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Dress fabric to lust after

Blackberry and Wild Rose Book Cover Blackberry and Wild Rose
Sonia Velton
Historical Fiction , Women's Fiction
Quercus Books
10 Jan 2019

For fans of Jessie Burton and Tracy Chevalier, a rich historical debut set among the Huguenot silk weavers of Spitalfields in the late 18th century.

WHEN Esther Thorel, the wife of a Huguenot silk-weaver, rescues Sara Kemp from a brothel she thinks she is doing God's will. Sara is not convinced being a maid is better than being a whore, but the chance to escape her grasping 'madam' is too good to refuse.

Inside the  Thorels' tall house in Spitalfields, where the strange cadence of the looms fills the attic, the two women forge an uneasy relationship. The physical intimacies of washing and dressing belie the reality: Sara despises her mistress's blindness to the hypocrisy of her household, while Esther is too wrapped up in her own secrets to see Sara as anything more than another charitable cause.

It is silk that has Esther so distracted. For years she has painted her own designs, dreaming that one day her husband will weave them into reality. When he laughs at her ambition, she strikes up a relationship with one of the journeyman weavers in her attic who teaches her to weave and unwittingly sets in motion events that will change the fate of the whole Thorel household.

Spitalfields is an area of London that has always fascinated me, with its tall houses topped by glassed in roofs.

I knew that it had been settled by the Huguenot weavers when they came to Britain fleeing religious persecution in France, but knew little about the actual people other than their religion and that they wove silk.

This was also the time of the East India company’s explorations and settlement into the Far East, India, Alaska and North America. When they brought back furs, exotica and fabrics never before seen in England – and cheaper than silk too. Which is where this novel comes in.

I really enjoyed this faction/fiction about this period in history but would have been more impressed with the knowledge and storyline if I hadn’t heard about the book published just a year ago by Liz Trenow The Silk Weaver which is the (fictionalised) story of Anna Maria Garthwaite (as her real history has not been fully documented), who was the person who came to London and produced the realistic and beautifully detailed designs for silks, that in this story by Sonia Velton, is Esther’s role. Anna even persuaded a weaver to work on her silk as his Master piece. The flowers are amazingly detailed and must have taken a very long time to weave, stitch by stich, by hand, as mechanized weaving was not yet available for these fabrics, and the designs are woven in and not printed on.

This is an example of Anna Maria’s silk as held in the Victoria and Albert’s collection.

This is designed by an unknown silk weaver – held in the V&A’s Collection

Sonia’s story takes some of the facts about the Combinations, the Cutters’ Riots, and the hangings (there were 2 men hanged historically) and the known riots by the weavers as a direct result of the bringing in of printed calico and thus the drop in demand for silk, and the resultant loss of work and pay. But as my husband would say, there was always a small riot in London, they just never managed a big enough one to rival the French!

I enjoyed Sonia’s story nevertheless and found it well written and I did invest in the characters and the difficulties of life as a woman in this time – and how bad life was in London if you were poor – this is the time Hogarth painted his Gin Lanes and women feeding children gin to keep them quiet as they lacked food or milk.

But 2 novels published in the same year effectively about the same period with a similar cast of characters brings down the ranking of the second one.

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Flame and Fire and Winter Days

We are now into Autumn and our Liquidambar is aflame.  The acers are colouring up and in the street the great London Planes are dropping their leaves. So full is their leaf cover that they come every week to sweep up the fallen leaves that carpet the pavement.

We stash the aloes and cacti and agave  in the garage to over-winter them dry but light and frost proofed and put our less hardy plants under cover of netting or hessian to protect them as according to Lord Byron the English winter has already commenced – he claimed it started in August and it is already November!

Our garden has many grasses and other plants which we leave standing with their (dead) blossoms and frothy heads all winter for:grasses 30 oct 11

An important part in the winter landscape is played by the dead grasses and other herbaceous plants… Wreathed in snow or encased in ice they present a singularly graceful and fantastic appearance [Mrs William Starr Dana]

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Beverley Nichols wrote: Most people, early in November, take last looks at their gardens and then are prepared to ignore them until the spring. I am quite sure that a garden doesn’t like to be ignored like this… Especially since a garden knows how gay and delightful it can be, even in the very frozen heart of the winter, if you only give it a chance.

Our garden has much to offer in the winter. The clematis flower bravely against the cold and the early bulbs poke their heads up in January. P1000739 P1000705 P1000706 P1000709The frost and the snow offer wonderful vistas for photography as my husband’s photos regularly show. The crisp outlines of branches and grass heads against the grey skies or very blue/white skies of frosty days are stunning in their architectural forms.

So don’t forget your garden in the winter. Don’t cover it with dustsheets and wait for the spring in front of the cosy fire, in your favourite armchair, with the seed catalogues. Go out there and enjoy the different atmosphere – with gloves, boots, and scarf and hat it’s true but still with eyes that see the wonder.

 

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Gardens of New York

Well I guess there are many private gardens in New York but lacking in the Squares that London abounds in and the Royal Parks, New Yorkers have to make do with two public parks as their joint and shared garden – and they certainly like them! The two I am referring to of course are Central Park and the High Line.

Whilst in New York earlier this year we went to both these parks – I was particularly interested to see what the High Line was really like having seen many photos and descriptions. It did not disappoint except I had thought it would be wider somehow.

It seemed to us that when we were walking the High Line the whole of Chelsea Village, friends and visitors were there too. It was very crowded where we got on but did thin out by the time we left it. I guess the ice cream vendors and coffee shops were close to where we got on and the sun had come out so…

The landscaping cleverly used much of the old railway structure with some stunning planting varieties in a prairie fashion including species tulips. But then it was Piet Oudolph who designed it, so what could you expect. And he handily provided a complete list of plants available from the website of the Friends of the High Line.

In May they also had a great art exhibition with 16 plus exhibits from photos to words to sculptures cleverly positioned so that they surprised you as you came across them. Some were very large and some small but all had something interesting to say.

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Of course the other public garden in New York is Central Park. We couldn’t walk all through it but did see the following plants: Judas trees; azaleas and dwarf rhododendrons; tulips; pieris; painted ferns; hellebores; American plane trees; American elms, oaks and sugar maples as well as other maples.

Before going I had thought that Central Park was mainly grass and trees, with perhaps a skate park – my impression from the TV programmes watched, but in fact there was much more to it as the list of plants indicates.

The old stories I have heard make it out to be pretty much of a no-go area but certainly on a sunny day it was full of people enjoying themselves – locals, mums and strollers, bikes and runners, and of course, tourists.

There was a very fancy restaurant, and cafes; flowers, trees, paths, water, large boulders – glaciated granite probably – the Citadel (castle as mentioned in some books) and Shakespeare’s garden. Now this intrigues us Brits – why a Shakespeare garden?

According to the official website:

“Shakespeare Garden is a four-acre landscape named for the famed English poet and playwright. The garden features flowers and plants mentioned in his poems and plays. Small bronze plaques scattered throughout the garden bear quotes from the Bard.

The garden was first conceived in the 1880s when park commissioner George Clausen asked the Park’s entomologist to create a garden adjacent to the nature study center in the Swedish Cottage. In 1913, Commissioner Gaynor dedicated it officially to the works of Shakespeare. After years of neglect, Shakespeare Garden, just as most of Central Park, fell into disrepair. In 1987, Central Park Conservancy restored and expanded the garden, repaving paths and installing rustic wooden benches and bronze plaques with quotations from the Bard’s masterpieces.” [http://www.centralparknyc.org/things-to-see-and-do/attractions/shakespeare-garden.html]. It is not really a flower park in the way much of Regent’s Park is but still very attractive for a stroll on a nice day.

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Now the clematis fanatic in me was interested to see that on the official website if you look to see what is in bloom in the spring the first 3 items are clematis:

‘Huldine’ Clematis

Botanical Name: Clematis x ‘Huldine’
Bloom Season: Spring
Typical Bloom Time: May to June
Location: Conservatory Garden

‘Perle d’Azure’ Clematis

Botanical Name: Clematis x ‘Perle d’Azure’
Bloom Season: Spring
Typical Bloom Time: May to June
Location: Conservatory Garden

‘Ramona’ Clematis

Botanical Name: Clematis x ‘Ramona’
Bloom Season: Spring
Typical Bloom Time: May to August
Location: Conservatory Garden

Pity not more of them but then as my article for the Clematis journal says, clematis are not that wide spread in the US as the winters are mostly too cold for many of them. Still there are several that are suitable for the climate depending on which zone you are in. The High Line has a set of 9 clematis also ranging from clinging vines to herbaceous including viticella and tangutica varieties and from red to yellow in colour.

 

 

 

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Gardens and New England: is a lawn a garden?

On a recent visit to New England I looked especially for what I could see people were growing in their gardens – being that kind of nosy person as I am when it comes to gardens..

Admittedly it was a particularly cold winter and spring was only just arriving – indeed we were told by a native that the snow had only just melted on his drive, but the range of plants seemed remarkably small.

There were lots of magnolias but only 3 varieties – soulangeana, a few nigra and white stellata. And there are some 200 plus varieties possible! Some varieties actually come from the US – mostly grandiflora – the ones that have shiny leaves, are non-deciduous and flower in the summer on a sunny wall site,; and the others mostly from South America. Though in a woodland garden my envy grew very green indeed as I spied several yellow magnolias in flower.

This is a standing gripe of mine – I once saw a yellow magnolia in flower at Kew and ever since wanted one for myself. Normally I don’t like yellow flowers much but I set my P1030253 magnolia-yellow-river P1030241heart on a yellow magnolia.

When we reconfigured our front garden I set out to buy one for it. I had just the right space for a nice mid-sized tree. I scoured the Internet, asked Kew and the RHS – who did sell one but it wasn’t in stock and… In the end a Cornish nursery who specialised in rarer shrubs and from whom I had bought our pink ceanothus shrubs came up with one. A light yellow but still… we waited and it didn’t flower. But it was young and so another spring came round and lo one bud appeared, but a creamy white flower appeared… it’s young, next year maybe it will be yellow. Next spring came and more buds appeared, yes it was going to flower well. Lovely flowers opened but still pale cream. Yellow River wasn’t living up to its name at all! Could I encourage better yellow I asked the RHS? No, was the reply… and then, to cap it all, the nursery I had bought my tree from sent me a new catalogue with about a dozen yellow varieties to choose from! Ugh…

Our Yellow River is not quite as yellow as in this picture though… the other two magnolias are ours as they flowered this year.

So what else was growing in these New England gardens? Some small dwarf rhododendrons in purple, and  one bright pink, no other colours despite many rhododendrons originating in the US. Lots of forsythia. Cherry trees. Judas trees. Daffodils – in standard sizes and colours – dwarfs, no whites no frills. A few tulips. Some grape hyacinth. A few pansies. And grass. Acres of grass. And yet more grass. No hedges with plots running into each other both in front of houses and in their back ‘yards’ or gardens.  Sometimes some scrubby woodland but no woodland flowers.

We learnt what happens at the back from a friend who had lived in his house for over 20 years – since it was built in fact and yet he had only just started his first garden – the rest was grass – yes 5 acres of it. He had planted 3 small cherries and a small flower bed round his front door and was very proud of it as his neigh ours had nothing like it. Yet he had a stream running through the end of his garden which we would have loved to landscape.

We passed a few nurseries on the roads and they did seem very small and with few plants on display and really felt, that despite the winter temperatures – our friends said that they claimed that only conifers would grow – they had not explored the potential. It is true that my favourite winter clematis would not grow there but surely they could do better.

So here is where I started researching what they could have grown – looking initially at clematis of course.  And then some others out of interest and to complement. I will be writing a special article about clematis in the US for a journal so I need not to pre-publish here…

The USA Horticultural Society publishes a zonal map of the USA which indicates what zone a place is in terms of hardiness of plants. This is very important as many plants will not survive very low winter or very high summer temperatures.  There is both a heat zone map and a hardiness map to look at.  So when purchasing a plant you need to consider both extremes.  So for instance if you look at the hardiness rating you can purchase for Boston many of the same clematis as I have in my garden eg Westerplatte and Polish Spirit. For New York it is trickier as it will depend on where you are in the NY area, but generally it is the warmest rating similar to Boston where -15 C  is the lowest temperature likely.

Now in our own garden we have had these types of winter temperatures occasionally so we could expect most clematis to survive the winters. However, as many people will have realised this summer, it is the heat and lack of water that can affect clematis, many of mine have had very short flowering seasons and have shrivelled up seedheads and started losing leaves without enough rain (here in my area of London we have missed just about every rain cloud in the last 2 months..).

So what could you grow in New England to supplement these few I saw…

Here are a few suggestions:

“Star magnolia is well known for its resistance to winter cold and grows well in USDA zones 4 through 8. Saucer varieties (M. x soulangeana) are also popular magnolia tree owing to their prolific flowering displays; they too are cold hardy and can be planted in USDA zones 4 through 9. In areas susceptible to late frosts, select the later-blooming cultivars “Lennei” or “Alexandrina.” Magnolia hybrids such as “Betty,” “Pinkie” and “Ricki,” created by crossing M. liliiflora with M. stellata, display cold resistance to USDA zone 5, and are also later bloomers, making them less susceptible to late frost damage. If you are set on planting a Southern magnolia (M. grandiflora) in a colder region, “Bracken’s Brown Beauty” is cold-hardy variety.” http://homeguides.sfgate.com/magnolia-trees-cold-temperature-65541.html

I have tried to find a clearer list of plants but mostly the sites just say to ‘look at the plant label’ in the nursery and I have tried search the US Horticultural Society too – interestingly they do not list a national clematis society so perhaps this is a plant that does not grown well on a national scale – or there is not a great deal of interest in it. All that I have managed to dredge up so far is a list of when you can expect the first frost in the year – and they are remarkably specific dates! Eg if you live in Baltimore you can expect your first frost on the 17th of November,  but if you live in Charleston  it will be on the 10th of December, but it will be the 11th if you live in Houston! Such specificity….

So failing in any details available from the USA itself I fall back on the RHS who have provided us with a hardiness rating for plants which goes down to minus 20. Not enough for all of the US but works in the UK!

So here are some plants that will survive -20: Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’, selections of Potentilla fruticosa, Erica carnea and Calluna vulgaris cultivars. Ginkgo biloba, Hosta, Lilium, Polemonium caeruleum, and Viburnum × burkwoodii are also likely to survive most cold temperatures.

My final search was in the plant finder offered by the RHS where I searched for the most cold, drought and wind resistant plants and found 149 that they could recommend – a lot were shrubby of course eg Berberis or from the pinus family but they also recommended some Geraniums, Lychnis, Japanese anemones, achillea, ferns, certain grasses eg stipa, papavers, aquilegia and campanula, and of course we must be reminded that tulips will not flower unless they are cold when in the bulb.

So what could you grow in the heat? The heat zone is defined as the number of days the area receives on average more than 30C. Boston and New York are around 100 days or 3 months plus.

Cold and heat together are tricky for plants of course but you can water and prepare plants for both through good planting, mulching and cold protection with sacking let alone fleece or a greenhouse! Don’t forget shading from the sun as this can help too. And check the micro-climates in your garden – we have at least three plus a frost passage n ours which means we plant differently in different areas and have now created a shaded passageway as well.

You can then look up for heat resistant plants of course and I would strongly recommend learning from nature here California and go to the stunning https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruth_Bancroft_Garden botanical garden in Walnut Creek and just see what you can grown in near drought conditions. When I visited I actually met Ruth very briefly as she was pottering around in the garden. We were taken around by a very knowledgeable docent and loved every minute of our visit. And as a result we grow several Agaves and Aloes in our hot spot and they are doing really well…agave

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July becomes August: and Summer becomes Autumn

I always like to look and see what people have been saying about this time of year.

The flush of Spring has gone and the green has settled into a rich colour turning golden where it has been dry and sunny. The grasses have begun to flower and the peak of the garden flowering period has all but finished. So here is one quote which -almost-tells the story of our roses – except that the roses I am thinking of last slightly more than one day and are lilac and red not pink – our pink rose will carry on flowering into November or even December if there are few frosts!

“The serene philosophy of the pink rose is steadying.  Its fragrant, delicate petals open fully and are ready to fall, without regret or disillusion, after only a day in the sun.  It is so every summer.  One can almost hear their pink, fragrant murmur as they settle down upon the grass: ‘Summer, summer, it will always be summer.'”
–  Rachel Peden20150620_123407 20150620_123430

“Summer is the time when one sheds one’s tensions with one’s clothes, and the right kind of day is jeweled balm for the battered spirit. A few of those days and you can become drunk with the belief that all’s right with the world.”
–  Ada Louise Huxtable

And have you shed your clothes yet? It took me a long time this year but my winter jumpers have finally made it into the spare wardrobe and the summer t-shirts and swirly skirts have come out. Even sun-tan cream has appeared in our bathroom.

“Answer July—
Where is the Bee—
Where is the Blush—
Where is the Hay?

Ah, said July—
Where is the Seed—
Where is the Bud—
Where is the May—
Answer Thee—Me—”
–  Emily Dickinson, Answer July 

“August rushes by like desert rainfall,
A flood of frenzied upheaval,
Expected,
But still catching me unprepared.
Like a matchflame
Bursting on the scene,
Heat and haze of crimson sunsets.
Like a dream
Of moon and dark barely recalled,
A moment,
Shadows caught in a blink.
Like a quick kiss;
One wishes for more
But it suddenly turns to leave,
Dragging summer away.”
–  Elizabeth Maua Taylor

“In August, the large masses of berries, which, when in flower, had attracted many wild bees, gradually  complement their weight again bent down and broke their tender limbs.”
–  Henry David Thoreau

One of my favourite quotes is the following:

“A weed is but an unloved flower.”

Why? Because our garden is full of weeds – to other people that is  – we grow the wild flowers of the countryside and yes, we don’t ‘weed’ our beds completely and leave the flowers to range across the garden as they will. We love all the flowers in our garden but, and this is a big but, we don’t love ivy in our soil. Ivy is great on the garden fence but nowhere else. And we don’t love bind weed – it strangles plants – but we do love the ornamental version of it as it is not vigorous and we can train it where we like it. Not that I have got it to grow successfully in our garden yet.20150421_155314 20150620_123509 20150620_123535

And I totally agree with the following:

“All gardening is landscape painting,’ said Alexander Pope.”
― Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

I can’t paint with my hands any more due to arthritis and the ‘shakes’ but I can plan my garden like a painting and put this plant with that to make a pleasing whole both colour and form. That is why our garden is a riot of blooms. It is untidy in appearance until you look at the microcosm, where the plants blend harmoniously into each other and complement and enhance. The flowers of one bloom through the leaves of another – the clematis take their own route through the world – or do they? Sometime yes and sometimes no. Do we corrall plants into a space – sometimes but rarely – we allow them to spread their wings and achieve fulfilment in shape and flowers and bring the wildlife that we love to enjoy our garden with us. The hum of many bees. The flutter of many butterflies. The hop skip and jump of frogs and toads and stealthy swim of newts. The flashing bright colours of the dragonflies and damselflies as they hover over the ponds enchant with their jewels and the birds cheep and twitter and call in the hedges and the fledglings flutter off from their nest – 3 great tits this year survived (from 4 originally hatched).

For information about the Great Tit see :http://www.bto.org/sites/default/files/shared_documents/gbw/associated_files/bird-table-69-great-tit-article.pdf

 

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