Saturday, May 26, 2012

Golden-Hearted Spring

"Come, see where golden-hearted spring 
 Rides crowned like a carefree king 
Now too, gay flowers laughing every one 
All don bright robes for joy to greet the sun.

Hark,hark, birds now in all the greenwood ways,
Pipe songs, merry merry roundelays,

With sunny hours by day
And a clear moon by night,
What misers of joy are they 
Who will not spend delight.
Come, see where golden-hearted spring
Once again rides like a carefree king
Once again rides like a carefree king."
 from Handel's opera "Berenice"
A gathering of  flowers in the garden of the Oakville Hospital 

Daffodils in the woodlands           

   Pear blossom and butterfly in the garden
    Trout lilies in the woods.                     

     Willow on Bronte Creek

                  More pear blossom, I like it against the blue house.                   

  These daffodils look so conversational as they wait to greet the sun.
What are they saying?
                                        "I thought he was coming this way."  

   Forsythia in full bloom, generously sharing the joy.     

 "However long we have to live, there are never enough springs" 
P D James     

We sang "Golden-hearted spring" in our local secondary school choir in England seventy years ago and the slowly paced, but joyous and majestic music is embedded in the circuits of my mind. It was a beautiful spring that year and the end of the war was in sight.  I would love to slip back in time and hear our childish voices piping "merry roundelays".  Does any one know if  a recording is available anywhere?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


I haven't anything to contribute to this 60th anniversary of the funeral of King George the 6th other than my personal memory of those bleak and solemn days.
 Mourning was different then, a more restrained and private  matter than it is today. But King George had earned the affection and respect of his people through the traumatic events of his short reign and the nation truly grieved and, I remember, many wept at his untimely passing.
Thousands of people lined up in the bitterly cold and wet weather to attend the four day Lying in State
in Westminster Abbey and thousands also camped out over-night, all along the the route from the Abbey to Paddington Station so that they could witness the last procession of their dearly loved King. I was privileged to watch from the sheltered balcony of an old mansion overlooking Park Lane, where I was working at that time.
My shards of memory are of the bleak grey sky and the leafless winter trees that enhanced the sadness and solemnity of the occasion, the slow measured pace of the heart aching music and the marching ranks, the Naval ratings who pulled the gun carriage and the four royal dukes, Windsor, Gloucester,Edinburgh and Kent, walking behind it, and the sadness that encompassed us all on that balcony.

This statue of King George in the formal gardens at Niagara Falls, Ontario, has a very simple inscription.
" George V1 King of Canada 1936-1952. A very gallant gentleman."

Monday, November 29, 2010

Kew Garden's Hidden Treasure

A Vision of Eden

The last time we visited Kew Gardens, in 1988, we had been advised by my brother to "be sure to see Kew's hidden treasure, The Marion North Pavillion". Our holiday was coming to an end and time was precious, but we did find the exquisite bijou gallery, commissioned by Marianne North in 1879 to house her life's work, more than eight hundred oil paintings of the flora of this planet.

We spent more time there than we had intended. We were entranced by the intensity of the place, but our holiday was coming to an end and we couldn't stay. We bought a book "A Vision of Eden, The Life and Work of Marianne North", and came away. The book, now out of print, is still one of my treasures. Valerie Greeley's recent blogpost about her October afternoon visit to Kew sent me to my book shelf to enjoy a nostalgic browse through the pages once more.From my reading of Marianne North's life, 1830 to1890, it seems to me not that she defied the conventions and restrictions of her time, but that she was indifferent to them. She was a single woman in possession of a fortune and, unlike Jane Austen's impecunious heroines, was certainly not in need of a husband. It must have helped to be the child of wealthy, cultured, perhaps somewhat unconventional parents. Their three children - Marianne was the eldest - were not relegated to life in a nursery dominated by a governess. They lived and travelled with their parents and met most of the eminent people of their day.

In her memoirs,"Recollections of a Happy Life" Marianne wrote of her childhood, "We had much variety in our life, spending the winter at Hastings, the spring in London, and dividing the summers between my half-sisters old hall in Lancashire and a farm-house at Rougham, Norfolk". The family also travelled widely in Europe.

Marianne was dismissive about her education. "Governesses hardly interfered with me in those days. Walter Scott and Shakespere gave their versions of history, and Robinson Crusoe and some other old books my ideas of geography." Even so, Marianne was a talented musician, she continued her study of music into her adult life, she was an avid gardener with a keen interest in botany and an accomplished artist. She filled sketch books with her paintings and drawings of the places the family visited on their travels.

Japanese chrysanthemums painted and cultivated in England

This idyllic life changed over time, inevitably, as family life does. After the death of her mother in 1855 and the marriage of both her sister and brother, Marianne became mistress of her Father's household. This was not a burden, they were devoted companions and continued to travel together until his death in 1869. He died in her arms. She wrote, "for nearly forty years he had been my one friend and companion, and now I had to learn to live without him and fill up my life with other interests as best I might".

With vision and practicality Marianne worked her way through her grief and created a new purpose for her life. She would continue her life of travel, painting and sketching the scenery along the way, but she would expand her horizons and focus on creating a visual record of the plants and flowers of the world in their natural environment. This she did for the next seventeen years until she was overtaken by ill health.

The old Red Cedar Massachusetts, U.S.A

The beautiful end papers in my book are highlighted with the places Marianne North visited. They include India, Chile, Canada, Tasmania, Japan and others too numerous to list here.

The famous avenue of Royal Palms at Botofogo, Brazil

Her wide circle of aquaintances were looking out for her around the globe. She met Longfellow and his family in Boston, she was invited to the White House by President Grant and enjoyed the hospitality of a Maharajah in India. But this was incidental and she was not deterred from her mission. She preferred to travel alone, without servants or companions, and contract what
assistance or accomodation she needed along the way.

Tegoro, Sarawak, by moonlight
When she returned to England after her last voyage in 1885, despite continuing poor health, Marianne supervised the completion of the gallery she had comissioned at Kew and the installation and arrangement of her paintings.

Ginger Lily and Firetailed Sunbird, India

Selection of flowers from Mount Wellington Tasmania

After that, her mission complete, Marianne sought out the perfect small country house in which to live her old age. She settled in a house in Alderly in Gloucestershire and there turned her diminishing energy to re-designing the lush overgrown garden. She added a little walled rose garden, a pond and a rockery. She wrote in her memoirs, "The recollections of my happy life will also be a help to my old age. No life is so charming as a country one in England, and no flowers are sweeter or more lovely than the primroses, cowslips, bluebells and violets which grow in abundance all around me here".

She died on August 30th 1890. Her generous gift and vision enrich us today.
The Marianne North Pavillion at Kew Gardens was closed for restoration of both the building and the paintings for much of this year. It is open again now. If, like me, you cannot make the journey, you may enjoy an amazing virtual visit at .
A new illustrated biography, "Marianne North, Intrepid Explorer", is in the works and due for publication next spring. Too late for Christmas but I will put it on my birthday list.

All the pictures on this post are from the book "A Vision of Eden, the Life and Work of Marianne North".

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I Remember

I Remember

I remember always, but more so at this time of the year and even more so this year as Britain commemorates the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the blitz. It isn't always an intentional remembrance, it is simply a part of my being. These were the years of my childhood.

I was eight years old in September 1939, the fourth in a family of six children. We lived in a quiet working class suburb on the border of Kent and London. During the blitz it would earn the nick name "Bomb Alley", but that was a whole year away. Meanwhile all manner of "just in case" things happened. Air raid shelters were installed in back gardens and on our school grounds. Civil defence units were formed, gas masks were distributed to everyone. The cottage hospital at the end of our street was built around with sandbags. All the windows in our school were blast proofed with a thickly glued netting and we had Air Raid Drill.

On Saturday afternoon September 7th 1940, while our local Civil Defence units were conducting a public demonstration of their resources on Erith riverside, the sirens wailed as the first wave of enemy bombers flew overhead on their way to London, bombing industries all along the way. By nightfall the river was ablaze, lighting the way for the next wave of planes.

We were bombed.

We spent fearful days and nights in bleak comfortless air raid shelters. Food, clothing and other necessities were strictly rationed.

My parents' generation knew how to cope, how to make do and mend. They had survived the privations and losses of the First World War, just twenty years before, and the Great Depression that followed. Now they took on the jobs of the young men and women who had been conscripted into the armed services; many elderly people left retirement to do so.
They manned the Civil Defence in every way by day and by night. They drove ambulances, provided emergency accommodation and food services. They collected scrap metal and salvage. They kept the schools open and somehow, against all odds, they maintained an amazing standard of optimism and certainty for we children. I remember them.

"The greatest possession we can ever have is courage. And we must have it also for our children, which is the most difficult kind of all. We shall sap theirs if we let them see us worrying, if we talk about the difficulties of these times and not about our multitudinal blessings." Woman and Home Magazine July 1942

Many memories were simply stowed away six years later at the end of that terrible war. There was so much to look forward to. We could go bed at night with the certainty of staying there till morning. We could make plans for tomorrow and next week without fear of air raids. The shatter proof netting was removed from our school windows and we could see out. We no longer had to carry a gas mask at all times, All evil had been vanquished and, quite soon perhaps, rationing would come to an end.
Or so it seemed to one gullible child.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Snow Angels

"Life is what happens while you are making other plans"

This year has simply wittered away with unforseen happenings, nothing to blog about but enough to keep me from my blog. My books are still overflowing the bookshelves and table tops around the house. Will I ever take control? We shall see. But the most recent happening in my life, a fractured wrist, has somehow bizarrely goaded me into action. I can type with one hand and so I will begin again with a Christmas story, a true story, for all the bloggers who so generously share their lives with us.

It is now more than fifty years since my husband and I, new immigrants with two little babies, arrived from England to our first destination in Canada, a remote gold mining town in northern Ontario.

No description could have prepared me for the vast forbidding landscape. The little townsite and mine were surrounded by dense impenetrable bush and great outcrops of rock , gashed by the only access to other human settlements, a two lane east-west highway, mostly without sidewalks. All my spirit of adventure evaporated when the implacable bitter winter descended on the land in early November and an all encompassing homesickness took over my life. This place could never be home.

Home was all the things that I had always taken for granted. Home was streets with pavements and street lights, gardens with hedges, gardens that sometimes boasted a Christmas rose. Home was where my accent was never a matter of comment and where no one ever asked, however kindly, how I liked it here. The advent of Christmas made it all seem worse and, for the first time in my life, I dreaded its coming.

Then, quite unexpectedly,we had one of those brilliant sparkling winter days that only the north country can give; bright blue cloudless sky, dark green skyline of coniferous forest and great rocks, sparkling snow and sparkling frosty air. I watched from my window as the local children on their way home from school made snow angels in the newly fallen pristine snow where no one had trod.

To me this was something quite new and enchanting,the occasional snowfalls of south east England were mostly sparse,wet and slushy.

Later that night, after our babies were asleep, when the temperature was dropping so sharply that the very timbers of the house audibly protested with snaps and crackles, we wrapped up warmly and stepped out onto our doorstep to view another northern phenomenon that, even through my gloom, had touched my imagination and filled me with awe: the northern lights, aurora borealis, the heavenly dancers. In the vast uncluttered dome of the northern wilderness they were magnificent at any time of year,but in the frosty winter night they were an enchantment.

On that clear icy night we looked down on the patterns of snow angels made by the school children and then up at the breathtaking spectacle of the dancing lights in the heavens and the old carol came alive to me."Angels from the realms of glory,wing your flight o'er all the earth". There had been loving letters and Christmas parcels in the mail that day, and our letters and parcels had been mailed home. Perhaps I would make it after all.

When I told this story to Frances, who was born in that town but has no memory of it, she painted a Christmas card for me of children making snow angels in a southern Ontario suburban garden. The winters are milder here and snow doesn't always arrive in time for Christmas, but when it does arrive the children will make snow angels and, were it not for the city lights, we might look up and see the angelic flight "o'er all the earth."

Happy Christmas, wherever you may be.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Down the Garden Path

"Now 'tis the spring and weeds are shallow rooted,
Suffer them now and they'll o'ergrow the garden"
Our suburban garden was a model of low maintenance when we acquired it sixteen years ago, just two or three meager shrubs, a sparse lawn and a little square of patio stones behind the kitchen door. No weeding to be done, no leaf raking, just grass to be cut once a week through the summer months and perhaps fertilized once or twice a year. I couldn't just leave it alone, of course.

We had to bring a few of my favourite peonies from the last house. We planted a couple of rowan trees, "for the birds, for privacy, and to soften the ugly fence." The children each gave me a lilac bush for my birthday, one white and two different shades of purple. Friends and neighbours gave us cuttings, we dug a flower border and built a little garden shed, and so it continues. We will never make the list of noteworthy gardens, but it gives us great pleasure.

An afternoon spent raking and weeding last week revealed some of the winter casualties. We have lost most of our azaleas. A little row of euonymus, planted last fall to border the footpath and replace work intensive annuals and perennials, has been eaten to the ground. We suspect the local rabbit population, but it was a bitter winter and they had to eat something. One clematis is thriving, the other is clinging to life. There is much to be done. I need some advice and sympathy. So I turn to a cup of tea and my garden books, where I am sure to find kindred spirits.
"It has not been all success."
Helena Rutherfurd Ely 1858-1920
Helena wrote three books on how to create and maintain a hardy garden, American style. They were very well received.The first,"A Woman's Hardy Garden", published in 1903, was reprinted many times and sold more than 40,000 copies. Beautifully illustrated, "with photographs taken in the authors garden" they take us back to gracious days when, she wrote,"it is well worth while paying a man a dollar a day to do the heavy work."

It was Helena's boast that in mid-summer she kept her house supplied with thirty vases filled with flowers from her own garden. One of the beautiful black and white photos shows white capped maids posing with overflowing baskets of blossoms.

It seems that they took great interest in the garden and, on occasion, volunteered in their own time to help with the deadheading of the masses of pansies in the extensive rose beds.
Despite the availability of plentiful help, Helena was very much a 'hands on' gardener, way ahead of her time. Her daughter wrote, "Her joy was to dig, to sow, to plant and to transplant. She worked on her hands and knees in the garden from four to six hours a day." The practical advice Helena gave is as applicable to gardening in North America today as it was a century ago, even allowing for the current scarcity of men willing to dig for even one hundred dollars a day. She is credited with changing the face of American gardens. Her own beautiful garden in upstate New York still exists and it is still privately owned.

These delightful books are keepers, they have their place on my bookcase beside those of Helena's contemporary across the Atlantic, Gertrude Jekyll. You might turn up copies at thrift shops, used book stores or other treasure trove locations. A paperback version was printed in 1990 but it did not include the gorgeous photos.

Some of my favourite garden books are those, all too few, that were written for children.

This one is very short on pictures and makes few concessions in the text to it's youthful readers. But it is well worn and who knows, perhaps a long ago child was encouraged and helped to create a little garden. I do hope so.

By comparison, H.E.Bates (The Darling Buds of May) wrote this book for his children in 1939, when the war clouds were gathering over his garden in Kent .

In the dedication he wrote,"That little garden of yours, with its daffodils and turnips and primroses and radishes and forget-me-nots and marrows, all mixed up in the same bed, has already given you a lot of pleasure. When you look back on it and the days you spent there under the pink plum tree, you may perhaps think of it as one of the happiest things in your life. But one day also you will, most probably, want to make a different, larger and better garden for yourselves."
I do sometimes wonder if a love of gardens is genetically linked with a love of books, or are they both a matter of of culture, time, and place. If children are nurtured on "All around the garden, like a Teddy bear" and picture books with "Mary,Mary quite Contrary" and " Daffy Down Dilly has come up to Town", if they later read books like " The Secret Garden", will they be led to go looking for these magical places, even if they are not part of their immediate environment? And then will they be inspired to create a garden for themselves? I do hope so! A garden can be created in such a little space, like the tenement window boxes with roses in Hans Anderson's "Snow Queen". But first it must exist in someone's imagination.

I can't find any information about the fabulous Molly Thompson, who devised and illustrated this darling book, except that she also illustrated for Enid Blyton. But wouldn't you love to step into that old fashioned orchard with the big apple trees?

The Fairy Land Trust is one organization attempting to beguile little children into an appreciation of nature. They have a lovely website that is well worth a visit.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Cat and Mouse

Spring has finally arrived in Southern Ontario after a long snowbound winter. The first snowdrops, crocus and scillas are pushing through the earth, the forsythia will bloom any day now, and the first little mouse has appeared on my doorstep. It is quite dead, neatly laid out, not mauled at all, the first offering of the year from our small cat.

Princess is a classic tabby, with the mottled markings that shift from stripes to spots as she moves and are such perfect camouflage for her hunting expeditions. The instinct for hunting is ingrained in her DNA, and reinforced by her early life as an alley kitten before we took her in.

But still, I shake my head as we decide on a final resting place for the poor mouse; we choose between a flower pot or under the periwinkle beneath the rowan trees. It was very much a country garden, Beatrix Potter type mouse. Like Timmy Willy "who went to town by mistake in a hamper."

I think I have all the Beatrix Potter books on my shelves. The most read copies are very tattered and precious, those I keep. But I do have two spare copies of The Tale of Pigling Bland, in good condition with green covers and dust jackets, and they are just waiting to be well read too. So I will give them away to the first two readers of this blog who send me an email at The Tale of Pigling Bland, in case you don't know, is the saga of a piglet who had to leave home and seek his fortune because his mother had too many hungry piglets to feed. "Yus, yus, yus! they eat and indeed they do eat!"

Some of the most treasured books on my shelves are a very small collection of childrens early school readers from days long gone. They were often illustrated by talented artists, in this case by the award winning husband and wife team of Maude and Miska Petersham.

The cover is well worn and I wonder, how many children were charmed into reading
by the engaging little pictures? But that is a topic for a future blog.