Thursday, 27 November 2014

Fungi, Fungirls, & Festive Wreaths

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Sockfollowers (of which are are many) will know that I am a bit of a Christmas curmudgeon.  So this year, in order to get into the seasonal spirit, and inspired by all the wreath workshops advertised on twitter, I decided to make my own wreath using home foraged or grown ingredients.



A day out at Nymans Park with my lovely friends and fellow Ladies who Launch, LazyTrollop and Helen Reeley, produced a load of laughs and a bagful of found objéts for my wreath.  Most of them were found on the ground..

except for the dried hydrangea heads which accidentally fell off the bush into my handbag after a slight nudge from 'someone'.


We saw some fab fungi at Nyman's too (although you will be pleased to know I didn't pick this for my wreath as it is poisonous).


We spent some time trying to take arty photos of the fungi.


And the rest of the time admiring my new hattiewat


Back to the wreath. Spook helped.


I was aiming for as homemade as possible but bought the wreath base and the dried pumpkinos.  The fruit was home dried in the Bedsock's dehydrator and the chillis we grew ourselves.

Halfway through - I am just guessing about how this is done. Next year I might go to one of the  wreath workshops as I think this would have been great fun to do and a gratifyingly competitive. If you live in the Berkhamsted area Helen is doing some at the beginning of December tweet @helenreeley for details.



And here is my finished wreath!!! I love it and I'm sure it would have won any competition! 



 Whether it survives til New Year without going mouldy, dropping to pieces or eaten by foxes is another matter.  For now it is the Best Wreath Ever!



Thursday, 4 September 2014

OldMaSock and the Gay Men on the Prom

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At least it isn't flytipping

The Germans have a word for those annoying tunes that get stuck in your head - Ohrwurm, or ear worm. In OldMaSock's case she has brainworms,  rather than tunes it is 'things to repeat time and time again often cued-in by external factors'.  As OldMaSock's short term memory is shot to pieces telephone conversations with her mostly consist of the regurgitation of various brainworms. An old favourite is "They are always showing Brighton and the pier on the television aren't they?" prompted by the fact I live in Brighton. The answer is obviously "no" but as this will be repeated various times through what passes for the conversation, it is easier just to agree. This brainworm has recently gained a companion "Do you remember all those gay men we saw on the promenade?"  "No".. It's by no means impossible,  I wouldn't have noticed - although she does manage to make it sound like marauding hordes of gay men were storming the seafront. OldMaSock has recently embroidered this brainworm to  "...all those gay men holding hands".  I'm wondering if she has seen the Brighton Gay Pride march on the TV.

Earlier in the year one of my nieces married her girlfriend, I hate weddings and was hoping for a Big Gay Wedding celebration that might at least offer something a bit different. Sadly, apart from there being two beautiful brides and a Best Woman, it came with all the tedium of traditional speeches, hanging around, and having to talk to people you will never see again and have nothing in common with.  OldMaSock was spared the ordeal on the grounds of being mad but a month after the wedding, the newlyweds made the trip to see her.  Short of conversational gambits OldMaSock's brainworm cued-in and her first words to the happy couple were "Oooh there were a lot of gay men holding hands on the Brighton seafront!"

OldMaSock keeps cheerful - the 'brainworm' phone calls to an extent reassuring me that she is happy if more than a tad demented.  But I am concerned. My sister-in-law has recently died from Motor Neurone Disease, rather sooner and more suddenly than expected, leaving the rest of my small family devastated.  OldMaSock was not up to travelling to the funeral - she is as fit as a flea and twice as active but can only mentally deal with things inside her daily routine.  I haven't seen her in a long while due to a bad relapse in my M.E. and her needs have been put to one side for too long.  I am worried that she is being left alone with her grief - there are no friends or neighbours who she can turn to (in part due to her 'extreme pruning' and 'flytipping habits') - the least I can do is to be there a while and share it. In any case I need to ensure she is still coping and managing her day-to-day life. The last time I asked about her garden waste disposal (see blogs passim) she said she now waited til dark before dragging it out to a nearby grassed area and dumping it. I am hoping this was a joke.

When I arrive at OldMaSock's, exhausted after the long drive, everything looks superficially in good order.  The garden is now fairly spartan - OldMaSock is no longer up to buying the bright summer bedding plants she favours - but the shrubs are extreme-pruned and the lawns well mowed. Indoors everything is tidy and neat but closer inspection shows a filmy grubbiness and tired, worn, look to the house.  Worse, there is the usual cloying, overheated, slightly stale smell around.  I wander around the house throwing open windows, letting the late summer, clean, fresh, sea air flood in.  OldMaSock scuttles behind me, closing the windows as fast as I am opening them.

OldmaSock gets the usual niceties out of the way "Your hair is rather dry - have you combed it?"  OldmaSock's hair, rather than mine, is another reason I am making the visit. The last time I saw her she promised me she would get her hair cut as it was clear she hadn't done in ages.  A year of telephone prompts from me and fibs and excuses from her and I am correct in my expectation that she looks like the Wildwoman of Wonga.  In fact her whole appearance is that of a bright-eyed bag lady, her clothes old, worn, stained with food and grubby.  She doesn't care, she has never spent money on clothes, or indeed anything else because she is a miser and hates spending more than is necessary on anything. I have already made an appointment for her to have a haircut and set, her usual hairdresser closed some years ago and I have been on the interweb searching for a local salon that might specialise in mad old ladies. Discounting 'Jordan's', 'Brush Strokes' and 'Venus', I phone 'Elise'.  "Hi, I'm looking for a hairdresser for my elderly mother who is a tad demented and needs someone very patient and understanding to cut and set her hair.  I want a sort of 'traditional' hairdressers not a trendy salon."  Too late I realise I will have just totally insulted the owner by inferring that her business is old-fashioned but in fact, she kindly says she will look after OldMaSock's hair herself. I make the mistake of telling OldMaSock she is going to the hairdressers the following day which gives her ample time to fret and try to wriggle out of it with numerous lies and evasions. I harden my heart and tell her this is payback time for all those years I cried after she made me have my hair cut short.  These things open old wounds, I feel the pain of my teenage years when she forced me to wash and set her hair for her, an intimacy that I hated as I hated her, wanting to jab the hair pins into her skull as I pushed them through the rollers. I know people who have disowned their parents for less than OldMaSock did to me.. The resentment and pain of my teenage years is still not far below the surface but the mother that I have now is a different being and I feel protective towards her in a way she never felt for me.

My M.E. is quite bad and I'm so tired.. it's like wading through mental and physical mud, worse.. every 'task' completed with OldMaSock leads to two new ones.  Although she, herself, is clean and showers every day, her clothes are a disgrace and I can't take her to the hairdresser's like that.  The washing machine broke down years ago and it is too late to get her a new one which she will never remember how to use. She tells me she washes things in the sink but it is more likely that the row of tatty knickers on the line have just been rinsed under the tap.  There is no washing powder, no washing-up liquid to remove the film of grease and stains over all the crockery which has already made me gag, no soap in the bathroom and no shampoo - she has been using conditioner to wash her hair.  She shops for food regularly at a local store, raiding the reduced bins for sell-by-date ham, bread and basics.  Cleaning materials do not figure in her idea of things she needs to buy.  I get up early to take as much stuff as possible to the laundrette before it gets busy. I open OldmaSock's wardrobe and start to load the cheap, polyester, home-made, clothes into a bag. As fast as I put something in OldMaSock is pulling it back out "that is silk it won't wash", "that is clean", "that will fall apart if you wash it!". Only the last is true. At last I wrestle as much stuff as possible from her and head off to the laundrette and an hour of contemplative peace and quiet.  I feel mean as I remember how attached I am to a sixteen year old skirt which is falling apart and recently relegated to 'gardening only'.  It is so comfy and I do wear it to the local shops even though it has holes worn in it. Am I so different to OldMaSock? Both of us potential bag ladies.

Later, with OldMaSock wearing some of the freshly washed clothes which have survived the laundrette we set off for the hairdressers.  I have spent the last twelve hours patiently explaining, over and over again, what she is having done and why and she has repeatedly argued that she doesn't want it cut short as it will lose the perm and go straight. Eventually I resort to bribery and say I will take her out for coffee and cake but I'm not being seen in public with her until she's had her hair cut.  I have already told the stylist it needs to be cut short to last until I can next march her off to the hairdressers which may be months.  Before we leave the house OldMaSock says "Will you brush your hair Arabella - just for me?".  "I already have!" I snap back at her.  I sit reading magazines and drinking tea in the reception whilst OldMaSock is being shorn.  After a while the stylist comes over with a big grin of delight on her face "Your mother is hilarious! She's just been telling me about all the gay men holding hands on Brighton seafront!"

Eventually OldMaSock emerges with her newly set hair, silvery, soft and curling. And too long. "Mmmm she looks very pretty but I hoped you'd take a bit more off" I say to the stylist. "Oh, she insisted I shouldn't take too much off as it will cut off all the perm." she replies.  I sigh and feel somewhat sorry for myself.  I can't help feeling I have lost this battle.

There are some battles I am determined to win.  I have replaced all the disgusting tea towels, oven gloves and hand towels with new ones.  This has involved a certain amount of subterfuge as I am learning that it is best just to do things without consulting OldMaSock.  The old ones have been bagged up and driven to the dump as the last time some bit of old rubbish was replaced, OldMaSock had it back out of the bin as soon as my back was turned.  We are going on a trip to an out of town shopping centre to buy a new, incredibly simple to use, microwave as the old one has packed-up. Praise the Lord for this as I suspect the ancient one, she wouldn't part with, has been leaking microwaves over the years which have helped fry her brain.  OldMaSock doesn't drive any more, the conversation about not being safe on the road was had with BroSock a few years ago, although that still doesn't stop her being surprised every day when she finds there is no car in the garage. Nevertheless her road skills and directions are spot on - "Left at the lights", "keep to the right down hill then second left", "watch where the road narrows".  Totally sensible and no repetition.  We park outside a Marks and Spencers and encouraged by this burst of coherency I suggest we get her some nice new knickers. I'm surprised she doesn't put up a fight but we head off to the lingerie department and look for suitable underwear. Lacey, lacey, frilly, but no straightforward big pants. "Can you tell me where the old lady knickers are?" I ask an assistant, anxious to get them purchased whilst this window of opportunity is open. She leads us to a rack of large comfortable pants "What size?" she queries.  OldMaSock replies "Ooooh I don't know I'll have a look" as she starts to take down her trousers and peel back her knickers to find the size tag. "I don't think we all need to see your pants Mum"  I say quickly grabbing a pack that looks most similar to the ones that will shortly be on their way to the dump.  I pay for them before the protests start up - so far so good.  We are on a roll! I briefly contemplate buying vests, nighties, a new dressing gown to replace the ghastly old thing that she fought tooth and nail to stop me taking to the launderette.  No - I have won this battle so I'm not going to push my luck.

On the way home I take the scenic route and neither I nor OldmaSock are quite sure where we are going.  As we are driving OldmaSock says "We've seen that man in the blue shirt before", "Yes, we probably have" I laugh.  A few minutes later, "I think we've seen that girl in the white shirt before" and then "we've seen that red car before" and on, and on, and on, everyone we pass she says we have seen before.  Then I realise she is breathing softly, but rapidly like a mini panic attack.  OHMYGOD! I nearly have a full blown panic attack.  "Are you alright? What's the matter?". I realise that she is frightened because she is out of her comfort zone, her known territory and she is not happy.  This is the woman who chased a young thief for a mile in Majorca before catching him and snatching her stolen bag back, the woman who has travelled the world and was scared of nothing and no-one. I am the one with the chronic anxiety.  I reassure her with the promise of a nice sherry when we get home and as we drive into familiar territory she calms down.

When we get home I pour myself a huge sherry.  I open the window to let some air into the stuffy, overheated room and sink exhausted into a chair.  Eighty-seven year old OldMaSock closes the window then scuttles off into the garden, through the window I see her standing on the wall with her extendable loppers and chopping at next doors overlarge shrubs.  My brother phones "Has she put the garden waste bags out for collections? The white ones? I've told her over and over that they go out on a Wednesday evening." He should know there is no point getting cross with OldMaSock when she won't remember instructions like that, even  the post-it prompts and calendar rely on her both reading them and retaining the information for more than a few minutes. I have no recollection of seeing any white recycling bags or any piles of garden waste so it is possible she has been doing the moonlight flytipping after all.  I check the garage - it is full of garden cuttings stuffed into white bags and various other receptacles.  I lug a few down the drive onto the pavement gashing my leg on a branch that has torn through the fabric of the bag.  There is no first aid kit or antiseptic in the house so I clean the wound with salt water as I don't want to get cellulite like LandscapeMan had. Even though the television is as usual at full volume and OldmaSock is, as usual, flicking constantly through the programmes she doesn't watch, I fall asleep in the chair.

The last day of my visit, as I get up and dressed my finger goes through a hole in the ageing fabric of my Sloggi knickers.  Never mind, I can still get a few months more wear out of them and hopefully I won't fall under a bus.  I  check my jobs list: lightbulbs replaced, fire alarms checked, freezer, larder and wine cupboards stocked, details of outstanding tasks to be passed on to my brother, and one final task, take OldMaSock into town and reinvest a matured fund of some of the money she refuses to spend.

Mistake, mistake, mistake.... why don't I learn? I have told her we are doing this too far in advance and she has been up since the crack of dawn fretting about it.  "What time are we going?", "Where are we going?",  reassurance and explanations endlessly repeated "We are going to the Bank and we have an appointment for halfpast ten."  She has been dancing around in agitation since I got up and as I am about to drink my coffee at halfpast nine she has her coat on. "You can take that off we are not going yet, there is plenty of time." I tell her. But she won't have it, mithering on and on and working herself into such a state that I slam down my coffee and we leave - but not before she has said "Do you want to borrow my comb, Arabella?". "Not really. No."

We arrive half an hour early and are kept waiting longer with OldMaSock fidgetting and worrying as if she is going on trial. "I'm scared" she whimpers. "What of?  I'm the one who is doing all the talking and I'm going to give them a bollocking." I have been flicking through OldMaSock's disorganised file of bank correspondence and have seen something scribbled in her handwriting about a telephone call from the bank. Eventually I realise that the recently matured account I am about to transfer has already been moved to another inappropriate account. I don't need this. "Please tell me that someone from your bank hasn't phoned an eighty seven year old woman and persuaded her to transfer her money to another account?" I say sharply to the rather gorgeous looking young man who sees us.  They have but I have lost the will to fight as everything is just too tiring  and the young man easily persuades me it was all done with the best of intentions. His charms have not been lost on OldMaSock either who spends the entire drive home saying "He was a nice looking young man wasn't he Arabella?" until I want to scream.

I'm packed up and ready to go, my departure full of the usual mix of relief and sadness, even OldMaSock seems a little weepy although within a few hours she will only half remember I was there.  She calls after me as I reverse down the drive "Do you need to br......" But I am gone.





Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Glyndebourne - Inside, Outside

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“Well, basically there are two sorts of opera," ... "There's your heavy opera, where basically people sing foreign and it goes like "Oh oh oh, I am dyin', oh I am dyin', oh oh oh, that's what I'm doin'", and there's your light opera, where they sing in foreign and it basically goes "Beer! Beer! Beer! Beer! I like to drink lots of beer!", although sometimes they drink champagne instead. That's basically all of opera, reely.”
Terry Pratchett, Maskerade

Terry Pratchett's character in Maskerade was wrong.. there are basically three sorts of opera -

Indoor - where the overdressed audience watches overdressed performers, and quaffs champagne in an elegant lounge bar during the interval

Outdoor - where the audience stretch out in a park on their picnic rugs whilst watching Il Divo and/or snogging their girlfriend between necking prosecco from the bottle.

Glyndebourne - where there is a perfect merging of the two - posh yet not uberposh, picnic rugs but not superfluous snogging (well not for me and the Remarkable Ms. Reeley anyway) an indoor opera with an outdoor champagne picnic in beautiful gardens which morph gently into the Sussex countryside.

"Glyndebourne is an indoor opera" a point John Hoyland (Garden Advisor) made quite strongly at the beginning of our tour.  When people envisage Glyndebourne it is the champagne and strawberry picnics in the grounds that come to mind giving the impression that the opera is outdoors.  In fact, there is a beautiful world class opera house, restaurants, bars and even a shop hiding behind the imposing manor house, not to mention some rather special gardens. Being local to the area, I already knew the opera was indoors and was surprised at the outdoor perception.  Later, to test the theory I put the question to the Bedsock.  "It's outdoors." he replied "Like that Il Divo thing you made me go to at Petworth Park when that couple spent the whole evening snogging on the rug next to us."

Sussex Blue butterfly - another visitor to Glyndebourne

Glyndebourne has been on my 'must do' list for as long as I can remember. I had been absolutely thrilled to get an invitation to a 'select' (Ha ha! At last I am appreciated) group of bloggers and their companions, for a tour of the gardens and a chance to see the final rehearsal of 'Rinaldo'.   As Helen (the Remarkable Ms. Reeley) drove us through the Sussex countryside and along the lanes to Glyndebourne, her enthusiastic extolling of the open space, the light, the rolling Downs, the pretty lanes, even the sheep, made me realise how much I take these places for granted.  I was just very excited at the prospect of seeing the gardens and behind the scenes at Glyndebourne itself.

The Remarkable Ms. Reeley in her LBD

Although we had been told that casual dress would be fine for the garden tour and the final rehearsal we put in a little effort. Along with the usual lippie and slap, Helen wore pearls and an LBD cut low enough that her cleavage appeared in the room several seconds before the rest of her. I finally got to wear the long dress I bought for Chelsea and never got to appear in and gave my hair a good brush, although I don't think Helen believed the latter. The minute I look away from the mirror my hair starts to look untidy.

View through back of stage to auditorium

On arrival we were escorted through the back of the opera house and into a long wood panelled room where scrumptious cakes, tea, and an introduction to John Hoyland and his team awaited us. 


A tour of the gardens followed, like the buildings there is a mix of styles and plantings each different area with its own identity. A double terrace at the front of the house gave these borders height, depth and a fabulous lushness. 


My favourite - the wildflower meadow makes a fabulous frontispiece to the entrance.  Not since the manly hands of Matthew Wilson (then curator) sowed seeds of the wild meadow at Harlow Carr have I seen such a sight.  The yellow flowers positively exploded from it


and the softer, quieter,  ammi majus could form the pattern for a beautiful Liberty tana lawn fabric


Glyndebourne functions as far as possible on sustainable principles and I was pleased to note that their cut flowers were home grown and arranged rather beautifully by Head Gardener, Kevin Martin.

 Out of the strong comes forth sweetness

The gardens at Glyndebourne have enough interest to be well worth a visit on their own - although normally only open to opera goers there are occasional open days  the next on October 11th and I would thoroughly recommend it.



Canopy outside opera house

We spent a pleasant hour or so being guided around the gardens and then, after we were treated to pre-opera drinks, we took our places at the front of the top-tier in the rather splendid, snazzy, opera house! Luxury of all luxuries we had not just a great view of the stage but also (important for someone whose knees stiffen within three minutes of sitting down) loads of legroom!!


Now I'm not going to tell you a lie dear reader, Handel's 'Rinaldo' wasn't really my thing.  I'm a bit of a Porgy and Bess woman when it comes to opera and I think Rinaldo was a 'difficult' one.  The stage production was fascinating and very clever, the interpretation was amazing and I thoroughly enjoyed the first part... but enough was enough and the call of a picnic of prosecco, gala pie, and slightly squashed strawberry tarts was too strong.  I woke Helen up and we scarpered, collected our  picnic bag and chairs from the car and headed back to the glorious gardens.

View to the South Downs

It's possible to set up your picnic wherever you want in the gardens (there are also some tables to reserve on the outdoor terraces of the opera building).  We opted for the lawn by the lake with its fabulous views over to the South Downs in the golden early evening light.

Picnics set up before the interval

Places taken!

Other visitors had already bagged their places by laying out their rugs and tables, ready for the 'long interval' a break of ninety minutes giving the opera goers chance to picnic or eat at one of the great restaurants and very much part of the whole Glyndebourne experience.  For a while we had the place to ourselves and a marauding opportunist seagull who was clearly hoping to find an open picnic basket to raid.

John Hoyland (front) & gardening team Stephen Brockhurst, Kevin Martin, Dawn Aldridge

 It was the perfect end to a lovely day out and my thanks go to John and his cheerful, chatty team and Hester Phillips who arranged it.
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More info on Glyndebourne here

A blog with more about the gardens from fellow invitee The Enduring Blogger here





Thursday, 10 July 2014

Villa D'Este - I never promised you a water garden

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Along with the sunshine there's got to be a little rain sometime.....

Halfway down the stairs is a stair where I sit

We are seated on the terrace of an ancient Italian palazzo, now turned B&B, in the narrow back streets of the old town of Tivoli, tucking into our first cappuccinos of the day and a rather good breakfast spread of ham, cheese and a variety of different breads.  There is also a yoghurt each with the word 'intero' stamped on the label.  I'm wondering if this is a sympathetic hint.  Our accommodation has the quirkiest of bathrooms converted from a narrow steep stairway with the shower at the top, handbasin at the bottom and half-way up the dimly lit stairs is, not Christopher Robin, but an antique porcelain toilet! On our arrival I had joked that this is not the place to have an upset stomach in the middle of the night! :(

The breakfast terrace is al fresco but part of a large internal courtyard with the outdoor terraces of other houses overhanging at different levels, all linked together in a higgledy piggledy fashion all displaying part of their owner's lives.  I am contemplating this and my expression must be moving in tune to my thoughts as the Bedsock suddenly asks me "What are you thinking?".  "I'm thinking that there are an awful lot of ornaments,  plant pots and pieces around these terraces and wondering where the best place would be in the event of an earthquake" I reply.  Judging by the expression on his face, next time I would be better to just say "nothing" as the Bedsock always does.

Villa D'Este when the water flows

The downside of having a highly active and vivid imagination is that I am always planning for disaster scenarios - but I have had no premonition of the day's potential disaster.  After all we are merely wandering a few hundred metres through the town to the lovely Villa D'Este, garden of fountains.  Even before Monty Don got excited about it on his Italian Gardens series I had wanted to visit - we hadn't been able to fit it in during our last visit to Rome so in many ways this holiday had been planned around it. It's a perfect, sunny morning after the torrential rain and thunderstorms that have dogged the last few days of holiday.  Our travels may be coming to an end but I have saved the Villa D'Este til last, after Ninfa it may not be the best but it is certainly been at the top of our Italian garden wish list - I can't wait to see the corridor of 100 fountains

100 fountains but will the gargoyles be gargling for us?

We have arrived early(ish) to avoid the crowds but as we approach the reception desk DISASTER! There is a sign up saying the fountains are not on. I stare at the sign in disbelief.  Then I stare at the lady behind the desk in disbelief. "What do you mean the fountains are not on?" I gasped. "We've come all the way from the UK just to see the fountains" I exaggerate slightly.  "It's because of the rain" replies the receptionist.  My head explodes.

"What do you mean because of the rain" I rant "You mean to tell me that in the 1500s Ippolito d'Este created a fabulous fountained f*****g garden using only natural water pressure and yet in this day and f*****g age a bit of rain has stopped the whole damned show? Even British Rail hasn't come up with a worse excuse!"  This rant went on a fair bit longer and it is possible (hopefully) the swear words were only in my head.  Eventually the Bedsock calmly asks when the fountains will come back on.  The receptionist shrugs, at first she says they don't know but we can go in to see the gardens anyway. Why would we want to pay to see a 'water' garden with no water? It will be like going to a Rolling Stones concert with no Mick Jagger! I start to weep and tear my hair out.  "Maybe eleven o'clock" they will be back on" says another receptionist.  We decide to go for another cappucino then return.  My heart has sunk and I'm worried that the sign on the desk saying the 'fountains are off' is rather well-used. I am also irrationally annoyed by the woman taking ipad photos in the Piazza where we are having our coffee. 


Later, googling will inform me that the fountains being turned off is far from unusual and that many visitors are in for a disappointment.  Apparently, after a lot of rain the river supplying the fountains silts up and they shut the supply off.  As Tivoli is in the 'thunderstorm corridor' of Italy, this must happen quite often.  They still let people into the garden at full price though!!

We return to the reception an hour later with a certain amount of trepidation. "Are the fountains back on yet?" I query. "I don't know" shrugs the receptionist as if it is all a bit irrelevant.  The more helpful lady finds out for us.  You can judge from my pictures of the most fabulous, fascinating, f*****g fountains in the whole world whether they were on or not!


Not since the fountains of Barcelona danced to the sound of Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé have water features been this wonderful.


Glorious grottos - we particularly loved the lichen and the ferns which looked like bunches of hanging grapes


OMG! Look! there she is again in full ipadding mode!


Gargling gargoyles


The Italians seem very keen on the tits squirting water theme - particularly useful if you have nine of them.


Everywhere they could flow water they flowed water


We loved this boat fountain


OMG! Is there no stopping her?


 Was Villa D'Este the perfect bucket list garden? Of course it was - it was full of fun, frivolous, frothy, frolicking fountains [FFS! that's enough fs Ed. ]


Travellers tips: If you are visiting check the weather forecast on previous days when rain may have built up. If they say in the morning the fountains are off - try again later in the day.  Try and allow some leeway in when you visit by staying nearby for a couple of days -visit the Villa Adriana (a few kms away) and if you are very fit the Villa Gregoriana has a deep gorge you can walk down close to the Villa D'Este.  The town of Tivoli itself is a bit scruffy and no great shakes and be warned that the unattractive industrial suburbs of Rome stretch pretty much right up to Tivoli itself so not the nicest way to approach such a gem.





Friday, 4 July 2014

Villa Lante - Boxed in

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The third garden on our Lazio list, Villa Lante, was our first  Italian Renaissance garden.  Formally styled, highly controlled, no discernible flowers.  I remember Monty remarking that in some of the Renaissance gardens these box hedged patterns would originally have been home to flowers and herbs but I quite like the sparsity of colour and rigidity of design at Villa Lante.  As it happens it is not Monty that has drawn us here but a recommendation from Alys Fowler on twitter where she mentioned that it was charming and quiet.  Alys was right on both counts - it is small, perfectly formed and surprisingly, we have the place to ourselves.

Villa Lante is an example of the Mannerist phase of the Italian Renaissance - you can read the 'science bit' here.  I don't generally read too much information in advance of visiting the gardens, I prefer to have a rough idea of their history and then my own emotional response to them. I wonder if this is a mistake. I know how much difference having an audio guide makes to the experience of visiting an art exhibition and how it can give life and purpose to paintings and artwork that I might otherwise just wander past.  Do I need to understand a garden to appreciate it?

There is plenty to appreciate at Villa Lante whether you are informed or not. The intricate and precise patterns of the box hedging


fab fountains


statues with the requisite lichen and moss


But there was also an annoying  down side to Villa Lante - when we visited,  much of what is a relatively small garden in the first place, was chained off.  Even the main terrace with its maze of box hedging was only possible to view from a central walkway, yet everything about it begs you to wander through the design itself and discover its hidden fountains.

What strikes me first during our visit is that the garden is designed to be viewed from the top terrace and there are going to be a heck of a lot of steps to climb. My energy is limited so hauling myself to the top had better be worth it!

When I did a day's Photography Course with Clive Nichols at RHS Wisley the one thing I remember is his advice that the lens you should use most for garden landscapes is your telephoto to bring the background into the foreground.  The two photos below illustrate why - the first makes the top terrace of the garden seem a realistically long way away,


the second, taken with the telephoto lens, is the more attractive picture, but gives the impression that you could be up to the top with a leap and a skip.


I am determined that having come all this way I am not missing out on the top terrace view, I want to get the shot of the view down the terraces from the top of the long rill. Here we have it


and for no obvious reason some b****** has stuck a builders rod  and tape right in the middle of it spoiling the shot!  I am tempted to take it out to get a perfect photo or to photoshop it out later on but am minded to remember Anne Wareham's views about prettifying and perfecting gardens in this way, airbrushing out their faults like magazine models.  (It is odd how Anne has come into my consciousness at these gardens, I feel like she is there with me EEEEK!)


This was the Bedsock's favourite bit of the garden - the grotto at the top. By this time we were so annoyed by the amount of restrictions to the public that he took the chains down for his photo.  I guess these chains were to discourage small children from drowning themselves and adults from paddling in the water.  Personally I would either give people credit for some common sense, or discourage small children by not letting them in,  or let them suffer the consequences. Otherwise, unusually for Italy, it all gets a bit 'health and safety'.

Overall a very lovely garden with fabulous vistas, compact but with interest on each different terrace.  Is it a 'bucket list' garden? For me it is grouped with other slightly similar Renaissance gardens at least one of which should be seen before you pop your gardener's clogs.  I was glad that we had picked Villa Lante from this genre.

As I waited for the Bedsock to retrieve the car and collect me from the gates I noticed this chic, intricate, moth.  I tweeted a photo of it requesting identification and resident twitter expert on everything Simon Suter identified it as a 'boxtree moth'. By coincidence a night later there was a TV programme warning about the imminent invasion of the UK by these critters.  It was no coincidence that the 'boxtree moth' was hanging around a garden full of hedges!


BTW  A little brain teaser for you.  12 letters. What do you call someone who likes making love to an entomologist?

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Bomarzo - into the mouth of hell





"This isn't going to turn out to be another 'Black Gang Chine' is it?" asked the Bedsock as we made our way through the modern reception block, along some open parkland and into the wooded gorge that houses the monstrous sculptures of Bomarzo. "Of course not!" I reassured, remembering our disappointment some decades ago when visiting the Isle of White 'attraction'. We found not "a steep-sided river valley where the river flows to the sea"  as chine is defined, but an horrendous, kiddy, theme park.

Dear reader, for once in my life I was wrong, and the Bedsock had been strangely prescient. Monty Don has a lot to answer for.

If Ninfa (see previous blog) was top of my Italian Garden bucket list then Bomarzo was a close second. I hadn't re-watched Monty's Italian Garden Series since it was first broadcast in 2011 but I remember the impact his tour around the Parco dei Mostri had on me, dark, brooding, mysterious and begging to be explored (the gardens that is, not Monty). Created in 1552 by one of the Orsini family and hidden in a 'sacro bosco' (sacred wood) near to their palace in the hilltop village of Bomarzo, Monty described it as a garden like no other. "Fantasies and visions that loom out of the trees ... spiced with horror." and indeed, viewing the programme, it seemed a raw, slightly sinister place,  a complete contrast to the beauty and romance of Ninfa.  We HAD to go there.

Civitella D'Agliano with us last house bottom right

We had rented a gorgeous house in another nearby hilltop town of Civitella D'Agliano. Just for a week but enough to fit in both Bomarzo and Villa Lante in between doing absolutely nothing but read, sleep pillowed on a cloud of jasmine fragrance


float in the pool


watch the hummingbird moths on the honeysuckle outside our door,


or realise that somebody has been watching you watching the hummingbirds..


The Bedsock was most chagrined to miss the whipsnake - I called to him to look out the top window to see the snake from above but he thought I was going to nag him about something and ignored me.

Anyway this has nothing to do with Bomarzo - I just wanted to make you jealous.

Back to Bomarzo and we are wandering along well delineated steps and formal pathways, past rocks roughly hewn into the shape of various monsters and exotics.  The happy, sunny, day dapples its way through the shading trees and the atmosphere is about as far from sinister as a Teletubbies picnic.

Although water is flowing somewhere at the bottom of the not very deep gorge it isn't filling any of the fountains - and there is nothing sadder than a fountain with no water (as will become apparent in a future blog about Tivoli).  Around every corner is another sculpture hewn out of the existing rocks but despite the horrific subject matter of some there is just no shock value - it's all just "yeah..... Next". 

Hercules tears asunder Cacus

Monty had recounted that the garden was "loaded with riddles and anarchic puns" which no-one has ever fully deciphered (how can we know this?). But even the 'Tilted house' that Monty made so much of, its out-of-kilter floors causing him to mis-step due to the visual 'prank', is a tad tedious. I had been excited to enter this and stumble for myself but it's just an obviously, slightly sloping, floor which Monty hammed up.


As we completed our regimented circuit of the statues the Bedsock and I had a little rant discussed why we thought it failed and agreed that the garden needed a misty, gloomy, wet day to set it off. It would have been better accompanied by the thunderstorms that set in the following week, rather than the hot sunny blue skies of our visit.  The sculptures needed to loom out of a mist of moss and damp slime to be truly atmospheric and be hidden from the viewer, by winding, unkempt pathways, so that happening upon one would be a sudden, visual shock.

Puff the Magic Dragon - not shocking enough!

I'm very disappointed that Monty has given me such a wrong idea of the place. No doubt the TV shots hid the railings around the sculptures (which were not so much to protect you from the monstrous statues but to protect them from monstrous children playing on them) but how else had they given us the impression of  gloom and doom so necessary for the garden to work? Was it the deliberately doleful musical score that added to the much needed mournful atmosphere?

We photographed this lady in as 'loomy' a way as possible

On our return from hols I rewatched  Monty's visit (about 35mins in) to see what he actually said about Bomarzo and guess what? IT'S NOT MONTY'S FAULT!  His filming took place in just the wet, misty weather that the garden needed and the statues WERE looming.  Monty tells the viewer that what he absolutely loves is "the green, the way you go from earth to stone to tree with this one green which goes up through" making it all connect.  He even strokes the green mossiness of the statue to make the point. Unfortunately, since he made the programme SOME BLOODY IDIOT HAS CLEANED THE MOSS OFF!


Ironically,  the main theme of Orsini's garden was a revolt against the attempt to apply order.  He may have succeeded in this vision at the time but now my criticism is the order that as been imposed on it.

On leaving the reception area we found a series of posters of old photographs, taken when the garden was just rediscovered.  This must have been the most magical time to see the sculptures, every child's dream to uncover a sleeping monster in the undergrowth


a strange juxtaposition between the farmers flock and a stone elephant


What a shame that in reclaiming the garden it has been too over-formalised for our taste.   Parc dei Mostri - a pleasant place for a shady stroll with sculptures - not a bucket list destination.


Note: Surprisingly Monty informs that the statues would originally have been brightly coloured and painted making it even more like the 'Mouth of Hell' at Blackgang Chine pictured at the top of this blog.