Wisteria Hysteria, Tulip Mania and the curious incident of the dog passport in the night-time - Five days in Belgium for the Primaveral Workshop
It's been a while since I actually sat down and tried to write a blog post - so much has happened with house moves, funerals, weddings and even an exciting project to work on and so I'm terribly behind with all my posts. I have five half written drafts stored in my website. I was deciding which one to actually finish this week, when a set of the most beautiful images by Louise of Taylor and Porter dropped in my in box, and suddenly I thought of so many things I wanted to say.
April marked exactly a year since I decided to try and make a go of some sort of floral career, and this time last year I headed off to St Giles in Dorset for the Ponderosa and Thyme workshop. Lots had happened since then, and it's already well documented just how wonderful and positive that experience was, and how many dear friends made - and yet, setting off from St Pancras International, I still had my fair share of nerves, but there was also plenty of excitement too.
It's a difficult thing to decide which kind of workshop to go on. After all, it's a big investment in oneself, and (for me anyway) a lot of thinking has to go into it. Last year's retreat was a huge step forward for me and, as I had very little experience, it had been easy to fall for Katie's incredible style, and her compassion that was conveyed in all her images. But this year, I knew I had to build upon those foundations. I first found out about Emily of Fleuropean's business from Susanne at The Blue Carrot when she gave me some of her ribbon to tie my bouquet. That ribbon had many other lives before being cut into smaller pieces used to tie Christmas decorations onto the tree. There was a degree of protest from the Bowen household when I changed the entire colour scheme for the tree in order for it to work with this one piece of ribbon. Luckily some competitive family members came round and expressed such admiration for said ribbon/ decorations and colour scheme, plus a determination to do the same to their tree next year, that my husband had a rare moment of proverbial chest beating, and what had been a sore point soon became one of great pride. I am already wondering what I can get away with this year, but armed with the knowledge that competitive festive decoration can be an excuse for a little bit of prop shopping, I'm mentally making that list. The festive tableaux could well be amazing.
But I digress. When Emily posted that she was doing a workshop in Belgium that involved a class in natural dyes for ribbons, I immediately saw an opportunity to try out a new skill. When I saw she was hosting it jointly with Madison of Hart Floral - who has a lightness of touch in her work that I so admire but could never replicate - I could immediately see the potential to take my craft forward. I mentioned on Instagram that I was thinking about it very seriously when some other people, whose work I had been admiring and following some time (that's you, Sarah, Betany and Jasmine) all said they were going and please could I join in. And so I did.
After gathering at Liege station, we were whisked off to the most beautiful Belgian farmhouse. We ran off and chose our rooms, bunking up in doubles and triples, and after an explore sat down to a wonderful dinner prepared by Eric, under a blossom chandelier erected by Madison. The real work started the next morning, though, beginning with a foraging trip to find materials both for making natural dye from and for our arrangements to be made later on. We went up and down the gently rolling (ha!) countryside, and collected meadowsweet, alder and dandelions, shouting across to Emily "will this work?" every time we found an item we hadn't previously asked about.
Back in the farmhouse kitchen, we set about making dyes for the ribbons, runners and aprons that had been given to us. Emily had already prepared some other dyes (walnuts, avocado stones and many others), which were boiling on the stove in readiness for us. Given how many of us there were around that kitchen table, I have to say just how proud I was of us all that there were no serious spats as to who was going first, and who was using which dye. This was probably because it was all lovely, and if we ran out of anything, Emily cheerfully made another batch, but still I think this was the first time I caught a glimpse of the teamwork that was going to get us girls though the next few days.
As our ribbons were hanging out to dry in the garden... or in some cases, flapping around in the ground after not being secured properly (ahem!), we had grabbed some lunch and then headed off to Emily's home to raid her garden for some tulips and other floral delicacies for the afternoon's arrangement making. I am still a little ashamed of just how many tulips I gathered up that day (sorry, Emily) but I did use every one and having unfettered access to the garden was an absolute highlight of the trip to Belgium for me. It's hard to describe the pleasure of picking tulips in Belgium, on a sunny spring day, in beautiful countryside with cows mooing contentedly - and such fresh air! - and anyway I don't want to sound too much like Gray's Elegy so I'll just get back to the task in hand.
Once we had headed back with our spoils, Madison did a demonstration of the most considered placement of dogwood and tulips. I was pretty amazed at how such an impact could be made with a small bowl and such a limited number of ingredients. I was also concerned about whether or not I would be able to restrain myself from throwing all the amazing pickings I had together in one huge, splendid gesture, which is a basic instinct for me, but perhaps not what I had come to learn. It started well, with dogwood on one side and darker elements on the other, but soon my old friends the fritillaries and hellebores were making their way into the arrangement... however, I can honestly say that the arrangement I made was, for me, so restrained and understated that I was really surprised that I had achieved it. As Madison herself said, she didn't want to see a dozen Madisons, but I could clearly the influence her demonstration had had on my work. In fact, we all filled our custom made glazed bowls with a lightness of touch and level of concentration that was quiet impressive. (Footnote: I say "all", there was one notable exception to that statement, as the sassy one amongst us chose her own vessel in the kitchen and recreated the entire Belgian countryside in her corner of the workshop, but my goodness, it was amazing and we all loved her for it!).
After another evening of wine, chat and delicious food from Eric, the following day our tasks were to do an installation involving wisteria that had mysteriously appeared overnight, following a trip made to a car park somewhere in Belgium under the cover of darkness, and also to make our bouquets. Madison gave us direction as we suspended the wisteria from pieces of string that we tied across the room, and watched patiently as we created shapes through a process of trial and error. The result was a light and delicate wisteria wonderland type thing - it was just so pretty! We then watched as the beautiful Anneleen modelled under and interacted with said installation - such a joy to watch so much beauty in one room.
Later on, it was Emily's turn to demonstrate, and this time we watched her make the most beautiful bouquet from her homegrown Brownie tulips, with forget me nots and pansies and I think I am going to print a copy of Louise's photograph of it to stick on my wall - some people stick aspirational photos on their fridge of women they would like to look like... well, I am planning to put pictures on my wall of bouquets I wished I had made. That said, I was unusually happy with my own one, and even more so when I saw the photos of Anneleen modelling it in a stunning vintage bridal dress. If I ever start a wall featuring pictures of pieces I'm proud I made, it will definitely be on there. It would only be gracious of me, however, to apologise for the panic I had at the beginning when I realised that the overnight death of my dogwood meant that I was lacking in branchlike structures - thank you to Betany, Melanie and Nora for keeping me calm (and tolerating my distracting concerns when they had their own thing to do) and to Rachel for lending me some of her previously foraged greenery. I was very grateful and remain so.
At this juncture, there was a brief interlude as photography by the wonderful Taylor and Porter was in progress, and it was suggested that we form a breakaway group to take some of our own, slightly less serious and infinitely less professional photographs. We skipped off up the road, armed with flowers and a camera and photographed each other... there was the honking of car horns (Belgians are nowhere near as restrained and conservative as I had imagined them to be!) and leaping though fields and mainly, a lot of fun. I don't have room to share all the images here here, so i'm posting just a couple to give you a feel for what happened at this point;
By this stage, it will come as no surprise that Eric cooked us another delicious supper. By night three, polite conversation had been replaced by giggles and chatter, which as we all know, is infinitely preferable. We had sussed each other's senses of humour, found that we had lots in common and really liked each other quite a lot. But by far the highlight of the evening was Betany's singing. An accomplished Opera singer as well as ridiculously talented floral designer, Betany will be known to many of your as Chloris Floral. This is probably a good moment to mention that one doesn't, as I had erroneously imagined, pronounce that "claw-riss", but rather "Clore-reese". I can see why, it's much more elegant and frankly, I felt a little parochial when I discovered this, so I"m letting you know in advance in case you come across this kind and talented lady. I am gutted that I didn't video her performance under the wisteria, but she brought tears to my eyes and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
The following morning, we checked out of the farmhouse and headed down the road to Emily's farmhouse for the final furlong - more installations and a night of camping in the garden. The installations were to happen in Emily's attic - if indeed that is the correct word - it's a vast space at the top of the building filled with ribbons that you can only dream of, with huge wooden beams just begging to be covered in flowers. As we cleared Emily's props to one side, I felt a little bit like I was moving some sacred or holy relics - you all know the ones I mean - the birds' nests, the dried grasses, the brass trays and everything that makes her account look so amazing. But soon we were ready to go and again Madison - after reminding us to please not all talk at once (fair point well made!) directed us as we split into two teams to fill the space with blossoms and lilacs. As with ribbon dyeing and wisteria hanging, I like to think we did a good job of helping and directing each other, whilst lovely Jen of Nectar and Bloom cricked her neck at the top of a ladder (if in doubt, send the flexible yoga instructor). The results were as follows:
At this point, there was one last task - to create a a floral walkway in the fields of Belgium whilst Anneleen wafted through it in another beautiful dress. But I was dead beat and opted to stay in and chat with both Anneleen and Edlynn (the talented make up artist) about life in Belgium. And I'm kind of glad I confessed to being well, older than everybody else and tired and cranky with it, because it gave me just enough energy to get through the final and most fun evening I've had in a quite a while. It was interrupted by my husband, due to catch the Eurotunnel the following morning with Hilda so that she could meet Team Primaveral before travelling en famille to Luxembourg. Having assured me that he absolutely knew where both his and Hilda's passports were before I set off earlier in the week, he called me to ask where I had put said dog's documentation. I reminded him of our earlier conversation and he suggested that I had possibly moved Hilda's passport (remotely, from another country?). Luckily for him, I was distracted by wine and a new fun game taught to us by Rachel which involved zooming in on the least attractive feature in a portrait photograph, taking a screen shot and zooming in again. (I think you had to be there, but if you want a lesson, I'll send you Rachel's account details).
Emily, Madison, Louise, Sarah, Amber, Jasmine, Jen, Rachel, Amber, Melanie, Betany, Nora, Frances, Misa, Jime, Steffi, Edlynn, Ruth, Anneleen and of course, Eric - thank you for amazing few days that I won't forget. I loved working with all of you and I hope that our first meeting won't be our last, And I'm sure you'll all be pleased to know that my husband called in the morning to let me know that he didn't blame me for losing Hilda's passport - which meant that he stayed at home whilst I travelled to Lieges and then completed a further four and half hours by train with all my bags to get to Luxembourg. In fact, he blamed me even less when i got home a few days later and found it exactly where he had left it, next to his glasses (oh, the irony!) on the desk in his office. He totally plans to make amends by buying you all lots of drinks the next time we get together. Until then, dear friends...