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Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Keukenhof goes British

If you love tulips, a visit to the spring gardens of Holland’s Keukenhof should be in your diary for 2013. From March 21 to May 20, the 32 hectares will be showcasing the very best bulbs for the 63rd International Flower Festival. Every year Keukenhof chooses a different country as the central theme.

This year it’s the United Kingdom, and work is well in hand recreating the London skyline. It takes around two months for the thirty gardeners to plant around seven million flower bulbs, and the results are truly spectacular.

I've been to Keukenhof  a couple of times now - it's at Lisse just outside Amsterdam - and found one day is really not enough to  appreciate all that's there. 
As well as the outdoor displays, there are pavilions with orchids, anthuriums, bromeliads, and the world’s largest lily show. Plus lots of ideas for flower arranging and displays, alongside restaurants and shops selling bulbs and souvenirs. Inspirational!

Did you know the sultans of the Ottoman Empire wore a tulip on their turbans? The word tulip comes from the Persian word for turban, tulipan.

The Keukenhof Festival is not the only reason to visit Holland next year. Amsterdam is planning an exciting programme of attractions, including a  celebration of 400 years of the city's canals, the reopening of the Rijksmuseum, 40 years of the Van Gogh museum, the centenary of the Frans Hals museum and a major exhibition about Peter the Great.
More details

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

A 'Garden to Table' lesson for Camilla

An unusual engagement for Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, during her current visit to New Zealand with Prince Charles - she ended up donning an apron in the kitchen of East Tamaki primary school in south Auckland.  It was part of her introduction to the school’s 'Garden to Table' project, where pupils have a hands-on opportunity to learn about food. They grow fruit and vegetables in the school grounds, devise menus, then cook and serve what they’ve harvested.
Camilla watched the youngsters at work and was invited to try the feast of beetroot and fennel salad, vegetable bread cases and carrot cake laid out for her. She homed in on the carrot cake, which she said she loves, slicing it up and offering it round before trying some herself.  The school's principal said the pupils had been very excited about the duchess's visit.

The royal visit - and the carrot cake - featured on local TV news :

In an amazing coincidence, last year I was actually at East Tamaki school myself, seeing what the project involved.
I found part of the school grounds transformed into a highly productive organic garden, along with a specially-adapted kitchen for the pupils to use. ‘Garden to Table’ is run by volunteers, working alongside one kitchen and one garden specialist. Students are split into two groups, taking turns to garden and cook, but all coming together to savour the fruits of their labours.

When I arrived, the morning session was just ending. The kitchen was bustling, as youngsters and volunteers cleaned and tidied after a delicious meal of potatoes mamoosa, with three different salads (above).
Outside, Jenny Villiger, Judy Newhook, garden specialist Karolyn Cooper and Robin Barclay (above, from left) were working on the compost heap. Nearby were beds of tomatoes, sweetcorn, spinach, courgettes, aubergines, peas, potatoes and pumpkins while just around the corner were strawberries, citrus fruit, a herb garden (below) and an orchard.
The emphasis is on growing from seed, often saved from the previous year. Seedlings are nurtured in a small greenhouse, and pupils encouraged to take surplus seeds to grow at home, thus involving the whole family. It certainly seemed to be working - surrounding gardens were overflowing with produce.

The initiative is based on the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Programme founded in Melbourne, Australia, in 2001. When I was there it was being trialled in three Auckland schools, funded by donations and the Garden to Table Trust. The maths, science, reading and writing students were learning are all part of the compulsory curriculum, but a useful bonus comes from the social skills being developed, from how to lay a table to working as a team, alongside a knowledge of nutrition and appreciation of good food. The hope is that all this will stay with the youngsters for the rest of their lives, and be passed on to future generations.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

The View from the Shard

I’ve had a sneak preview of what's set to become London’s “top” tourist attraction – the viewing gallery of the Shard, at just over 310 m the tallest building in western Europe. (Looking at this photo taken last month from Parliament Hill in north London I can hardly believe I have now been right up to the pinnacle.)

Although still a construction site, as you can see, the Shard dominates the capital's skyline, towering over London Bridge station on the south bank of the Thames, its 11,000 glass panels soaring up to reflect sky, clouds and sometimes sun.

When we arrived, workmen were fitting the flooring in the huge entrance hall, but round the corner, lifts were waiting to whisk us up to the 68th floor in a little over a minute. My ears had barely popped before we were in the gallery, looking out over the capital.

That's the moment it hits you:  the only other way to get such a view would be from the air.

The gallery itself is the height of three storeys, the floor to ceiling windows giving a stunning 360’ view. On a clear day you could see up to 40 miles across London. On a November afternoon the view was slightly more limited, but familiar landmarks were clearly visible – the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, and Canary Wharf to the east (above), St Paul’s, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament and the Wembley arch to the west, while snaking through the panorama like a ribbon, the Thames, its barges and river boats like miniature toys (below). 

A few decades back the BT Tower (189m) and Canary Wharf (235m) briefly provided high-level views of the capital before being closed to the public. Now you look down on them, and on the many cranes and construction projects dotting the city. Between them, the spires of Wren and Hawksmoor churches are still just visible. The Shard itself casts a long shadow over the City (below).

Digital telescopes provide closer views and have touch screens with multi-language information about landmarks. Visitors will also be able to climb stairs to level 72, the highest public point, open to the elements (not accessible during the preview.)
The Shard, designed by Renzo Piano and owned jointly by the State of Qatar and the Sellar Property Group. is described as the UK’s first vertical city. It will have shops, offices, restaurants, a 200-room hotel and on floors 53 – 65, ten multi-million pound residences. Cleaning the exterior is a full-time job, and not for the faint-hearted (left).

The viewing gallery opens to the public on Feb 1, 2013. A visit won’t be cheap – just under £25 if you book in advance, or almost £30 if you turn up on the day. Being so high up means it may occasionally be wreathed in clouds, but then visitors will be offered a return visit. Admission will also include a multi-media display about the history of London and the Shard itself. Booking has already opened, and it looks as if it will be THE place to be next Valentine’s Day.

Where did all the apples go?

Totalling up the apple pick
In north London, we've finished our community fruit-picking for this year - harvesting neighbours' apples, pears and plums that would otherwise have been left to rot, and taking them to local charities. Our total was well down - less than half the 1000 kg we collected last year. It's been a similar story across the UK. The late frosts and wet summer played havoc with the crops, and much of the fruit that did ripen was devoured by hungry squirrels and birds. But it's a great scheme and the idea seems to be spreading. I've been following the progress of a network of pickers in NZ, who are doing exceptionally well. (Read about them at and on Facebook at!/pickfruit )
We'll be out again in 2013 -  fingers crossed for better weather!

Sunday, 14 October 2012

London old and new - and a glimpse of a secret nuclear bunker

This amazing view of London is my souvenir of a  helicopter sightseeing trip over London. On a sunny autumn morning, we took off from Essex in EC130 G-SASY (right), and headed along the Thames, in one unforgettable half-hour passing iconic landmarks such as Tower Bridge, the Monument to the 1666 Great Fire of London, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Post Office Tower, and later the London Eye, Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace. Some of these buildings have dominated the capital's skyline for centuries but from the air, alongside new developments such as the Shard skyscraper (seen left, at 309.6m tall, the highest completed building in Europe), they looked like children's models.  
The helicopter tour was a Christmas present which came via a voucher. More details:

A bonus was the location of the helicopter landing field – just across the road from the site of the  Kelvedon Hatch secret nuclear bunker. This unassuming bungalow, shrouded by  trees (left),  is the portal to an underground world of reinforced tunnels and rooms where up to 600 military and civilian personnel, possibly even the Prime Minister, would have headed survival operations in the advent of a nuclear war. It was decomissioned in 1992, and is now owned and looked after privately. I didn’t have time to go in, but tours are available. There's even a cafeteria.   See

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

A Handmade Revolution?

I’ve discovered a great new TV series featuring traditional crafts, currently on BBC2 each afternoon at 1545. Paul Martin’s Handmade Revolution hopes to inspire people to try their hand at some of these skills and so keep them alive. The first episode included some imaginative silver jewellery, cute felted wool trolls, traditional rag rugging, a beautiful glass bowl shaped like an orchid (by graphic designer Laura Hart) and – the judges’ favourite – Tony Evans’ eye-catching horse sculpted from waste copper pipes.

The programme travels round the country, showcasing the work of local craftspeople, while Paul Martin discovers the techniques behind their creations. Over the next two weeks, the three judges, all professionals in the craft world (from left Piyush Suri, Mary Jane Baxter and Glenn Adamson) look at everything from pottery and stone carving to toy-making and even some imaginative knitting. Each day they select one favourite item and these will all go on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London for four weeks from the middle of October.

The BBC has also produced a free booklet to support the series, with more details about crafting in Britain and ideas for projects.

More about Tony Evans and his horse sculptures at:

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Back by popular demand: Crossrail's Bison to Bedlam exhibtion

Good news for anyone interested in London's history: finds from Crossrail’s archaeology programme are going on display again, after a hugely popular one-day showing in July. (see

As well as the 100-odd finds featured the first time - including amber, bison bones, a Roman silver coin, medieval ice skates and a skeleton from the Bedlam hospital site - the October exhibition will also include a small section of mammoth jaw bone.

The free event is being held at the Crossrail Visitors Information Centre, Tottenham Court Rd, from 2 October to 27 October on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 11am to 7pm and Saturdays from 10am to 5pm. On Wednesday evenings at 6.30 there will also be a series of 25-minute seminars by archaeologists working on the project. Crossrail’s lead archaeologist Jay Carver be hosting the project’s first online Twitter Q&A event (#BisontoBedlam) on Tuesday 9 October between 2pm and 9pm to answer questions on the programme. The Crossrail project is halfway towards completion, so there should be further exciting finds to come.

The Crossrail Visitors Information Centre is at 16-18 St Giles High Street, London, WC2H 8LN

Saturday, 22 September 2012

A better way to grow strawberries?

This summer I tried growing strawberries in containers – and ended up with lots of runners, but no fruit. Now I’m looking at different planting methods to try next summer, and have been inspired by the kitchen garden at the National Trust’s Polesden Lacey, near Dorking in Surrey.
Tucked away beside a greenhouse, I found strawberries flourishing in long growing bags resting on planks which in turn were supported by knee-high brick walls (left).  Each bag was connected to a watering system.

Because the plants were elevated, there was no need for straw to keep the slugs away, and the bags would be easy to cover to keep the birds off.  It seemed like a good scheme, with no digging involved, and looked easy to replicate on a smaller scale with ordinary growbags.

Polesden Lacey was once the home of Edwardian society hostess Margaret Greville, and the grounds provided food for her lavish weekend parties (often attended by royalty) as well as the household and garden staff. Mindful of the estate’s productive past, the National Trust is currently creating a community kitchen garden there for people who’d like to grow produce but haven’t the time for an allotment. Work is scheduled to start this autumn, with the ground ready for new planting in the spring. More details at

Polesden Lacey’s gardens are beautiful all year round.  In the autumn, the herbaceous borders (above) are a blaze of colour. I also loved the wildflower meadow bordering the entrance path (below).

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Paralympic torch lights up London

Thousands of people lined the streets of London today as the Paralympic torch relay made its 92-mile journey from Stoke Mandeville Hospital, the birthplace of the games, to the opening ceremony in Stratford. The relay travelled through the night and was scheduled to reach our neighbourhood in Brent about 0730. In the end, so many people turned out to watch it ended up running two hours late. But the waiting crowds were undeterred and there were big cheers as the "community heroes" chosen to carry the torch passed by. Then the race was on to get it to the Olympic park in time.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Fun at Southbank's Festival of the World

The Bank Holiday may be over, but there's still plenty of fun and inspiration to be had at the Festival of the World at London’s Southbank Centre. The grey concrete areas around the Royal Festival Hall and the Queen Elizabeth Hall have been transformed into an outdoor gallery by a series of exuberant art works. Look out for the beautiful baobab tree, 15 metres high and covered in fabric rings (left), the giant map made with Lego bricks, the row of little adobe houses and sculptures (great for children to play in), and trees lovingly decorated with balloons.

A real crowd-stopper is this sculpture of two giant robots which seem to be climbing the side of a building. Appropriately, it's called Everything is Beautiful When You Don’t Look Down.

The terraces overlooking the Thames have become home to a series of colourful pop-up restaurants with food from all corners of the globe, complementing the treats on sale in the Real Food Market on the courtyard behind the buildings.
And when you’ve exhausted the complex’s lower levels, climb the yellow spiral staircase to the roof of the Queen Elizabeth Hall to discover a wonderful place to relax – a garden, complete with scarecrow, created with the help of the Eden Project.

Here, much of the planting is done in raised beds, which hold flowers and vegetables from around the globe. But there are also unlikely containers which have gained a new lease of life.  I especially loved the Victorian toilet bowl and these old watering cans.

Blackboards list the plants and vegetables currently flourishing, bees and butterflies flit around, and best of all, visiting youngsters are actively encouraged to get involved. Go there while you can.

The festival runs until September 9.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

More Gold at London's Olympic Park

Well done Oympians! So much hard work and effort, so many medals.
But could I award one more gold - for the gardeners at the Olympic Park, who’ve battled against the elements to turn Sarah Price’s garden design into a stunning reality, enjoyed by tens of thousands? I first saw the park in mid-June, when Stratford was still a building site. (See )  The plants were mostly foliage, any tall shoots buffeted by a stiff breeze.

But eight weeks on, as the crowd streamed in to cheer Usain Bolt,  the difference was unbelieveable. The gardening team had achieved their goal of getting everything to flower in time and the banks of the River Lea were ablaze with colour. The design reflects the arrival in Britain of plants from all over the world. Above, the Orbit towers over the area with plants from North America.

Kniphopfia bring a golden glow to the Southern Hemisphere garden.

The planting is designed to encourage wildlife. Here, bees enjoy some of the purple angelica in the Asia garden.

The pond in the Royal Horticultural Society Great British Garden. There's even a plum tree, the fruit almost ready for picking.

And just around a bend in the river, a reminder of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee river pageant - the Gloriana. This now has a new role - to promote better use of the Thames and the UK's inland waterways, with the emphasis on charity events involving young people.
The Olympic Park is the largest new urban park since Victorian times. Once the sporting excitement has died down and the temporary venues are removed, the current 50 hectares of planting will be doubled. Renamed the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, it will open again in stages from the first anniversary of the start of the Games - 27 July 2013.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

From Bison to Bedlam - Crossrail's archaeological discoveries

Bison bones from the late Ice Age, pieces of amber, up to 4000 skeletons – London’s Crossrail project is producing an incredible variety of archaeological finds that give a glimpse into the capital’s past.

These bison bones, some 68,000 years old, were found in west London, at Royal Oak. Experts say a small bump on a foot bone suggests stress caused by migration. Did huge herds once gallop along the same routes now followed by commuters? The precious amber, formed 55 million years ago, has also caused excitement. Larger and clearer than any previously found in the UK, it was unearthed more than 15 metres under Canary Wharf and contains bubbles of trapped gas that may help research into global warming. .
The human skeletons are from an ancient burial ground under Liverpool Street, which for about 200 years from 1569 was used by St Bethlehem Hospital, known as Bedlam. Work on the site is continung - so far some 300 burials have been uncovered and will give an insight into the physical health and condition of the area's inhabitants before being moved to a cemetery. This skeleton has already been analysed and found to be that of a man who had a hard, active life from an early age, possibly involving manual labour. He had well-developed arm muscles, probably suffered from back pain and had injured his knee. Plaque on some teeth suggests poor dental hygiene and a carbohydrate-rich diet.

For archaeologists, Crossrail is providing the chance of a lifetime to see what lies beneath a wide swathe of London. It passes through the heart of London’s West End and along the north edge of the Roman and medieval city.Twenty-one km of tunnels are being dug, often where excavations have not previously been possible. This is the site of the Bond St station on Oxford St.

The curious had a chance to catch up with all this at a recent display of some 100 of the finds.These included many everyday objects reflecting the lives of past inhabitants: an amber, glass and bone bead necklace from a post-medieval child’s burial (left), late Saxon to medieval ice skates fashioned out of smoothed cattle bones, clay pipe bowls made after tobacco was introduced in the 1580s, and a grave stone with a name that looks like John Bail. It says he died aged 25 weeks in April 1664. One coin found in Broadgate, a silver denarius of Severus Alexander, was minted in Rome between 228 and 231 AD and would have been the equivalent of more than a day’s pay for a legionary.
There are also glimpses of the capital’s industrial history: the fragment of a boat that could be 900 years old was discovered at the Limmo peninsula in East London while Victorian jars and bottles (left) have been unearthed from the site of the Crosse and Blackwell bottling factory near Oxford St.
The excavations will continue into 2014. Much work remains to be done at the Bedlam area, but the focus is now moving to four large portal tunnel sites at the eastern end of the project. There, archaeologists are hoping to find where Bronze Age people lived, farmed and hunted some 3,500 years ago. Eventually, the items uncovered will be donated to the Museum of London or Natural History Museum, but hopefully before then, Crossrail will put on another, more extensive display.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

A bird's-eye view of the Thames

A big thumbs up for London’s first cable car service across the Thames, which has now opened for passengers. On its first day I joined several hundred people queuing in warm, sunny weather for the half-mile journey over the river, and was rewarded with (below) stunning views of the O2 arena, the Canary Wharf financial district, and the Olympic Park.  

Even the Thames barrier, which protects the capital from flooding, was clearly visible.

The Emirates Air Line, as it’s officially known, runs between terminals at North Greenwich (left) and the ExCel exhibition centre at the Royal Docks, both of which are hosting Olympic events.

Each of the 34 cars can hold 10 people, and accommodates wheelchairs and baby buggies. They run continuously, slowing right down at the terminals to allow passengers to board and alight, then swinging up and out over the river to reach a height of almost 300 ft. The operators, Transport for London, say up to 2,500 people an hour can be carried in each direction.

Emirates has invested £36 million in the project as part of a 10-year sponsorship deal. This stretch of Thames is currently served by road tunnels, but no bridges, so the cable car is a useful link. London mayor Boris Johnson says the service is a tourist attraction but also a valuable addition to the capital's public transport infrastructure.
How heavy the demand will be for the journey after the Olympics remains to be seen. Fares start at £3.20 for a single fare using an Oyster travel card/Freedom pass or £4.30 without, and there is a ‘frequent flyer’ pass allowing 10 single journeys for £16. There were a few teething troubles with ticket-buying immediately after the opening, though these were hopefully short-lived. The journey takes between 5 and 10 minutes  (quickest at rushhour and slower from mid-morning to mid-afternoon.)  Some passengers have queried the cost, saying it’s too expensive for regular commuters. But there’s no doubt that everyone on the first day, young and old, was thrilled with the stunning views of London and the river that flows through its heart.

More details at