Tag Archives: National Trust



Lush woodland path, Plas-yn-Rhiw estate

It has already been a frantic summer with non-stop gatherings and celebratory toasts. It is the end of school for our youngest son (and the end of an era for us),  our twins have turned 21 and there has been the happiest Gloucestershire wedding – my sister to the learned doctor – who took time out from his gruelling hospital shifts to bake these tiny wedding cakes:

Tiny wedding cakes from my sister’s wedding to the learned doctor

Not surprisingly I am in a somewhat fragile state by the time I find myself on a radiant July evening sitting on a remote grassy slope at the end of the Llŷn Peninsula – known by some as Snowdon’s Arm – in North West Wales.  Accompanied as I am by marvellous and ever patient husband, Nick, I am ready for a little romance myself.

Just stopping for a while to take in the quiet and the view of Porth Neigwl (Hell’s Mouth), Llŷn Peninsula

The garden we have come to see, Plas-yn-Rhiw, has closed for the day moments before we arrive. But although this is frustrating, there is something very sweet – when you are very tired – about converting to a simpler agenda, just raising your face to the evening sunshine and taking in the blue curve of the bay below.

The next morning is heavy with an almost tropical grey sky:

Almost tropical grey sky with view across Hell’s Mouth

But I am excited by the lushness of the ferns in the surrounding woodland  –  I have never seen hart’s tongue fern ( Asplenium scolopendrium) with such long, exuberant fingers – and, by the house entrance, the crocosmia glows neon orange in the eleven o’clock gloom.

Lush ferns – extra-exuberant hart’s tongue ferns below

Crocosmia glow neon-orange in the morning gloom

Plas-yn-Rhiw is a small 17th Century stone manor house built onto a hillside ledge with wonderful views of the sea, entirely surrounded and protected by woodland. In 1816  the house was extended and elegantly glamorised. The roof was raised to add an extra floor, french windows leading onto the garden were cut into the sturdy walls and a slim-limbed Regency veranda was constructed along the facade. But having remained in one family for nearly three hundred years, the house was sold in 1874 and then abandoned in 1922 by the son who inherited it and left to decay.

The rarity of the house and the exquisite nature of its position was noted by the architect  Clough Williams-Ellis who designed the Italianate coastal village of Portmerion (about 50 miles away) and whose own imaginative and stylish garden at nearby  Plas Brondanw is absolutely worth visiting.

Williams-Ellis had tried to get a friend to buy it in the early twenties and wrote passionately about the property as an important example of Welsh rural architecture that needed saving. “To those sailing bleakly across Hell’s Mouth bound may be for the last hospitality of Aberdaron or northwards around North Wales’ land’s end through Bardsey Sound – there is just one spot where the eye may gratefully rest on relative ‘snugness’ and that is where the wooded policies of Plas-yn-Rhiw meet the sea in a little bay. Here, sheltered by the shoulder of its protecting mountain from the tempestuous west, crouches an ancient manor house …its French windows and verandah look out across the wide expanse of Cardigan Bay between its trees and over fuchsias, figs, rhododendrons and azaleas that here flourish so famously that, when I first reconnoitred the (abandoned) place some twenty years ago… the house was buried in a blossoming jungle which also obscured all view of the sea as well as most of the sunlight”.

But, it was in the end three unmarried sisters, Eileen, Lorna and Honora Keating, who, having holidayed on the Llŷn Peninsula since 1919, managed to buy the house and a reduced estate of 58 acres in 1939.

Eileen, Lorna and Honora Keating with thanks to the National Trust Plas-Yn-Rhiw website

There are stories of the garden being so overgrown that the women had to clamber in through a first floor window to view the house. Once it was theirs, the sisters set about restoring the building (a slow process during wartime especially), creating a wonderfully deft and welcoming garden and caring for the surrounding land.

The green and welcoming garden at Plas-yn-Rhiw

As time went by they bought up every available parcel until they had restored the estate to about 400 acres so that it could be protected from development and conserved for wildlife.  They donated the land to the National Trust in 1946 and donated the house itself in 1952.  The youngest sister, Lorna, lived in the house until she died in 1981, but the sisters had opened the house to the public long before. During the restoration process they were keen to unveil the original stonework and the house is filled with (covetable!) old Welsh oak furniture. It looks as if the sisters have just popped out –  there is a fur jacket hanging behind a door, a bottle of lavender scent on the dressing table and a small but serious office where business was clearly attended to with wisdom and thoroughness.

Best of all there are brilliant views – and indeed doors – out of the rooms to the garden. Seeing the garden through the French windows of the main living rooms feels comfortable and completely modern, but every glimpse is tantalising, not least from this small kitchen window out to the ruined and romantically planted outbuildings:

View to ruined outbuildings, Plas-yn-Rhiw

The Keating sisters restored some of the early 19th century outbuildings – there had been stables, a dairy, a threshing shed, coach house and a stone dog kennel – but also, with almost visionary grace, they left many of the buildings as ruins, there to enjoy for the contrast of stone form against living green. There are archways and rough hewn walls brilliantly energised with voluptuous green ferns and the tiny creeping soleirolia soleirolii (the super invasive ‘baby’s tears’) becomes a delicious verdant foil for the handsome cobbles of the courtyard floor.

The handsome cobbled courtyard and ruined outbuildings energised with green

Soleirolia soleirolii weaving its way between rhythmical courtyard cobbles

As always in this kind of mild, watery, West coast terrain, I love the way that green starfishes of Maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes) dart across the walls.

Maidenhair spleenwort – Asplenium trichomanes growing happily on the stone walls

There is running water mirrored by prostrate rosemary flowing almost endlessly to the ground.

Prostrate rosemary flowing down the wall like water, Plas-yn-Rhiw

And there are magical views through glassless window openings:

Here the upright forms of Pennywort stand like candles in the window, Plas-yn-Rhiw

There is so much luxuriant green. The ferns that line the walls of The Gardener’s Cottage (which is in the middle of the garden – you can rent it for a holiday from the National Trust see the Plas-yn-Rhiw website) are as big as a medium-sized shrub.

The ferns that line the wall of The Gardener’s Cottage are shrub size

Gentle corridors of dynamic ferns make way for healthy, bulging corridors of deep green box:

Ferns and box line the paths at Plas-yn-Rhiw

A home-made, age-old sort of layering makes walking through the garden a deeply charming experience:

Bulging, layered box hedging surrounds the Kitchen Garden

An apple tree leans into position against cushioning box hedges

The occasional steely mauve of acanthus, pale pink hydrangea and velvety blue of aconitum sing out against the contented sea of green:

Every so often steely mauve acanthus, pale pink hydrangea and rich blue aconitum sing out against the waves of green.

At the top of a box-lined path, a former outbuilding has become an inviting chalky white place to sit:

An inviting loggia has been created from an empty outbuilding

At the front of the garden, cheerily uneven compartments of box hold fiery red crocosmia, steely acanthus and royal blue agapanthus against the milky grey sky and matching sea.

Cheerily uneven compartments of box hold acanthus, crocosmia and agapanthus against the milky sky and matching sea

Finally, round to the elegantly groomed front of the house with its veranda and scalloped beds filled with delicate heads of nicotiana and fuchsia:

The front of the house with Regency veranda. The Gardener’s Cottage is at right-angles

In a corner a Hydrangea aspera in bud falls elegantly over a stone trough. The acanthus to its left and purple sage at its feet share the same silvery-purple tones. You get a glimpse here too of the towering trees that rise above the lower level planting. I failed to photograph these but there are gorgeous, lushly growing specimens of magnolia and bay amongst other often slightly unlikely species, many donated to the Keating sisters from other National Trust gardens at their request  when they were first renovating the garden and needed anything they could get hold of to fill the space.

Hydrangea aspera falls elegantly over a stone trough.  Acanthus mollis and Salvia officinalis    ‘Purpurascens’ are excellent companions

I am completely smitten by both house and garden at Plas-yn-Rhiw. The chance to sit on an old stone bench and relish the green and the spreading view and the occasional electric dash of orange or palest pink. I love the plump, guiding corridors of box and – everywhere – the energy of the ferns.

An old stone bench, Plas-yn-Rhiw

Throughout the garden old stone walls are an enticingly rough contrast to jewel coloured fuchsias, bright orange crocosmia and, under the elegant Regency veranda, this deep raspberry abutilon which twines its way along the front of the house.  A hard place to leave.

Abutilon against the stone facade of Plas-yn-Rhiw





Just colouring Eryngium (sea holly) by the pool, Mary’s Garden, Woolbeding

It is the day after the General Election. The sky is gloomy, the nation surprised and jittery. And I am full of uncertainty too as I drive doggedly down to Woolbeding Gardens in Sussex. I am going because it is June, because it is in my diary, because I had been planning an uplifting midsummer day out to this fine English garden.

As soon as I enter the entrance courtyard – named Mary’s Garden after the wife of a former Head Gardener – I become absorbed by the calming deftness and welcoming generosity of this walled haven and my mood softens.

Mary’s Garden, Woolbeding, with its interlocking pools and generous planting

Mary’s Garden was designed by Isabel and Julian Bannerman who were asked to convert a sloping farmyard into a gentle and beguiling new entrance before the garden opened to National Trust visitors in 2011. The house and garden had been lovingly restored and enhanced by Simon Sainsbury and Stewart Grimshaw ever since they had taken on the lease from the National Trust in 1972. When Simon Sainsbury died, Stewart Grimshaw decided to open the garden to visitors for the first time and the Bannerman’s, who had already worked extensively on one part of the garden, were ‘touched’ by the commission from their friend and client who seemed determined that everything at Woolbeding should continue with ‘if possible heightened standards’.

The Bannerman’s approached the commission with characteristic gusto ‘our proposal has a great picture of (the landscape architect) Sylvia Crowe standing by a pair of concrete ‘coffee tables’ filled with water’ writes Isabel Bannerman in a wonderful book on the garden ‘The Loveliest Valley’ with photographs by Tessa Traeger. But as time went by ‘something a bit more Sussex farmyard’ was opted for. The pools are a surprisingly low key presence. They successfully settle the sloping garden into easy levels, the blue-green water offers quietly hovering reflections, but mostly they seem to be there as a wonderful backdrop for the gorgeous waves of colour in the soft and exuberant planting that weaves itself through the space. Isabel Bannerman is keen to stress that it is Stewart Grimshaw’s own ‘wandy planting’ – Stewart Grimshaw is Kew trained and his unstoppable passion for plants permeates the whole of Woolbeding – but, whoever is responsible, it is a celebratory approach.

I love the cool pink whorls of the Phlomis tuberosa ‘Amazone’ next to the fluffy, almost salmon pink Sanguisorba officinalis ‘Pink Tanna’ with the pale blue of Amsonia tabernaemontana var. salicifolia dancing up between them:

Phlomis tuberosa ‘Amazone’ Sanguisorba officinalis ‘Pink Tanna’ and Amsonia tabernaemontana var. salicifolia

And elsewhere the clear violet-blue pea flower of Baptisia australis contrasts wonderfully with  its subtle cross-hatched backdrop of variegated miscanthus and silvery sea holly.

Baptisia australis with variegated miscanthus behind and sea holly in front

Arching faded burgundy grass heads sing out against the wonderful low mounds of acid yellow Euphorbia which add a happy energy to the scene.

 Arching stems of a faded burgundy grass heads against acid yellow Euphorbia cyparissias

Euphorbia cyparissias lighting up the scene

The particularly finely cut form of sea holly – possibly Eryngium x zabellii ‘Big Blue’? – is planted in generous stretches and works brilliantly both as a structural plant to line paths and in combination with other plants.

Here it is lining the path at the entrance gate:

And here it is punctuated with the intriguing uprights of a narrow, dusky form of the katsura tree, Cercidiphyllum japonica ‘Rotfuchs’ which has grey-blue leaves which turn to dark claret:

The path is lined with eryngium, punctuated with the dark claret upright form of Cercidiphyllym japonica ‘Rotfuchs’.

Leaves of Cercidiphyllum japonica ‘Rotfuchs’

It looks wonderful in combination with the incredibly long lasting perennial wallflower Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’. As ever, a reminder never to ignore well known plants which offer such fantastic value …

Sea holly with Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’

The planting is perfectly anchored by a small battalion of tightly clipped yew domes.

Clipped yew domes anchor the planting

These work equally well with lower mounds of the pale eau de nil grass Sesleria nitida and with the soft pinky mauve spikes of Salvia nemerosa ‘Amethyst’.

Clipped yew domes with Sesleria nitida

Clipped yew with Salvia nemerosa ‘Amethyst’ and sea holly

And just as you think you have the measure of what is going on there is a sophisticated switch of palette.

In the upper corner a pretty cedar tiled bird table hovers above a lush planting of Bowles’ Golden Grass (Millium effusum ‘Aureum’). The entire area is suddenly just shades of green and yellow with sweet pockets of plants such as the pale yellow Phygelius aequalius ‘Yellow Trumpet’ energising the scene.

A bird table hovers above Bowles’ Golden Grass – Phygelius aequalius ‘Yellow Trumpet’ in the bottom right corner

In the opposite corner a spreading cornus tree covered in creamy flower bracts – I wonder if it is the semi evergreen Cornus capitata? – nestles comfortably against the wall:

Possibly Cornus capitata with its pretty creamy flower bracts

And in front of the cornus tree, the pointy flower buds of the perennial allium ‘Babington’s Leek’ soar against the sky on their ridiculously long stems.‘Babington’s Leek’ flower buds against the sky

I love the way a sudden spreading mound of a single wiry curry plant – Helichrysum italicum – is allowed to do its silver-white, peppery-scented thing against a corner of the upper pool.

A spreading mound of Helichrysum italicum

And I love the way the palette turns again to pinks and mauves amongst the pair of ancient olive trees in stone pots – the delicate spires of Linaria purpurea ‘Canon Went’ are the stars of this particular show.

Linarea purpurea ‘Canon Went’

Back in the lower part of the garden I notice that double hedges – two sides of stilted lime hedge against a ground of solid green hornbeam hedge – add to the feeling of comfortable shelter. This is a garden that has been meticulously and imaginatively envisaged, perfectly planted and is immaculately cared for. I happen to be meeting Isabel and Julian Bannerman a few days later and they tell me how much they enjoyed the project. ‘It was fun doing a more modern garden’ muses Julian ‘it was hard’ – finding a task difficult often leads to the most satisfactory solutions.

I suddenly realise that it is 7pm on a Friday night. Two weeks have passed, full of much horror and sadness. On a sweeter domestic level, our son’s A level exams are finally over so there is that disbelieving feeling in the house of a 17 year old with a gap year ahead of him, released from life in front of an electric fan with a bowl of cereal and a sheaf of essay plans for company.

And I am looking at my photographs of this extraordinary and extensive garden and wanting to show them to you, but panicking about the time. And so I will shortchange you, if I may, and give you a whistle stop tour – if only to tempt you to visit Woolbeding and go see for yourself.

The yew topiary everywhere in the garden is plump and inviting: Yew topiary at Woolbeding

There are criss cross belgian fence trained apple trees framing the Herb Garden and Vitis vinifera ‘Purpurea’ against mottled brick walls.

Belgian fence apple trees

Vitis vinifera ‘Purpurea’

Much of the garden was laid out in the 70’s by American landscape architect Lanning Roper with buildings designed and enhanced by Philip Jebb.  There is a wonderful swimming pool and Philip Jeb pavilion  which reminds me, with its atmosphere of comfortable international glamour, of the garden of the American Ambassador to the UK, Winfield House :

Hedge and rose enclosed swimming pool and pavilion, Woolbeding

There is more  tantalising topiary leading you on:

topiary, Woolbeding

And then in the Fountain Garden there is this fantastic combination of pale lilac delphinium, palest pink geranium and variegated box against darkest green yew:

Pale delphiniums and geraniums and variegated box topiary against yew

The Fountain Garden is full of rich colour including a wonderful orange rose which climbs up skywards and little groups of Viola ‘Bowles’ Black’ planted in cracks in the paving.




Rich colour in the fountain garden

There is a a heavenly croquet lawn:

The croquet lawn, Woolbeding

A sudden discovery of drystone walled terraces with irises and blue benches for contemplation:

Iris terraces, Woolbeding

A gnarled hornbeam tunnel with a bench to sit on as you gaze at the River Rother below:

Hornbeam tunnel, Woolbeding

And a heart-stopping oriental plane tree, with incredible spreading branches, which lower themselves down onto a sea of cow parsley and campanula.

The oriental plane tree with urn and stone seat, Woolbeding

I cannot do justice to the Long Walk which is where Isabel and Julian Bannerman were invited to  ‘lift’ an area of the garden which is indeed a good walk away from the oriental plane tree. Here there was already a Philip Jebb Summer House overlooking the river, but the Bannerman’s added theatrical ruins, a beautiful pale yellow Chinese Bridge, completely reorganised the water, installed a magnificent (completely fictional) Rother God made of stone and oyster shells from Whitstable and added really exhilarating planting to lure you up and around. It is an exquisitely detailed and exciting place.

Romantic ruins, The Long Walk

The yellow Chinese Bridge

Philip Jebb’s summer house with electric green planting leading you towards it.

The magnificent Rother God

Interior of the Philip Jeb summer house

The Cascade and detail of ammonites and ferns

I will leave you to book your ticket – the garden is only open on Thursdays and Fridays and places must be reserved in advance. Visitor numbers are limited to about 200 a day so it is never particularly full and, although there is a small cafe, visitors are encouraged to bring picnics and take themselves off to a quiet corner.

In this strange and choppy time, when so many plans have been stopped in their tracks, it is reassuring  to reflect on the way a deep reverence for a sense of place – as well as admittedly encouragingly deep pockets – have brought about such a beautifully nurtured place.  Allow yourself a great day out and go to Woolbeding. Feast your eyes, lie on the grass near the oriental plane tree and take time to look up at the sky.






Wood pigeon in crab apple tree, Laxfield, Suffolk, December 2014

At the turnstiles, South Kensington tube station. I am bracing myself for a first session of Christmas shopping when I find myself turning right into the tunnel instead of making my way upwards to ground and shop level.  The station has long borne a tantalising sign that simply says ‘Museums’ and flashing through my mind was the knowledge that the refurbished Cast Courts at the Victoria and Albert Museum had re- opened only the night before.  How could I resist sneaking off to the V&A instead of weighing up the impact of the ‘faux’ aspect of a ‘faux mohair’ throw for my mother or worrying if an 18 year old boy, closely related to me, would show any sign of increased animation when discovering a  ‘reinterpreted piece of apparel from the Adidas archive” (i.e. a navy blue t-shirt that says ‘By Nigo’ under a giant Adidas logo) in his Christmas stocking?

On arrival at the museum I am immediately drawn towards the ruddy glow of the John Madejski Garden – the wonderful courtyard garden at the heart of the museum.  Here,  glittering softly in a quiet rainbow of reds and golds, is the most wonderful, gently radiant, Liquidamber.  Two wise visitors are picnicking calmly in the fading light under the best possible early Christmas tree.


Two wise picnickers under a Liquidambar, The John Madejksi Garden, V&A

I feel eighteen again myself as I enter Room 46a – which together with its neighbour 46b – now named the Weston Cast Court – are the only public galleries in the museum which display the same collection of objects as when they first opened: an exceptional group of 19th Century plaster cast reproductions which allow you to travel wondrously around Europe and through history in the space of a gorgeous hour.

IMG_2477Towering Trajan’s Column, Room 46a, Cast Courts, Victoria and Albert Museum 

I am drawn first to the glimmering bronze detail of the Porta di San Ranieri – from Pisa Cathedral, c. 1180 – with this rhythmic scene of palm trees and Wise Men.
Electrotype of Panel from the Porta di San Ranieri, Pisa: The Three Wise Men

And then to the pale exquisite perfection of casts from the cloisters of the Church of San Juan de Los Reyes at Toledo c. 1480-1500:

IMG_2487IMG_2489Detail from cloisters of San Juan de Los Reyes, Toledo

There is a sense of wonder and tremendous calm in these rooms and yet it is fantastically intimate. You are allowed to get close, to photograph, sketch, just sit and imagine you are in Southern Spain or Florence.

I love the rhythmical boxy flowers carved from milky reddish stone from the central pier of a doorway at Amiens Cathedral, 1220-35:


And in the next door room, the yellow-gold exuberance of Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, Florence, 1425 -52:

IMG_2522Detail from Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise

There is an exhilerating sense of scale and it is a fantastic privilege to be able to experience seeing the Gates and Michelango’s David at a mere arm’s length from each other – even on a visit to Florence to see the real thing separate pilgrimages would of course be required to the Baptistry and the Uffizi Gallery respectively.

IMG_2536Michaelangelo’s David and Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise

I am entranced by the rather magical photographs which you cannot help but take of the box-framed ‘Fig leaf for David’ – believed to have been made in 1857 to protect the modesty of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert:

IMG_2527Fig Leaf for David, Brucciani & Co. c 1857

There is the crisp, star-burst clarity of decoration from the Tomb of Cardinal Ascanio Sforza, 1505-09:


Detail from the Tomb of Ascanio Sforza, 1505-09

And I stay for quite a while before the exquisite cool angel-wing carving of Donatello’s Cavalcanti Annunciation, 1425-50:

IMG_2509IMG_2507Donatello’s Cavalcanti Annunciation

Before I leave I enjoy the inventive charm of the 3D oak tree and wheat sheaves of Orcagna’s ‘The Assumption and Death of the Virgin’:


The Assumption and Death of the Virgin, 1352, Andrea de Gione, known as Orcagna

I dart – for further fortification –  into the cafe. Here the Gamble Room is resplendent with its year-round giant bauble lighting:


A giant bauble light, The Gamble Room, V&A Cafe

I am feeling much readier to think about Christmas and indeed Christmas presents and am going to change my approach. For myself (should anyone important be reading this …) I would be keen to start a collection of antique William Morris/William de Morgan tiles so that one day I will have enough to line a garden loggia …


IMG_2556William Morris tiles from the Cafe at the V&A


The loggia at the Arts and Crafts house,  Standen, National Trust, East Sussex

More realistically, inspired by the Liquidambar in the John Madejski Garden,  I am thinking  that alternative Christmas Trees would be a great place to start for presents for family and friends:


The Madejski Garden at nightfall – The Liquidambar is now gold against gold

One of the prettiest trees to give at Christmas is a winter flowering cherry: Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’. This is a small tree – worth looking out for a multi-stemmed one – which quietly lights up the garden from November to March with delicate, pink tinged white flowers.  www.bluebellnursery.com has bare root plants at 125-150cm available for mail-order for £29.50.


Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’

Another great present choice is a ready-trained U-cordon apple tree.  Three of these  – there is still time for a Christmas delivery if you hurry – arrived from Pennard Plants in time for Christmas last year. The trees were inspired by my visit to the Prieuré D’Orsan (see my December 5th 2013 post): they have been handsome and prolific and are excellent hosts at Christmas for midwinter lighting.


IMG_8705 2


U-Cordon Apple trees, Camberwell with young fruit and with festoon lights and naked wire lights (both the latter are available from Cox and Cox )

prieure pommesU-cordon apple trees at the Prieuré D’Orsan

The apple trees carry slate labels which were also inspired by the labelling at the Prieuré –  permanent gold marker pens, slate labels with or without holes and fine galvanised tying wire are all available very inexpensively from the brilliant The Essentials Company and would make another good present.

gold sign

Gooseberry label, La Prieuré D’OrsanIMG_8724

Queen Cox label, South London

A crab apple tree with particularly long last red fruit would be another excellent tree to give at Christmas. Helen Fraser and I planted a pair of Malus x atrogsanguinea ‘Gorgeous’ from Landford Trees in one of our favourite gardens in Oxfordshire (see our Fraser&Morris website) where it is both long flowering and holds onto its fruit well into December:

december 2010 003Frosted Malus x atrosanguinea ‘Gorgeous’ fruit, Oxfordshire, December


A welcoming pair of red-fruited crab apples in a front garden at Laxfield, Suffolk

Another tree to buy in a pair for a welcoming front door would be some handsome half standard variegated holly trees – Ilex aquifolium ‘Argentea Marginata’.  Really good size plants at 160-180cm are available for £44.50 each from the Big Plant Nursery



Ilex aquifolium ‘Argentea Marginata’ – flanking a front door in Canterbury and a close up of the light-catching leaves

My final suggestion of a tree to give for Christmas is a standard form of the White Currant ‘White Versailles’ – available mail order from Blackmoor Nursery for between £12 and £25 depending on whether you would prefer a bare root or a container grown plant.

Whitecurrant_LW A standard whitecurrant will grow into quite a sturdy, weeping small tree. It can cope with semi shade and leaves plenty of room underneath to plant with herbs perhaps or cutting tulips and wild strawberries which is the case in my own garden.  Whitecurrant fruit is hard to find in the shops but a single small tree can be very prolific, producing fruit to be eaten fresh with other berries in the summer and then made into an exquisite jelly for the winter:



Frozen whitecurrants for making into jelly

Jane Grigson’s recipe from her wonderful ‘Fruit Book’ – another brilliant, enduring present – is based on Eliza Acton’s instructions.  You don’t even have to remove the leaves and stalks from the currants  – just cover the base of the pan with a thin layer of water, add the same quantity of sugar to fruit, boil hard for 8 minutes and strain to produce ‘a strong jelly of fine flavour’. The jelly is completely delicious with roast pheasant or lamb or with a blue cheese such as stilton. You will even be ahead of the game for Christmas presents the following year year…


IMG_8640Jarof jewel-like white currant jelly, Camberwell

Two other book suggestions are Frances Bissell’s The Floral Baker – which is like a jar of sunshine with recipes for tomato and lavender tart and marigold, olive and manchego scones and will keep your friends and family happy, dreaming of the summer to come:


And I can strongly recommend an almost dangerously provocative book for a plant nut: Bob GIbbons’ Wildflower Wonders of the World. I love this book – it cannot fail to make you want to make serious journeys to experience the intensity of the World’s most spectacular displays of wild flowers. 


For a different kind of present for someone who loves plants and gardens, I have the work of two photographers to suggest.

I am a long standing admirer of Chrystel Lebas who uses a panoramic camera and long exposure times to create dreamlike sweeping landscapes which are hard to forget.  Her series ‘Between Dog and Wolf’ – a translation of the French phrase for twilight,  ‘entre chien et loup’ – has fantastic images of frozen shadowy, fairytale forests –  what could be a better present to receive on Christmas morning? Her covetable prints are available from The Photographers Gallery


An image from the ‘Between Dog and Wolf’ series by Chrystel Lebas

Newly discovered for 2014 and absolutely on my own Christmas list, are the innovative iphoto images of award-winning photographer Nettie Edwards who is currently an artist in residence at Painswick Rococo Garden in Gloucestershire – more on this in The Dahlia Papers in 2015. You can read about her work and her time at Painswick in her blog Hortus Lucis A year in a garden of Light . I love the soft, atmospheric painterly quality of her photographs.  Prints are available from about £100 – contact Nettie Edwards direct on net@nettieweb.co.uk

rococo_chinoiserie1kale-flowers-05_14gothic-bench-salt-print-05_14exedra-04_14Four Photographs taken at Painswick Rococo Garden by Nettie Edwards, net@nettie.web.co.uk

I came upon my very last idea for an alternative Christmas tree – or indeed Christmas present – when walking in Peckham last week with artist and writer, Jake Tilson. We talked about his brilliantly illustrated, perceptively written new book about Christmas food (available mail order, of course from Tender Books ) as he led me to his latest find …Cooking Christmas

Together we peered over a back garden fence to admire the most fantastic Persimmon tree, heavily laden with orange fruit.   The wonderful attribute of Persimmon – if you are after a spectacular December display – is that the fruit ripens very late and stays on the tree to dazzle on a winter’s day.  Reads Nursery in Suffolk are selling large grafted specimen trees 5 – 6 feet tall,  a bargain at £64.50.

Persimmon tree laden with fruit, Peckham

Do go to the Cast Courts at the V&A for a moment of Christmas calm then sit back and buy everyone  you know a tree. Wishing you a very Happy Christmas, Non.


Trained apple trees with lights, Petersham Nurseries

IMG_2417IMG_2414Classic, perfect, holly decorations, Laxfield Church, Suffolk



On the cusp of December, on a day of thin winter sunshine, I visit Great Dixter (http://wwwgreatdixter.com) for the last time this year.  The garden is still ablaze with the crimson berries of Cotoneaster horizontalis. In one celebratory combination the orange berries of Iris foetidus burst up brilliantly through its fan-shaped branches.

cotoneaster and irisRound the corner in the sunken Barn Garden, something completely magical and unexpected is waiting for us.

In the inky stillness of the hexagonal pond, floats an ethereal flame-red reflection of the cotoneaster on the steps above.  I have visited this garden at least once a month for a year but this dramatic reflection is new and takes my breath away.pool 4Looking up from its painterly centre, the whole garden seems to be playing out a great end- of-year finale – the naked branches of fan trained fig a dynamic firework at one corner, balanced by the solid, rounded green of the Osmanthus delavayi at the other.

pool 1The mood is festive.  In the Orchard there is an apple tree as fine as any Christmas tree – a majestic spread of dark branches with pale yellow apples for baubles:

apple and christmas treeThere is a wonderful ivy nearby which I have admired all year – Hedera helix ‘Buttercup’.  The leaves of ‘Buttercup’ are lime green to dark green in shade, but a brilliant milky yellow-gold in full sun.  At Dixter it is grown as a fine, ordered garland over a barn roof:

butter ivy

Another brilliant ivy to recommend at this time of year is Hedera helix ‘Maple Leaf’ – with dark green, glossy, five lobed leaves.  It is a fast grower and at the Prieuré d’Orsan (see my post on this beautiful garden in December 2013) clads an entire shady wall with a smart coat of rich green.  Both ivies can be sourced at http://www.fibrex.co.uk .

ivyA few days later and the ancient oak trees at Ickworth Park in Suffolk make an elegant scene of dull hazy gold against green (http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk) .

GOlden Ickworth park

At the park entrance there is a cottage with the sort of fairy tale planting which makes you promise to plant yourself a small yew tree in 2014.  You may have to wait a while until you get such a gorgeous fat green, bulging creature on your doorstep – but it would surely be worth the wait?

plant a yewOf course, if you can also find a champion Copper Beech to tower brilliantly over your little house – even better.

A short drive away, the King’s Forest is glowing with horizontal tiers of yellow-gold and bronze:

kings forestWithin the forest there is a wonderful 7 acre treasure trove of a garden called Fuller’s Mill (http://fullersmillgarden.org.uk). Here the porcelain-white berries of Sorbus ursina hang with covetable elegance and clarity.

sorbus ursina

If you wanted to buy a similar Sorbus, choose a Sorbus cashmiriana – a very pretty small tree with soft pink flowers in late spring, and clusters of marble white fruits in autumn. The fruits  often well into winter.  Try either http://ashwoodnurseries.com or http://bluebellnursery.com – both wonderful nurseries.

Further on in the garden, the fruits of Euonymus elatus ‘Compactus’ are gorgeous tiny luminous bulbs in a delicious tangle of papery purple calyx and fine naked branches.
euonyous red cascadeAnd the week before Christmas I am in a tiny skiing village in Austria.  Here the houses are framed with dense ranks of deep green spruce and the lacy branches of red berried Mountain Ash.  It is wonderful to see native trees growing simply and plentifully where they are happiest on fertile well-drained soil on a mountain slope.

green shutter house plus rowan

The Rowan berries  are shiny and festive in the winter sunlight. We ate two kinds of rowan berries last night for supper with pigeon paté,: they were almost bitter but rather good against the richness of the meat.rowan berries As the light fades at the end of the day, the clusters make elegant drooping patterns against the mountain sky:silhouette rowanI love the beautiful scalloped tiles – made of spruce – which clad entire buildings.  scalloped tiles

Cladding buildings like this is the work of farmers during the snowbound winter. The tiles last for about twenty years and age to a wonderful smokey darkness.

little chalet

Even the plain rectangular tiles are softly lovely:lean to tilesI like the idea of this handsome door – slim logs painted with a pale grey stencil:door made of logs And I have a soft spot for this painted shield with a message of welcome above the door.welcome sign But my real discovery this week is the larch. I have never really enjoyed it before, despite my attempts to appreciate an often slightly shabby specimen of Europe’s only deciduous conifer on a tour of an arboretum.  But here I am enchanted by its regal stature and elegance:grand single larch  by the soft gold of its needles against the cherry red of the rowan fruits:larch and rowanand by the ethereal way it catches the sun and lights up the valley bottom – a soft ghostly gold against velvety green against the white mountain.IMG_1739