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Monday, 16 December 2013

Spring in December

Apparently the mild weather in London has tricked nature into thinking spring is here already. That might explain why this Duchess of Edinburgh clematis, planted as a tiny seedling in the late summer, began flowering a few weeks ago. The heavy rain and strong winds have left it rather bedraggled, but still the blooms hang on. A Choisya Ternata Sundance has also surprised me by breaking out in fragrant white flowers.

At the same time, there’s been an influx of early-morning visitors to the garden. Jays, tits, wood pigeons, blackbirds, a robin and two squirrels were spotted chasing around, competing for the seed spilt from the bird feeder. But the surprise sighting was this green woodpecker, which spent about 20 minutes determinedly digging away in the lawn. This was only the second time we’ve seen one – the last time was several years ago, in the oak tree.   
According to the Met office, the mild weather is set to continue over the coming month.

Friday, 15 November 2013

My top London exhibitions for Autumn-Winter 2013

If you're in the market for some great exhibitions this winter, London is the place to be. Here’s a look at some of my favourites.

The Cheapside Hoard: London’s lost jewels

Museum of London to April 27 2014. Admission £10

A dramatically lit exhibition of late 16th and early 17th century jewels and gemstones, found hidden under a floor in nearby Cheapside in 1912 and displayed together for the first time in over a century. Lots of bling, with contemporary portraits showing how they would have been worn. Left is a cameo of Elizabeth 1, c. Museum of London. No bags allowed in you need a £1 coin for a locker before going through security.
(See my previous post for a more detailed look.)

Beyond El Dorado: Power and Gold in ancient Colombia

British Museum, to March 23, 2014. Admission £10
Another blockbuster, which looks beyond the legend of El Dorado, sometimes imagined as a lost city of gold, sometimes as a man covered in powdered gold. It shines a spotlight on the varied cultures which existed across the region before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. It makes the point that gold was not valued as a currency, but had great symbolic meaning, and was seen as giving divine power to the elite. There are more than 300 stunning objects, many reflecting the natural world, such as golden masks of jaguars, bats and frogs. Others use textiles, feathers, stones and ceramics. Some have come from the Museo del Oro in Bogota and are being displayed in the UK for the first time, while others are from the British Museum’s collection. (Some were featured in the Gold of El Dorado exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in 1978.)
More details at

Paul Klee: Making Visible

Tate Modern, to March 9 2014. Admission £15

There are plenty of the bold blocks of colour that characterise many of Klee’s paintings, but as this exhibition shows, he was constantly experimenting and trying new forms of expression, both representational and abstract. There are delicate line drawings, watercolours, oils, even some sorties into pointillism. They’re hung in the order in which they were created, thanks to his meticulous recording and cataloguing, so you can see how he developed different themes and moved from one idea to another. Be aware that it’s a large exhibition – 17 rooms, covering his whole career.

Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain.

British Library, to March 14 2014. Admission £9, under 18s free.
A fascinating glimpse of a society not dissimilar to our own. Unprecedented economic, social and cultural changes in Britain under the Hanoverian kings meant the Georgians enjoyed leisure activities such as shopping for luxuries, reading fashion magazines, gardening, picnics and sightseeing. They loved balls and assemblies, visited new museums and galleries, followed the fortunes of celebrities and went to the pantomime. This exhibition shines a spotlight on the years between 1714 and 1830, with books, paintings, letters and costumes. A bonus is a recreation of a Georgian garden (left) which you can see for free in the Library forecourt. And if you want to discover more about this era, the exhibition guide includes a walking tour that takes in some of London’s finest Georgian museums – all within a short distance of the British Library.
More at

Hello, My Name is Paul Smith
Design Museum to March 9 2014. Admission £11.85.

Sir Paul Smith’s career in fashion spans more than 40 years. This exhibition takes you on a journey from the minuscule first shop he opened in Nottingham in the global reach of his empire today. On the way, you see a recreation of his Aladdin’s cave of an office in Covent Garden, London, examples of his many design projects (including one of his beloved striped Minis), some of the  paintings and objects which have inspired his work, and a personal selection of clothes from his archive (below). 

A fascinating look at the creative process of this British fashion legend.  Further information:

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Buried treasure – the Cheapside Hoard

In June 1912, some labourers excavating the cellar of an old building in Cheapside in the City of London, struck gold – literally. Under the floor they discovered a tangle of 16th and 17th century jewels and gemstones including delicate finger rings, cascading necklaces, Byzantine cameos, jewelled scent bottles, and a watch set in an enormous Colombian emerald (below).

They’d been there for some 300 years, probably the stock-in-trade of one of the jewellers who had premises on Cheapside.. Who was he and why were they hidden? It's still a mystery. But conservationists preparing them for exhibition at the Museum of London have found a clue as to when they were buried. One of the gemstones (left) is engraved with the heraldic badge of the first and only Viscount Stafford. He received his coat of arms in 1640, while the blackened layer above the hoard dates from the Great Fire of London in 1666. Those 26 years were a time of great upheaval, with civil war and plague taking the lives of many and forcing others to flee their homes. Perhaps the jewels were hidden for safekeeping and the owner never returned. The museum is hoping someone may know more – perhaps a descendant of one of the labourers, or even a person with a family story of lost jewels – and they’ll come forward to shed more light on the discovery.

There are almost 500 jewels in the hoard and this exhibition is the first time they've been displayed together since they were found  - some have been housed at the British Museum. The display is dramatic, with dark walls and spotlights making the pieces gleam and sparkle. Magnifying glasses are provided for a closer look at the delicate workmanship such as that in this emerald, diamond and enamel salamander (left) and gold enamelled chain (below).

 Portraits showing how such jewels would have been worn, such as a ring pinned to a ruff, explanations of the supposed powers of some of the stones and a replica of a jeweller’s workshop of that era add to the vistor's appreciation.

All photos © Museum of London
The Cheapside Hoard – London’s Lost Jewels is at the Museum of London until 27 April 2014.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

A last burst of summer at Hinton Ampner

This tortoiseshell butterfly was making the most of the sunshine at Hinton Ampner last week. It was one of hundreds, flitting from dahlias to buddleias and back again.

The property, now owned by the National Trust, has 12 acres of gardens, characterised by a series of linked ‘rooms’. There's a lily pond that Monet would have loved, a Long Walk, rose borders inspired by Sissinghurst and plenty of topiary. The result has been described as one of the great gardens of the 20th century.


This, and the house, reflect the tastes of Ralph Dutton, 8th and last Lord Sherborne. He inherited the property in 1935 and rebuilt it after a devastating fire in 1960 which started in the library. He remodelled the rooms and filled them with his collections of fine Georgian furniture and 18th century paintings. Of the garden, he wrote: "I have learned during the past years what above all I want from a garden: this is tranquillity".

The property has magnificent views across the rolling Hampshire countryside. The Battle of Cheriton, a major encounter of the Civil War that ended in a Royalist defeat, took place nearby in 1644.  Local inhabitants are said to have looked across at the battle from Hinton Ampner’s grounds.  

Petersfield Rd  Hinton Ampner, Bramdean, Hampshire SO24 0LA
01962 771305

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

A Paris garden in the sky

Green walkways: a brilliant way to link and rejuvenate inner-city areas. In 2009, New York opened the High Line park, using a 1.5-mile stretch of abandoned elevated railway, while Chicago has plans for a nearly three mile-long Bloomingdale Trail, again along a disused rail line. In London, two architecture firms have won a competition to design a landscaped walkway just south of the River Thames, joining galleries, public works of art and an open-air auditorium.There’s also a proposal by Thomas Heatherwick, the designer behind the stunning Olympic cauldron, for a floating garden to bridge the Thames from Covent Garden to the South Bank.
But the project that started it all is in Paris - the Promenade Plantée, an aerial nature walk opened late last century (above and left). It snakes through the 12e arrondissment, using a derelict 19th c railway viaduct that once took passengers from Bastille, in the city centre, out to the leafy Bois de Vincennes. When the line was closed in 1969, the structure became a decaying eyesore. But instead of pulling it down, the authorities transformed it into a garden. The arches below became the Viaduc des Arts, with shops showcasing crafts such as cabinet making, tapestry restoration and interior design.
It’s easy to find. Walk south-east from Opéra Bastille along Rue de Lyon, into Avenue Daumesnil and you’ll see the walkway arches, surrounded by apartment buildings and offices. It runs for more than two and a half miles, later descending to street level and into tunnels. At times the path widens to formal parterres with trellised arbours, at others it becomes a narrow corridor, edged with trees. It’s a favourite with joggers, office workers on their lunch breaks, and parents with energetic youngsters. (At one point it overlooks a playground.) Local residents use it as a meeting place while garden enthusiasts linger over the planting. I saw one father using it to teach his young son about the way things grow. For tourists, it's a welcome contrast to the more usual sights. Even if you walk just a small section, you’ll never forget it. Take a picnic and prepare to be inspired.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Strawberry trials - an update

I’ve been experimenting with two different ways of strawberry growing. One used a traditional strawberry planter (left).

The other (below) was with a growing bag supported by planks and raised on bricks – a method inspired by the National Trust’s kitchen garden at Polesden Lacey, near Dorking in Surrey.

So, as promised,  here are my results.

Each method used the same number of plants and has produced around 45 strawberries (some still green). But interestingly, the grow bag fruit (on the left) - as well as the plants - are noticeably larger.This may be because the bag holds more water than the pot, even though I put a perforated bottle in the middle of the latter to try to regulate the flow. One plant in a lower hole of the pot has no fruit at all. Perhaps the bees missed it, or the water didn't get through. It might have helped if the planter was raised off the ground a bit.

The fruit from both is delicious, and I’m thrilled with the results. Nothing beats nibbling a strawberry, warm from the sun, while wandering round the garden. I’ll be potting up as many runners as possible and next year perhaps have two grow bags instead of one. But I will persevere with the planter - it looks so pretty on the terrace.

Gifts for a new baby

How to mark the arrival of a new baby? Kate and William will be innundated with gifts, despite asking that instead, donations should be made to St Mary’s Hospital, where Prince George was born. They’ve already received a charm bracelet with a tiny pot of nappy cream attached, a backpack baby carrier from the Scouts, a maternity package of essentials from Finland that goes to all new mothers there, and a handwritten notebook of quotes and sayings from an Italian grandmother.

But if you're planning a celebration for a new arrival closer to home, how about whipping up some baby-themed biscuits? I love these cookie cutters from Squires Kitchen. Choose from a bottle, booties, a vest, dress, pram, and even a little foot. And for a royal touch, there's also a crown. To make life easy, they come with decorating ideas.  Happy baking!

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Adopting a tree pit

While some people adopt stray cats or rescue dogs, two weeks ago I took on this tree pit, at the base of a old plane tree by our street corner.  It was a sorry sight, attracting cigarette butts and litter, and a favourite stopping place for local dogs. Now, a bag of compost and some plants from a green-fingered neighbour (thank you, Margaret), have transformed it into an embryonic garden.  The current heatwave means going out with a watering can every evening, but the plants are starting to flower and the rubbish hasn’t reappeared.  There’ve been some encouraging comments from  passers-by, so who knows, perhaps by next year we’ll have a sucession of mini gardens along the street, as there are in nearby Blenheim Gardens (below) – my inspiration!

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Wimbledon sweet spot

Wimbledon excitement seems to be everywhere. I spotted this mouthwatering display by Lola's cupcakes at the Brent Cross mall in north London. Shoppers were stopping in their tracks for a closer look at the beautifully crafted cakes. So, tennis fans - even if you don't have a ticket for Centre Court, these should hit the sweet spot. 

Friday, 21 June 2013

Haberdashery Heaven

Last night I found myself in haberdashery heaven.

Writer and milliner Mary Jane Baxter (left) was signing copies of her new book, The Modern Girl’s Guide to Hatmaking, at Barnett Lawson, a trimmings shop just a couple of minutes from Oxford Circus.  
The basement premises are one of London’s best-kept secrets. Guests who came to the event - and tried on some of her creations, such as (below) an 'emergency' hat which uses cereal packet cardboard as a base -  discovered an Aladdin’s cave of treasures.  

Aisles are crammed with exquisite buttons, ribbons, frogging, fringing, lace, motifs, artificial flowers, decorative butterflies, sequin and diamanté trims, feathers, veiling – even feathered masks. Barnett Lawson was founded more than 50 years ago, and its present owner Caroline Marx has more than 12,000 different items in stock.  She and her helpful staff supply many leading fashion designers, theatre costumiers, milliners and stylists – as well as creative individuals like Mary Jane.

So for inspiration to update your wardrobe or start a new craft project, visit Barnett Lawson at 16 / 17 Little Portland Street, London W1W 8NE. (ph 020 7636 8591) or check out their website
Prepare to be enchanted.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Open Gardens Day inspiration

In NW London, we’ve just had our neigbhourhood’s Open Gardens Day - 14 stunning back gardens, all close to each other, but usually hidden from view. As usual, the afternoon brought hundreds of Mapesbury residents and their friends out onto the streets, holding maps with garden details and exchanging recommendations with fellow enthusiasts. They found a huge range of planting – everything from formal to cottage (above), woodland and meadow - and came away with plenty of inspiration and a better idea of what thrives - or doesn’t -  in our local area. 

I didn't have time to see all the gardens, but of those I did, my highlights included these euphorbias - almost like sculptures, their lime green singing against pink and orange flowers.

I also loved the way this spectacular climbing rose gives an extra dimension to an old fruit tree.

 I've never before seen such amazing wisteria - trained into a fan, so you can actually walk underneath.

And keeping slugs and snails at bay, a little raised planter which brings fresh herbs and salad leaves to the kitchen door. A great idea!

Friday, 17 May 2013

Strawberry trials

Last year, my attempts at strawberry growing were a washout. Lots of leaves, but no fruit. So, inspired by a visit to this productive kitchen garden at the National Trust’s Polesden Lacey, near Dorking in Surrey (left),  I’m now trying two different methods of growing strawberries.

One involves an old fashioned strawberry planter with a secret weapon – a plastic drink bottle, with the base sliced off and side holes cut into it, pushed upside down into the middle to facilitate watering. I’m hoping this will get round the problem of water washing out the compost through the planting openings – a major bugbear in the past.

The second is a home-made version of the Polesden Lacey method, using a garden centre growing bag resting on two planks, which in turn are supported by bricks. It fits just 10 plants but unlike the Trust's, isn’t connected to a watering system.

So far all the plants are flourishing. But which method will produce the most strawberries?

See the results at
More on the Polesden Lacey gardens at

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Tulip time at Chenies

The gardens of Chenies Manor House in Buckinghamshire are a riot of colour at the moment, with some 6000 tulips in full bloom.
The sunken garden is especially lovely, with clumps of pink and blue forget-me-nots, alchemilla mollis, pansies and primroses setting off the paintbox colours of the different tulip varieties (sadly, not named).

The mellow brick house with its 22 individually cut chimneys dates back to Tudor times.
There’s a physic garden, a medieval well, two mazes. and an ancient tree known as Queen Elizabeth 1’s oak (she’s said to have lost a piece of jewellery as she sat in its shade).
In the summer months, the five acres of gardens are filled with perennials, shrubs, roses and many annuals especially dahlias, cosmos and salvias. If you take a tour of the house, be sure to ask your guide about the ghost of Henry VIII, said to roam the building searching for his fifth wife, Kathryn Howard, whom he suspected of having an affair with a courtier.

Chenies Manor House is open every Wednesday and Thursday, 2 – 5pm, and on Bank Holiday Mondays till the end of October.


Thursday, 2 May 2013

Get ahead - Get a hat!

Just out::  an inspiring new craft book by milliner and journalist, Mary Jane Baxter.

“The Modern Girl’s Guide to Hatmaking” is exactly that. The first section outlines clearly with illustrations the basic techniques needed to create a fabulous hat or headband, while the second part contains detailed instructions for 25 projects, ranging from very simple to more advanced. At the back of the book are full-sized templates, including some for the lovely organdy flowers featured on several creations. There’s a wide range of styles, from a sparkly mini beret to a “Fabulous ‘50s Percher” (fashioned from an old straw boater), a "Fast Feather Fascinator" (see below) and even an ‘emergency’ hat, to be rustled up if you get an unexpected invitation which requires some elegant headgear.

Mary Jane (a judge in BBC 2's recent Handmade Revolution series) has been creating hats since she was a teenager. Her first collection was sold in Harvey Nichols, and she has since created bespoke hats for many well-known personalities.
The book is published by Kyle Books (£18.99), just in time for Ascot and all those summer weddings. Mary Jane even includes a useful section on how to find a hat style that suits you best.

There’s a review by Vicky Frost on the Guardian website: