Reincarnation or Just Coincidence?

I have written about the ‘dream’ house before but recently the mystery of it took an unexpected leap forward. 

I am a small child running through the countryside when I arrive at what appears to be a derelict house.  At least I always assumed it was derelict for the two windows looked as if they had silted up and instead of being full length they were only one-third of their normal height.

The windows are at the back of the house but initially I approached it from the front.  There is a long driveway and as I run around a bend suddenly there, in front of me, is the house.  It is huge but very symmetrical – just as a small child would draw one if asked.  No sooner have I seen it than, in that typical disjointed dream way, I am around the back by the windows.

 I manage to wriggle through one of them and as I do I fall a short distance to the floor.  It is a small circular room with several doors leading off it; as I stand up I lift my head to look at the ceiling: it has stone vaulting just like an abbey might be.  And then … I wake up.  I don’t feel scared, I feel happy and warm inside as if I’ve come home after a long time away.

The dream recurs regularly from my very early childhood right through to the day in my late twenties when I awake and for some reason decide to draw the house.  No matter how hard I try, I can only draw it as a small child might but, somehow in doing so, I break the spell and I never dream of the house again.
Fast forward fifteen years and a career change to gardening for a living.  Now a trained Head Gardener I apply for a post in a village I have never heard of and arriving for my interview I proceed up a long, half mile driveway, round a bend and, yes you’ve guessed correctly, there is the house of my dream.  I am shown around the gardens and finally, at the end of the interview, approach the house from the rear.  There are the two windows…      

Having successfully got the job, part of my remit is to tend the house plants.  The room with the two windows is a small circular library with three doors leading off.  When I pluck up the courage to talk to my employer of the dream she tells me that the house was once a convent and this room is adjacent to the old chapel, now used as a dining room.  As for the vaulted ceiling she says there could be for the present plain one is false although they have no intention of changing it to find out.  I ask her what the tall obelisk at the front of the house commemorates.  She tells me it is rather a sad story: it is a memorial to the only son of the family for whom the house was being built in the early 1700’s.  He died before it could be completed and so they gave it to the nuns to live there.

I officially left the job – and I thought the house – thirteen years ago to take up a new position in the Cotswolds.  In many ways I was sad to go for I loved being there but a change had beckoned. Some months later I receive a telephone call asking me to act as a consultant on an occasional basis – is it the house that has prompted this – and I have returned regularly ever since.

Move to the present day after a gap in visits of several months where I admire the new building set in the grounds close to the house, an indoor swimming pool.  I am told that there were a number of problems in completing the work for when they started digging the builders dropped into an underground room.  Its existence had not been known of before and yes, you’ve guessed correctly, it had a stone vaulted ceiling…

Reincarnation or coincidence – I’ll leave you to decide.  I’m happy either way and if it is reincarnation I am delighted with the obelisk that has been placed in my memory.  I shan’t be asking for it to be taken down just because I’ve returned…

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Richard Long’s Extraordinary Land Art

I have found that there are no shades of grey when appreciation – or lack of it – of Richard Long’s art is discussed. It seems that either, like me, you are swept away by it or you just cannot see the point of it at all. Whilst respecting this latter point of view, I ask myself, “Does art have to have a point”? For me, of all art forms , Richard Long’s work demonstrates that beauty can be appreciated just for it’s own sake.
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British born (in Bristol, where he still lives and works), Richard Long studied art in both Bristol and London, giving his first solo exhibition in Germany in 1968, as he completed his studies. I imagine this is quite an achievement in itself. Since then he has exhibited regularly throughout the world.
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In the grounds of my ‘reincarnation’ house, I was fortunate to be involved in the placing of one of his slate circles (photo above). Sadly, I never met the great man himself, for I would have loved to have sat quietly and watched the stones being laid in place. My contribution was extremely modest: I only removed the turf and put down the base ready for the circle to be put in position. However, this did mean that the circle appeared as if by magic – and it has remained mysterious and magical ever since. And, as if by magic, the gaps between the stones have filled with leaves and debris and yellow lichens have started to colonise their surface.
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Regular readers of this blog will know of my fascination for stone in all its forms, whether it is the earliest standing stones (and we have our own ancient stone circle here in the Cotswolds, the Rollright Stones), the dry stone walls of the secret valley or placing stone in the garden. But Richard Long’s stone work is different to all of these for each piece is meticulously shaped and honed – or left in its natural state – and crafted into position. To really appreciate it, you have to become part of the landscape yourself. When you lie on the ground looking across the surface of his work, it takes on a completely new appearance and meaning.
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When I first came to know and love Richard Long’s work, I little dreamt that one day it would inspire me to incorporate land art into one of my own designs. Attached to a beautiful old farmhouse, belonging to a client, is a small, almost bottle shaped, raised area of land surrounded by the remains of a twelfth century moat and mill stream. It is too wild an area in which to create a conventional garden so the plan is to keep it as a simple wild flower area. A very low serpentine turf coverd bank will draw the eye – and, hopefully, the visitor – towards the bottle neck. Careful planting will bring you unwittingly into a living willow tunnel and, at the far end where the land broadens once again, will be a circle. Not a stone circle this time but a meditation circle inspired by the photograph below of children playing. This photograph is from the artist’s (or is it sculptor’s?) website; all the remaining photo’s are mine taken at the reincarnation house. To be redirected there just click and make sure you look at both the Exhibitions and the Sculptures pages.

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As for my new design, work is due to commence at the end of this month and I shall report on progress some time in the future. One thing I am quite certain of is that I will not be asked to hold any exhibitions either in the UK or abroad!
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Anatomy of a Flower Arrangement

How often does a garden plan go awry only to find that you have something equally as good, if not better, instead? This is what happened to one of my designs, a large area taking up almost one quarter of a walled kitchen garden.
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Formal beds, surrounded by box(wood) hedging and topiary, were planted to create what was to be a tisane, or herbal tea, garden. All the plants were supposed to be suitable for making infusions for either medicinal or culinary use. Something went wrong and, for reasons unknown, half the plants either died or refused to flourish. In desperation, we turned it into a cutting garden where flowers could be harvested for arrangements for the big house – actually, the mystery house I used to dream of as a child. I have written about this house before and the tale of my arriving there two hundred years after I had died….

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Concentrating on those plants that survived the initial planting, I decided to see how they would cope with being used as cut flowers and the result was much better than expected. The flowers were cut in the middle of the hottest day of this year so far – not ideal conditions – and then plunged up to their necks in water for the rest of the afternoon. They looked poorly and drooping when first arranged but perked up overnight and now, ten days later, look as fresh as ever.

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Much of the structure is created with a framework of Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’. I find that to get the best results it is necessary to prune this shrub down to ground level each spring. They then produce long wands of stunning silvery foliage. A bitter herb used for all sorts of ailments, I would have to feel very ill before I would consider drinking a tea made from this!
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At this point, I should stress, that I am no herbalist so I do not recommend that you try out any of these plants without deciding for yourself whether they will do you good or kill you instead.
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Hemp Agrimony, Eupatorium cannabinum, is a British native plant, normally found growing in damp places but quite happy in the garden border. The Joe Pye of America, it is claimed that it is good for many different ailments but especially good for gout.
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A big surprise, was this Spearmint. In the cutting garden it has grown exceptionally tall (and like all mints, proving rather invasive) with attractive, fine flowers. This is, of course, one that I can safely recommend for use as a culinary herbal tea, very refreshing on a hot summers day and good if you suffer with indigestion.
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Lavender needs no introduction. Oddly enough, because of soil conditions, I thought they would struggle in this garden. Instead, they have thrived.
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Marjoram, another common herb that grows wild in England on sunny banks, also needs no description from me. It is our best bee and butterfly plant in the garden, even outrivalling Buddleias. We grow it in huge patches throughout the garden.
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Leaving the best to last and the biggest surprise of the lot! Marsh-mallow, Althaea officinalis, another UK native. This was the first time I had grown it and it is now one of my ‘signature’ plants that I try to incorporate into every design. Related to Hollyhocks but only about half their height and very much more delicate in every way, except one – they are as tough as old boots!
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Beautiful, downy, soft-as-velvet leaves and the merest hint of pink flowers, they require no staking, suffer from no pests or diseases and grow year after year, getting ever stronger. And, of course, you can always make marshmallow sweets to eat from their dried, powdered roots.
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This recipe comes from my old herbal, although I have never tried to make them:
2oz marsh mallow root, 14oz fine sugar mixed with gum tragacanth and enough orange flower water to bind altogether. Quite what you do after that I have no idea – perhaps just eat them?
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Snowdrops and Aconites

The winter may have been one of the snowiest and coldest for a long time but it hasn’t made the slightest difference to the displays of snowdrops and aconites which are now at their best.

There has been a great upsurge of interest in the different varieties of snowdrops in recent times. To those of you who just thought there were singles or doubles, it may come as a surprise to learn that there are more than 500 named cultivars derived from the 19 or so species found in the wild. All are variations on a theme, basically white petals with green (or occasionally yellow) markings. The Royal Horticultural Society Plant Finder lists 251 as being available in the UK and prices for the more unusual ones start from a few pounds per bulb to large sums of money for the very rare. Personally I am quite happy with the simple purity of the common single type and am also aware of the difference, namely the ‘frilly petticoat’, of the common double one.
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Now people get very excited by upturning the flowerhead so they can see a slightly larger speck of green on the bloom or scrabbling about on their knees in search of the single rarity that lurks amongst the ordinary – and good luck to them. Call me boring or unimaginative if you want but just give me bog standard Galanthus nivalis any day – preferably in their thousands. This really is a case where more is best as the carpets of snowdrops that flower in the garden of the house that was built for me two hundred years ago proves. (Readers of this blog may remember the post describing this house, along with the possibility that I have been reborn and finally reunited with it – most of the time I say this tongue-in-cheek, occasionally I half believe it). According to tradition the nuns that took over the property upon ‘my’ death planted them and now they have spread to cover many acres. Is there any better way for ‘me’ to be remembered?


Well, yes, there could be. My death next time round should be marked with the Winter Aconite, Eranthis hyemalis. There is something very cheering and positive about their bright yellow, perhaps it is because we crave some strong colour after a long winter. It is the same shade as the yellow daffodils and also of forsythia. By the time these have finished, weeks later, we are fed up with it and find it all rather garish. But in January we start to notice the little ruffs of green leaves pushing through the ground and, quite suddenly, the flower is opening its blooms. I hadn’t noticed before just how similar the individual flowers are to a buttercup when fully open. Not surprising really, as they all belong to the same family, Ranunculaceae. The aconite, I assume, is so-named beacause of the similarity of the leaf with the tall herbaceous aconites, Aconitum.

Neither snowdrops or aconites are native to the British Isles although both naturalise well and, given time, will occupy large areas. Conditions in this country must favour the snowdrop for snowdrop woods, whilst not common, are found with relative ease and are nearly always associated with a large country house. A much greater rarity is the aconite wood and I know of only one and heard of only one other. To visit it is an extraordinary experience for it is difficult to walk through the tens of thousands of plants that carpet the ground. This wood is also attached to a country estate but rarely visited and away from public paths. Perhaps that is why it has survived.

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Sold as ‘in the green’, both snowdrops and aconites establish in the garden best when transplanted now, that is with their leaves and flowers still lush. A grower recently told me that snowdrops naturalise more quickly when aconites are grown amongst them, perhaps because the yellow flowers attract more pollinators. However, snowdrops in grass benefit from an annual feed whilst aconites detest it. A case of ‘you pays your money and you takes your choice’, perhaps?

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The House My Parents Built: 200 Years ago….

Is there such a thing as reincarnation? That, or do ghosts exist, is a question that crops up fairly regularly over dinner with friends. My answer is ‘I don’t know’ – then I tell them about my childhood recurring dream……

I walk up a long driveway and turn around a bend and there it is in front of me: the most perfectly proportioned house, typical of the sort a small child might draw. Then, in that disjointed but alright sort of way of dreams, I am at the back of the house. There are two arched windows with soil silted halfway up their frames.

I wriggle through the opening and drop to the floor, a few feet below. Standing up, I see I’m in a small circular room and, above me, see that the ceiling is cloistered like in an old abbey building. And then I wake up and feel so warm and good inside that I’m happy all day.

Year after year, I dream of this until my late twenties when, one day, I decide to draw the house, but I can only draw it as as a child would. The spell is broken and I never dream it again. And then 17 years later I go for an interview for a position as Head Gardener and find myself walking up a long driveway, turn around a bend and….I get the job.

Supplying pot plants and cut flowers for inside the house is all part of everyday working life and I find myself in a small circular room looking out of the half windows with their arched tops. The ceiling is plain plaster. ‘How disappointing’, I say as I tell the owner about the cloister. The ceiling is false, the house, after tragedy, had become a convent, the adjoining room was a chapel, who knows what is above the ceiling?
Apparantly, the son, an only child, died just before the house was completed. The obelisk at the front of the property was built to commemorate him and the parents moved away. And so, in the 21st century, so did I – reluctantly in some ways – to be with my new partner to live in the Cotswolds and a new career as a garden designer.

The house won’t let go. Several weeks later I am asked to return on a regular basis as an adviser and I have been travelling there ever since – the last time to supervise the planting of lavender hedges and, when I return, I still get that warm, contented and happy feeling. Do I believe in reincarnation? I’m far too much a sceptic to say ‘yes’ but there are too many coincidences to give an emphatic ‘no’…..

Update June 2014: an even more bizarre twist to this tale has arisen – read about it by clicking on the link here
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