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Wednesday, 28 November 2018

An Autumn Odyssey to Savill Garden

As leaves began turning to fiery reds, oranges and yellows, members of our garden club had a group visit to the Savill Garden at Egham in Surrey. Created by Sir Eric Savill in the 1930s out of a corner of Windsor Great Park (once William the Conqueror’s hunting ground), it has 35 acres of interconnected gardens, designed to provide colour and interest all year round.
Our first glimpse of what was on offer was the still-flowering meadow of pink and white cosmos outside the impressive visitor centre, opened in 2006 by the Duke of Edinburgh. The building blends beautifully into the landscape; timber for the floor and swooping roof came from the Windsor Estate. It houses restaurants and gift shops, and we returned there later for a hot lunch and a relaxed browse around the garden-related products. Eric Savill (1895 – 1980) was the grandson of Alfred Savill, the founder of a large firm of estate agents. After taking over the management of Windsor Great Park in 1930, with the encouragement of George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, he began turning part of the woodland into a place to be enjoyed by everyone, from dedicated horticulturists to families.
The Savill Garden opened to the public in 1951, and over the years it has grown and evolved. We began our walk by one of the lakes, where gunnera leaves had been upended to create shelters for the crowns of plants beneath. With us was one of the centre's very knowledgeable guides, who answered our many questions and pointed out some of the garden's highlights, including the extensive hydrangea collection.
Among the many royal associations is The Queen Elizabeth Temperate House, opened in 1995. It houses a wide variety of tree ferns, but when we were there, pride of place was being given to a display of prize-winning squashes - at over 600 lbs each, rather too big to fit in an oven.
In the Golden Jubilee Garden (2002) was another surprise - a clematis, Madame Edouard Andre, still flowering prolifically.
A further splash of colour came from this bed of dahlias.
It's obvious that much thought has gone into the planting and the juxtaposition of different varieties  and textures. I loved the stripes of colour lining this path, the black grasses adding a touch of drama.
While some of the planting is new, there are also some ancient trees. One of them was almost engulfed by a giant wisteria with tangled and twisted roots that made it look like a jungle escapee.
We were too late in the year to see the best of the new contemporary Rose Garden, opened by the Queen in 2010, and obviously missed the rhododendrons and magnolias in the Spring Wood. However, plans are afoot for a further visit next year.
Savill Garden, Wick Lane, Egham, Surrey. TW20 0UJ. Individual entrance fee £5 (includes parking). Opening hours vary with the seasons.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Surprises along the River Brent

A meander along the River Brent in west London on a rather overcast autumn day took us from Hanwell to Perivale – and revealed some unexpected sights. The first, on leaving Hanwell station, was the towering edifice of the  Wharncliffe Viaduct. Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and built in 1837, it was used by the Great Western Railway to carry the trains from London to Bristol across the Brent Valley.
The huge semi-elliptical arches each span 21 metres.The two endmost are actually hollow, and home to what is thought to be London’s largest colony of Pipistrelle and Daubenton’s bats. The viaduct also carried the world’s first commercial electrical telegraph, which came into use on April 9, 1839. This gained much publicity when it was used to alert the police in London that a murder suspect in Slough had caught the train, leading to the first arrest due to electric communications.
The Brent flows beside the viaduct for some distance. Nearby is an area of woodland, Hobbayne Half Acre Field. This is part of land gifted by a Hanwell yeoman in 1484 to be used for the poor and needy of the parish. Since then, the Charity of William Hobbayne has been making a difference to the local community; in 2016 a partnership was formed between it and Trees for Cities, a charity working to green cities and plant trees worldwide.
Now a range of waterside habitats have been installed along the Brent in the hope of increasing the numbers of water voles in the area. These were once widespread, but their numbers have declined over the past century because of water pollution and loss of habitat. Kingfishers and herons have also been spotted by the river - we were lucky enough to spot this one.
Looking to the north you can catch a glimpse of the spire of the parish church of St Mary’s, Hanwell. Built in 1841, it’s one of the very early churches designed by George Gilbert Scott (later the architect of the Albert Memorial). The park that leads up to it, Churchfields, was once agricultural land that belonged to the church. In 1902 it became a formal park, and today has avenues of trees, a children’s playground and tennis courts. A colourful touch was this river of flowers that weaves its way through the wide expanse of grass.
Another highlight was in Brent Lodge Park - the Millennium Maze. It was created on the site of an old bowling green, using 2000 young yews, and demonstrates just how slowly these trees grow. At the moment only the smallest child would have trouble finding a way through, so it has a long way to go before it rivals the famous one at Hampton Court.
We followed the Brent through some quite dense woodland, spotting dog walkers, golf enthusiasts heading for the local club, and some ducks having a rest while dabbling their feet in the  river.
After a short cut along the Western Avenue, we reached our final destination, St Mary’s Perivale, a tiny, beautiful 12th or 13th  century church that, separated from its parish by the development and heavy traffic on the A40, became redundant in 1972. It was rescued from dereliction by the Friends of St Mary’s Perivale and transformed into an exceptional music venue serving west London.
The church itself is unusual, with a tower clad in white weatherboarding. It’s normally closed, but we arrived as preparations were being made for one of the regular Tuesday lunchtime concerts. These are free, with a retiring collection, and no tickets are issued, so you can just turn up.
A quick peep inside revealed a Tudor font and memorial stones and brasses to distinguished former residents, many of whom had lost their lives in farflung parts of what was the British Empire. Among the many graves in the churchyard is that of Elizabeth Colleton, who died in 1721. Although it’s known as the Maiden’s Tomb, she was in fact the widow of a Cornish baronet and subsequently the mistress of Richard Savage, the Earl Rivers. He left his fortune to her, rather than his wife and daughter. She (or in another version of the legend, her father) is reputed to have said that, if there was a just God, trees would grow out of her tomb, and this is what actually happened. By the late 1800s these had caused the chest tomb to collapse, but it was rebuilt in 1999 by architect Adrian Cave.
Today, the space around it has been cleared (above) and the detailed carving on the tomb is revealed once more. It's a peaceful spot, a world away from the A40 with its never-ceasisng stream of traffic, and Perivale Tube on the Central line,  just a few minutes to the north. Well worth a visit..

Sunday, 28 January 2018

First snowdrops

The first snowdrops have appeared in the garden. They took several days to open, but should soon be followed by dozens more - a sure sign that spring is not far away.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Animal magic and winter lights at Waddesdon Manor

Christmas is always a magical time to visit Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire. The theme for this year's decorations, Enchanted Menagerie, celebrates the weird and wonderful animals that can be seen throughout Waddesdon's collections, from zebras to colourful birds and mythical beasts. There's even an elephant parade inspired by a 18th c musical automaton (below).
This dramatic dragon is one of many light art installations by American artist Lauren Booth which line the winding path from the Aviary to the Stables.
If you're wondering how to dress the festive table, there's inspiration in the manor's dining room, where exotic birds can be found stalking among the china and the candles.
From dusk, a new light and sound show, Waddesdeon Imaginarium, created by video design students from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, is projected onto the Manor's ornate facade.
Visitors will be delighted to find that Waddesdon's Christmas Fair has returned, with 80 decorated chalets set against the floodlit facade of the North Front (top). There are unusual gifts, decorations, crafts and delicious food, much from local producers. The Wigwam Cafe is also back, with street food, homemade cakes, hot chocolate and mulled wine.
Enchanted Menagerie runs until January 2; the Christmas Fair until December 10.
Waddesdon Manor, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, HP18 OJH

Monday, 11 September 2017

The reedbeds that are saving the Lea Navigation

After walking the length of the Lea Valley, it was fascinating to learn more about the river from water level, thanks to a Thames21 tour of reedbeds to the north of Bromley-by-Bow. It turns out these reedbeds are a valuable weapon in the ongoing effort to clean up a once highly polluted waterway. I’d seen traditional ones (above), but hadn’t realised what an amazing job they do of reducing pollution: the Lea Navigation is full of toxic ammonia. Reedbeds convert this into nitrate, which is safer – a great way of improving water quality.
The reeds that Thames21 plant aren’t in the actual river bed, but grow in coir matting that floats on the surface, inside a bumper (above). The roots hang down into the water, adding to the surface area. They are easier to maintain than the traditional beds, which can expand to take up too much space. As well as reducing pollution, the reeds oxygenate the river, allowing fish to flourish, and attracting wildlife such as watervoles and birds, including kingfishers and swans.
One reedbed we passed had a massive indentation, where you could see the remains of a swan’s nest – the cygnets now well on the way to adulthood, and probably those we saw out on the water with their parents.
Thames21 is a charity that works with communities across Greater London to improve the rivers, canals, ponds and lakes (see link below). It's already brought 600 m of new reedbeds to Lea, and plans are in hand for more. (Local residents were asked to vote where they should go.) It welcomes volunteers for its many projects, and has a regular newsletter.
Our excursion, on the aptly-named Alfred le Roy (King Alfred defeated the Danes further up the river) took us through Old Ford Lock No 19 (above) before ending at Hackney Wick. The event was part of the annual Thames Festival, which runs for the whole of September. 

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Walking the Lea Valley 11 - From Ware to Hertford

The final leg of our rambles along the Lea Valley brought us gazebos, a historic school, a bed mentioned by Shakespeare, a floral bear and even a buzzard.
The gazebos were a surprise. They line the river, and were mostly built in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by innkeepers whose establishments ran along the High Street, and who sought to provide quiet areas for leisure and refreshment away from the coaches and carts. (Ware was an important stop on the Old North Road, being less than a day from London.) In the 1850s there were 25 of them. After World War II, they fell into disrepair because of threatened demolition for a proposed service road between the High Street and the river. Luckily the threat was eventually lifted and restoration began.
Behind the High Street we found a yard with the figure of a Bluecoat pupil over it. This led to a charming public garden in front of the 14thc manor house that served as a Bluecoat charity school from 1685 to 1761.
An adjacent row of cottages provided accommodation for 150 boys and the nursemaids who looked after them. Today the manor house is cared for by the Hertfordshire Building Preservation Trust.
More reminders of Ware’s past were all along the High Street – blue plaques marking the passageways that used to lead to the stables of the coaching inns. One commemorates the White Hart, now demolished. This was the home of the Great Bed of Ware, built in 1580 by a Hertfordshire carpenter, Jonas Fossbrooke. More than three metres wide and publicised as being able to sleep 12, it was said to draw travellers to break their journey there, just to spend a night in the bed. Its fame even led to a mention in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Now a prize exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, in 2012 it returned to Ware Museum for a year, thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund grant.
Ware also has an ancient priory, founded by the Franciscans in 1338. It became a private residence with the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII and is now a wedding and conference venue.
In the surrounding gardens was an enormous floral bear, part of the Ware in Bloom initiative.
The path took us back to the river, where mallards foraged for food around huge gunnera plants. A few of the trees that line the banks were just starting to show the first signs of autumn.
Houseboats, however, were still ablaze with summer flowers.
The surrounding meadows were full of Canada and Greylag geese.
One of our group identified a buzzard’s call (they sound like a mewing cat) and finally spotted it hovering over some the trees.
When we reached Hertford Lock we were intrigued by this metal plaque beside the towpath, and its letters, RLT. Our guesses as to what they represented were right – later investigation showed it was a boundary marker put up by the River Lee Trust in 1866, probably to mark the realignment of the Lee Navigation.
As we approached Hertford itself, allotments appeared and the waterway became crowded with boats.
We walked into Hertford, which we had visited early on in our exploration of the valley (see and returned to the historic Salisbury Arms Hotel for a very welcome pub lunch. Then it was back to Hertford East station, and the train home.