Tag Archives: Thrift




Gatwick airport, Thursday 15th May 2014.  I check the weather forecast for the weekend ahead on my iPhone.  Forecast for London over the weekend: a scorcher, rising to 28ºC.  Edinburgh (where we will spend the night): not bad, quite sunny today at least, temperatures may reach 18ºC.  Stromness, Mainland, Orkney – three hundred miles further north, where we are heading the next day – maximum daytime temperature 8ºC. Rain.

the tough sea

Coastline on Mainland Orkney – Sunday 17 May 2014

We have a lovely evening in Edinburgh and stroll around tamely in our shirt sleeves munching tiny hand baked oat cakes unpasteurised Orkney Cheddar from specialist cheese shop I.J Mellis.mellis

We admire the elegant lifestyle of an Edinburgh dweller in his idyllic Mews house with the fragrant Syringa meyeri ‘Palibin’ exactly matching the faded raspberry paint of his front door:

edinburgh lilacAs we settle down in the small plane for a weekend on Orkney I ignore the fact that the temperature gauge outside must be plummeting and sink back into Helena Attlee’s wonderful sensual and sun-filled account of the citrus in Italy, ‘The Land Where Lemons Grow’.

It is a brilliant, constantly surprising history of the impact of Citrus on  communities across Italy at different times.  But is arguably a dangerous choice for this particular trip.  “You only have to fly into Catania airport in Sicily in late spring to appreciate the raw power of zagara (citrus blossom) for, as the doors open, the scent will bludgeon its way onto the plane … green buds form like a haze all over the sour orange tree, opening into pure white, five-petalled stars around a clutch of yellow stakes.  Zagara fills the air with an invasive, migrant scent ….”

When we arrive at our hotel in Kirkwall things are a little grey and treeless but we are glad to note that the our hotel offers one potential – does the name ‘Highland Park’ mean anything to you? – way to cheer us up:


Before I put on my bobble hat and waterproof trousers for the first major expedition of the weekend I sneak in a few more dreamy lines from Ms Attlee:

“Silence, heat, a scent of wild fennnel and a view across the great bowl of the Conca d’Oro to the blank blue sea beyond … a common orange, like the Navel or Valencia has a sugary, one-dimensional taste.  Eating a Sicilian blood orange is a much more complex experience.  Take the Tarocco: its meltingly soft flesh also has a high sugar content, but its sweetness is balanced by high acidity.  The result is a complicated, multi-dimensional flavour that unfolds slowly, subtly, beguilingly … wafer-thin discs of its marble flesh are combined with fennel, good olive oil, salt, a sprinkiling of choopped fennel leaves and black pepper, or used in pale pink risotto, bright red jelly and dark pink ice cream …”


Detail of Botticelli’s ‘Spring’ in the inside cover of ‘The Land where Lemons Grow’

I am riveted by the history of the the complex art of creating perfume from the essential oil of the bergamot. In 1708, when he was only 23,  Giovanni Marina Farina invented a bergamot based perfume named Eau de Cologne after the city where he lived.  In a letter to his brother he described his invention as “the scent of a spring morning in Italy, of mountain narcissus and citrus blossom after rain”.

I read on – it is as if I have been personally rumbled: “for his northern European customers the perfume conveyed the exotic essence of everything they yearned for in the sunny south”. Eau de Cologne “became the perfume of the great houses and royal courts of the eighteenth century Europe” … Voltaire described is as a “fragrance that inspired the spirit” and if you visitied Goethe “you would have found him writing beside a box of rags soaked in the stuff”

Enough! (I may or may not have ordered a bottle of the original Farina 1709 cologne using the hotel wifi before going out and join the others on the bus.)


Farina 1709 Eau de Cologne

This afternoon, as the sky hangs thick and white-grey around us, we are in search of the Scottish Primrose.  It is a slightly crazy sight – forty or so conservation experts and environmentalists (plus the odd spouse)  spilling out onto an RSPB maritime heath reserve to search for this diminutive, scarce, plant.

2 blokes in search of a primrose

The heathland looks vast and unpromising but it is only here in Caithness and Sutherland – these days mostly in protected areas of wild habitat – and only in May and then again in July that we have a hope of finding this dark purple primrose, 4cm high and 8mm in diameter with five heart shaped petals ….


Then at last!

girl photographinprimrose

Non is on the case


Primula Scotica – each flower less than a quarter of my finger nail

Tiny, rare, an incredible survivor. I am struck by how important it is for a jewel like this to get the chance to carry on.

By the next morning I am in a new phase and start falling for the incredible greens yellows and ochres that pervade Orkney.

I love the unstoppable ranks of flag iris that march onwards towards the shore:iphone flag iris

And the pale dancing leaves of Silverweed (Argentina anserina) amongst the turf:

silverweedSilverweed – Argentina anserina

I love the natural artfulness of  flag iris and marsh marigold planting itself deftly into the folds of a stream:

flag iris and calth iphone

Flag Iris (Iris pseudacorus) and Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris)

And then I get to see the lichen.  The walls of the sixteenth century St Magnus’ Church on the island of Birsay are enveloped in the most wonderful velvety camouflage of rich ochre. st magnus church

St Magnus’ Church, Birsay

st magnus close up 1

Lichen on dry stone walls surrounding St Magnus’ Church, Birsayst magnus gate post

Handsome rocket-shaped gate post, St Magnus’ Church, Birsay

st magnus dry stone stepsIngenious – lichen-laced – steps built into dry stone wall around St Magnus’ Church

st magnus close up 2

My particular favourite map-of-the-world lichen

The famous Ring of Brodgar – the beautiful neolithic henge and stone circle surrounded by sea, the cleanest air and wild flower meadows – provide even more addictive examples of lichen on stone.
ring brognar

Three standing stones from the Ring of Brodgar

brognar stone 2A powerful standing stone piercing the sky – incredible lichen

brognar lichen 1 Close up of white-on-grey lichen on a stone from The Ring of Brodgar

brognar lichen 2 Close up of paint-splash lichen on a stone from The Ring of Brodgar

broganr lichen 2 Velvety lichen on a stone from the RIng of Brodgar

Elsewhere the cliffs are gorgeously stepped and lightly coated with the same rich yellow:
drystone cliffs 2

We are in this spot for a long while – entranced by the swooping lines of Kittiwakes and gannets. Shocking to learn that the numbers of Kittiwakes alone have diminished by 87% in the last five years.  Sweet lacy clumps of ribwort plantain and bobbing pink thrift edge the cliff.IMG_3514

Thrift and Ribwort Plantain

Even the world under the clearest seawater shares the same gold against grey palette:IMG_3500


We walk past a beautifully restored house with handsome crow-stepped gables. The house is in the ultimate position with a dry-stone walled garden that wanders loosely down to the shore.  There was obviously only one colour to paint it:

dreamhouse iphotoOchre house on Birsay, Orkney

As we look out of the bus window on the way home I realise that in this raw land of outstanding natural beauty I have found something new to dream about:
dream house thru bus window

View from bus window of sea, sky and ochre house on Birsay, Orkney



It has been a dazzling April – except for today when I set off for a walk in my navy blue fur coat and return ridiculously soaked and bedraggled like a cartoon dog who has been up to no good.

Every morning I have been watching the sun creep over the back fence of our garden in South London and feeling as the day goes on that I can see the plants growing before my very eyes.

We have just visited West Wales for three days and have enjoyed three perfect walks. The first walk was a whole day and a picnic along part of the Pembrokeshire coastal path:

IMG_2853Much of the way is lined with cow parsley – I love this moment when the cow parsley is still tight and yellow-green and you get that first-snatched taste of the lacy fullness to come.

IMG_2831Turn a corner as the sun comes out and you could think you are suddenly in the Aegean:

establish island

Dense cushions of thrift (Armeria maritima)  soften the path:


The thrift’s bobbing pink heads cling astoundingly to the cliff edges:


If you look closely amongst the floppy fringe of grasses in the plainest most exposed parts of the path, there are soft mauve sweet violets everywhere:

violet and pathThe expression ‘shrinking violet’ was first used to describe the violet’s modesty by Victorian essayist Leigh Hunt. It was quickly taken up as an expression to describe a quiet, even introverted personality.

On this walk I am fascinated at the way the flowers take such pains to lurk behind other foliage – and I cannot get the image of Dash’s gawky teenage sister hiding shyly behind a curtain of hair in the brilliant INCREDIBLES movie out of my head. Only when I get home and look her up am I reminded that the character is course perfectly named, Violet!


Violet from the wonderful Pixar Movie, The Incredibles, hiding behind her hair


Sweet violets hiding behind lush Welsh grass

Other wild flowers on our route are the lovely sea campion (Silene uniflora) – bright white flowers held by a delicate, smokey pink calyx:

sea campion
Neat mounds of common scurvy grass (Cochlearia officinalis):

white flower tbc– its leaves full of Vitamin C, traditionally much valued by sailors as a protection against scurvy.

And there is the constant presence of blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) – its spikey white-splashed framework looking entirely gorgeous against the surprisingly rich blue of the water below:


The pale grey frills of lichen are breathtaking close-up:

IMG_2876By the time I see this blocky, white-washed, cliffside farmhouse I am ready to move in and create a seaside garden of my own, planting it very simply but generously with the sort of plants that have we have just walked past.


At the end of our walk stands the 1930’s chapel of St Non – a notice tells us that church services are no longer held here as when the rain beats against the chapel it can penetrate the two and a half feet walls in less than thirty minutes.

IMG_2886Inside there is the stained glass window of St Non by a follower of William Morris.  The clear royal blue and turquoise are surprisingly vibrant in the suddenly chilly low light at the end of the day:


The next day I make sure to get a reassuring fix of timeless Welsh moss in a favourite stretch of forest near Brechfa in Carmarthenshire

Here the moss is everywhere – on the bare branches of deciduous trees:

moss branches

Clothing the base of trunks and catching fragments of available light:moss trunk Forming softly carpeting ripples:moss carpet

that make you want to stop and look closer:moss carpet closerand closer still.moss carpet closest

This is real Wales to me. We amble through the forest before lunch on Sunday and I feel rooted and cushioned by our visit.

On the way back to London, still in Carmarthenshire, we visit the restored medieval gardens of Aberglasney.  The perfection of the immaculately gardened grounds is occasionally overwhelming but there are some very beautiful elements and as always ideas to try to take away.

In the woodland garden we walk amongst competition quality examples of shade loving planting. There are still some perfect examples of the beautiful pink edged Helleborus orientalis ‘Harrington Double White Speckled’:


and as the hellebores begin to fade a sea of pretty leaved Aquilegia foliage is rising up to take over – a perfect and practical example of successional planting:

IMG_2935 (1)

Paths are generously edged with my favourite dicentra – the glaucous leaved woodland dicentra, Dicentra formosa – lower growing and gentler in every way than its sometimes brash cousins:IMG_2943 IMG_2942Elsewhere the classic brilliant blue flowered Omphaloides cappadocica ‘Cherry Ingram’ is used again in large simple swathes:IMG_2938 IMG_2933And there are pools of the lovely pale blue grape hyacinth, Muscari Valerie Finnis – I have coveted this for a while now – time to put it definitively on my bulb order for September 2014IMG_2954 (1)I also made a luscious new discovery- Jeffersonia diphylla:


This North American woodland plant has wonderful rounded bow-ties of bright green leaves and will bear bowl shaped anemone like white flowers later in the month – available to buy in the UK from Long Acre Plants, a great nursery which specializes in plants for shade.

And then there are the beautiful bones of the garden, old stone walls which are wonderfully exploited in different ways throughout.

Here the handsome crenellated wall provides a strong structural shape to balance the mature trees beyond and acts as a backdrop for the brightly coloured bedding in front.


In some parts of the garden the walls are left plain – moments of plant-free calm


Elsewhere they offer wonderfully framed openings onto new areas of the garden:


Where the walls are clothed in plants the approach is simple and uncluttered. There is an entire wall of ivy leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis) – a delicate trailing plant with tiny ivy-like leaves and lilac flowers ‘like tiny snapdragons’ ( turn to Chiltern Seeds if you would like to recreate the look) all summer.  This plant was introduced to the UK from Europe in the Seventeenth Century and is perfect for growing in crevices and on walls to create a soft atmosphere in a new wall.


There are further crenellated walls elegantly laced with stems of Virginia creeper –  again I am moved by this moment in the year when you can almost see the new leaves growing, trying to cover the wall completely.


And in the walled kitchen garden there is a magnificent stretch of perfect ‘Belgian Fence’ trained apples and pears:


It’s fascinating to see how far behind the trained apples are on the left of the steps:IMG_2981compared to the trained pears:very close pear

There are also two handsome crab apple tunnels which I remember visiting years ago in late summer when they were heavy with tiny red fruit:

malus tunnel

The crab apple used here is the compact and particularly broad variety, Malus sargentii, which has a profusion of long-lasting neat cherry-like red fruit from August onwards. The neat pink buds will open to white and the tunnel should be in full flower by the end of April/beginning of May.

close up sargentiiMany parts of the garden are linked by immaculately cobbled and criss-cross patterned stone paths:

IMG_2966IMG_2965 (1)And through a final archway is a storybook perfect fritillary meadow bathed in sunshine:


And so back to South London with a jolt but amazingly the blue skies continue.  When we stop for lunch even the wall in the pub car park is bursting into life:


Back in our kitchen I look up at the glorious fig tree outside the back door.  There is the same buzz of excitement I felt witnessing the unfurling cow parsley in Pembrokeshire and the still separated leaves of the virginia creeper at Aberglasney –  again I am witnessing a plant which is growing towards the summer before my very eyes:



Sea campion, moss and a Ninfarium – obviously – in the land of St Non