The Only Way is Essex……

Who’d have thought it…..

If you’ve read any of my previous posts you’ll know that I’ve been going on a bit about how it’s the Spanish who really know about style. I’ve been drooling over graceful old villas on Pine Walk in Puerto Pollenca, and suffering “I want one of those’ moments at every turn in Mestre Paco, ‘the best interior design shop in the world’ in Pollenca. So imagine my surprise to find that the ultimate in cool, understated, utterly fabulous design is right on my doorstep at home in the UK. In ……. wait for it……. a bird sanctuary. In……. wait for it even more…. Essex.

Last Tuesday morning I went anti-clockwise round the M25, through the Dartford Tunnel, off at Junction 31, and hung a left towards Rainham Marshes. I had a date to meet garden designer and KLC lecturer, Catherine Heatherington, at the RSPB visitor’s centre to help her with some research she’s doing for her PHD. She had asked for volunteers to take a walk round the nature reserve, then meet up with her and talk about the experience and answer some questions for her.

So what am I expecting? Well I’ve driven along the stretch of the M25 that goes through this particular part of the world countless times. And never felt even remotely tempted to stop and explore. Flat uninspiring landscape, industrial sites, business parks, grey smoke, grey river – the last place in the world you’d expect to find anything beautiful.

So it comes as something of a shock when I follow the signs to Rainham Marshes, turn into the sanctuary and park my car in the free car park. Because as soon as I catch sight of the visitor centre I know that I’m somewhere a bit special.


And once I start to follow the boardwalk pathway through the marshes I know I’m in another place altogether.


It’s so quiet. The distant hum of traffic on the motorway in the distance, the faint rumble of the Eurostar trains speeding past, serves to emphasise the peacefulness, so that the calls of the birds, whose names I don’t know, sound startlingly clear and sweet. The sculptural nature of so many of the plants here is thrown into sharp relief by the landscape.


As I walk I feel alone, but not lonely, comfortably contained within this landscape which stretches away from me on all sides.  At every turn there are modern day Constables and Turners for eye feasting. IMG_1135And it’s this aspect that is a theme in the design of so many of the man-made structures within this site. The framing of these stunning views is done for me, inviting me to stop and gaze.


It’s in these man-made structures, their design, the materials used, and the way that they harmonise and work with the landscape, that I find the style that was the last thing I expected to come across in a bird sanctuary. I said something in one of my last posts about the way things were put together in ‘the best interior design shop in the world’, so that ‘it was as if they just happened to come together without anybody really noticing how it happened’. Well I find that same effortless style here.


This site combines the supremely modern with remnants of past and there are constant reminders that in one of its previous lives the marshes were used by the military as a firing range.


It really is the most extraordinary place. There is something here for everyone and I can’t wait to come back. So do yourself a favour and go……..

And if you are thinking of going, and would be willing to take part in Catherine’s research leave a comment here and I’ll put you in touch with her.

Exam Fever…..

I’m feeling rather mean…. And extremely lucky….

Because while my fellow students are back in the UK feeling the pressure of looming exams, I’m sitting on a warm terrace with my cup of tea writing this post. The skies overhead are an unbroken blue, there’s the gentle sound of running water from the pool nearby, and I’m wondering if breakfast here on the terrace is a good idea or whether to wander along under the shade of the pines by the sea’s edge to coffee, fresh orange juice and emsaimadas (that’s Spanish doughnuts to the uninitiated) in the Cappucino bar in the port.

It’s a tough life….

So why am I not suffering from exam fever when the rest of my fellow students are still right in the middle of it?

Because…. yippee, hooray, hurrah…. I’ve already done them.

I booked my summer holiday before I started this mad crazy course and got the dates muddled up. Luckily for me KLC were kind and allowed me to sit the exams early so I could still go away as planned. So Wednesday morning saw me battling the traffic to get to Hampton Court for nine o’clock. I parked my car and made my way through the shady corridors and bright courtyards of the palace as usual. But I was in an alternative universe.

Because when I made my way up to the KLC studio Annie was there at her desk in the office, and Claire was preparing to teach her class, but the rest of the cast were different. The names on the sign in sheet where we students check in and out were unfamiliar. And smiling, friendly Humaira, who looks after the admin side of things and keeps us cheerful when we’re feeling the pressure, had become smiling, friendly Phillipa.

The other diploma course, which started the term after we did, comes in on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and it was as if I had slipped through the time barrier and become one of them. Until Annie showed me into the smaller of the two studios, where a pen, pencil, and stack of paper were neatly arranged on the desk in front of a solitary chair. She handed me the Garden History exam paper, wished me luck and left me to the silence of an empty room.

Let me tell you…. It’s a very, very long time since I last sat an exam. In fact it’s 32 years ago. And I was 23, and sitting the bar finals in order to qualify as a barrister. So it felt extremely weird to be writing my name on the front of the paper, reading through the questions, picking up my pen and wondering how to begin.

But you know what…. it was fine. An hour and a half of garden history. A break for a coffee and mead cake from the Hampton Court coffee shop. (You don’t get coffee and mead cake when you’re sitting your bar finals!) And then an hour and a half of plant science, horticulture and construction. I had to guess the answers to a couple of the questions that I’m pretty certain I knew the answers to but just couldn’t drag them out of my brain. I struggled at times to stay focussed – lack of sleep is not good for remembering details. But I actually quite enjoyed it.

And now the exams are done. And the summer has started. And I know there’s lots of work to do, projects and work experience, and fitting in all the other stuff which comes under the family/home/garden umbrella and which I’ve had so little time for this year. But now that I’m feeling more relaxed life seems exciting and full of potential.

It’s amazing what a difference a few days holiday can make….

And to any of my fellow students who happen to be reading this – hang on in there. I’m thinking of you.

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.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder……

Hello blog….. Have you missed me? I’ve missed you.

I can’t believe it’s been three weeks since my last post.

There are two main reasons why I haven’t been keeping up with my writing. The first is a change in my sleep patterns; the other is the weather.

The sleep thing first. I haven’t been very good at it. Sleeping, that is. Too much to think about. There’s the challenge of the Crane Park Project and the get down and get on with it Construction File, both to be handed in on the first day of next term. There’s prospect of two weeks work experience at Great Dixter in July and an opportunity of spending a week at Long Barn, the stunning house and garden in Weald, once owned by Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicholson. There are the exams – which I am sitting in one go next Wednesday before flying to Majorca in the evening.

All very exciting. And rather terrifying. How am I going to fit it all in? Let alone deal with all those family things that have to be dealt with – like my dear lovely father-in-law who is so very ill, and my dear lovely husband who is having to deal with it, and my dear lovely son who is trying to get his new business venture off the ground, and my dear lovely daughters who are changing jobs and moving into a new flat.

These aaaaaargggghhhhh moments in my life get in the way of me sleeping. Hours awake in the middle of the night mean I don’t wake up early like I usually do. Which means I don’t get to sit down with my cup of tea to write my posts.

The other reason is the weather. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but it’s been ‘s***’. And my garden is taking it personally and refusing to play ball. Usually at this time of year we go away to Majorca – and I miss one of the best times in the year for the garden. So this year, with the KLC course requiring me to be at home, I was really excited at the thought of being there for fabulousness of the garden in June. But nothing’s happening…..

Or to be fair, quite a lot is happening. But a lot of it is of the ‘in a week or two it’s going to be amazing’ variety of happening. And guess what….. I’m going to be away.

But there have been some great moments. And here are some pictures of the action so far….

These Crab Apples were amazing at the end of May
These Crab Apples were amazing at the end of May
Wonderful wisteria
Wonderful wisteria
View through the Amalanchier
View through the Amalanchier
Old Blush China rose

And a few close ups ….IMG_2921


So maybe things aren’t that bad after all……..

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……..

Just another day at Chelsea….

This year I don’t just get to go to the Chelsea Flower Show once. I get to go three times….

So yesterday found me back again. With a load more people than were there on Sunday – and a perishingly cold wind.

If I’m honest I’d been a little disappointed when I’d had a quick look at the show gardens on Sunday afternoon. So I wasn’t expecting to be wowed. But I was wrong. I just hadn’t been looking in the right places.

The garden I had been most impressed by on Sunday was the Artisan Garden by Kazayuki Ishihara. It was small but perfectly formed, and I was really pleased when it won Best in Show for its category. It looked even better on second viewing.


Is there such a thing as ‘pot envy’? Because if there is I’m suffering from it. IMG_0687

These were on  the ‘Le Chene Vert’ Stand. I WANT ONE!

And Robert Frost’s garden for Homebase was simply gorgeous.


But my favourite of all was Chris Beardshaw’s garden for Arthritis Research UK. IMG_0728IMG_0733IMG_0732It had movement and life and vigour. The planting was exuberant and bold. The choice of sculpture and hard landscaping spot on. As I stood jostled by the crowds I felt breathless with admiration. Definitely my Best in Show.


OK so the Queen might have been at Chelsea today. But the Kings were there first….

Yesterday afternoon Graham was at Stamford Bridge watching Chelsea beat Everton. And I was at the Flower Show getting a sneak preview.

KLC students are helping out on the show gardens of Ulf Nordfell, Christopher Bradley-Hole and Marie Louse Agius. So we were there yesterday for our briefing.

Christopher Bradley Hole briefs us
Briefing from Christopher Bradley Hole
Gussy, Katarina and Alex
Gussy, Katarina and Alex

I’m going to be working on the Ulf Nordfjell garden on Friday.IMG_0637IMG_0641

Some of us are fronting Christopher Bradley Hole’s immaculately presented garden.

Still waters...


And five years ago Marie Louise Agius was one of us – so it’s a real buzz to be helping on her garden.IMG_0415

KLC rules OK!

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…..