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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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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