Honeysuckle and Hilda


Three Months in the Country

Flowers by: Honeysuckle and Hilda  Photo by: Claire Bowen

Flowers by: Honeysuckle and Hilda

Photo by: Claire Bowen

I am little bit surprised that it's taken me quite so long to write this post. I really wanted  to call this "A Week in the Country" as I didn't think I could possibly get to a month without writing about everything that has happened since we moved here, but there has been so much to do - not just packing and unpacking, a trip to Belgium, a workshop with Frida Kim, two weddings for beautiful brides, filming with Hilda for ITV, dog modelling in Belgravia, a collaboration with Miller Harris and all sorts of excitement (some of which will appear in blogs to follow), that I've only just had time to catch my breath.  However, today is the day. We are finally unpacked - more or less - the valances for the beds have arrived and we have furniture in the spare room for our guests. It is a balmy 26 degrees in the garden and I've just discovered the WiFi works out here too.  

Living in the countryside, after years of yearning, breathing fresh air and throwing myself completely into something I love feels like a dream come true. After almost two decades working in jobs I really didn't enjoy, just to pay the mortgage and hopefully pay most of the bills, the stress of long hours and city living, loneliness as other people married and had children, persistent ill health and then finally a diagnosis I thought I might not survive, to be sitting here in the garden to day with the tiny dog playing whilst my husband is off galavanting in town, hardly seems like a reality. But there it is. That's not to say life is perfect, because life rarely is, but right now I feel I'm living an idyllic existence I never dared to dream would be mine. 

Photo by: Claire Bowen

Photo by: Claire Bowen

It's difficult to know where to start, as I'm discovering Oxfordshire has much to offer, and at least as many curiosities and quirks as the city, quite possibly more. Our first Saturday involved a trip to Green and Gorgeous for fresh cut flowers, eggs and rhubarb, followed by a shop in the newly discovered Goring Grocer. We were alerted to the existence of The Goring Grocer when Caroline sent me an Insta "Hello" after discovering I had moved nearby via The Foodie Bugle's account. By mid day on Saturday, Charles, whose principal objection to leaving London was that we wouldn't know anyone, had met Rachel, Ash and Poppy, three whippets, two cats, Caroline, Stuart, Kirsten and Phoebe before bumping into Tamara, someone I used to work with a long time ago (see above). By the end of the day, having feasted on delicious salads and tortilla, followed by homemade rhubarb crumble, he was looking really rather cheerful.

The next morning, we decided to walk up to the village Church. Two children had already been sent to knock on our door to let us know that the service started at 9.30 am, so it seemed churlish not to put in an appearance. Before setting off, I reminded Charles of our agreement that we wouldn't mention that I was in any way involved with flowers. I've seen plenty of Murder Mysteries, thank you, and we all know that the Church Flower Committee can be a very emotive and sometimes dangerous gathering. I was reassured that all would be well, and we set off across the field to the morning service. The Church is small and really rather beautiful. And its congregation really very charming. 9.30 am, it turns out, really means "shortly after 9.30 am, or thereabouts, once we've double checked no one else is rushing up the path" and people were keen to introduce themselves. They also had plenty of questions and I was reminded a little of the arrival of the newcomers to Green Lawns in Laski's novel The Village, as the residents wonder what they will bring to the community, would they be good customers in the shops (except we don't really have any here), would we have a son who could be a husband to Margaret (sadly, no children) and were we good bridge players (actually no one asked, which is just as well as we're rusty, but competent, at best). What I mean is that there was an overall feeling of hope and expectation that we would be an active part of the community. Over a cup of tea and some cake, we were asked what we did for a living. I quickly answered that neither of us were working and were waiting to find our feet here before deciding what to do. Before I knew it, I heard a familiar voice exclaiming "that's not true... she's started her own floral design business. And she's got weddings next month and all sorts of things going on" .... which, to be honest, was bad enough. However, when we discovered we were indeed talking to the Head of the Flower Committee, my partner in crime helpfully decried "THE CHURCH FLOWER COMMITTEE!!! Don't you all get together and spend your time judging each other". Why? Why would he say that? It wasn't even 11 am and he was definitely sober. Good grief.

The walk to Church  Photo by: Claire Bowen

The walk to Church

Photo by: Claire Bowen

However, we escaped in one piece and headed back to Goring in time for the Village Greenfingers Spring Show. Here we found the annual Daffodil competition, as well as small arrangements, Easter Bonnets decorated with chicks, potato figures (the potato head Trump was my personal favourite), jam, cakes and, of course, root vegetables galore. I waited with baited breath as Charles instroduced himself to the President of the Greenfingers - I was still recovering from the debacle of a few hours ago but luckily he was too busy discussing Hilda to cause serious offence and we were even invited to their next quarterly meeting. 

And so it began to become apparent that, just an hour from London I could live out my fantasy of village life without Charles panicking that we had moved too far from the world's axis. Indeed, he had just popped up to town (my new phrase, and oh, how I love it!) when there was a knock on the door. i opened it to find the Vicar on the porch. I was just explaining that we hadn't really unpacked and I wasn't sure where everything was when he told me that he really only needed a cup of tea.  And this was one of the first of many village encounters that week. As I was walking down the lane with Hilda a few days later, a lady jumped out of her car and introduced herself as the Church Warden. She asked me how "baby" was coming along. I told her that there was no baby that I was aware of. Having established that I was not Jade - another newcomer to the village apparently - she looked apologetic and said that I didn't look as though I was about to have a baby... "or at least, not in the next month". Thank you, Gillian. I have, however since met Jade (and her baby) - she is at least a decade younger and two stones lighter than me, so on balance, if anyone should feel insulted, it's probably not me. 

Cakes and pastries by: The Goring Grocer  Photo by: Claire Bowen

Cakes and pastries by: The Goring Grocer

Photo by: Claire Bowen

Another bonus of living where we do is that straight away we've had so many of our favourite floral friends to stay - the first was Miss Pickering, who came to see us on a very rare week off from her part of Middle England. She was soon followed by Brigitte from Moss and Stone, and Lucy The Flower Hunter - even Jenn Pinder has been round for supper (bringing with her both Matilda and her lovely husband, who coped admirably with an evening of Instachat). And it's only a week or two before we have the pleasure of Sarah from Simply by Arrangement. We are both attending the Jo Flowers rose masterclass that is being held at Rachel's establishment down the road, and I'm just so excited about this. It's fair to say that I've seen far more of my flowery friends since moving here than I did when living in West London just 15 mins from New Covent Garden Market. I had no idea that life outside of London would be so much more sociable. And there have been new flowery friendships too - my Saturday morning visit to Green and Gorgeous and chatting with Rachel and Poppy is a highlight, but also getting to know Juliet of Babylon Flowers has been such a pleasure. She provided me with so many of the wonderful flowers for one of my May weddings - geum, forget-me-nots, pulsatilla, cerinthe major, Solomon's Seal, to name but a few - and earnt my everlasting gratitude when she braved stinging nettles as she rescued some viburnum (for the bride's bouquet) behind the compost heap. Her dedication to the cause can be seen all over the Babylon plot - her new flower meadow is a thing of great beauty - and Hilda seems determined to get herself a job there with Coco and the rest of the dogs "working there". Every time I fill my little car with Babylon flowers and leave smiling and happy, there is a sulking, tiny brown dog on the passenger seat who does not share my joy!  

And it's been a chance to renew acquaintances too. Having met Chloe of Bare Blooms at the beginning of the year, it was great to be able to pop up the M40 and visit her and spend some more time with her. She very kindly allowed me to trail around after her when she was picking flowers at The Land Gardeners for a wedding she had that weekend. I had visited Warrington Manor a couple of years ago, but the class was held in the winter months, and I was not at all prepared for the sheer beauty and floral splendour that greeted me as I arrived. It was privilege to see Chloe in action and better still to hear all her plans for the soon-to-be-relaunched British Flower Collective. Such exciting times and so many good ideas - I can't wait to see what happens next!

Flowers by: Honeysuckle and hilda  Photo by: Claire Bowen

Flowers by: Honeysuckle and hilda

Photo by: Claire Bowen

News of our arrival in the Village, meanwhile, didn't take long to filter through to other quarters. on fine Thursday morning, as I played with my roses and honeysuckle from the garden I answered the door in my linen apron, large bunch of ranunculus in my hand, to be greeted by the postman. "Ah" he said " so YOU'RE the couple that have just moved down from London, then!". My country disguise seems not to have been as subtle as I had imagined, proof that the realms of Pinterest and Instagram don't always accurately reflect the nitty gritty reality of every day life.  

Indeed, every day life is very varied in this corner of Oxfordshire. Every third Wednesday is the Mens' Drinking Club (if indeed that's what it is actually called) - where Charles goes off to meet his new found pals and sets the world to rights. This week he came home to tell me that between six of them they had solved Brexit and had nearly worked out what to do about North Korea, but not quite, before being sent to The Snoring Room - Hilda went with him to listen to him extrapolate further, but soon came to find me when the conversation stopped and was replaced with a loud ruffling sound... There was also the Summer Barn Dance, complete with homemade beer (which I didn't sample) and an excellent caller, who had the whole Village reeling and Stripping the Willow with great enthusiasm. I did wonder whether the purpose of the dance had been rather like those organised by Doctor Gregory in The Village by Laski - those of you up to date with our book club will know exactly what I mean - as sometimes, given that this village is the intersection of two large estates, there can a slightly feudal feeling about the place. However, my misgivings were soon put to one side as everyone joined in - no one more so than our Vicar, who took my suggestions that he "put some effort in" really rather well and absolutely in the spirit that I had intended. So much so, that I hear there were only five people at Church the following morning, and that Vicar wasn't one of them. 

There are so many other things I would like to tell you about - the time we went to a vintage house sale held in a beautiful farmhouse close to here (they even have alpaca!) only to overhear the lady who lives in the Manor tell the owner that it was unacceptable to buy flowers in Waitrose and that she herself had just returned from a trip to Belgium and Holland where she had purchased her own bulbs and box hedging to bring back, because that was the only acceptable approach to gardening. I didn't know where to look as the opening scenes of EM Delafield's Diary of a Provincial Lady literally enacted themselves out before me. True it was Waitrose flowers rather than Woolworths bulbs, but everything else pretty much as it had been written in the 1930s. (It would actually be very unfair to compare the person in question to Lady B, as she is quite charming in every other respect, it was just that coincidence of detail was almost too much to bear).  

But right now I have piles of British flowers from Green and Gorgeous to arrange along with my own ones from our garden. I've just checked on the mother thrush who is nesting in the honeysuckle right by our front door and spotted her feeding worms to her chicks. Hilda and Charles are in Goring paddling in the River Thames, and I have vegetables to peel for supper as more friends are just "passing through" this evening. If I've referred a few times to life mirroring fiction is recent days, above all I'd have to say that, at this moment, I'm pretty much living the utopian dream, be it Virgil's Ecologues, Jerome K Jerome's Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, or Gray's Elegy. I'm hoping so much that it lasts. And maybe, if I'm lucky, I might even get to join the Flower Committee soon. My husband's bad behaviour was quickly overlooked once his Tenor voice was identified by Church Warden - choir practice starts in a few weeks. I suspect there are more bucolic blog posts to come....