccentric childhood in Greece or The Great Gatsby which is the perfect choice at any time of year.
Last week I made my annual pilgrimage to the bluebell woods. I have no idea exactly how my parents found them but I’ve been returning every year since I was a child. The route is still the same. Taking the narrow path just above the little car park which reaches a steep incline by some trees behind which there is already a patch of blue. Then continuing through a field where as a child, my best friend Rachel and I gathered huge bunches of dandelion clocks and blew on them, watching their seeds scatter to the wind. But nothing prepares you for the mass of blue in the woods, that particularly sublime shade and the most heavenly scent which is more beautiful than any perfume could ever be. I linger in favourite spots with nothing but birdsong to accompany my steps, except the buzzing of insects or the occasional whoosh from the trainline down below.
But no matter how slowly I go, I’m soon at the edge of the wood and push open a little gate to continue along the path by the trainline. There was a heady smell of May blossom in the sunshine and wild flowers growing by the wall. Dappled light and the fresh green foliage made me think of a painting by Sisley which features on the cover of Alain Fournier’s ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’ and I imagine it would have been the perfect spot for him to walk with Yvonne de Galais.
Retracing my steps to the top of the woods again, I take one last glance, always a little sad to leave but also inspired by the magic of this place which still has so many secrets to discover.
Reading my friend Jan’s wonderful article about Snoopy this morning brought back memories of my own love for the Peanuts Gang and other childhood favourites, including the Moomins so I felt inspired to write about them.
Here are some things you should know about the Moomins. Firstly, they were created by Tove Jansson, a Finnish author and artist who wrote in Swedish. Secondly, don’t ever call them hippos – only a complete ignoramus would do that because they’re trolls, obviously. Thirdly, I’m obsessed with them. It all started in the ’80s when the animated stories were shown on children’s TV in what I later realised was an awful dubbed version. Still, to my untrained ears, they were perfect. Stories about the most extraordinary range of characters, each with their own distinctive personalities, going on adventures. I still know all the words to the theme song too. But then I discovered the books and how much richer and better they were. My mother and I read them together at first and then I returned to them time and again myself. Most of all, they reminded me of my own family. They lived in a strange house far away from everyone else like we did. As an only child, I identified strongly with Moomintroll and my reclusiveness and taste for solitude was just like Snufkin’s. My mother is Audrey Hepburnesque and doesn’t look at all like Moominmamma but she frequently wore aprons for baking, always carries her handbag with her and is able to rescue me in self-inflicted chaos. My father with his eccentricities and taste for adventure could only be Moominpappa.
As I grew up, I somehow lost sight of them until the day I visited a small Moomin exhibition on Mehringdamm in Berlin. As the only adult in a sea of children with colouring books and Moomin toys, an amused guide kindly took me to a small exhibition of photos about Tove Jansson and her life. I learned about her artistic parents, her own journey as an artist, that she had written so many other amazing books, how she and her female companion spent whole summers on a wonderful island on their own every year until the end of their lives. As luck would have it, The Summer and Winter Books along with many of her other novels were published to great acclaim and I devoured them all. At the Iittala store on Friedrichstrasse in Berlin, I discovered Moomin items, even getting the last Moomin limited edition winter mug in stock. Since then, I have been collecting various items with them on – not just china but also bed linen, handbags, T-shirts and toys. My addiction even continued in the UK with the opening of a wonderful Moomin shop on Covent Garden a few years ago. Returning to the Moomin books themselves, I came to realise that these are stories for all ages, full of adventures, good humour but also plenty of dark moments, loneliness and disappointments, rather like life itself. The final Moomin book, Moominvalley in November, is almost unbearably sad and doesn’t feature them at all in fact, only others waiting at their home for them to return some day.
I use the Moomin china every day but have a special place in my heart for this plate on the left showing Moomintroll eating at the table with his parents. I remember it was called something like ‘Together’ and that I bought it from the Arabia store in Helsinki shortly after my father had died. It reminded me of something that I loved the most – meals with my parents and that nothing would be the same again. Today I still cannot look at it without feeling some sadness but the Moomins also inspire me with their independence, good humour and rebelliousness. I’m already looking forward to the next adventure.
I’m always critical of the UK for being poor at certain things other countries do well, such as providing affordable and reliable public transport and producing decent bread. But then again, the tea is superb and the museums not only have amazing collections but are a real pleasure to visit. Never have I been told off for eating a sweet, not carrying my handbag on my arm instead of my shoulder, getting too close to paintings or even just having a camera. There is simply a relaxed atmosphere to enjoy the art.
The courtyard of the Royal Academy where I called on my way to the NPG.
I’ve been going to the National Portrait Gallery for many years and have lost track of the number of wonderful exhibitions I’ve seen there: Henri Cartier-Bresson, John Singer Sargent, Russian portraits, Man Ray, Giacometti, Audrey Hepburn portraits etc. But I have fewer opportunities to visit the permanent collection which is really a shame because whenever I return there, I realise just how magnificent it is and see how much I still need to discover. There are familiar paintings and photos to visit again, almost like old friends. Perhaps a portrait of a favourite writer or someone I admire, or others where the subject is less important compared to the extraordinary face or the beauty of the fabric. And then you see something new and find it impossible to tear yourself away from that particular room. Needless to say, however much time you spend there, it will never be enough to see everything you want to and there is always a little sadness and frustration upon leaving this wonderful place.
No visit to London would be complete without refreshments though and I knew I had to return to Maison Bertaux in Soho which I discovered thanks to my friend Jan. This was my second time there and I enjoyed it even more than the last. The staff are lovely – finding you the best table, waiting patiently while you agonise over which cake to choose because there are so many and everything looks amazing. In the end, we chose a wonderful chocolate one as well as some cheesecake and devoured the enormous slices, accompanied by a huge pot of delicious tea. They really were some of the best cakes I’ve ever tasted. My only regret was not having lunch there because the range of quiches was truly mouthwatering.
At the end of each visit to London, there is a little sadness and regret at not living closer but also the promise I make to return very soon to discover more. And you really can’t ask for anything better than that.
Some impressions from my walk around Mayfair.
Dreaming of my future scarf and handbag at Hermès.
The Burlington Arcade.
Some Manolo Blahniks.
At Maison Assouline on Piccadilly.