Walls

Yes, you may well wonder where I am going with this blogpost ….

I confess to having become fascinated by walls since we moved up to the north-east of England …

It’s all down to building materials, of course.  When we lived in Mid-Devon, there was very little of the local sandstone, and what there was available was used for important and expensive buildings like the little St Lawrence Chapel which we looked after for Crediton parish church.Our own house (round the corner) and Victorian had nice brick garden walls in the garden itself …But once you ventured down the track behind the houses that the coal delivery man would have used, you were back to the older cheaper local stuff – cob. Cob is made up of anything to hand – mostly dung, mud and straw. It’s very vulnerable to the elements.  To protect the wall, it was preferably built on a small stone base, and roofed with slates  – both of which you can see in this picture. What you can also see in the picture is the render – that’s the modern casual way to repair a cob wall …I might once have been inclined to say there is no finer sight than a good cob wall (as you can see here on the shed wall at our B&B in Woolfardisworthy last damp summer) …Until I came to live in Northumberland where there is stone! Beautiful stone! Our own cottage (a converted steading) shows this particularly to perfection in the light of the rising sun a couple of days ago.  This is sandstone, abundantly and gloriously available here …And everywhere there are fine stone walls (sometimes with the odd little whimsical brick) …Which we took for granted until we saw where a local farmer had driven casually through a stone wall so as to deposit the manure from the barn in an inaccessible field …Elsewhere we saw how a collapsed wall had been – well, err, left collapsed …

Time takes me in mouthfuls; the teeth of the frost bit into my body here; here my mortar crumbles; the wind rubs salt into every wound  (says the poet, Kevin Crossley-Holland.) Yes, that’s just exactly what happens to the walls near the sea round here …Eventually the stones were cleared away leaving the bank alarmingly vulnerable …Walking up to Edin’s Hall Broch in the nearby Scottish Borders, we noted the irony of collapsed walls left to deteriorate and be replaced by barbed wire fencing … While the much more ancient stone walls of Edin’s Hall Broch itself were still standing well …Once we started looking at walls with these eyes, we saw a great deal that was both impressive and beautiful – and quite a lot that was sad. You cannot but be struck by the beauty of the wallflowers growing in the walls on Lindisfarne …Nor the mossy walls we found when on holiday near Lochgoilhead.  I am overgrown with insidious ivy …And – oh my goodness – how I love to see the willowherb growing in the walls along the East-Coast railway line …But these are the beginnings of damage. A young shoot breaking through the wall …Puts down strong roots …Without doubt a broken wall is an evocative sight, adding strongly to this picture of desolation and damp and mist in Scotland.  I am a desolate wall, accumulator of lichen …But a broken wall isn’t just picturesque – it can be downright dangerous. This is the wall separating the East-Coast Railway line from our local footpath – now, just think of the speed those trains travel! Why a hop, skip and a jump and I’d be over. I am unrepaired; men neglect me at their own risk …I was intrigued to see the anatomy of a good wall laid so clearly bare when walking on Lindisfarne recently …You can be sure that this hole (also on Holy Island) will be repaired properly. (I have to admit to being fascinated by this hole – what on earth caused it?  It’s very rare for a well-built wall to collapse like this.  I can only think a car drove into it.)Once – just once – we happened upon somebody repairing a wall (up near St Abbs).  This man deserves every accolade because it was a miserable day to be out working … After all, there is so much in a good wall to admire – and intrigue.  Can you see the faint line of stones in the centre of the wall sloping down to the left?  I can’t explain this …Sometimes falling render reveals old secrets, little unsuspected doorways …And even unconcealed doors in walls have a special lure …This door is set in the wall which surrounds the local Paxton estate …And walls of that size are in themselves a source of wonder – all that labour! We had to stop and admire the colour of the worn sandstone …At one point there must have been a rather fine entrance here. Just look at that worked stone at the top of the wall on the left!Repairs vary – the best are surprisingly successful (aesthetically as well practically). Just like this large brick patch   …Even painted walls have their beauty too. Every lump and bump is enhanced …And what a wall can do for a garden! This is Priorwood, in Melrose. These gardens nestle under the more famous Abbey, and my photo on a dull day doesn’t really do justice to them. But they are wonderful – and this large backdrop of a wall frames them perfectly  …Then I found myself in London, walking round Walthamstow, with walls on my mind. Oh, the variety of these little walls! All the houses have similar mouldings, porticos and bay windows – but the front walls!Just look at the creativity here!And here!So much personality expressed in just a little suburban wall!You’d think I’d have had my fill by now, but an unexpected birthday present last year opened my eyes to yet another aspect of walls – political walls … This is a fascinating book – I had no idea that so many countries had built – and were building – walls.  My business is to divide things, my duty to protect. It’s shocking – but I’m not going to dwell on it right now …I’m coming back to where I started – our home, and the walls around us. Because right there – on the boundary between our gardens and the next door farm – are some fascinating remnants of when this farm was a grander affair – coping stones.  There are only a few odd ones left now, and when these buildings were converted, they were shoved higgledy-piggledy amid whatever stone the builders could find.  Not very elegant, but a powerful reminder of what labour used to be.  These coping stones are rounded and would have been worked with the simplest of tools. Makes you think …My business is to divide things: the green ribbons Of grass from the streams of macadam …

All quotes from Kevin Crossley-Holland’s poem, The Wall.

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The gift of plants

We are back in the busy world of full-on gardening after what seems like a long, damp and difficult winter.  How blissful!

As I get busy in the garden again, spending long hours out in the wind and the sun – weeding, planting and watering, – I seem to be re-acquainting myself with some very old friends indeed.  Why many of these are plants that have travelled with me from garden to garden, and a lot of them have been given to us by some of our dearest family and friends!

You see many of the plants that I grow in this Seaview garden are plants that I have grown in other places, at other times.  They are cuttings and rootings that I lovingly potted up and transplanted when we came here. There they sat, against the wall, in the wind and snow and cold of our first winter, waiting for us to start work on the garden in the spring.Arrival at SeaviewTake, for example, the alchemilla mollis (also known by its very charming colloquial name of Lady’s Mantle) – one of my very favourite cottage garden plants.  Here it is in our Northumbrian garden:Alchemilla mollisAnd here it is – edging another path – in the little Devon garden we used to have.Alchemilla mollis in DevonIn our Seaview garden, the wild pink geranium is just about flowering.pink geraniumThe white valerian is now out.white valerianThose too flourished in our Devon garden (the valerian on the right, and the geranium on the left).Devon gardenHere in Northumberland, the Lamb’s Ear plants are doing well – they particularly love our seaside climate.Lambs tails 2As well as the small garden of our terraced Crediton home, we also looked after the garden of the nearby mediaeval chapel of St Lawrence.  There are the parent plants of our Seaview Lamb’s Ear plants (as well as lots more Alchemilla).  On the very far right of this picture, you can see a glimpse of the rose we planted when Stephen and I married here (alas, I have lost its name – such a pity). St Lawrence pathHere is the cutting of that self-same rose, blooming in our garden at Seaview. (Bit of a cheat this picture because it is heavily in bud right now, but not actually in bloom, so I have borrowed a pic from last year to show you this beautiful rose.)St Lawrence roseAll these plants reminding me of other gardens, other places, other times that I have enjoyed.

In addition there are a whole host of other plants that have come from friends and family.  There’s a purple houseplant that was given to Stephen as a cutting some 30 years ago. Such an amazing colour.purple houseplantThis gorgeous pot of marigolds grew from a handful of seeds I picked in my cousin Polly’s garden last summer.  They have been a constant delight, remarkably flowering in this pot right through the autumn, winter and spring.Polly's marigoldsIs is a family thing, I wonder, this wish to pass on plants from family gardens? Polly’s lovely Cambridge garden had its own tally of traveling plants.  This fine yew tree grew from a cutting her father took in his Somerset garden.Somerton yewAnd here is the Ancestral Box, no less!  Her American mother, brought it back as a cutting from her ancestors’ lands in Virginia.Virginia boxOf course, passing on plants is an economy too.  A kind Devon friend gave me 6 raspberry runners from his garden when we first moved here.  We were so cash-strapped, and so grateful! We discovered that raspberries grew so well here that I supplemented our raspberry bed with other varieties.Raspberry plantsMy Aunty Jilly in nearby Edinburgh has been so very generous with seeds, roots, and cuttings from her garden.  There’s a Holly seedling from her garden in this bed, those elegant tall cream flowers in the centre of the picture also came from her garden (don’t know their name – can anybody help me out?), as did the Centaurea in the bottom left of the picture (not yet in flower).Plant from Aunty JillyWe pass plants back to her too.  Here are the sweet pea pots we have prepared as a gift for my aunt’s 90th birthday next month!sweet pea potsPlants have come here as birthday presents too.  Our apple tree was just such a gift to me from my parents.Apple tree giftThere are certain plants in my garden that give me particular pleasure because they have such strong associations with my late father. He loved to grow these little yellow Welsh poppies which have snuck into their courtyard garden at Wells in Somerset.Welsh poppies at Wells homeI grew them in our Crediton garden in Devon.Welsh poppies in DevonAnd I am so delighted that they are beginning to self-seed here too.  Many would call them weeds, but I love them and encourage them to grow, especially on the edges of plants and walls, where the soil is dry and poor (just what my father used to do).Welsh poppiesI come from a family of enthusiastic gardeners, but it is my father’s gardening choices that have influenced me most.  Morning glory, cosmos, sunflowers – these are all plants we have grown/try to grow/ would like to grow, and all plants he grew most successfully.

He also grew geraniums.  There were always pots of geraniums in the summer months at the front door of my parents’ houses.  Here we are outside our Farningham home in 1978 with my American cousins.  Amid the geraniums.geraniums at Farningham front doorLater, they moved to Budleigh Salterton, and again, here we are – this time in 1987 – beside the geraniums!geraniums at Budleigh front doorThere were geraniums too in the conservatory of their house at Wells.geraniums in Wells conservatoryNo prizes for guessing that what flourishes most beautifully and strikingly – and preciously  to me – in the conservatory of our Seaview home are geraniums.  Preferably scarlet or hot fuchsia.conservatory geraniumsWhen it came to his funeral last year, it was natural to make a posy of geraniums to sit on his coffin. The dark-leaved geranium is one I particularly remember him growing.geraniums for RHE's coffinJust as I was mulling over my ideas for this blogpost, what was to arrive from Rebecca in Melbourne but a little bit of Australian sunshine – a packet of her sunflower seeds!  Do you remember her writing about packaging sunflower seeds in her Needle and Spindle blog?  How extraordinarily opportune that they should arrive so perfectly to illustrate my own blog on the pleasure of gifted plants!  Thank you so very much, Rebecca!Sunflower seeds from Australia