Grinding, harrowing, and musings on blog frequency

Like many bloggers, the gaps between my postings have been varied and often far too long. I have sworn to myself that I’ll never use the words “sorry I haven’t posted for ages”, “wow, I’m back at last”, “It’s been far too long”, or similar. I’ve spent some time considering how to write, when to write, how often to write, illustrations to include. I’ve known that I haven’t written enough but haven’t been clear on how to resolve that issue.

Writing has formed a significant part of my working life, so I’m not a novice nor am I daunted by the blank page. In the early 90s I was working with Jeremy Myerson (an accomplished journalist and author, founding editor of Design Week, for many years a Professor at the Royal College of Art) on a project and asked him how he managed to keep on writing. “Sheer technique” he responded. He wasn’t being arrogant at all, just helpful. The meaning was clear: just write. And so I did, and his advice has stood me in good stead both in my professional life, and my personal life too.

The biggest stumbling block that keeps me from writing and publishing more is that I spend much of my working life sitting in front of a computer so the last thing I want to do in my time outside work is … to sit in front of a computer. I know some people blog from iDevices but that’s not for me. I need a proper screen and keyboard to produce anything (at least at this stage in my blogging life). And a second block is that I tend towards perfectionism, possibly putting off writing/publishing posts because I can’t see a long enough window of time to “get it right” (whatever “right” is – to misquote Prince Charles in his famous engagement interview so many years ago).

But this morning I received some photos from Steve, the groundworker/heavy machinery guy, which he took at the end of his work yesterday. And I want to share them with you. So, here I am, publishing a new blog post two days’ running (and writing it at my desk in front of my computer in the middle of the working day). No worries; I shall just work on a little later this evening to catch up.

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The stump grinder, and stumps still to be worked on. The white gates are our neighbour’s.

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Almost done

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Stumps now fully ground, tractor and harrow going over the area to smooth it all out, looking towards the south-east

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Looking south-west

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And the job finally completed, looking north towards the house. We are absolutely delighted with what has been achieved by the team and really feel ready to move on.

This last picture shows a little under a third of the garden, what we describe (at the moment at least) as “the front garden”. The two big remaining trees on the right of the picture are both ash, in good condition, and will give us an upper storey to that area of woodland garden.

The laurel hedge in the background is a boundary (forming a bit of a dog-leg in our plot) and in front of that we will be creating a new parking area (screened by new hedges from the rest of the garden) with an ornamental garden and petanque court in front of that.

The shadows on the left come from five large and ancient plane trees, dating from Napoleonic times, which appear to be very strong and healthy.

Between the plane trees on the left and the woodland garden on the right we will have an open area of lawn which will give sweeping views from the house. Its exact position still to be determined, there will also be an area where we will plant spring bulbs to naturalise in the grass and encourage wild orchids to seed themselves. In the foreground we will plant a hawthorn hedge which we will keep fairly low to keep the view open. Friends have successfully established hawthorn and I was very inspired by Arne Maynard’s hawthorn hedges at Allt-y-Bela when I visited last spring.

Which varieties of trees would you plant in the new woodland garden?

The tree work draws to a close, vineyards, badgers, and glorious autumn

My four nights at the house last week went all too quickly. There is always so much to pack into the time over and above our normal life which doesn’t go away  (i.e. work which I mostly do from home, whichever home I’m at).

On this particular trip I also wanted to visit a couple of vineyards, Chateau la Verriere because the red wine we’d bought in August had all been taken back to the UK leaving us without any stocks in France of their very good red, and Domaine du Grand Mayne because a new release of their fizzy pink (Méthode Champenoise), was now in stock. And our trusty electrician, Stephane, was expected to continue with adding new sockets and generally updating the electrics in the house.

Update on the tree work

First, the tree work. The transformation since my previous visit two weeks earlier was tremendous. Almost all of the trees marked for removal had gone leaving the ground looking rather like the Somme although perhaps not as bad as we might have feared due to the helpfully dry weather which allowed the heavy machinery to move around without causing too much damage. The tree surgeons were still cheery; the job was going well for them and they were enjoying it too.

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Thank goodness for the heavy machinery.

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This cage affair was loaded onto the lorry (in place of the big green Benne)

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Watching Steve load the trunks was watching a master at work.

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The guys worked in a very methodical and orderly way from the first tree to the last one.

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The view at the front has been nicely opened up.

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The big green Benne

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I was surprised at how compact the chain saws were

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I was also surprised that access to the penultimate poplar was initially via a ladder!

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Matt gets roped up ready to climb. This was the only climbing I saw as they hadn’t started climbing on my previous visit, concentrating on dropping the poplars close to the electricity wires.

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Another view opened up. This will be the site of a new pond in the dip, surrounded by an exotic style garden (lots of large leaved plants). The overflow from the fosse septique drains through here so it should be fertile!

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A ground out stump, and the house all closed up ready for my departure.

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An annoyingly dark picture! I was slightly late leaving for Bordeaux airport and rushed it instead of checking where the sun was. Ah, well.

And today, as I write this blog update, I understand that the final work (taking a harrow over the Somme-like area of “lawn”) will have been done concluding a mammoth four full weeks of work.

What comes next …

We aren’t worried about the grass growing back. Grass just loves to grow and as we now move to cooler, damper weather it possibly won’t even need re-seeding. My major preoccupation now is to move forward with the overall design of the garden (which hit snags which I won’t go into here) so that we don’t lose any more time in getting some structural planting done. I’m off to a planting masterclass at KLC Design School in London later this week, focusing on trees and shrubs, led by Matthew Childs and Mark Straver (founder of Hortus Loci which I know will help to inform and inspire.

Beating the bounds … and badgers …

When I arrive I usually “walk the perimeter” (beat the bounds?) but I didn’t do this until the following day for some reason. I was disappointed to see that a new access hole had been dug under the fence by what we think are badgers deciding to visit. So I blocked it up with rubble from the garden (mostly debris left from a ramshackle barn which we had demolished at the beginning of last year). Its a rather Heath Robinson (attempt at a) solution but perhaps it will work. Perhaps it won’t … You will see that we have added some chicken wire to the base of the fence to try to keep rabbits out too.

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A few people are surprised that we want to keep mammals out of the garden. The reason is that we don’t want them to trash our planting once we start. We are not against wildlife – of COURSE – but they have the whole of France at their disposal on the other side of the fence. They eat tender vegetation and dig holes at random both of which are unwelcome. Are we likely to succeed, or doomed to fail? Time will tell. At least we’ve kept sangliers (wild boar) out so far …

A glorious morning to visit a vineyard

My first vineyard visit was to La Verriere. We were introduced to this wine by some lovely friends, Lawrence and Sally, and have been converts ever since. I had to be at the vineyard at 9 and the sun was shining warmly so it was a glorious drive. I took the opportunity to take a few photos on the way back which somehow summed up the gloriousness of the morning for me.

It might be autumn, but there are still some remnants of summer hanging on.

But there are also many signs of autumn to be seen

I was very taken by these (what I think are) self-sown maize left from a previous year’s harvest, catching the light beautifully.

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And this open barn is such a typical sight in our part of rural south-west France, although the palm tree is less often to be seen. Rather an interesting juxtaposition I thought.

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I kept seeing swathes of this yellow wild flower on roadside verges. I’m not quite sure what it is. Traffic is so light that I was able to keep stopping the car and jumping out to take photos. Only once did someone want to come past and they waited patiently. There is little to hurry about in our part of the world (except for school run time of course!).

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Having subsequently bought several cases of the Grand Mayne fizzy pink I was delighted when our gardening helpers popped round which meant that I could crack open the first bottle and share it with them.

And on another day I had coffee with a friend in the Café de Paris in Eymet, a nearby bastide market town. For some reason I ordered a cappuccino rather than my usual grand café. I won’t be making that mistake again, not being a lover of squirty cream!

Whatever your tipple, cheers!

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Inspirations: Château de Marqueyssac

Three summers ago while on holiday in the Dordogne with friends, before we thought of buying a property in France, we visited the gardens at Château de Marqueyssac, one of France’s Jardins Remarquable. I had read about the gardens, and seen Joe Swift’s * feature on Gardener’s World in October 2011, and determined that we must go. So the opportunity was perfect.

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Situated on a cliff top high above the Dordogne river, the Château overlooks verdant and productive agricultural land in the alluvial river valley, and woodland on distant hillsides. It was built at the end of the 17th century by Bertrand Vernet de Marqueyssac, Counsellor to Louis XIV. The original design of the garden is attributed to a pupil of Andre le Notre (designer of the gardens at Versailles) and featured terraces, allées and a kitchen garden immediately by the Château.

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Garden foreground, landscape background, seamlessly merging from one to the other

In the middle decades of the 19th century a chapel was constructed, and from 1860 a new owner began to plant thousands of boxwood trees (over 150,000 of them today) and have them clipped into fantastic shapes. Various other trees were also planted (including limes, cypresses, hornbeams), a number of structures built, and over 5k of walks laid out. Time again took its toll with the gardens falling into disrepair and abandon but a new owner in 1996 began extensive restoration work and Marqueyssac was opened to the public in March 1997. It is now the most visited garden in the region.

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We were completely bowled over. At the risk of sounding pretentious the garden presents a real allegory of the tension between man and nature. Close to the Château the topiary is closely clipped and regimented (although very unconventional and flamboyant in design). img_6500The further one moves away from the building the looser the clip becomes, until at the furthest extremities of the park there is little difference between the plants one side of the boundary or the other. The garden is firmly rooted in its landscape.

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This area, in front of the Chateau, with rectangular blocks, is less often photographed
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A more familiar view, with buns, rounds, bobbles …

 

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The santolina and rosemary allée

I suspect many visitors stay within the manicured areas which are spectacular. But when you visit please be prepared to cover some distance and walk throughout the entire garden to enjoy the full effect of the amazing transformation from the hand of man to the hand of nature. I think you too will be overwhelmed by the exuberance, inventiveness, and sheer beauty of the garden and its location.

How did our visit to Marqueyssac inspire us?

A traditional French garden has many formal areas, relying heavily on clipped box (actually, French gardeners clip and pollard most plants if given half a chance!). We will be incorporating some of these elements into our design. The jury is still out on whether it would be prudent to plant much box in these days of box blight and box tree caterpillar.

Alternatives to box, for low close-clipped hedges, are currently being trialled at RHS Wisley in the walled garden (although I can’t find any formal reference to it online) and written about elsewhere. Opinions vary as to whether any truly viable alternative has yet been identified. Few if any alternatives seem to offer every advantage of box which is so versatile, so forgiving. We are keeping our ears and eyes open, still hoping that real remedies to both box problems will be found before we start planting so we can continue with the wonderful French box tradition.

The second main influence was to start us thinking about the sense of place, and the transition between formal near the house and natural at the furthest extremities. More recently (and I shall probably write about this in due course) I attended a day’s course with Arne Maynard at his wonderful house and garden, Allt-y-bela in the Welsh borders. Arne is a master at siting a garden well within its landscape, and moving gently but purposefully between man (house) and nature (boundaries).

Footnotes and afterthoughts

1 Joe Swift was on my most recent flight from Gatwick to Bordeaux, but I decided not to disturb him and left him in peace.
2 The friends we were holidaying with three summers ago decided not to come with us to Marqueyssac. Instead they spent time looking at French properties on Rightmove which they told us about when we returned … the rest is history …
3 The stone tiles on the roof of the Château weigh upwards of 500 tons

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Lady Smocks all Silver White

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Cardamine Pratensis or Lady’s Smock, a link between our two homes

So, how did this adventure come about? Having listened to some friends talking about their ideas to buy a house in France (initially with not a little envy), being quite amazed to discover from RightMove quite how much value the French property market offered, we looked at each other with the same thought in mind, expressed out loud as “we could do that, shall we think about it?”.

So we thought about it. We discussed every angle of two-centre living, whether it was feasible financially (just, if we were careful), how we could manage our work (the wondrous internet), our family, and all aspects of our lives. However hard we tried we couldn’t find any flaws in the idea. Our close family’s response was unanimous: “Go for it!”. Finally, we widened the discussion to our circle of trusted close friends, and again the only responses were wholly positive and affirming.

So we went for it; given that I’d owned the family house for 39 years it was hardly a sudden move! We found our ideal UK base very quickly, had to go ahead in order not to lose it, and for the first five months of 2015 owned two UK houses. This was a real challenge financially, but it enabled us to completely update, refurbish, and redecorate our new Sussex home. We never doubted that we were doing the right thing, even though the process ended up taking longer than we might have expected and required more patience and trust than we knew we had.

Driving back and forth between Surrey and Sussex, on an almost daily basis throughout the spring of 2015 as we supervised (and did many of) the improvements, was a surprisingly positive experience as we were able to watch and enjoy the hedgerows and wild flowers gradually opening and coming into flower. One flower I had never particularly noticed before was Cardamine Pratensis, commonly known as Lady’s Smock or Cuckoo Flower. We stopped the car several times to take a look and enjoy the delicacy of the colour and flower form.

Time passed, the family house was sold, we found our perfect French home, the legal processes chugged through, and eventually it was ours at the end of November 2015. Imagine my surprise, as I have been watching for signs of spring in France in visits over the last few weeks, to see Cardamine Pratensis appearing all over one part of the garden. It is almost as though it is acting as a special link between the two homes, reinforcing the rightness of our decision.

When daisies pied and violets blue
And lady-smocks all silver white
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
Do paint the meadows with delight,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men; for thus sings he:
“Cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo!” O, word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!
Love’s Labours Lost, William Shakespeare