Smiles of a summer afternoon

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As a child I grew up listening to and reading Rudyard Kipling’s wonderful stories of adventure. The Just So stories have a particularly special place in my heart and for as long as I can remember I have wanted to visit Bateman’s, his family home in Kent. For a man who did not come to England until he was 36, he chose the most quintessentially English place to live and one where I’m pleased to say you really do feel the family’s presence.  There is the vintage Rolls Royce in the garage in which he adored tearing round country lanes (it didn’t go very fast by today’s standards!), prone to frequent breakdowns, but still magnificent to look at.

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The house is beautiful and intimate, filled with the 17th century furniture bought to preserve the spirit of the place but famously uncomfortable to use. Just outside, you find the pond into which Carrie, Kipling’s rather intimidating but devoted wife, once fell according to daughter Elsie’s entry into the visitors’ book. Tucked away behind the roses and the hedges, there is even a small section of the wild garden where family pets are buried and hens wander. You imagine the family lying in the shade of the walnut trees, entertaining their many friends on the magnificent lawn or striding out for walks in the acres of countryside they acquired. I found the cottage garden particularly enchanting where runner beans, courgettes and other vegetables jostle for space with sunflowers, dahlias and other wonderful flowers and plants. I wandered through a section with nasturtiums in bloom to an arch where pears were growing. It really is the loveliest place imaginable, one where time seems to stop and you fully appreciate the magnificence of an English summer over tea and cake.

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The garden of England

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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.

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The voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses

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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.

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IMG_6518Of 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.

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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.

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Summer things

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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.

Aperol Spritz

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.

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Royal Worcester Jacquard dress, £78, Oasis

And I can’t resist polka dots

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Navy spotted ruffle sundress, £22, Dorothy Perkins

 

Red shoes to brighten up any outfit

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Lily suede flats, £198, J.Crew

 

The best facial sunscreen to wear under makeup

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Murad Luminous Shield, SPF 50, £55

A perfect orange red lipstick

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Nars Audacious Lipstick in Lana, £25

A straw shopper for that Jane Birkin feelinghmprodStraw shopper, £17.99, H&M

A cute hat for protection from the sun

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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.

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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

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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.

Spring past and present

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One of the things I miss the most about living in the city, especially one as green as Berlin, is that element of surprise. My favourite thing has always been to get up very early at the weekend and go out to walk and take pictures. Riding in the S-Bahn, I would often look out of the window and spot a group of trees in blossom, or some lilacs, or particularly beautiful light on a favourite building that would make me rush off at the next station, even if it was nowhere near my planned destination. The light changes by the minute, the sunny morning can turn to rain and dash the blossom so you’re forever chasing shadows and fleeting beauty. Catch joy while it flies. And then there are the markets. I was lucky enough to live close to an amazing one in Charlottenburg on Karl-August-Platz that took over the whole square twice a week. Saturdays were always something special and I would return laden with bags packed with magnificent seasonal fruit and vegetables, bunches of flowers, French cheeses, apple croissant and huge eggs which often had double yolks.

The setting has changed of course, but my habits remain the same, never sleeping for more than 6 hours so I can get up and catch a glimpse of the sunrise which is more and more elusive. Each day, I walk in the garden to make a note of the smallest changes which I’m sure I’ll remember but never do. But I still dream of returning to my favourite cherry trees in the Buergerpark in Pankow and lingering to talk with them for a little while, just like Proust’s narrotor does with the hawthorn blossom.

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Schloss Schoenhausen in Pankow

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At the market on Karl-August-Platz in Charlottenburg

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My place (almost)

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Spring unfolding in the park outside my old building in Pankow

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The joys of spring

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No matter how much I try to notice each little sign as the days grow warmer and longer, spring always takes me by surprise. I remember walking down my street in Charlottenburg on a particularly lovely evening with a softness in the air and suddenly noticing that all those buds on the trees which had remained stubbornly closed for so long were suddenly open and that the city was in bloom.

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Back then, the parks and squares were my back garden but these days I’m lucky to have one of my own where I can watch the seasons change much more easily. There is always something new. As the snowdrops dry and fade, there is a blaze of daffodils, the forsythia threading its way through the branches of the apple tree under which snake’s head fritillary have spread. And as all of those become a little less vivid, tulips start to emerge in carnival or soft colours, single or double. There is so much beauty to savour and so much still to come – the bluebell woods, the rhododendrons, the apple blossom, the elegance of the magnolia. I realise how important it is just to try to take each day at a time and look for the good things, rather than getting caught up in worries of what has been and what may be or never be. I wish you a wonderful spring.

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A visit to Hidcote

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I had always wanted to visit Hidcote, the famous Arts and Crafts garden in the Cotswolds created by Lawrence Johnston, the son of a wealthy American. Back in early June when it was summer and the wisteria was in bloom, I finally got my chance. Nothing can really prepare you for the astonishing beauty of the place with its linked ‘rooms’ of hedges, herbaceous plants and shrubs and it truly is one of the loveliest gardens I’ve ever visited.

 

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