Saturday, 29 August 2009

Devilish Devon - The glorious Garden House

The Garden House, near Plymouth is another magical property that's really worth making the effort to see if you're in the area and can easily be combined in a day with Coleton Fishacre (see my last entry). This is a garden for all seasons and it doesn't matter whether you visit in May to see the magnificence of spring with the wisteria in full bloom (above); summer, when every border is bursting with colour; or October to see the wonderful hues of autumn.

Although this garden is also tucked away down Devon's winding country lanes - in a village called Buckland Monachorum - it's better known than Coleton because it has received so much good publicity in recent years ... and deservedly so, because of its naturalistic planting.

The story here began in 1945 when a former Eton schoolmaster - Lionel Fortescue - moved to the 1920s vicarage that forms the central focus of much of the garden (see below) and began planting a walled garden around the ruins of the former 16th century vicarage. Fortescue was the son of a Newlyn school painter and he clearly had a good eye for colour, but he was also a passionate plant collector who travelled far and wide to find good specimens - the fruits of his labour are what make The Garden House so special today - with an excellent collection of azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias for spring colour, and acers that come into their own in the autumn. But equally magnificent is the location of the property, at the edge of Dartmoor, with its fine views over the surrounding countryside (above).

Fortescue worked closely for many years with his gardener, Keith Wiley, to create the spectacular walled garden that is such a prominent feature here. And although the former schoolteacher died in 1981, Wiley continued as head gardener until 2003, when he was succeeded by Matt Bishop. Since his arrival, he has breathed new life into the eight acres of land by adding a quarry garden and a South African garden, so that there are now spectacular displays of unusual flowers, in addition to the large tracts of meadow-planting and woodland walks.

Lionel Fortescue's former home forms a focal point in the garden
Development of this garden does not stop and each time I have visited, I have noticed that there is more work in progress, so I shall watch with interest to see what Matt Bishop does next. He is particularly interested in bulbs and although I have not visited The Garden House in winter, I hear that the snowdrops and early spring bulbs are spectacular, thanks to his expertise.

The only slight problem with this charming garden is that it has become so popular that you may get besieged by clucking coach parties. But, take heart because even the horrors of slow-ambling crowds cannot detract from its beauty!
The Garden House in autumn

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Devilish Devon with its garden secrets!

This has got to be one of the most stunning gardens that I have visited this year! It's a little out of the way, but for those of us who are staying at home in Britain for holidays this summer and visiting the West Country, it's a must.

Coleton Fishacre in Devon is to die for - one of the finest examples of a garden with "Arts and Crafts" elements that I've seen yet. It's also a long way off the beaten track, at the end of a promontory with the river dart to the west and the sea on the other side, so has not yet been ravaged by garden tourism - but this is part of its charm, even if the access roads are a little daunting. My advice is: go early in the day so you don't meet a coach coming the other way!

The house (above) was designed by Oswald Milne - a pupil of Edwin Lutyens - and is quite austere. It's well worth taking a tour of the interior to see some fine examples of "art deco" living, but be warned.... don't try and take photographs out of the windows, because the ladies that look after this house on behalf of The National Trust, will simply not allow it! I got into dreadful trouble with my camera and almost had it removed after quite some debate about whether or not I should be allowed to point my lens at the gardens from inside the property! Suffice to say that these ladies proved just too much for me and I put my camera away!

But you can photograph what you want outside and there's lots to immortalise on your memory card, like the extraordinary blooms above (if anybody knows what these are, please leave me a comment!).

Because Coleton is situated in a protected position near a river estuary it has its own micro-climate and you will find plants here that don't grow elsewhere in the UK, including proteas. There is also an unusual tree collection and you will encounter redwoods and swamp cypress, as well as a very tall tulip tree and a tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima).
I have to confess that I am not an expert on plants and I visit gardens to gauge the overall impression and atmosphere rather than the planting - but I am told this garden is a plantsman's paradise - and that people come from far and wide to see specimens that are not found anywhere else in this part of England.

However, I was aware that there were plants and flowers here that I had never seen anywhere else and I was particularly taken by the colour scheme and the way in which the borders were laid out around the house. Everywhere you look there are vibrant colours and another surprise!

Part of Coleton's charm is that it is so varied - there is a wonderful rill garden (below), filled to bursting with flowers, acres of woodland that wind down towards the sea and afford splendid views, and a stream that meanders through the valley. Every corner you turn gives a different vista, yet you feel as though you are hidden away from the rest of humanity in a secret garden!

There are many other gardens near here worth visiting, so if you have the time or inclination, do stay locally because this will allow you to visit some of the other properties that I will be featuring in the next few days - it's a magical part of England and you won't want to leave!

Monday, 24 August 2009

Crystals and castles in Austria

I have never seen skies quite as blue as they were when I visited Austria last week - there may have been clouds, but the azure ceiling to the world really made my day when I went to Innsbruck in search of gardens for my blog! Just look at the colours in the photograph above and you will understand what I am wittering on about.

Austria was not a place that I expected to find gardens because I think of it more as a ski destination, but while working in Feldkirch, I checked the internet to see what was on offer nearby and thanks to the website, Garden Visit, I found two that I could get to quite easily by train. And although I wasn't sure what to expect, I had a wonderful day out and returned home with pictures and words for my readers.

The train journey took two hours but I really enjoyed the ride because of the kaleadoscopic view of Heidi-style scenes, with mountains, chalets, alpine meadows and grazing cattle. On arrival in Innsbruck, I found a helpful tourist office that told me how to make my way to the two gardens on my list. The first is 12 km outside the city, but there's a local bus and, providing you tell the driver where you're going, he'll tell you when to get off - but be warned, if you don't tell him, you'll never find the Swarovski Crystal Works (Kristallwelten).

The history behind Kristallwelten is as interesting as the sights you see on arrival there, with the factory founded in 1885 by the young Daniel Swarovski I, who needed large quantities of water to power the new crystal-cutting machine he'd invented. So he chose the Tyrol, and 100 years later the family opened the adjacent theme park that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors annually - hardly surprising because the museum will leave even the most hardened tourist gasping, and a garden that will delight, nestled as it is in a Tyrolean valley (see photo above). The museum is filled with with extraordinary crystal sculptures (right), holograms and other exhibits that will enthrall you, whatever your age!

The highlight of the garden is a huge herbivorous sculpture (below) with crystal eyes and a mouth that spouts water into a large pond below. But there are also floral walks and magnificent views of the mountains behind, so this charming garden ranks high on my list of "must sees" in the world (as does the museum!). I really enjoyed my visit here.

Still filled with crystal images, I went next to Castle Ambras, high above Innsbruck and here I found another feast for the eyes, as I visited the extraordinary palace museum (below) which was built by Archduke Ferdinand in 1564. There are many wonderful exhibits here and it is easy to spend an afternoon wandering around the castle and the grounds. The latter are somewhat surprising for Austria, since they are partially parkland, with magnificent trees and views over Innsbruck and the castle below, but then there are large formal areas, reminiscent of Capability Brown's grand gardening style. It's worth combining the two properties if you are in the area.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Last tales of the Taj - Part II

The "lovely lake with its distant islands of palm trees and marble palaces" in Udaipur

India has long been one of my favourite destinations, as my regular readers will have realised! It has an astounding beauty and a magic that is hard to describe if you have not seen it for yourself, but it is also a harsh and unforgiving destination, as we discovered last week when my son got ill and we faced the reality of getting him better and back home!

So for the second half of "Last tales of the Taj", I thought I'd follow in the footsteps of Marianne North, the intrepid botanical painter and explorer, who visited India in 1877. She saw the Taj and wrote:

"The ground all around the city (Agra) was pure dust - one ate it, breathed it, drank it, slept in it - but the place was so glorious that one forgot the dust entirely. I went that same afternoon to the Taj, and found it bigger and grander even than I had imagined; its marble so pure and polished that no amount of dust could defile it; the building is so cleverly raised on its high terrace, half-hidden by gardens on one side, and washed on the other by the great river Jumna."

And she continued: "the garden was a dream of beauty", but "I was very ill, and found it of no use fighting longer with the dry heat of Agra".

And how true these words proved to be for us also. The heat and dust of Agra choked us; we loved the Taj with its pure white marble, but within hours of arriving, my son (pictured above at the Taj) was ill. We will never know whether it was the heat or the dust, or whether he was overwhelmed by the sight of the Taj, but at least he can say he saw it!

After several days of rest in Jaipur, where I agree with Marianne North that "the gardens are lovely with the stony hills in the background", we were able to move on in Rajasthan, following further in her footsteps with a visit to Chittaurgarh, which she calls "Chitor", with its stunning hilltop temple complex, approached by a winding road that passes through the old city gates. Well worth a detour for and from the temples, you can see the modern town below.

Chitor is filled with monkeys, who gather at your feet waiting to be fed, but don't turn your back on them, because they will happily steal from your rucksack and they are not the charming little animals that you imagine if you have food in there - they will bite! The pictures here show a figure in one of the temples (above left) and one of the many ghats in the complex (above right), with visitors enjoying the view over the water.

And from here, we moved on to Udaipur, which Marianne North describes as "a city glittering like a group of pearls, with the marble palace above it, and the lake behind, surrounded by bare mountains." She goes on to describe the "lovely lake... with its distant islands of palm trees and marble palaces, and its nearer orangery surrounded by white marble arches with exquisite tracery. Still nearer, palaces, gardens and gates, all reflected in the still blue waters, and over all the pale salmon-coloured hills, with their lilac shadows, so faint, yet so pure in colour."

Everything she writes about the city is correct, even today, and no trip to India would be complete without a visit to Udaipur, with its magnificent lakes and palaces. It is the jewel in the crown of Rajasthan and no short visit would do this destination justice because you need several days to explore the palaces, gardens and bazaars. We were there for a week and still didn't finish our sightseeing, but we will definitely return. I should also add that my son has made a full recovery, for those of you who were wondering - he loves India too and was able to enjoy Udaipur with me once he was better.

Marianne North travelled all over the world and her India voyage is just one of many journeys documented in a fabulous book: "The Vision of Eden: The Life and Work of Marianne North" (Published in collaboration with The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew). A collection of more than 800 of her paintings, including those that she completed on her India trip, can be seen in the gallery that bears her name at The Royal Botanic Gardens in London - definitely worth a visit!

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Faith and the Future and a MeMe for Me!

I feel greatly honoured because Autumn Belle of My Nice Garden has passed on a Meme award to me. This is the first time that anyone has paid such a delightful tribute to my blog and it gives me the chance to pass on the award to some of the other really brilliant blogs that I have come across since I started writing my own.

But the most difficult part for me is revealing things about myself that will interest other people. So I shall follow Autumn Belle's lead and pick the alphabet as my focal point, but I shall concentrate on the letter "F" because there are seven really important areas of my life that start with this letter.

Family makes the first "F" because I am blessed with a truly wonderful group of relatives - particularly my husband and my son, but also my mother, my stepchildren and all my uncles, aunts and cousins. We are spread all over the world, but we are good at keeping in touch and blogging has really re-ignited some old family relationships and brought us closer together.

Friends are my second "F" because I have many friends and my forays into gardens around the world have brought new people into my life and re-united me with old friends who share my interests. My work in India has also brought some exceptional new contacts into my life.

Foundation has to be my third "F" because of my work in India. My husband and I travelled there last November and he became ill during our trip, but thanks to the skills of my friend Dr Deepak Babel, he received the best possible treatment in India and was able to return to the UK after a short spell in hospital in Rajasthan. Since then, we have set up The Raven Foundation and are now raising the funds to build a hospital for the villagers (like the lady above) outside Udaipur. We hope that this will be the first of many such hospitals in rural India and have been really encouraged by the support that we have received so far.

The laying of the foundation stone in India - with Dr Deepak Babel and our helpers

My fourth "F" is for my dear father, who died earlier this year, after a difficult battle with cancer. He taught me much of what I know and I will never forget his smiling face and his great wisdom - he is also an integral part of our Foundation in India, because he gave me the strength and encouragement to start the project, as you will see from the early entry on our Raven blog.

This is my father shortly before he died, with me and my brother

Number five is the "F" for faith that drives me forward in all the work that I do - there are few days that I wake up without feeling great excitement about the coming day and that's where Life in a Day comes from.

Foliage and flowers make my sixth "F" because I never enter a garden without gaining inspiration from the wonderful vista in front of me, and even on grey days, gardens bring me great pleasure.

Finally, "F" is for freedom because I am so lucky to be able to travel the world, photograph the wonderful sights that I see and share them with everybody who takes the time to read my blog.

And now I turn to seven other blogs that fill me with inspiration - they are not listed in order or preference - and I rate them all equally, and hope that you will enjoy them as much as I do.

Pomona with Tulips in the Woods, with her wonderful perception of nature and the glorious photographs that a feature of her blog.

Sue with The Balcony Garden because she makes such a wonderful read with her tiny space.

Lynn at Red Studio, Helen at Toronto Gardens and fellow British Blogger at Artist's Garden because there are always wonderful photographs and such interesting entries every time you visit. Donna at Mother Nature's Garden also gets my vote for inspired entries and lovely pictures.

Notes from a Somerset Garden is another English blog that fills me with inspiration and reminds me of home when I am travelling.

I'm really pleased to say that two of my other favourite blogs - My Small Cornish Garden and Crow Cottage - have already been nominated and this gave me the chance to choose some of my other favourite blogs. But the real truth is that there are so many beautiful blogs out there that making a choice is difficult, so I hope that these nominees will spread the word with their choices.

Best wishes to all my fellow bloggers and I hope you enjoy your space as much as I do mine! And now it's over to you, but in order to be part of the MeMe award you need to:
  • Link back to the person who gave you the award.
  • Reveal seven things about yourself.
  • Choose seven other blogs that you want to nominate and then post a link to them.
  • Let each of your choices know that they have been tagged by posting a comment on their blog.
  • And finally, let the tagger know, when your post is up.
Enjoy and thanks again Autumn Belle, and here's a parting picture of my other great love besides gardens...... birds!

Friday, 14 August 2009

Last tales of the Taj - Part I

Garden visits take on an altogether different meaning in Rajasthan, India, particularly at this time of year! It is monsoon season and the gardens, are for the most part, green and glorious, but the heat remains a challenge!

I have spent the last two weeks in Rajasthan, working on my hospital scheme for the village people near Udaipur - The Raven Foundation - but have also managed to fit in several garden visits, and quite a few birdwatching trips. Both the gardens and the birds in India are very different from what we find at home, either here in the UK or in the continental US, so it has been an interesting trip for me. But what is so striking about rural Rajasthan at this time of year is the unending vista of green, thanks to the monsoon.

My travels took me from Delhi to Agra and the Taj Mahal (above) and then on to Jaipur, Udaipur and Dungarpur. The first three are all on the well-trodden tourist beat, but the last is a little different and it was there that I got to see not just green vistas, but some of the most remarkable birds I have ever seen, including sarus cranes (below), various different storks, many wildfowl, hornbills and many smaller birds that are only found on the Indian subcontinent.
The sarus crane (grus antigone) is a bird that I have been hoping to see for the last five years in my frequent trips to India and the far East - it is the tallest flying bird in the world at 1.65 metres (5' 5") and is actually the same height as me!

But it is also one of the most graceful birds I have ever seen, and I was lucky enough to see one pair perform their courtship dance (right), which involved a series of finely choreographed movements at the edge of a lake. I saw many other large birds during my recent travels, although there is little doubt in my mind that the most unusual and spectacular was the painted stork (Mycteria leucocephala) seen below, which was standing just yards from the dancing cranes. This is a smaller bird than the sarus at just under three feet tall, but it still makes an impressive sight with its black and white barred wings, yellow bill, bare reddish face and striking pink legs (below).This is just one of the many great storks you'll find in southern Rajasthan, which is a birdwatcher's paradise. There are also black-necked and black storks, open-billed and white storks ... but more of that in my next entry, because I am now heading home to England and will catch up when I finally get there!

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Jaipur - India's fabled pink city

Jaipur is the state capital of Rajasthan and is known to all as the "Pink City" because of the colour of all the old buildings(above). But in reality, the Jaipur of today is two cities, with the old city at its heart and a new city that has sprung up outside. It is the old city that appeals to the visitor, and at this time of year, after the monsoon, it is lush and green and there are many gardens and green spaces to visit because Jaipur is in bloom. That said, it would be impossible to write here, without referring to some of the other majestic sights on offer.

I have been here for just two brief days, and been captivated by the Hawa Mahal (also known as the Palace of Winds, above), the glorious City Palace, Amber Fort, Jantar Mahal and the gardens; I have ridden elephants, camels, the infamous tuk-tuk and bicycle rickshaws; and shopped in the old city's bazaar, which is a maze of streets filled with colours and sights that leave you reeling - for Rajasthan is one of the most glorious and colourful states, with all its handicrafts, jewellery and love of bright colours.

One of the most fascinating sights in the city is Jantar Mantar (right) - the observatory built by ruler Sawai Jai Singh II (also an astronomer), who built Jaipur in the early 18th century - and once you have been here, you will understand why the rest of the old city is so well planned. The strange structures here are actually complex astronomy instruments, and at this time of year the surrounding gardens are green and peaceful. Jantar Mantar lies at the heart of the old city near the City Palace, so don't miss it if you are sightseeing.

It is also the faces you find here that will capture your heart - the old city is filled with fascinating people and I saw some amazing faces (left) in the bazaar. But be careful when you photograph the people here in India - when I took this picture, this man asked first for money and then for food, but when we offered him some of our western snacks, he was spectacularly unimpressed! I'm afraid that I left it to my driver to resolve the problem because my command of Hindi is non-existent.

On the way to the Amber Fort you pass the spectacular Lake Palace (below), which is really stunning at sunset. It is here that you will be able to take an elephant or camel ride and marvel at the palace as the evening light sets in. There are also elephants at Amber if you want to ride up to the fort, and this is a wonderful way to to approach the honey-coloured edifice.

But for me, the best sight of all here in Jaipur was, Kanak Bagh gardens (below), built at the far end of the lake and overlooking the Palace. They are particularly lovely at this time of year and although you won't find carefully planned flowerbeds like you do in Europe, there are large green lawn areas flanking the many fountains and pavilions that make this garden so special. There is also a temple complex here and the views are stunning - well worth making a detour for, particularly in the early evening when it is cool!

I have visited Jaipur many times over the years, but for me there is only one place to stay - Jas Vilas - an enchanting family-owned and run hotel with peaceful gardens and a lovely pool. The staff here are delightful and one of the greatest joys of being here is that you don't get the constant hassle of street vendors, touts and taxis, selling their wares as soon as you walk out of the door. My regular readers will know that I rarely recommend hotels when I am writing, but this is one of the few that really is worth knowing about if you are visiting the fabled pink city!