Summer in the City….


…. it’s the bus syndrome again.

Nothing for weeks. And now….

Get ready for a stream of posts from this old dog. With so much to write about…. And so little time.

Because hasn’t it been wonderful? The summer I mean. After an endless run of damp dark years, when it felt like July and August had gone off to somewhere else in the world and forgotten about us, we’ve been rewarded for our patience with a summer from the days when we were young. Where we can throw open windows and doors…. Put up the sun umbrellas and lay out the cushions in the garden…. Drag the cover off the barbecue and light it…. and then do it again a couple of days later. Sit outside in the gathering dusk, eating and talking and remembering old times…. without having to go inside because it’s really far too cold or about to rain or the wasps have taken over.

And while this glorious weather has been doing it’s thing, I’ve been doing a few new things of my own.

A couple of weeks back I went to the Proms for the first time.

Picture the scene. It’s a Tuesday afternoon.  I’m on a bus from Victoria station. The backs of my legs are sticking to the seat, the hair on my neck is hanging in damp curls. I’m so hot I feel like I’m going to dissolve, so that when the bus stops outside the Albert Hall it will be a puddle of water that slides out of the door onto the pavement.

But I make it intact and step out into a swarming mass of excited Wagnerites. Because this is what I’m in letting myself in for. A night of Daniel Barenboim conducting Die Walkurie, the second part of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

Am you completely mad, I hear you cry. Die Walkurie goes on for five and a half hours…. You missed the first part so you won’t have a clue what’s going on….. There are no costumes or props or anything to keep you amused if the music doesn’t…. And no subtitles…. Just singers and an orchestra and not a lot else. And to make matters worse it’s eighty-five degrees in the shade…. And The Albert Hall doesn’t have air conditioning.

But this is how the BBC described the evening.

‘Daniel Barenboim’s Proms Ring cycle with the Staatskapelle Berlin continues with the razored strings and yelping brass of a violent storm, the cloudburst of incestuous love, a bitter marital dispute and the first appearance of Wotan’s rebel daughter, Brünnhilde, sung by a leading exponent of the role, Nina Stemme.’

Sounds kind of exciting, don’t you think!

And it was. Exciting and amazing and fantastic. Honestly….

It helped that we were there with the chairman of the Wagner Society. (Who happens to be a friend, and is a reassuringly normal, fully functioning human being.) So he could fill me in on what it was all about. And it also helped that according to the review in The Guardian the following day ‘the cast that had been brought together at the Albert Hall was very close to being as good as any that could be assembled from singers today.’

So if I’m going to be introduced to Wagner and The Ring Cycle it’s the right way to do it…..

And I loved it.

And then two nights later I went to The Globe for the first time.

Another beautiful night. So perfect for a theatre with a roof that opens to the sky. And I’m there to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream with my daughter Hattie, who has bought the tickets as a mother’s day present.

So dinner together in Borough Market. Then we wandered along the side of the Thames through the evening crowds.

The Globe is lit up and enticing, like a birthday cake.

IMG_0472Inside the atmosphere is buzzing. We’ve rented cushions (thank goodness…. the seats are wooden benches) and we settle ourselves down with the rest of the audience and prepare to be dazzled and amazed. Which we are….


It’s fast and furious and laugh-out loud funny. Fairies, muddled lovers getting lost in the woods, Bottom and Puck and Titania; Shakespeare at his most relaxed and devious.

At the interval we sit on the wall by the Thames as the light fades.


And when it’s over we walk back along the river towards London Bridge station. With the moon competing with the street lights to see who can outshine who.

Not a great photo but spot the moon in the middle….

You’ve got to love summer nights….

Life Classes……

So…. just like buses…. no posts for ages, and then they all come along at once.

But I’ve had sketching on my mind. And although I’ve written about it before, I’m going to write about it again. Cos I’m learning a lot from the sketching.

When we started this course in January, and were told that our sketch books were a really important thing to keep up with, it felt like a burden. I’d had a bit of a go before I started and wasn’t reassured.

Before KLC I didn’t sketch because I thought I couldn’t do it. And you know how it is, if you have a go at something you think you’re rubbish at. You look for proof that you’re rubbish. And when you look for proof that you’re rubbish you usually find it. So you don’t do it anymore.

First attempt
First attempt

This was my attempt at the view from our kitchen window. And ok so there weren’t any stick people in it. And the perspective was kind of there. But it didn’t exactly fill me with confidence at what was to come.

But the great thing about Claire – who’s the one who teaches us all the creative stuff – is that she gives us techniques to switch off the ‘you’re rubbish at this’ voice.  Quick, crazy, sketch in a minute, don’t take your pencil off the page stuff, that makes you really look at what you’re drawing and doesn’t give you time to listen to the ‘are you kidding me? have you seen the mess you’re making on that page?’ screamer in your head.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? When you do something, anything, you haven’t done before it’s very likely, unless you are a born genius (which most of us aren’t), that you are not going to be particularly proficient at it. And the harder the thing is the harder you have to work at it. But if you do, and you listen to people who have done it themselves and can give you some tips, then you get better. And you may not be the best in the world at it, or even the best in the class. But you will be a whole lot better than you were when you started. And that’s a good place to be.


What I’ve discovered about sketching is that it’s much better if you really concentrate on  what you’re trying to draw, and forget the bigger picture and what you think it should look like. Really, really look at it. Ignore the voice that says oh yes that’s a leaf, I know what leaves look like, so I’m going to draw what I know they look like rather than what they actually look like. Because then you get tripped up. Because that leaf doesn’t look like what you think it looks like. Because you’ve never really looked properly at that leaf before.

And isn’t that the way we are in life? We meet a situation and we say oh yes, I know this situation, this is what I do, how I behave, what I think, when this sort of thing happens. And we do what we always do, because we’ve always done it like that. But you know something…. What we always do is not always the best thing to do.

So I’m learning that the thing is to concentrate on the bit you’re working on at the time. Really look at it, draw it how it actually looks, not how you think it should look or expect it to look or want it to look. Do it as well as you possibly can and don’t worry if it’s not perfect. Glance at the bigger picture from time to time to make sure the bit you’re working on fits ok. But don’t jump ahead. There will be bits that seem easy and bits that seem really difficult. Enjoy the easy bits and don’t rush them. And really focus on the difficult bits, don’t avoid them or give up on them because they are difficult. Because without them you won’t have the complete picture.


And you know what….. if you work your way through, and do the best you can, at the end, when you sit back and look at the whole, you might be in for a pleasant surprise.

A little bit wooooo……

This week I’ve had a bit of an epiphany.

(I’m not sure if you can have ‘a bit’ of an epiphany, but I’m uncomfortable with owning up to the full blown fireworks, cannons, balloons type experience so I’m sticking with ‘a bit’.)

This course I’m doing…. You know the one. The full on, crazy, more work than I’ve done before in my life, ever, course – that is supposed to be teaching me how to be a garden designer. Well it isn’t what I thought it was after all.

I thought I was signing up to fill in the gaps in my knowledge about garden design. I thought I knew quite a lot already and all it would take was a bit of time spent on the technical stuff, the hard landscaping, the plant info, the nuts and bolts, and I’d be up and running. Which just goes to show how little I really knew.

Because it’s about so much more….

This course is about how to look at the world in a different way from the way I’ve been doing for the past fifty five years. It’s about understanding that anybody can learn the basics, the life skills; how to walk, talk, read, write; how to construct a terrace, a brick wall, a pergola. These are the essential skills without which we can’t do a good job. But in order to be the best designers we can possibly be we have to challenge ourselves, open ourselves up to things we haven’t considered before, put ourselves into places and positions that don’t necessarily feel very comfortable. And that is really hard.

There are eighteen people on this course and every one of us brings a completely different set of skills and experience and attitudes. We all have the things we like to do, the things we feel comfortable with. And we all have the things we don’t like doing, the things we shy away from, the things we find difficult. But if we just stick with what we know, what we feel comfortable with, we don’t learn, we don’t change, we don’t grow. And this is a huge opportunity we’ve all been given. Because we’ve been given the chance to look at life with new eyes. And that doesn’t happen very often.

It’s been the Concept Garden Project that really brought this home to me.  As soon as we were set the project at the start of term I knew exactly what I wanted to do. And I got on with it. But even though I really enjoyed doing it, in my heart I was frustrated by it. I knew that it wasn’t what I wanted it to be. So I just told myself that in the real world I would never do this kind of stuff, and while it was fun to have a go it really didn’t matter that much.

Well you know what, it does matter.

This week we spent a day with Claire revisiting our concepts, pulling them apart and considering how we might do them differently. And that’s when I had my moment. Because I realised that what I inevitably do when I’m set a challenge, not just on this course but in life,  is take hold of it and rush towards the solution. And I’m a bit smug about it. Because I know where I’m going, don’t you…. I like to be the person who knows the answers.

But there’s a problem with this. Because what happens is that I miss things on the way; important things, challenging things, things I wouldn’t usually consider, things that might be better than the solution I’ve leapt at.

And this reminded me of something a friend gave me to read a while ago. It’s called ‘Mind the Gap’.

There are times in life when the way we used to do things (and the things we did), or the way we used to be, just doesn’t suit us any longer.

Things may look the same from the outside, but on the inside something has changed, we know things cannot carry on in the same way.

And yet we may not know, precisely or at all, what we want, what we are supposed to do, what new direction to take.

This experience feels like a gap.

Many people react to this gap in two ways (we don’t like gaps really, we like it all packed and planned): They try to ignore it (for as long as they can), and hang on to what they know. Or they go into super activity, finding a new direction at any cost, and working like mad to get to it (and often find themselves years later in the same situation).

But that gap has the most amazing energy in it. Really. Everything is in potential there.
It is actually an incredible space to be in.

Thank goodness for the moment when you don’t know what to do, because it means that many possible new directions are available to you from this space. The gap can be very exciting and even relaxing…This is meant to be a place where you don’t have to know or do anything. You can let your brain go fuzzy (like a child) and let inspiration take over.

So, please don’t mind the gap. Let yourself experience its energy, make the most of it, cherish it, even look forward to it.

We experience many of those in life, big and small.

If you allow yourself to relax in that space, and let it do its work, you’ll know when the time to do something is back again. But this time you’ll be doing something new.

When I showed this post to my editor (aka my husband Graham) he thought it was a little bit wooooooooooo…..

But then I’m a little bit wooooooo…..

It’s never too late….

I’m not thanking Ulf Nordfjell for getting me soaked at Chelsea this year. (I can’t help feeling he was personally responsible.) But I am thanking him for introducing me to Nicole de Vesian. It was she, along with Swedish designer, Ulla Molin who inspired his exquisite show garden.

There are two reason I won’t forget her.

One is her wonderful garden in Provence. Which has shot to the top of my must visit list. Sadly these photos aren’t mine. But you see what I mean…


Monty Don obviously agrees with me. If you missed his series on french gardens you missed out. Just click on his name and spend a few minutes in heaven with him. And don’t say I don’t look after you. A fabulous garden…. and Monty Don. What more could a girl ask for….

The other reason I won’t forget Nicole is the fact that, after a lifetime as one of the top designers at Hermes in Paris, at the age of 69 she switched careers and became a garden designer. How’s that for old doggery, new trickery…..

So, at times of stress, when the workload seems like too much, and I’m asking myself if I’m completely mad to be putting myself through all this pain, I’m going to think of her. And be inspired.

Like symbiosis, yah….

Just a quick note…..

I was embracing the weather at Chelsea yesterday when Gardeners Question Time aired, so I missed it. But apparently there I was on Radio 4 – for all to hear.

And in the course of giving my considered opinion about the merits of the Chelsea Fringe, I threw in a casual reference to ‘symbiosis’. As you do…..

When Graham – who did listen to the broadcast – told me I talked about ‘symbiosis’ I thought he must have got it wrong. Because it’s not the sort of word I use in normal conversation. I’m not even sure I know exactly what it means. And I certainly had to look it up in order to know how to spell it…..

But he was right.

So there you go. It’s amazing what you can dredge up under pressure.

Clearly some of us are just meant to be media superstars……..

Mint tea and sympathy….

It’s been quite a weekend….

I’ve just got back from the Chelsea Flower Show. The KLC  students were there en masse for our briefing on the three gardens we are going to be helping on. And I am star struck. We’ve had Ulf Nordfjell, Christopher-Bradley-Hole and Marie-Louise Agius talking to us about their gardens. I’m still pinching myself to check I’m not dreaming.

But I’m going to wait until my next post to tell you more about Chelsea. Because the other thing I did this weekend was go up to The Idler Academy in Notting Hill to take part in their contribution to the Chelsea Fringe Festival. And that comes first.

Mint Tea and Sympathy was the idea of KLC alumni Angela Newman to offer garden design advice to members of the public from the Idler Academy bookshop. Current students join up with previous KLC students for two hour slots, and it was my turn on Saturday.

There are a few good things about this that I have to mention. First is The Idler which is one of those bookshops you wish was just round the corner from you. Friendly, welcoming, great choice of books you really want to pick up and read – and all this with really delicious tea, coffee, cakes, scones.My kind of bookshop

Second, there’s a really lovely little garden at the back of the bookshop, where you can take your cake and coffee – and the book you’ve just bought – and enjoy the honeysuckle and herbs. A hidden gemIt’s a tiny little piece of gorgeousness – designed by Angela. And on Saturday between 1 pm and 3 pm it was a very pleasant place to sit and wait for the stream of people looking to Rachel Parker Soden (KLC last year) and me for advice about their gardens.

So where were they? We ate cake, we drank coffee, we chatted about the course. We had a really nice time. But how pleased were we when a man came out from the bookshop and approached us. We sat up straight, we put on our best smiles – we mentally prepared ourselves to offer words of wisdom. Only to learn that he wasn’t looking for advice. He was from Radio 4, and wanted to interview us about our involvement in the Chelsea Fringe Festival. Rachel and friend

So we might not have talked to punters about their gardens. But we did get to talk into a big fluffy microphone. Which was another first for me. And for those of you who are interested you might be able to hear what we had to say on Gardeners Question Time this Friday at 3pm.

If they decide to include us…..

My First Job

I’ve got a client…. a real client… a client with a garden…. a client who wants me to come up with a design for her garden. I AM BEYOND EXCITED……..

A couple of weeks ago I went to a terraced house in Hampton Hill to meet its owner Jill Watson. Jill is a good friend of my good friend Hilary. Jill wants somebody to help her turn her garden into a space that lives up to the inside of her house. And the person she wants to help her is …. ME.

It feels like this job is made for me. I know this part of the world really well – Jill’s house is only a mile or so away from the house I lived in when we were first married, the house where my son James was born. And it’s just up the road from Hampton Court where I’m doing my course.

And Jill’s house is lovely – inside it feels airy and spacious with a real sense flow. The materials used are beautiful, the colours restful and welcoming. The garden is south west facing and – on Friday morning in the spring sunshine – surrounded by trees bursting into blossom.


So here goes. New career here I come.

Watch this space ……

… and then there’s Everest

This blog isn’t just about gardens and garden design. It’s about doing stuff I’ve never done before. So this post is about the trek to Everest Base Camp that my twin sister Mary and I are setting off for on March 23rd. We’re taking part in a massive research project with the Xtreme Everest 2 team of intensive care doctors, nurses and scientists. If you are interested you can find more information at our Just Giving page and on our blog

And if you’re really interested this is an account of the first stage of the research project when we spent a day at The London Clinic in December.

So it begins…..

The research project into hypoxia that we are taking part in is to be conducted in two stages. The first stage consists of a day in London in December; the second stage will be in Nepal over the three-week trek to Base Camp in March. We are to have a number of experiments conducted on us – in London at The London Clinic near Regents Park, then at three laboratories in Nepal: Namche Bazaar (3500m), Everest Base Camp (5300m) and on descent in Kathmandu (1300m).

So in the gloomy darkness of a December morning, Mary and I catch the 7.23 train from Oxted to Victoria, clutching our bags tightly to our chests in the crowded commuter carriage. Because we really don’t want to lose these bags. These bags contain the gym kit we’ve been told to bring with us… but also two litre bottles full of… our pee!

Just pee into this bottle….

The instructions for our sea level day included a request for us to collect our urine for the 24 hours prior to our visit, so that the amount of nitrate we excrete can be measured! These instructions included the order that ‘You must not touch the urine!’  Really? And ‘Guys aim well! Girls, use those origami skills to make a ‘sheewee’ from your plastic bottles.

Origami skills… I have a suspicion that these ‘instructions’ were written by a man!

Sounds simple?

Well let me tell you that it wasn’t.

Peeing into a plastic jug – my Blue Peter skills let me down when it came to fashioning a sheewee from a plastic bottle – which I then used to fill an empty 2 litre water bottle, is easier said than done. Squatting over the loo with said jug strategically placed (the only way to describe a clumsy and awkward manoeuvre) certainly added interest to my day.

So on Tuesday morning here we both are, in a chilly London twinkling with Christmas lights, walking from Regents Park tube station to The London Clinic. Kay Mitchell (Deputy Director in charge of Finance and Administration for the trek) is waiting for us. She’s cheerful and down-to-earth in black trousers and sensible shoes. We’ve been speaking to her regularly in the build up to today so it’s nice to put a face to a name.

There are five of us being tested today, Mary and I are the only twins. Kay takes us into a small room just off reception where we fill in the first of many forms. Then the other three chaps are led off to start the testing while Kay talks to Mary and me about the muscle biopsy we have agreed to undertake (twins only doing this one) and gets us to sign a consent form.  I’m kind of wishing we hadn’t agreed to this – I’m kind of thinking it’s maybe going to hurt. But in for a penny in for a pound…

Down to business

Kay takes us to the basement of The London Clinic, to two adjoining rooms crammed full of equipment and machines and computers…. and lots of  young men wearing  black polo shirts with Extreme Everest 2 and The London Clinic logos.

And so we begin….

First of all our height and weight, then our blood is taken from us in test tubes. Which is pretty much what happens whenever we do the twin projects at St Thomas’s. But then it begins to get bizarre…. and goes on getting more bizarre as the day progresses.

We blow into tubes, we plunge our forearms into warm water, we hold short lengths of thick sponge in our mouths for three minutes, we have plugs shoved up our nostrils to breathe out through, we –

Well it all gets a bit blurred after a while. But when we’ve learnt how to take each other’s blood pressure, heart rate and put a clippy thing on the end of our finger that measures something I can’t remember, which we will have to do to each other every day on the trek… only then do we go up to the cafe for breakfast. And we are starving! No caffeine allowed, so peppermint tea and just enough time to gobble down a Danish pastry before we’re back down for more tests.

More blur. There was an amazing test where they put a probe thing in our mouths, with a camera on the end, and filmed our blood passing through the tiny capillaries in our tongues. It’s an extraordinary experience to see this network of blood vessels, a maze of dark lacework channels with grey dots pulsing steadily through – and know that your are seeing yourself. We also had to get hooked up to a machine and lie on a bed for half an hour without moving or speaking. And without falling asleep! Challenging! What kept me awake was the thought of nodding off, with my chin dissolving into my neck and my mouth lolling open, maybe a bit of snoring…. surrounded by handsome young men. Not what you want. Am I being incredibly shallow? Yes I am!

Bike test dummies

So just before lunch we are asked to get onto two exercise bikes side by side in the far corner of the room. A smiling guy in glasses hooked me up to various machines, heart rate monitors and ECG’s, with sticky bits of plastic stuck all over me, and a blue plastic face mask across my nose and mouth with another tube attached. I then had to cycle at a steady pace while they ramped up the intensity and asked me to indicate the degree of difficulty with breathing and leg tiredness by pointing at a chart (no speaking allowed) – until it became impossible to continue.

Bike Test
Bike Test

You’d think this would be enough, wouldn’t you? But all this took place with a camera thrust into my face. Because by now the BBC had arrived, and were filming us. Just what you want: face masks, wires, breathing through tubes so you sound like Darth Vadar, cycling to exhaustion – all on film!!!!!!

Mary and I were then interviewed by a friendly girl from the BBC. We were tucked in behind a screen in the corner of the room being asked about our motivation, what it’s like to be a twin (the old question twins get asked all the time!), how we feel about going to Everest. It all felt rather unreal.

Mary then had to redo her bike test, poor thing, because they hadn’t ‘ramped’ it up for the tough bit at the end. So I went to the cafe to have some lunch – nearly 3pm by this time and a very busy day. Then back downstairs – Mary just finishing her bike ride. She went for lunch and I got on with the next test, my right hand in a bucket of warm water for fifteen minutes! Then finger pricked and blood taken. All this being filmed, and I chat to the delightful BBC girl while the skin on my hand shrivels up like a soggy flannel.

The muscle man cometh

The last thing for me is the muscle biopsy! It’s about 5pm and a silver haired man in black tie gear has arrived. Turns out he’s the biopsy man. He’s a regular silver fox – all charm and arrogance and charisma. I lie on a bed behind a screen, BBC camera in attendance, while Professor Silver Fox lays out his tools on the bed. Bizarre to be stretched out, camera man behind my right ear, silver fox in an evening shirt pulling on plastic gloves and arranging his ‘knives’ on the bed next to mine.

He banters away easily, all that ‘you’re too young to remember’ stuff. The biopsy taking is uncomfortable but not painful. He’s injected local anaesthetic first so all I can feel is a bit of pulling and pushing. The gratifying thing is that he is most impressed with my ‘top quality muscle and good condition’. Asks me what exercise I do and I tell him about the regular yoga classes. He says he wishes everyone could hear me – that he sees so many patients whose biggest problem is their poor physical condition! Am I smug….?  Yes I am!

My leg is bandaged and I’m told to take it easy. Then it’s Mary’s turn, and I’m really glad I went first. It must have been unnerving for her, listening and waiting for me to finish knowing she was on next. I am feeling completely exhausted by now and I sit on the bed in the corner of the bigger room and chat to one of the nice tall brothers who is going on one of the April treks after ours.

So Mary is done and we’re both hanging in rags. It’s past six and we’re hobbling a bit, legs stiff and sore where the biopsy was taken. We plan a taxi to Victoria and say goodbye. It’s strange to think that the next time we see these guys will be on the trek. Rather nice to think of seeing familiar faces in such an unfamiliar setting.

No taxis. We take the tube. All a big blur. I get home and lie in a sorry heap in front of the television. It’s been a mad and wonderful day. I am sooooooo excited!