Wednesday, October 18, 2017

THE SECRET GARDENERS Book Review

My first thought when I scanned down the list of secret gardeners portrayed in Victoria Summerley's latest book, The Secret Gardeners, was, how many of these people do I know? It was only half. Then my second thought was. I am gardener and I visit the gardens of strangers all the time so what does it matter if I know them or not.


The book arrived on a rainy day, deposited outside my front gate, where it spent the night. Thank goodness the postal service had seen fit to put the box inside a plastic bag. It was well protected. I opened the box and could not resist a quick flick through. Wow! Gorgeous color photographs  and awe-inspiring gardens. I read the introduction in which Victoria tells how the book came to be and in her usual relaxed style answers some of the questions we might all be asking about the rich and famous and their gardens. Do they really garden, did they really have input in the design, do they have an army of gardeners doing all the work? I was soon to find that it was all of the above.
All of the gardens visited are in England and are the gardens of actors, writers, musicians and artists. Familiar names like Jeremy Irons, Andrew Lloyd Webber, the Branson family and Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne. Every garden tells the story of the owners garden styles and hobbies, be it the miniature donkeys and Kunekune pigs kept by Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason and his wife Annette or the sculpture in the garden of Andrew Lloyd Weber.

Make no bones about the fact, these properties are often what I like to refer to as 'the country pile' large properties or estates, hidden from the outside world, which offer their owners an escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. It wouldn't matter what kind of gardener you were you would definitely need a gardener to take care of such a place. But it quickly becomes apparent that the owners were going to have plenty of input and many do spend a considerable time working in their gardens.

The photography by Hugo Rittson Thomas is plentiful and stunning and and Victoria's accounts of her visits are a pleasure to read. Alfred Austin once said, 'Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are' and I think that both writer and photographer have given us a little more insight into the lives of these well known people.

I was sent this book to review by the publishers, Frances Lincoln, and it has been a pleasure.

Victoria Summerley is and award winning journalist and garden blogger and the author of two other gardening books, Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds and Great Gardens of London.

Hugo Rittson Thomas is a leading portrait photographer and collaborated with Victoria on her previous books.



Monday, October 9, 2017

A NEGLECTED CORNER

There are parts of my garden that are high on the list of neglect. This little corner of the front courtyard is one. You wouldn't think I would let it get that way because I glance at it every time I walk towards the bedroom, always muttering to myself something about having a good go out there. There are two trees that are either self or bird sown; a flowering senna and a yaupon holly. Both had become horribly overgrown and were in need of a really good prune. This past weekend I dealt with them.


I really hated to do too much pruning of the yaupon because it was loaded with berries, but have to admit to feeling much happier now I can, once again, see the birdbath.


The next job was to clean out all the dead leaves from the dry creek..



For years I balked at using one of those power blowers, but I now have to admit that using one makes reasonably quick work of cleaning the creek. I use either my foot or a piece of rebar to move the rocks around as I blow everything towards the house. Then I pick it up and deposit on the compost pile. All that noise of a few minutes certainly beats the laborious job of removing all the rocks in order to clean out the bed.


The next job involved removal of all the violets and seedling inland sea oats. What was I thinking when I bought a violet many years ago? I was thinking the England of my childhood with roadside banks filled with primroses and violets. They certainly weren't this kind. Pretty enough as a green clumping plant but rarely a true flower.


Instead hundreds of these cleistogamous flowers. That's a flower with no petals, self pollinating within the capsule and producing hundreds of seeds which go on to produce hundreds of plants. Enough! What would the world be like if all plants did this? It doesn't bear thinking about.


I have another plant that does the same thing. It is a native mallow with sweet little orange flowers when it chooses to flower and not produce those cleistogamous seed pods.

Mallow flower

Mallow, cleistogamous seed pods
A little pile of gravel which has been sitting on the driveway for nearly a year was used to refresh the area. I have treated this gravel like gold because it is brown pea gravel and not available in Austin. I wouldn't have used it only we are planning to go and get another load this coming weekend.

Strike one job of the list of hundreds.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

THE MAN WHO DREW ON NAPKINS

On Sunday we attended a tribute to the architect Dick Clark at the Paramount theater in Austin. He was the man who gave us the wonderful spaces in which we built our gardens.


He was known for scribbling his ideas on napkins and even when he was in MD Anderson in Houston he asked for a pen, no paper, he had a napkin handy. Until the end he was designing.


He changed the face of Austin with his modern design specializing in both commercial and residential design. Our little house may have been one of his smallest projects but he didn't turn us away as many others might have.
We gave him a brief. We want to garden deer free and wanted to walk out to the garden from every room; two bedrooms, a study, a large living room with open kitchen, and no powder room. But the main thing was the garden spaces around the house. We could never have even dreamt of the design he came up with.


A house like this, and smaller versions with shed and metal roofs, is commonplace today but back then it was really out of the norm. We did worry about the front facade but we put our faith in him and made few changes to the original plan.
When the builder left we faced a pretty daunting challenge, but it was what we asked for and now our work was to begin. We have just a few photos of those early days taken before digital cameras.





Hardscape came first. We bought a cement mixer and lugged stone from other parts of the lot. We created patios, dry stone walls, decks and paving stones. It has been a 17 year project so far and as every gardener knows the work is never done.





Thank you Dick. You made our dreams come true and we love the sun-filled house and garden spaces you created for us.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

THE AMALFI COAST AND TWO OF ITS VILLA GARDENS

This summer we spent a few days on the Amalfi coast, Italy, known for its rugged coastline and villages perched precariously on the cliffsides. We flew into Rome and picked up a car to drive down to Amalfi coast- our destination Ravello. After our usual problem negotiating airport exits and getting on the right road we were on our way, taking the main toll road down to Napoli where we left the road to head towards the coast. As we headed down this rough road into a small town we realized my directions on iPhone maps had mysteriously disappeared. We resorted to some printed directions which also proved to be useless as none of the streets had names. By good fortune David spotted a very old metal sign, "Amalfi". We took the narrow road as it twisted up into the hills through narrow tunnels and around difficult corners. At one place we stopped at a roadside fruit stand to pick up some peaches-our lunch. We were convinced that this was not the right road but pressed on regardless eventually seeing a sign which confirmed we were correct.


Having passed many tour buses parked along the sides of the road we were wondering where the people were. We were soon to find out. They were in Ravello. We followed the the narrow road with the arrow pointing to our hotel, through a tunnel and then into the Duomo square. There the road seemed to end. We were obviously wrong so turned around and went back to ask directions, only to discover we were right the first time and needed to retrace our path and turn down a very narrow lane  passing through an equally narrow archway. Not only was the archway full of tourists but the walls were hung with ceramics.


We tucked in the wing mirrors and edged our way though the people and ceramics. At the end was the gateway to the Hotel Rufolo. Relief. Thank goodness we wouldn't see the car again until we left.


We were to spend 4 nights here and had a busy itinerary planned, starting that afternoon with a visit to the Villa Rufolo of which we had a view through our bedroom window.


The villa was built in the 13th C by a wealthy merchant family but as with many large properties time and neglect played their part in bringing the villa into ruin. In 1851 the wealthy Scottish industrialist, Sir Francis Neville Reid, purchased the villa and began restoration of the villa and gardens.
The entrance to the villa is to one side of the Duomo square. It wasn't surprising that we thought we had made a mistake when we found ourselves driving past the entrance an hour ago.


We passed through the archway gazing up at the Moorish style decoration and remains of terra cotta spirals.



With more remnants of ancient structures. These kinds of scenes always stir my imagination.


And then into the most beautiful cloister with similar Moorish features. We couldn't resist a few photos with the red geraniums.






  And then out into the open with remains of the Sala dei Cavalieri or garden pavilion and the Torre Maggiore the oldest surviving part of the villa. 



Unfortunately we were not able to enter the tower as it was closed for the day.




No garden could have a more beautiful backdrop with the Gulf of Sorrento and the sculptural umbrella pines. Colorful beds of petunias and begonias add a splash of color. We were told that descendants of the original gardeners still care for the gardens.



I have never been particularly fond of this style of gardening. Growing up in England our local parks and even the center of our village had huge displays of what the English call 'bedding plants' in the summer. Sometimes you would see the town crest designed with flowers or the occasional clock. It was the style of the times obviously Sir Francis brought this touch to his Italian villa. It was bright and cheerful and perfect for the location.


It is hard to imagine these planting beds without their single or multi color planting.





But the most iconic view is looking down to the Church of the Annunziata. No color needed here save for the misty grey of the water.


Concerts are held here during the summer and the natural amphitheater below the gardens creates a permanent stage and seating. It wasn't easy trying to avoid the seating, big lights and speakers.
We moved quickly into the house as the lady sitting at the doorway told us it was about to close. There wasn't much to see as we walked from salon to salon. The rooms were bare with no furniture or wall hangings.




We had a big day tomorrow so early dinner which was, of course, outside. The bells began to ring. There is nothing quite so beautiful.

There is a hike called Il Sentiero deli Dei, Path of the Gods and that was today's plan.



We made an early start because we had to get to the head of the trail and that involved two bus rides from Ravello, first down to Amalfi and then bus from there to Bomerano. There were a number of us on the bus who were clearly setting out on the same trek-estimated to take 4 1/2 hours. I was wondering how I was going to manage as our weekend walk of 5 miles on flat ground is all I have done since the new hip. Still I had my hiking poles and they do help a lot on rough terrain and I was determined to do it. We alighted the bus asking a couple who spoke English the way to the head of the trail. 



We had initially been disappointed that there was a heavy mist which was going to obscure the views we had come to see, but in retrospect I don't think we could have done the hike if it had been in full sun. 




It was pretty misty most of the way until the sun began to peak through as we were nearing Nocelle with views of Positano below.




We finally arrived at the hamlet of Nocelle in about 3 hours after many steps, ascents and descents. At this point there were three choices. Take the bus to Positano, take the 1500 steps down to Arienzo and walk on to Positano or continue along the trail to Positano. We chose the latter option which was the wrong one. We should have done either of the other options. Although we were on a trail to begin with we finally had to walk up to the road which snaked around the mountains. Walking in full mid day sun was brutal. We finally arrived at a restaurant, la Tagliata and inquired as to when the next bus would pass by. With 20 minutes to wait we sat on the terrace and had a cold beer. Very welcome. Then on down by bus to crowded Positano. Feeling pretty exhausted and with a ferry arriving soon we bought tickets to take the easy way back to Amalfi.
Positano beach

Amalfi was so crowed and with so many people waiting for the public bus up to Ravello we decided to us get the open air tourist bus back to Ravello. It cost more but I was ready for a cold beer on our little balcony.

Day three we did the walk to Amalfi. It's all down hill so good knees are a must. We started out on the pathway close to the hotel and were soon winding our way down between houses, past little churches with occasional glimpses of the water below.


We met few people on the trail. An elderly lady carrying a shopping bag puffing her way back up from the village. One gentleman with his little dog and a young couple racing down the hill at breakneck speed.


At one stage we could look up to the Villa Cimbrone and just make out the statues along the belvedere. We would visit there on another day.






We had taken a little picnic with us but everywhere along the promenade in Amalfi were these signs. Even though we have little Italian it was quite clear what the meaning was. NO PICKNICKING! Lots of towns in Europe are banning eating food on the street. They will even fine you. We ended up walking down the dock and sitting on the rocks.


We walked into town to look at the shops. Lots of lemony things to buy.




And along one of the side streets we came across this miniature model of Amalfi's stacked hillside houses.


And you know when in Europe you will be visiting plenty of cathedrals. Here, the Amalfi Cathedral of St Andrew dominating the main square of the town with its Arabian/Sicilian striped facade and with its 62 steep steps leading up to the door of the cathedral. We decided to call it a day and visit the following day.


Our third day of hiking took us down to the village of Minori. A similar hike through charming neighborhoods, alongside gardens. We barely met a soul.





We eventually arrived at a parking lot overlooking the town. There was no sign of which way we were to go so we walked over to the church and then into the graveyard before picking up the pathway down the hill and onto the main road.



David had originally planned for us to walk to the next village, which would have taken us past the hillside lemon groves, but I was absolutely pooped from so many days of hiking that we decided to take the ferry. We ate our lunch on the bench(no signs forbidding picnicking here) and then took the ferry to Maiore.



There wasn't much to see in Maiore and we became worried that because it was a Sunday there may be no local bus service back to Amalfi. On top of that the places to buy tickets were all closed! I sat on a bench and David walked into town to see if he could get tickets. Moral... always have plenty of spare bus tickets easily purchased at any tobacconists. We were in luck and the bus to Amalfi arrived with seats to spare. Regaining some of my lost energy we decided to visit the Cathedral in Amalfi before returning to Ravello.
Remembering the 62 steps up to the front door I sent David on ahead to make sure it was open to the public. It was.



High altar


The Cloister of Paradise 1266-1268
The original cathedral, which is next door to the new one was once joined to the new cathedral but was separated in the Baroque period and decorated with features of the time. These were stripped away in 1994 to reveal the original medieval frescoes. For me this was the most fascinating part of the cathedral.





Then we took the steps down into the crypt which houses the relics of St Andrew stolen from Constantinople during the crusades and brought to Amalfi in 1208.

Bronze statue of St Andrew
Although it was cool down in the crypt with seating so you could take in all around, it had been a long day and I began to think about that cold beer that was waiting for me back at the hotel.

It is quite amazing how one can recover with a cold drink, a shower and dinner. So much so that we took an evening walk up to where the expensive hotels are including The Caruso. Alongside was the most delightful park magnificently set off by having arching walls filled with gorgeous planters and with a view looking down over the sea. I took photographs in the dim light but went back the next day to get a good photo.





Tomorrow the Villa Cimbrone.

It's quite a hike up to the Villa Cimbrone and I can only imagine that those who visited came on horseback. There is a long walkway lined with olive jars before entering the large wooden gates into the estate.



16th Century doorway

 Dating back to Roman times the 'cimbronium' was a vast estate producing timber. Unusual in the rugged area of the Amalfi this vast plateau was valuable for farming and changed hands many times until it fell into decay. The estate and garden, as it is today, was restored by Ernest William Beckett,  Lord Grimthorpe, after he bought the derelict property in 1904. The story is that Lord Grimthorpe came to this place when recovering from a severe depression brought on by the loss of his wife. He bought the estate for £200 (good grief) and determined to make it "the finest place in the word" I think he achieved his dream although I felt a great sadness as we walked around the property. I recently learnt from watching a visit by Monty Don's to the villa that he was a gambler, losing all his money, and quite a womanizer, which didn't seem to fit with the villa's portrayal of him.  I really felt I had to research more about Lord Grimthorpe to get to the bottom of the story. To learn the full story I need to read a book by Michael Holroyd called A Book of Secrets; Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers. It's on my to buy list.

But whatever his failings in life he did restore a very fine property and one that is worthy of the entrance fee. He may have squandered the inheritance from his father but he was to inherit both money and title from his uncle and it would seem he spent his uncle's inheritance more wisely.
The doorway opens into the cloister and courtyard with Arabian, Sicilian and Norman features. The two boars heads above archway recall the crest of the Grimthorpe family.
Could anything be more romantic in a garden than these stone archways and buildings?












A garden roller repurposed from a Roman stone pillar.



The Avenue of Immensity


The Terrace of Infinity, a natural balcony adorned with marble busts and with views across the Amalfi coast.


Looking down to the trail we had taken two days before. That's a long way down and around the corner to the town of Amalfi.


Continuing down the steep lane we arrived at the seat of Mercury with a bronze statue of Hermes, a copy of the one on display in the museum in Naples.



To one side a seat with an inscription mistakenly attributed to DH Lawrence who visited Ravello and stayed in the hotel in which we were staying. I don't think it was a hotel at the time but rather a private house.


And finally to the resting place of Lord Grimthorpe, his ashes buried  beneath the plinth on which stands a bronze statue of a satyr supporting Bacchus with his bunches of grapes.


The Temple of Bacchus


I suppose it was the latin inscription on the temple that gave a melancholy air to the garden. Translated it reads.... what is finer, when work is done, with a mind free of every worry and tired from the effort on behalf of others, than when we return to our homes and lie down to rest on the bed we so desired. This was his resting place.
We continued on down the hill until we arrived at a small grotto in which was a marble statue of Eve by the Bolognese sculptor Adamo Tadolini (1788-1868) It was impossible to photo because there was a perspex screen protecting it... from what I don't know, maybe the sun. The grotto was behind bars.
We now began a steady climb back up the hill where more statues awaited.

The statue of David with the head of Goliath at his feet. An imitation of the one in the national museum in Florence.



He has clearly had his nose rubbed quite a lot.


And up onto the Rose Terrace with its arabesque balustrade, the gardens planted with scented French and English roses and the whole garden surrounded by the goddess Flora and Leda with her swan, and two wrestlers Damosseno and Greucante. What's an Italian garden without all its statuary.




And the stone seat bearing this inscription. Is it any wonder I felt a little melancholy.


The Tea room, seen here at the end of another garden planted with roses, is an open pavilion


Standing in front a 4 decorated Roman columns a stone well, probably of English origin and recently dated to X11th Century.



And finally behind the pavilion the Hortensia Avenue.


We had come full circle and it was time to leave Villa Cimbrone, head back down the hill and bid farewell to the beautiful town of Ravello with its delightful Doumo square, elegant villas and hotels, gorgeous umbrella pines and flowers everywhere, load up the car and negotiate that archway. We were on our way to Tivoli, outside Rome. We would be spending one night there visiting the Villa Adriana( Hadrian's Villa) and Villa D'Este.