January Gardens

So since the end of January hove into view and the tumult of rain ebbed to mizzle I’ve begun making small tours of the garden to see what has survived, what has disappeared and what has reached up to the surface of the soil to make a cautious start into growth.

In the depths of this winter I’ve taken to curling up by the fire and dipping into my new gardening book-‘Down to Earth’ by Monty Don, which makes me feel both woefully inadequate and also inspired to try new ideas and plants in our modest piece of land.

In addition to all these garden ponderings we’ve made a visit to wonderful Mottisfont House, near Romsey in Hampshire, where, even in the depths of winter the gardens are spectacular.

Swathes of delicate snowdrops are draped around trees and along the banks of The Test river and in the wonderful winter garden the bare coloured branches of shrubs are just beautiful. On our own plot the 300 snowdrop plants I spent several hours planting last year have rewarded me with 5 lonely flowers. Heaven only knows what became of the other 295-but squirrels may be the culprits [about which, more later].

Vibrant drifts of cyclamen have been planted around the bases of shrubs and trees.

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At least these hardy, winter flowers have taken hold in our garden, having been transferred from winter pots onto the dastardly, dry shade bank.

Mottisfont’s walled gardens [three of them] are vast and while bare at this time of year are still a pleasure to stroll around. Then there is a circle of trees with an interesting sound installation.

Inside the old house the top two floors are hosting a cartoon exhibition, with original gems from the likes of Ronald Searle, Thelwell and Heath Robinson. All the exhibits are for sale, and while I’d really like a Heath Robinson they are pricey.

In the second hand bookshop, next to the ‘Stables’ café there are two shelves of gardening books, which are tempting, until I remember that, as with everything else, Plants, theory and advice goes out of date. It used to be the thing to dig over your flower and vegetable beds to keep the soil weed and clump free. Nowadays we are to leave it to the worms to sort out. But having toured Mottisfont’s gardens I realise I should be mulching as if my life depended on it.

As for squirrels-they are out of favour here at the Schloss, having eaten their way through our roof lead until the rain has poured through. They must now be trapped and decanted to new territories and the repairs must be done. Such is life. No such difficulties at Mottisfont…

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An English Forest Weekend

The New Forest, in Hampshire, southern England featured in a lot of my childhood. We were all three born in a village on the edge of it. My father travelled across it every day for work in Southampton and we went often for picnics and recreational activities like those family cricket games of the fifties or accompanying scout camping trips.

Of course as children we were accustomed to seeing the animals of the Forest roaming free and were used to marauding bands of ponies invading our garden and enraging my father, who would storm outside in the middle of the night with objects like biscuit tins to bash and banish them from his precious vegetable beds. They always returned-until cattle grids were installed across all the entrances to the village, when to my immense disappointment the night visits ceased.

What a contrast East Anglia seemed when we re-located there! Even as a young child I was shocked at the impoverished fenland landscape, my mother compounding the sensation by telling me I’d have had my own pony ‘if we’d stayed in The New Forest’.

I was not to return to live next to The New Forest for another nineteen years, during which time it had altered considerably and had begun to assume its reputation as a tourist magnet.

Nowadays the Forest has National Park status and is thronged with visitors of all nationalities. Cheffy restaurants, trendy hotels, gastro-pubs, tea shops and costly gift emporia have proliferated in the towns and villages but it remains, to us a precious resource that we still love to walk, cycle and camp in.

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What better location to spend a weekend celebrating an anniversary and birthday? We park up, go for a hot, dusty cycle, return, shower and make for the convenient station where we take a tiny train to yachty Lymington. Here there are ferries to the Isle of Wight but we are interested only in the Lobster and Burger Bar where we feast-but not on burgers.

Next morning we have guests expecting breakfast:

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And we retreat inside the van until they give up. The ponies, cows, donkeys, deer and pigs of the Forest are a delight but need to be treated with caution. The Forest roads, terrain and flora are all theirs and humans must bow to their superiority, whether it means waiting in a traffic queue for them to shift from the centre of the road or going the long way around to the shower block on the campsite.

After another sweaty bike ride we get ready and set off to The Pig, favourite for Sunday supplement features and writers of restaurant columns.

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I’d say we aren’t The Pig’s average customers as a quick glance reveals that few would have travelled here from the camp site-many will be staying in one of the artfully ‘shabby chic’ rooms or have arrived in convertible sports cars, their pastel sweaters slung casually around their shoulders, their stilettos tap-tapping on the wood floors.

It’s nice, although the food is not quite as stunning as I’d been led to believe. But outside the gardens alone are worth the visit, immaculate, symmetrical veg beds and a path leading to a voluptuous pond area.

Next day we BBQ with old friends and enjoy a good gossip under the shade of the pull-out. All good!