It's early on Sunday morning and I"m tucked up in bed as I write this, surrounded by catalogues of Bloomsbury Group paintings, with a peach coloured poodle...Read More
Filtering by Category: Foraging
2016 - when Donald Trump became President Elect and then told Americans how he didn't mean much of what he said during his campaign, when we voted to break up the EU after a contest largely centred upon some lies written on the side of a bus, and the moment when "post-truth" was named Word of the Year by the Oxford Dictionaries. I find this latter concept especially difficult as, to my mind, putting a hyphen between the prefix and the noun makes it two words rather than one, but I've double checked online and that's definitely what they're calling it/them. I've watched enough editions of Pointless to know that Richard Osman wouldn't allow a hyphenated word in one of his "words ending in -ent" rounds, but then nothing much that has happened this year makes any sense anyway.
It is perhaps fitting, then, that having declared at the end of October that Autumn is by far my favourite month, and in the same blog post gently mocked the idea of using some of Keats's most often cited lines to illustrate this, that I should write now, at the end of December, that today I took a walk on the most, beautiful, crisp day, during undoubtably my favourite time of year. Furthermore, the title of this post is stolen from a collection of Laurie Lee's essays of the same name, contained within a book I finally began reading this afternoon. It was like taking the perfect walk, in the most perfect weather, in perfect company, before coming home to read the most beautiful prose ever written (or very nearly...)
"Today is winter as it always was, and when it wasn't it was not remembered. Forgotten, now, are the small freaks of weather, the offbeat heatwaves and wet-warm Decembers that have cropped up now and then in the past. Winter was always like this since the beginning of winters, since the first man learned to sneeze". Laurie Lee, it seems, understood about post-truths long before most of us were born. (Though I don't think he would have approved of that hyphen either).
And so it was today. Whilst our Christmas involved more than a week of older relatives who were either very sick or bad tempered - or both - this morning we woke to an empty house, no fixed agenda and a bouncy little dog. We rose early and headed off to Ham, by Richmond Park. The sun was low in the sky, and the frost had covered the ground and trees so completely that I really thought (hoped) that Tilda Swinton might come around the corner in The White Witch's sleigh, or that Mr Tumnus might pop out from behind a tree. And I finally began to feel festive. And happy.
We didn't talk much during the course of the few hours it took us to complete our circuit, we were so busy stopping to look at the light coming through the trees, or to listen to the dripping sound of the ice melting, or to take endless photos on our iPhones, but when we stopped for a congratulatory drink at the pub, we had plenty of thoughts to share.
We talked through our goals for 2017, both the big ones and the small. Most of all, we discussed our plans to move to the countryside, the move I had hoped we would have made some time ago, but events got in the way. Realistically, though, we are few months away from this, and I have been trying to decide how best to use the quietest months in the flower year which also coincide with remaining in London. The temptation to devote two or three months solely to Agatha Christie and Dorothy Whipple is very strong indeed, (and it has happened before), but this year I want to make sure that at least some of my hibernation period is productive.
Two of my New Year's Resolutions are to see more art and to read more books. Whilst in London, it makes sense to spend more time in The National Gallery, The Victoria and Albert Museum and I can't remember the last time I visited The British Museum. Having lived in the Capital all our lives, we take for granted these places on our doorstep, and so rarely visit them, partly because every day life gets in the way, also because we think there will be another time that we can go. Temporary exhibitions always take precedence over permanent collections, and so trips to galleries focus on those works only there for a finite period of time. The next three months seem like a good time to begin to remedy this.
Likewise, this is a good time to be reading books. I have made a fairly extensive list, and I doubt I shall get through them all in the next 12 weeks, but I intend to pay particular attention to the Bronte Sisters (in anticipation of a trip to Yorkshire to visit Simply by Arrangement). Other possibilities include Gilding the Lily by Amy Stewart of course The Tulip by Anna Pavord, which I hope to have read in time for the beginning of the British Tulip Season in the Spring. Other cold weather and rainy day activities include practicing my calligraphy - I own a vast array of metallic and coloured inks, and beautiful parchment like paper from Silk and Willow, and yet I have done so little with them. I am going to dig out my copy of Ink and Nib and my practice notes from Alice Gabb and I shall keep practicing the -y- in that makes my Honeysuckle look so wonky when I write it. And -k- too. I can't seem to master -k-.
I also plan to arrange a meticulous library of images, currently spread out across various memory cards, Drop Box, the hard drive of my old laptop and iCloud. But most of all, I am looking forward to taking the time to catch up with other people's blogs and hopefully discover new ones. I am a regular subscriber to the one written by Aesme, and of course Simply By Arrangement (no surprise there), and I am also a big fan of A Quiet Style. I have more recently discovered Mademoiselle Poirot - I have treated to myself to a day's workshop with her in April - and am finding more and more styling blogs really useful. I still look forward to the postings on Miss Pickering's blog, though rare and far between, her economy with words and understated humour are to blogging what the Japanese haiku is to poetry, and every one unique in its own way.
Today, however, I finally signed up to Floret Flower Farm's blog. It's a funny thing, but I so want to be able to grow my own flowers that I have been holding off doing so. I can't really explain why. It's not jealousy, per se, that has stopped me from doing so, more a deep rooted (if you'll pardon the pun) frustration and not being able to plant my own tubers any time soon. But finally, it feels like it is time. I won't be using any of my own flowers for weddings this year. I've already missed that planting slot. But if I am putting my own tubers in the ground in the Autumn of 2017 in readiness for the following year, that could be super exciting.
As we sat in the pub at the end of our walk, my husband told me that I am "much nicer" when I have been for a long walk in the fresh air and countryside. This evening I read him a passage from Laurie Lee that had made me feel a pang of longing as we negotiated our positively urban Christmas:
"Now the time had come for us to go up to the woods and collect leaves for decorating the house. Among the black and bare trees we shook the snow from the undergrowth with frost-reddened fingers, seeking the sharp-spiked holly, bunches of laurel and ivy, cold clusters of moon-pale mistletoe. With these, we transformed the familiar kitchen into a grotto of shining leaves, an enchanted bower woven from twigs and branches sprinkled with scarlet berries".
For me this is the dream. And this is what I shall be hanging onto for the next few months as I organise my photos, bite my bottom lip at the kitchen table whilst pouring over my badly shaped consonants, whilst I read up on the cut flower industry, and devote myself to flower related admin. There will be flat lays too, for sure, and foraged things in new vessel from Petersham Nurseries (a Christmas present to myself). But mainly I shall be daydreaming of the countryside and hoping that 2017 is the year I can finally make my floral aspirations a reality. And with that, Happy New Year.
"Seasons of mist and mellow fruitfulness...". Okay, not really, I'm just kidding. Autumn is by far my favourite season, and October my favourite month, and I don't need to recite John Keats to help me explain why. Or at least, not yet, because so far I am only three sentences in. But if I get stuck, I can always reintroduce him just after the paragraph about a hundred and one ways to carve a pumpkin.
Spring is amazing, as the ground thaws and birds start singing, and narcissi and tulips vie for our attention and once again months of beautiful British flowers lie ahead of us. Summer is full of roses, foxgloves, peonies and heady scents, and all the family arguments that having three birthdays in July invariably seems to bring. But in Autumn, I feel like the pressure is off. As the weather cools, and I dig out my black opaque tights and big jumpers, and the logs go on the fire and we gather up the last of the dahlias and post them all over Instagram in one last flurry, I breathe a sigh of relief. I don't really know why. As the nights draw in, or rather start at 4.15 pm, it seems more acceptable to watch Miss Marple with a cup of tea and a dog on my lap. I still keep my toenails immaculately painted throughout the winter months, though. Somehow, this really matters.
But this year, October has been especially precious for me as we celebrated our first wedding anniversary. As we spent our entire honeymoon in Morocco counting down the days till we saw Hilda again, it made sense not to go too far this time, and to bring the tiny brown Schnauzer with us in order that she too could celebrate the anniversary of her legitimacy. As much of our courting was done in the Cotswolds, we decided to head down for a couple of days of dog walking and log fires.
It says a lot about my life these days that the top two items on my packing list are secateurs and dog jumpers. The third is my camera. My make up and round hairbrushes are virtually at the bottom. This is not on account of having finally settled down, and complacency setting in, but rather a reflection of my excitement of escaping London to do the things I love the most with the people I love the most.
A glorious sight awaits us as we draw up to our hotel in Northleach - the front of The Wheatsheaf Inn is absolutely covered in deep red leaves. I see families inside, finishing their lunches, watching me through the window as I photograph the foliage meticulously on both my camera and my iPhone, just to be safe. It takes a while as there are so many shades of red, and so many different sizes and shapes of leaf. By the time I am done, Charles has checked in, unpacked and is admiring all the shades of red behind the bar, and sampling a few of them. Plus ça change. I join in him for a drink but am already coveting the most delicate, mottled pale pink hydrangeas in a garden opposite the Inn. They make me think of Susanne (The Blue Carrot), and how well they would fit into her signature colour palette. With some lovely lime green foliage, ideally slightly decaying. Meanwhile, I consider a midnight heist on the hydrangea bush, but I know the flowers are not mine to take and I would be outraged if such thing of beauty were to grow in my garden, only to be liberated by a stranger in the dead of night. I resolve to take multiple photographs in the morning instead.
The next morning brings, amongst other things, a mild hangover, boiled eggs and soldiers. We eventually set off on what my husband tells me is a three to four mile flat, circular walk. I prove that a year of marriage has taught me very little as I believe him and eagerly set off up the steep hill after him. As it turns out, the next seven miles are full of nature at her best. My Mother in Law tells me that one of the reasons I am so good for her son (no, really) is that before he met me he was terribly impatient, whereas now he is much more relaxed. As I stop every ten to fifteen yards to photograph another rosehip bush, or some dead wild sorrel, or another some such texture as takes my fancy, I glance over to see what he is up to. Invariably he is playing with Hilda. The dog he absolutely didn't want. The one that would hold us back from getting on with our lives. The one I was too ill to look after (to be fair, I probably was when she arrived, I just had to get better quickly to keep up with her). When he acquiesced, grumbling loudly, he said if we were having a dog, it had to be a proper one, i.e. a Labrador or larger. I watched him last week on this walk, on his hands and knees, whispering and making growling noises into the ears of the 4.5kg Schnauzer. I used to be smug about how right I was, but increasingly I see it as a sign of how far we have both come in this year.
In fact, we have been through a lot - we got news of the unexpected loss of a dear friend whilst on Honeymoon. Upon our return from that trip I found myself being greeted by the crash team at A&E after my GP called me an ambulance following routine tests. All three parents have been hospitalised, my Mother in a coma for almost two weeks. There have been two redundancies, a fractured spine (Charles's), the sale of my home of 12 years and countless discussions on cost savings. And yet, I have never been happier. I put this down to three things - my husband, my dog and of course, my love of flowers and nature.
On our Honeymoon, I spent days in the souks of Marrakech acquiring beautiful kaftans and velvet Moroccan jackers to take back to the UK. For our first anniversary, my request was that we retraced some of our walk in the car so that I could forage for hips and haws and foliage. When we made a pitstop at Daylesford on the way home, I didn't head to the Bamford Haybarn for bath oils, I went to the garden room and bought two of the most beautiful amaryllis I had ever seen. They looked amazing with the pine branches I found at the side of some road I'll never find again.
And when I went to bed that night, it turned out the man who has always insisted I choose my own presents had in fact bought me a present for our first, paper, anniversary. It was a book. But it wasn't anything to do with Keats or any of the other Romantic poets. It was The Complete Secret Notebooks of Agatha Christie, published so recently I hadn't even got wind of them. What a lucky girl I am.
If Miss Pickering was the one who renewed my interest in flowers and piqued my curiosity with her blog, then it was five days with Katie Davis of Ponderosa and Thyme that made me believe I could have a future in flowers. Our group of sixteen met back in April and, five months later, I still miss them and look back fondly on those days as some of the happiest - and most tiring! - I have ever had. We are still in touch on social media from our respective corners of the globe, and I have seen three of them again (unsurprisingly, the three that are based in the UK). In fact, because of the many and various postings on social media, lots of people have been in touch to ask me what I thought of the course and if I would recommend it. The short answer to that is "Hell, Yes!".
I wanted to wait a few weeks before sending Katie my feedback on her wonderful workshop. I left on such a high that I wanted to wait for my feelings to settle a little so I could be pragmatic about all the things I enjoyed and also gained knowledge from - the morning foraging, the Dutch Still life I created, the bouquet way too large to carry (not compulsory, mine just ended up that way)... I planned to talk about how helpful I found it to meet Flowerona and to listen to Sarah from Wedding Sparrow - a stellar cast. Their advice has proved so helpful in the months that have followed as I have been working out my own brand identity and what my own business should look like. Of course I mentioned the gorgeous setting we worked in, the beautiful home of the Earl and Countess of Shaftesbury, the most gracious hosts you could imagine, in Wimborne St Giles, and how warm and friendly all of Katie's team were. I came home with the most beautiful images from Maria Lamb Photography and Hunting Ground Films. You know, all the things I would want to know before investing in a course like this.
It has been five months now and my feelings haven't settled. The glow I had when I left Dorset that day hasn't faded at all. The love and encouragement from Katie especially, as well as my fellow students, hasn't diminished. I arrived feeling uncertain of my own abilities and reluctant to let anyone see my work. Since I got home, I have taken time to practice every day - even on the rubbish ones when I was sure I was too tired or too busy - and have been proud of what I have done, publishing the images and finding that other people liked them, too. My brain hasn't stopped buzzing, not even at night, and each day I have taken another step towards growing my own business. I know now that I can do this, and I can do it well. (You see the American influence coming through there, I didn't even use the word "probably" in that last sentence).
I fully intend to go on other courses with other floral artists as I work to further refine my own style. And I'll enjoy them and learn skill sets from them and probably absorb a little bit of their style into my own along the way. I'll even blog about them if anyone is interested (let me know!). But it was five days in Dorset with Katie that made me believe I could do it, and know that I really, really wanted to.
Postscript: Since the time of writing my blog, the wonderful Pilar of Gorgeous and Green has written a much fuller account of her time on the same course. For anyone who is interested, or thinking of going on a future retreat, I would highly recommend having a good read.
Meanwhile, here is a photo of the beautiful Pilar on a morning foraging trip. I think the joy on her face sums up how we were all feeling.
Much to my Mother's disappointment, I have always been a bit of a goody two shoes. At school I rarely got into trouble, and even when implicated in a trick involving a piano that could play itself, a nervous new matron and the subsequent exorcism of an entire boarding house, no one imagined that I could really have been involved. As an adult, I was punctual at work, I stood up for people on buses and tubes... When the Council started handing out recycling bags, I fulfilled my civic duty and filled each bag with the appropriate materials. I was amongst the first to swap plastic bags for canvas totes, usually from a bookshop to show I also supported local businesses. Of course. I have been a vegetarian for over 25 years, but I try not to be too boring about it, though I have recently become tearful when I see my husband eating bacon. (I think it has something to do with the micro pigs I have following on Instagram). When the Government introduced a new, virtually free, road tax band for cars with incredibly low emissions, I acquired a tiny and very eco Fiat 500. In other words, I towed the line, in my own moderate way.
I didn't take drugs. I never even smoked a cigarette, which is why doctors probably ignored my cough for so long. When they found a tumour, they told me that air pollution in London is so bad, that it kills thousands of people each year. Millions more are fine, but some, like me, are unlucky. I started to read more about the environment and the role we play within it. I filled my home with house plants to help filter the air. I thought about how wonderful nature is and how, when allowed to do what it is supposed to, unhampered by humans, it in turn helps us to flourish too.
And then another funny thing happened. I was out walking on London Fields and I noticed that last year's wild flower meadow was not nearly as abundant as the year before. It looked sad, sparse and rather brown. Posters started to go up in shops in the familiar type face of a well known fashion designer and environmental campaigner warning of the dangers of herbicides and in particular glyphosates. I needed to learn more and asked how I could help. I went home and read papers presented by leading scientists to the All-party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology about the many disastrous consequences these chemicals can have. I devoted my days to managing a campaign on 38 Degrees to ask Hackney to stop spraying these chemicals over the Borough. I wrote to the Mayor and pleaded with him. I asked residents of other London boroughs to do the same. I went with the same designer (the one who had taken Margaret Thatcher by surprise in the 1980s with her No to Pershing T shirt) to the Houses of Parliament and, together with the Anti Pesticide Network, we met with Zac Goldsmith and Caroline Lucas. The Mayor of Hackney didn't help us, but before long the chemical was designated as a "probably carcinogenic" by the World Health Organisation and banned completely in France and other parts of Europe.
The study into pesticides led to more reading around the sad truth of the cotton industry and a talk by the Head of the Soil Association on how organic farming could eradicate global food poverty. I listened to Romy Fraser, founder of Neals Yard, explain the healing powers of nature untainted by chemicals. I watched Vivienne Westwood lead a demonstration against neonicotinoids in Central London.
As a result of the first campaign I met another group who were opposing the plans to turn part of Hackney Marshes, well known for their bio diversity and home of much wildlife, into yet more car parking. Hackney had been given the green light to go ahead by planning authorities, but after a spirited campaign and ten long days in a public enquiry overseen by a member of DEFRA, we were successful insofar as we had plans for one of the two car parks over turned and rejected.
By now I was not just a dog walker who loved nature and flowers, I was also a committed environmentalist. I am still muddling through what this means for my business. Some of the implications are obvious. I cannot in all good conscience use plants that have been in contact with pesticides. I need to do everything I can to ensure those flowers are in turn transported in a way that involves the fewest emissions possible. (If you see me looking at you delivering flowers in your Land Rover, don't worry, I will be envying, not judging, and wondering if I really had to set myself such stringent goals). #grownnotflown is a popular hashtag, as is #britishflowers, and I need to do what I can to be true to these handles. I have spent two years acquiring old vessels from Etsy, Ebay and charity shops. Other things are trickier. Oasis for instance. Of course we can use chicken wire the majority of the time in urns and arrangements, but there are some structures - like candelabra and table runners - that are just BETTER with oasis. I haven't found a biodegradable alternative and I don't know how I remedy this aside from using as little as possible. A little research into offsetting might be my next project.
So there we are. I have set myself what some florists have already told me is a near impossible task - to work with nature as much as taking from it. To help create weddings and events, which are by their very nature, fleeting and to some extent wasteful, into celebrations that leave as small a footprint as possible. But I wouldn't be being true to myself if I didn't at least give it a jolly good try.
My Instagram feed shows an interest in two main areas: dogs and flowers (well, three if you include micro pigs. And everyone really should include micro pigs. If you don't already, start immediately). I spend hours each day following the work of floral designers around the world and following the daily lives of dogs in all four corners of the globe. I follow a daschund living in London that recently holidayed on the Isle of Harris before dropping in to see another daschund I follow in Edinburgh for tea and walkies. I get tearful when I see the little French bulldog who was rescued from a puppy farm when she was no longer of use for breeding, but who now lives a life of luxury in down town New York with her new Frenchie sister... I love Sophie Gamand and her Pitbulls in Flower Crowns campaign against BSL. Best of all, I love to read about dogs belonging to florists. Luckily there are plenty of them - Miss Pickering and the dashing Valentine, Florence of Petalon and the truly delicious Huxley, Emma of Martha and the Meadow with, well, a beautiful spaniel named Martha. Hilda herself is still sulking after being separated earlier this week from Matilda, the cutest and sweetest poodley thing belonging to Jennifer Pinder. And have you even seen the photos of Daisy, the new addition to Brigitte of Moss and Stone's family? Or Wilson who now resides with Lucy The Flower Hunter? So, to the outside world, there is nothing remarkable about another florist and her attachment to her hound.
It is also true to say that, in my case, the flowers wouldn't have finally happened without Hilda. In 2012 I had one of those life changing events that means you simply can't go back to your life as it was before. The aftermath had left me bedridden and reliant upon opiates for over a year and I couldn't even imagine what I was going to do with myself. I was convinced, however, that life with a dog would be a big improvement and after long negotiations and a decision to overrule my partner, Hilda entered our lives in the winter of 2013. The very act of acquiring a dog, whilst improving my spirits, didn't make the pain go away. But it did mean remaining bedridden wasn't an option. No matter how I felt, there was a tiny brown dog relying on me to take her out and to look after her. And so it began, the walks along Hackney Marshes, across Hampstead Heath, through Highgate Woods... and increasingly, further into the countryside with weekends in the Cotswolds, trips to Wales and beyond.
Somewhere along the way, when not looking adoringly at the dog, I started to notice my surroundings, to take interest in nature again, and to notice the colours of leaves, the shapes of branches, the textures of moss on a damp winter's morning, birds singing from the trees. A few months later, I was taking secateurs with me on my country walks, and visiting florists' shops in the afternoon for flowers to accompany what I had already gathered. I started to realise that and then arranging things made me happy and gave me another small sense of purpose. And so with foliage, flowers and a 4.5 kg Schnauzer my recovery began.
Every dog is very special to its owner (s), and we couldn't do without them. But this is my story and why I couldn't have Honeysuckle without Hilda. I'll try not to go on about her too much, but if I do, I hope you will forgive me.