Hurrah for St George

St George’s Day and the countryside has never looked better. The air is cleaner, the racket of cars, lorries and planes has almost vanished and nature is taking control. The swallows have come back – how do they time themselves? – they always arrive on April 22. Last night I heard wild geese honking as they flew over our moat. A cock and hen pheasant come daily to our bird table (seeds by mail order) as do goldfinches, long-tailed tits and at least two grey squirrels.

It’s been a great year for the garden, too. White tulips vie with cow parsley under the pleached lime which is visibly coming into leaf. In the new orchard, planted by us 20 years ago, the apple blossom has never been so prolific. Ditto our Vranja quinces. The grass is a brilliant green. Every day is cloudless though there have been overnight frosts.

You might say it was cruel of nature to provide such a show for those under house arrest but the lockdown gives us a chance to contemplate the spring. And, if it goes on, then we can celebrate summer through the drawing room window as the roses start to bloom. It’s a chance to reduce the unalleviated gloom being broadcast by the BBC.

Tidiness breaks out

British houses and gardens have never, I suspect, been tidier. The lockdown removes all the excuses about not having enough time to go round making rooms neater. We have embarked on a busy programme of dusting, stowing things away (that cushion that lost its cover a year or more ago) and are working on having parsley, chives, thyme and other herbs for the food we’ll eventually be able to buy. We have reorganised a long bookcase so that all my excess cookery books are together (and given unwanted ones to Daisy, Hew’s 12-year old great niece, who sells them for charity). There is another shelf for books about décor and architecture, mostly written by friends and me. The rest of the space is filled by Hew with heavy tomes, mostly about Aberdeen (some of his family lived there).

The fridge is immaculate now I’ve thrown out the ricotta-filled red peppers and elderly mango chunks and Hew has catalogued everything in our freezer as we gradually eat our way through. The dogs had a special treat of venison which was too old for us to contemplate. The breadmaker has been consigned to the floor of the larder (no yeast) and the larder itself has been organised so I can find the toasted sesame seed oil and mango vinegar among other abstruse ingredients and spices. I have even discovered a dozen bottles of white wine vinegar I didn’t know I had.

I expect everyone is doing the same and getting the same satisfaction that I have from, finally, having a tidy house. It won’t last, of course, but the vinegar will.

Country Life magazine

Columbine Hall achieved a major step forward when a photograph of the 1390s jettied house, surrounded by its moat, made the front cover of Country Life. This is the magazine whose property pages feature and sell the most important houses worldwide.  It was taken by Marianne Majerus, who late last spring photographed the garden – with a resulting six pages on the design and planting and text by me. I wrote that, when we bought the hall and its 29 acres, there was no garden there (except one diseased Iceberg rose) but plenty of splendid trees. You can see what we made of it in 20 years in the East Anglian number of April 27, 2016.

“Enchanting” – Pevsner

April has been a good month here at Columbine Hall. We have just got our copy of the new Suffolk:West volume of The Buildings of England, compiled by Dr James Bettley and Nikolaus Pevsner. We knew that the house was being photographed and we crossed our fingers that a picture would actually be included in the book. To our delight, one photograph appears on the important back cover (with Bury St Edmund’s cathedral on the front.) So our house has been considered one of the most photogenic building in the whole region. There’s also another photograph inside and Dr Bettley describes the building as ‘an enchanting moated house.’ What’s more, Melvyn Smith’s brilliant conversion of some very dull farm buildings into a C17 style clock tower also gets a mention. This contrasts with Pevsner’s original Suffolk volume which gives our house only a sentence. This may be because the previous owner, a farmer, tended to see visitors off with a shotgun.

At the same time, Columbine Hall’s gardens appear in a newly published German book, Die geheimen Garten von England (England’s Secret Gardens) by Heidi Howcroft and Marianne Majerus but, our German being nil, we can’t actually tell you what it says. A translation is on its way. The garden is one of only 25 chosen by the authors.

Columbine’s interior is open under Invitation to View on May 9, June 13, July 9, July 17, August 4 and 26. Our gardens are open under the National Gardens Scheme on May 10, in aid of the village of Stowupland on June 14 and for the Red Cross on June 28. And at any other time by appointment.

Two-way traffic

If you look on the new Invitation to View website, you will see a photograph of our most recent painting – a watercolour showing 13 of Hew’s antique keys in realistic detail. One visitor, the artist Lillias August, saw the keys in Columbine Hall’s rooms and asked to borrow and paint them. This is just the most recent example of the two-way traffic between us and our visitors. A few months ago, the Japanese wife of a visitor in a group helped us work out what was happening on a Japanese painted scroll of the Emperor visiting a Kyoto shrine; before that a member of a group from the Winterthur Museum in Delaware speculated that what we were told was a Chinese auspicious deer was more likely to be South-East Asian from Thailand, Vietnam or Laos. We’ve had experts on the creation of medieval moats, on 17th century witch marks (to keep them away, that is) and on the type of saw used to cut up floorboards and beams. We’ve met undiscovered relations and made firm friends. 

We’ve also had visitors who disapproved of our decor – and on occasion we have changed things round as a result. Less happy was the Dutch garden group who called our Mediterranean garden ‘horrible.’ 

Unfortunately, they were right – and we’ve altered that, too. We’re expecting a new round of knowledge, applause and criticism in 2015. 

Long may it last.

A Tidy House

The opening season is about to start on May 1. This means, after months
of untidiness, we have to get the house organised for visitors.
Actually, not that hard after several years’ practice but what gets out
of hand are the books. I review them, I get sent them gratis and I buy
them. So, in the library, there is a pile of perhaps 50 paperbacks in a
heap on the floor. They will have to be found a home. All the cupboards
are full, all the chests are full and I have sent a whole pile to
charity. I am unwilling to give more away because I re-read them. The
only book I have actually put into the rubbish was a review copy which
the printers had so mangled that it was unreadable: pages duplicated,
pages missing and no kind of order.

We need to get even the unseen areas of the house under control and I
have been doing that: organising our wine cupboard and throwing out
cardboard cartons, sorting the larder ( yet again, for I really enjoy
buying ingredients) and tidying the corner cupboard where the flower
vases are kept. The problem is always that you start the project with
enthusiasm, taking everything out of a cupboard – and then lose
enthusiasm when the whole lot is strewn over tables and chests. As part
of my Lent penance, I have sorted the whole lot out and put the
remnants back tidily. I can’t tell you the pleasure this gives me. Only
one more cupboard to do.

Thanks Angus

Houses where people live, as opposed to the National Trust or statelies which never show you the real living rooms, change the whole time. We buy new things, we change the colours of the walls, we move the furniture around. Last month, we bought a large bookcase (here being loaded up) from Soixante Neuf, a Framlingham antique shop. It has three shelves in two sections and, temporarily has swallowed up our surfeit of books. This is the trouble if you are a reviewer like me, you get yards of them all the time. Not that I’m complaining.

It is a splendid bookcase, carved to look as though it was made from bamboo with knuckles in the wood. Furthermore, it is painted in soft grey with accents where the leaf branches would have been. Because it came from a shop which specialises in French furniture, we assumed it had come from across the Channel.

But no, this was an original piece of furniture made by Angus McBean when he lived in Flemings Hall, also in Suffolk. McBean was a great photographer having shot portraits of Elizabeth Taylor, Marlene Dietrich and Vivien Leigh. He discovered Audrey Hepburn. Earlier, however, he worked at Liberty’s department store in London – some say ‘making’ their antique furniture. On leaving, he grew a strange beard to show that he would never again be a wage slave. He died in 1990 and now we have his bookcase – a genuine antique. I hope he would approve.

Pictorial – and how

When we bought seed for the new flowery meadow to be sewn in the New Orchard, the website told us that the annual mixture of seeds would produce a brilliant show from mid-May to the cold weather of November. The website told us right. Now that the first frosts have come in Suffolk, the display is finally dying down. The first flowers appeared, as predicted, about eight weeks after sowing and the display – for that is the right word – changed from a spring-like white and pink to the full summer glory of poppies in scarlet and bright pink which gave way in autumn to a suitably seasonal mixture of reds and yellows. Finally, yellows predominated underneath the yellowing leaves of the fruit trees. We are totally satisfied apart from the fact that we have to start again – but that’s always the case with annuals.  Ours is a huge area for this sort of treatment but smaller areas, even a border bed, would look terrific for seven to eight months of the year with very little maintenance – you just need to sow and leave. I would, however, say that it’s best where there are no competing flowers, just trees, hedges or grass. And don’t walk through the flowers. In our case, we had plain grass paths through the meadow. Nor was there trouble with birds, rabbits, squirrels, muntjac or any other pest, except milk thistles which persisted in appearing, only to be pulled up by the trailer load. Look for yourself on www.pictorialmeadows.co.uk.

A Book for Cooks

How about this?  The Independent has voted my recent book, A Book for Cooks published this autumn by Merrell, one of the 50 best books out this season. Not just cookery ones, either.  A detective novelist’s wife said recently that writers are hell to live with when toiling over the laptop and that their spouses have to be extremely long-suffering. Not, of course, in my case but then choosing your favourite 100 cookery books and writing 250 words on each is not nearly so complex as plotting a novel.  I did try writing one once (it never found a publisher, the rats) but, as a professional journalist, I was startled to discover the pleasure of changing  the story to suit the plot rather than being stuck with intractable and, often, contradictory facts. Perhaps that’s why I’m not a novelist. I’ve also just been asked by Country Life to contact six women chefs to find their sources of inspiration. Elizabeth David and Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in California were two favourites. Luckily my 100 best books included both of them. My current favourite is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Three Good Things which isn’t included in my book but that’s because it has just been published (and it didn’t make the Independent’s list either.) 

Duck and Grouse

Columbine Hall has a very large chimney, built, we think, in Tudor times. Our builder once reckoned that it might be made up of no fewer than 10,000 small, hand-made bricks (this does seem unlikely.) It services four fires. In the dining room and what we call the moat room there are two enormous brick fireplaces, suitable only for logs and even tree trunks while, upstairs are two smaller fires, in a spare bedroom and our library. We think both fires and chimney were built when Sir John Poley, an Elizabethan soldier of fortune (ie mercenary) was the owner.

Big chimneys have big openings, as we have learnt to our dismay. Once we came back to the house to find that two ducks had fallen down the chimney into the dining room. You would be surprised at what mess a pair of panicked mallards can make. Not only bird shit everywhere but they had smashed a rather nice Mocha jug and knocked pewter dishes to the floor.

On another occasion we had a pair of young kestrels down the moat room chimney. Less damage (though enough) and, despite their ferocious appearance, they left by a large window without too much trouble. Even less trouble are the various pigeons and robins which have found their way indoors.

The duck/kestrel problem may now be over. Richard Everitt, our builder, needed scaffolding and ladders to reach the top of the chimney (an earlier cherry picker was too unstable) where he fixed a fine metal grille over the openings. The view, he added, was marvellous from the top. We declined to clamber up ourselves.