Gardening, My Diary, The English

Cambridge University Botanic Gardens

Every time I go back home I go to the Botanic Gardens. A wonderful place beautifully laid out: you know it’s a Botanic garden because of all the labelling, but it’s also a park which people have loved so much that they’ve left money in their wills for benches for present users. It’s laid out in areas where you can lift ideas for your own garden maybe? Winter gardens, rock gardens,dry gardens,rose and scented ones as well as a bee border and if your plot is really big you can arrange a magnificent pool-side garden like theirs, surrounding their grand fountain.

They have an interesting chronological bed full of surprises. What, is that not a native English plant? No dear, It arrived from the Americas in……

The glass houses are organised on continent lines and are totally fascinating; learning here is a real joy. Did I say learning ? Well if that’s what it is, it’s purveyed with the lightest possible touch. What I did notice in particular this time was the new rising path (opened in 2018) with the guide to the evolution of plants written on the wooden floor of the path with illustrative panels showing how to look at the plants and leading to the highest point (that would be us until our natural world gives up on us and sinks back into a sea of heedlessness, a morass of folorn hopes as well as a cruel and totally self-centred theft of the kids’ future). Looking from the top of this spiral walk you gaze over a briliantly conceived open book of nature. It was one of the first to be laid out when the Gardens were moved to the present site in 1846. It is a showcase and teaching resource to represent the Swiss botanist A. de Condolle’s descriptions of monocotyledons and dicotyledons .They now have a problem: when the book was written the taxonomy was unaided by DNA detection, now what shall they do? Keep to the author’s historical layout or organize more precisely according to current knowledge? It’s a bit of a conundrum.

But apart from the gardens you have the interesting encounters too. The lady I asked “where did you get that lovely parasol from, Japan?” The unexpected answer had me dashing off to the gift shop! Would you believe it, that delicate concoction of rice paper and bamboo came from the gift shop!

Then I went for lunch. More typical English fare : baked potato with English Cheddar and ginger beer to drink. Potatoes from the New World and ginger from South East Asia! In the risto I met a sweet girl from Oristano who was desperate to speak Italian. I know just how that feels. She told me she had been in Cambridge for months trying to learn , so believe me when I tell you that you need to go with at least a basic knowledge otherwise your time is wasted.


Not home yet!

Well in the last post I was still hovering over la douce France …. and finally I’m in Italy. What a wonderfully varied patchwork that is!  It’s like the  contour models  we had at school showing mountains and deep cleft valleys, green and white. I love to see the snowy caps or the steep-sided mountains and the plunge down into the valleys with the villages nestling in them,but of course maybe “nestling” is a misnomer because they do get flooding and rock slides down there but from up here it looks serene .Leaving the more mountainous area we can see the inverted y-shape of lake Como.  Further on we come to the fields round Bergamo, nice, green but not hedged or tree-lined so to my eye not quite as lovely.

Driving home is always nice after the holiday; you’re back under your own steam with your own things and along the motorway this absolutely mind-bogglingly perfect picture, a soft pinky- orange nectarine sky, background to Leonardesque hills bluer and bluer as they recede into the distance, not mountains but soft, rounded hills,  ancient and motherly .In front the light has been leached out of the darkening green  trees…glorious. Unfortunately before I can find a suitable place to stop and take a photo, the perfect colouring of the moment has passed. Carpe diem.

So here I am, “home” again and thinking how priviledged I am to be able to participate in these two immensely rich cultures not as a tourist or day -tripper but as someone who belongs and although sometimes this rootlessness causes me an ache in my soul mostly I’m just very grateful for the gift.


Leaving home/Coming home

I had been very careful choosing my seat, if you like looking out of the plane window I think the best is probably row 10/window. And the day was wonderful! The few clouds were lower than us and made patterns on the landscape or we played peek-a -boo through the gaps in the clouds, Absolutely perfect!

So goodbye to England for a while! I love the English countryside so much, laid out in irregular fields, shapes softly undulating. and bounded by hedges with a few of the trees still left. These trees were once part of the hedge but they’ve been there long enough to mature into trees. The hedges have been lost to make way for  more “industrial ” farming more manageable fields and so we’ve lost a lot of  wild flowers and wildlife suffers too. Our very oldest hedgerows, which mark parish boundaries, date from the bronze age and are irreplaceable living history. Just the names of the shrubs make poetic reading: hazel, dogwood, guelder rose, spindle. Hedgerow planting took off again in Roman Britain and continued until the Enclosures Act prompted a lot more planting. Unfortunately, after the second World War  many were removed to make the country more self-sufficient; now however the pendulum has swung all the way back and instead of encouraging hedge- clearance the government gives grants to encourage laying hedges. Loss had also  been caused by straw burning( no longer allowed) and the drifting of sprays used on crops, as well as bad management. The gapped lines of trees that I so love are called relict hedgerows.

Over the Channel to la douce France with her fields divided into much smaller strips and  no hedges. We had a marvellous view of the Seine and its repeated curves, like a geography lesson! We flew over Paris but what struck me most was the large quantity of forests . I think it’s about the sixth country in Europe for forest coverage.

My Diary, Trip

Train tripper

I love trains. So yesterday we spent getting on and off trains all round East Anglia. Lovely flat land as far as the eye can see. And the English countryside! And the cloudscapes! Green green green! There’s also a lot of water because we were on the edge of the Norfolk Broads where a lot of people spend their time cruising in river barges and boats. I went on a boat trip from Ely to Cambridge once and loved it, almost eye to eye with the waterfowl! My daughter said” I’m going to get off, I can walk faster”. Lots of different points of view in this family. I’ve sent you a famous song which is worth listening to, maybe with subtitles because there’s a lot of boating vocabulary! Go on, singalong!

We arrived in Lowestoft in time to have lunch in the “Joseph Conrad”. I should imagine you’ve all read his “Lord Jim” or at least seen the film. Of course you all know of the 1970’s film by Francis Ford Coppola “Apocalypse now,” based on Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. The walk along the seafront was great, very bracing (that’s English euphemism for quite chilly and windy!), the buildings a reminder of when no one jetted off to foreign destinations, before Spanish package holidays became the norm and you had a seaside holiday at home! There was an amazing kaleidiscope of dress. People in wind jackets, people in vests. There honestly weren’t a lot of people on the beach which is nice and sandy; everyone had a windbreak and I noticed a conscientious life guard watching the bathing kids with close attention. I’ve bought you a rude postcard, they don’t sell them any more because of political correctness I suppose. They used to be pretty off -colour,about vicars and actresses. I think this one is quite inoffensive.

Then off to Norwich. I’d read a glowing account of the town but maybe I went the wrong way because I found it very tacky, so many ambiguous nightclubs and girlie bars. Didn’t like it at all. But we did find the cathedral. ( The cathedral is in the news because the dean had a helter-skelter installed in the nave temporarily). Nothing ever comes near Ely cathedral I’m afraid, but this one deserves a better, longer visit. Especially Cathedral Close full of green lawns and trees, and beautiful old houses.

>On the way back ,knackered! I saw lots of piggeries and you’ll all be pleased to know that my breakfast bacon came from porkers living in the open air with space, green grass and mud to roll in. If you’re not a vegetarian that’s a comforting sight.


My Diary, Trip


I went by bus to Cambridge (the company is called Stagecoach and comfortwise it’s about as comfortable as a real stagecoach might have been) It takes me right into the town centre next to some of my favourite shops, and honestly it’s so hot here that I didn’t want to go traipsing about for too long. First stop Penhaligon’s perfume shop then onto the real objective of my trip, the book shops! I was absolutely convinced that I’ d find what I wanted in one of my very favourite places. I love Waterstones’ bookshop. They have everything: places to sit, coffee, flowers on the tables… but oh dear, not what I’m looking for.

So off I go looking for the next bookseller. I went down this  lovely side street where they had put up the bunting for my arrival (!) and on the way I was sidetracked into  going into a craft gin store! They have gin history, gin tasting, gin mixing, gin everything. I was feeling a bit mischievous so I told the young man I thought gin was probably on its way out as a trendy drink. Maybe it is…but not ours, he said. From the horse’s mouth!

Even the second bookshop didn’t have what I wanted but advised me to try a historic secondhand bookshop. I’d never been there before but David’s is now on my must-go-to list for the future even though I didn’t get what I was looking for but I did get some very useful advice. I guess by now you’d like to know what book I’m searching for so desperately? Gogol’s Taras Bulba. I’ve been offered the film (a very old version with Yul Brynner), the wonderful Janaceck tone poem and Amazon actually sent it to me in Russian! I bought it relatively easily in Italian for my daughter, but in English…. hopeless! One of the problems is that it’s a short story generally found  in a collection and if the seller doesn’t show you the index you won’t really know what you’re buying. I can get it from America with a long wait and absurd postage prices.

You’ll be happy to know that I  gave up and went to have lunch (?) at 4ish in a very nice restaurant called “The Ivy”, tended by rather higher level language students than you generally find. I was going to have fish and chips yet again and I’m not the only one who loves them as you can see by the sign intended for tourists.

However, I plucked up my courage and opted for Shepherds’ pie. Our equivalent to Sardinian shepherds’ suckling pig (only joking) .It’s really good, mutton and mashed potatoes served with gravy and mint sauce, aaahhhhh. I will not tell you about baked apple tart flambéed in Calvados served with vanilla ice cream because my doctor might be reading this!

Back to get the bus but on the way I dropped in to my favourite store for….everything except books. And dulcis in fundo I found some gorgeous glasses especially made for gin,  a satisfying day!