Summer inspiration

An unforeseen pleasure of breeding, currently, is that this is the first summer since 2014 where I’ve not had a festival to organise. Except as I write this I remember that I am actually working on a festival as I speak. So let’s rephrase: it’s the first summer since 2014 where I’ve not been living, eating, sleeping and dreaming brochure deadlines, budget overspends, overwrought colleagues and where to put the sodding feather flags (this year’s Festival works at a gentler pace….so far….).

In about March, when that vile, dark, cold winter ended and 6-month-old Harry became more of an actual human (tiny babies still terrify me), I decided that I was going to really try and make the most of this summer. There would be barbecues! Days out! Allotmenting! Paddling pools! Ice-cream! And reader, I am keeping to that pledge.

In the last ten days I’ve taken my ever-patient child around two world-class gardens for some veg-patch and herbaceous-border inspiration. Last weekend it was Kew, and last week was Hidcote. Veg-patch visiting with a baby in tow does complicate matters slightly – Hidcote in particular is not very accessible, though they are doing their best. Of course Victorian (male) gardeners did not design with 4×4 buggies in mind. And at Kew, we were able to get into the newly-restored Temperate House but obviously did not explore the upper balconies, especially not in 30c heat.

The newly restored Temperate House at Kew Gardens

Inside…I should say something profound and academic but our main experience was that it was flipping hot

Aside from the Temperate House, I was keen to see the Hive installation. Earlier in the year I worked with a producer who had planned the opening of this artwork-come-engineering project, for which I have a streak of professional envy. I have no idea how the science works, but the structure hums and lights up in sync with an actual bee hive.

The Hive Installation at Kew

But actually the star of the day was the Marianne North gallery. I had heard of this Victorian artist as a woman who succeeded in her chosen field despite the (patriarchal) odds being against her, but actually it’s the impact of the hang that takes the breath away. You can not help but say ‘wow’ when walking into this space, packed close with hundreds of finely worked botanical paintings, created in the field in Java, South Africa, the Americas, you name it. She painted all these whilst wearing ridiculous skirts and a corset. She told the men where she wanted her gallery to be built and how they were to display her paintings. What a woman.

The Marianne North Gallery

Obviously there was still time for veg patch gongoozling, particularly of the trend for adding cut-flowers to the beans and tomatoes. My cornflowers never look as good as this.

Matt admires the brassica netting

Get ready for veg patch envy…

Excellent veg patching, in particular this bush of 4 foot-tall cornflowers

Inspiration at Hidcote was of a more sedate order, not least because I was unable to get close to the planting with the buggy. The roses are over now, with border gaps filled with plenty of grasses and…..lots of other things that I can’t identify. Next time I need to take my Mother to tell me what everything is.

Herbaceous border at Hidcote, alas not pushchair friendly so this is the closest I could get

Parched fields of Gloucestershire

Back home, once I’d finished daydreaming about having a Cotswolds cottage with an arts-and-crafts garden attached, or giving it all up to do a three year course at Kew and indulging in writing a dissertation about veg-patching, I got busy. I’ve replanted the back garden with plants for late summer – dahlia, helenium, scabious, aster, salvia, rudbeckia. On the veg patch we’re harvesting beans and courgettes, dahlia and sweet peas. The land is parched with this never-ending summer heat.

My humble efforts

Harvesting: French beans, runner beans, courgette, summer squash, blueberries, blackcurrants, chard, lettuce, spinach, oregano, basil, sweet peas, sunflowers, borage, dill, dahlia, zinnia, cleome. Cosmos are thinking about flowering but are stunted by this dry weather.

Cooking: Spanakopita with chard and courgette, blueberry and nectarine cobbler, blueberry and cinnamon buns, roast chicken with oregano, focaccia

Reading: One woman’s truth about speaking the truth by Jess Philips MP (LOVE HER); A House Full of Daughters by Juliet Nicolson; a biography of Marianne North bought from Amazon for about £3


An arts and crafts masterpiece: All Saints Church, Brockhampton

Easter Monday took us to the tiny village of Brockhampton, close to the River Wye. We were in search of arts and crafts (the William Morris type) and one place in particular, the extraordinary church of All Saints.

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All Saints’ Church, Brockhampton, Herefordshire

This church is nestled so easily into its landscape that it looks hundreds of years old. In reality, it was completed in 1902 and is one of the most dramatic surviving examples of arts and crafts architecture. It’s possible that my great-grandfather, a baker who lived a few miles down the lane, saw it being built. I like this idea very much.

All Saints’ Church was the work of architect and clerk-of-works William Lethaby, disciple of William Morris and a lifelong socialist. He was also deeply involved in the creation of the Central School of Arts and Crafts (later to be known as Central St Martins) as well as Professor of Design as the Royal College of Art and Surveyor to Westminster Abbey.

The church was built according to the principles of the arts and crafts movement, with free expressions of craftsmanship encouraged. There appears to have been an element of letting the building find its own form as it was being built, which for the artist-craftsman is a hugely gratifying way of working. On the other hand, it is easy to understand why Alice Foster, the commissioner, got a little, shall we say, ‘frustrated’ with the approach. Accounts from the time indicate that it was not a happy build and indeed it was to be Lethaby’s last active role as an architect.

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Easter flowers

Despite the challenging build, it’s an extraordinary place. Nikolaus Pevsner, the architectural historian, named it “one of the most convincing and impressive churches of its date in any country”. In other words, the church takes its visual cues from medieval forms, techniques and craftsmanship, but also takes full advantage of materials available at the turn of the twentieth century. It looks old…but it isn’t. The interior is formed of a concrete vaulted roof, lime washed to give a serene light-filled space.

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View down the nave

As it was Easter, the font and nave were brimming with green, gold and yellow flowers; daffodil, gorse and pussy-willow. Brockhampton has a tiny population yet it cares enough about its church to put on a stunning floral display, gratifying to witness.

On the wall is a hand-embroidered altar cloth, donated to the church by an anonymous stitcher in the 1950s, depicting flowers and plants found in the fields and hedgerows of the parish. The same woman (and I am presuming that she was a woman) also wrote a book filled with folk-knowledge of these plants. She did not wish her identity to be known and I suspect never considered herself to be an artist. But to me, this level of skill is as great as that of the male craftsmen who built the church in the first place.

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The hand-embroidered altar cloth. Artist unknown.

The churchyard is immaculate and on Easter Monday was filled with insects, blossom and the inconsiderate squawking of nearby pheasants.

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April blossom

Places like this are so easy to overlook. We see church architecture all over the place, in every village, in every town, and perhaps don’t appreciate the extraordinary cultural heritage on our doorsteps. Other people do – there is an exact replica of All Saints’ Church in Osaka, Japan, popular for weddings. If you get the chance to visit Brockhampton, do.