Gardening Matters……..

……….. yes it really does.  Whether its at 88 or in St V it is enormously satisfying, productive and sane.  I rarely know exactly what I am going to get stuck into when I don suitable footwear and find my gardening gloves.  I assemble my picnic basket of tools, tags and cut-up tights which make brilliant plant ties, and my trusty kneeler.  Currently the task ahead is multi-stranded.

Before he left for France Nick felled the Cupressus in front of the house.  It has long outstayed its welcome and has made the rooms at the front progressively darker as it has grown.  Felling, along with sawing, pruning, shearing, mowing is very much Nick’s bag.

Just about everything needs attention.  Borders need to be weeded with spent plants like Myosotis (which looks lovely for the first couple of weeks with spring bulbs) being pulled.  All the Aquilegia heads need to be cut before they seed.  We already have hundreds.  Then the magenta Centaurea and the red oriental poppy flowerheads need to be removed.

Poking in around the two borders on the lawn level produces seedling Helleborus and I find that the Eucomis with reddish tinged foliage, planted underneath the Catalpa bignonioides ‘Aurea’ when it was a treelet, has quietly multiplied but probably now needs more light to flower.  The bulbs are divided and potted up ready for replanting, some in St V, others in Dorset and some to give away.

The Hemerocallis which was sited on a sunny corner when Andy was planting up the garden is now massive and needs to be lifted and divided.  This is not an ideal time to do the deed – it probably won’t flower this year.  But as we haven’t seen flowers on it the past 3 or 4 summers, because the deer eat the buds before they open, it’s not a great loss.

The deer have been wretches when it comes to feeding in our garden.  Just the tasty tips of many of the plants we have.  As I’ve got some gaps to fill I ask for the leaflet that Secretts Garden Centre has compiled which lists plants for which, evidence suggests, deer do not have a preference.

When it comes to planting the Ceanothus arboreus ‘Trewithen Blue’ in the newly created bit of border behind the pediment of the terraces, I’m taking no chances.  By way of preparation I have lifted the turf and used it to patch worn bits of lawn.  This newly dug area connects the two semi-circular beds along the south border of the lawn, and closes off easy access to the wall at the top of the waterfall which descends to the pond. 

Ceanothus is not on the magic list, although I’ve noticed that another variety of this plant which we have has not been browsed.  All the same, I construct a circular barricade out of bent and straight canes.  If I can just prevent the deer sticking their muzzles close enough to nibble whilst the shrub establishes, it will then have to fight for survival.

The other bed that needed an overhaul is the narrow raised bed immediately to the right of the left-hand flight of steps to the wood.  Anemone japonica has run rampant along this bed, smothering the Eucomis and restricting expansion of the Echinops. This bed is thoroughly weeded.  Lots of Gladiolus bulbs are discovered along the back where they were planted by Andy and have quietly multiplied in intervening years.  I leave only a few, because in due course the deer will surely have the flower stems, and pot the rest in clumps to move to other locations.  I also rescue a wild strawberry bed from near strangulation.

I have now worked my way to the bottom of the steps which lead to our woodland.  This is for another day.

The Shell Seekers

Whilst Liz and Sue were with us we made two trips to the beach at Pointe de Saire. This is a headland of rock platform and outcrop, pools and intertidal channels, where shells are washed in to accumulate as strandlines at various horizons down the beach to the water-line, as shelly banks and as ‘beach pockets’.  (This term goes back to 1898 when the Irish naturalist, Robert Welch, used the word to describe little hollows of shell accumulation in sand dunes on a North Antrim beach.)

We spent a happy hour or so combing the beach for shells and other objets trouvés and we collected some shelly sand for the tiny shells.  There were plenty of clams, winkles, limpets and oyster shells lying around.  You had to search more diligently for cowries, painted top shells and wentletraps.  We found about six of the latter over the two visits.

Sue had noticed the framed shell collage that I made in my salad days, and which hangs in the guest’s bathroom at St V.  It features on the Shellcraft page of the Conch Society’s website. Pictures like this are really are not difficult to craft.  You need a piece of black felt or velvet secured around a stout piece of card, cut to a size you want to work with.  As a general rule the smaller the shells you are going to work with then the smaller your finished picture will be.

You need a few sheets of paper and a general purpose glue like UHU.  The shapes and colours of the shells themselves suggest the flowers they would like to become.  To make the round multi-petalled flowers you select a group of bivalve shells (tellins, small white Spisula clams, tiny scallops) within a size range and start by gluing between 4 and 8 of the largest in a rosette directly onto the paper.  Once dry, you can add the next circlet of shells and so on until you have a petalled ‘bloom’.  When the flower is dry you cut the flower from the paper and trim away any bits that would show, leaving a small basal tab to glue and stick to the backing.  All the other flowers can be assembled directly onto the background, with thin strips of white paper cut to size as stems.

Unless you have a very clear idea of the arrangement you are going to create it is wise to lay out the flowers and stems on the background and juggle until you are happy with the effect.  You should also have selected the shell which will be the ‘vase’.  Queen scallop shells are suitable because they are flat and elegant.  Then you can start to fix the flowers in place.  You only need the smallest amounts of glue and care is needed not to end up with unwanted glue strings trailing across the fabric.  You can add finishing touches such as butterflies (Donax surf clams) and a bumble bee or two (yellow and black striped rough winkles).

Searching for shells is rarely unrewarding and you always hope for a rarity or two.  Like wentletraps.  These deserve a post of their own.

Paper Flower-makers under our Roof

Liz and Sue came to stay for a week.  They arrived on a fine Sunday and we ate lunch outside.  During their stay we did our regular walk round the perimeter wall of La Hougue.  In places it’s narrow and requires a bit of concentration but it makes a neat circuit and you end up in the town, if you are lucky, before Gosselin shuts for lunch.  On Tuesday they spent a long day visiting the tapestry at Bayeux and a tour of the D-Day sites and museums.  After lunch on Wednesday we took the amphibious boat over to Tatihou to climb the Vauban tower, walk round the gardens and visit the museum which is half through mounting its next exhibition.

A drive across the Cotentin peninsula to the west coast to see the gardens at Vauville is almost mandatory for our visitors.  The intermittent sprinkles held off and we were able to walk round enjoying the plants in flower and wonder at some of the more unusual ones.  Such an excursion is a brilliant exercise for the memory as you try to recall the Latin names before reading the markers.  The rhododendrons were in flower, shockingly gorgeous, but my camera battery exhausted itself before I could capture many of them.

The three of us went to Caen.  Francois had told us exactly where to park.  We emerged from underground and found ourselves at the foot of the castle ramparts within which precincts are housed various places of interest.  We visited the Abbaye des Femmes and the Abbaye des Hommes, utterly different buildings in form and atmosphere at either end of the city centre, and spent a short while looking around.  But we found the Museum de Normandie, by the castle,  fascinating and absorbing.

For 50 years, the Museum has been assembling the results of archaeological excavations carried out in Normandy. These excavations of castles, abbeys as well as more modest residences or rural churches, have yielded a variety of “finds” which illuminate aspects of daily life. Inevitably these objects give a partial view of the past, as in the main all that is preserved is what remains over time (metal, bone, ceramics…) while less persistent organic materials (leather, fabric, wood…) have generally disappeared.  But not always.  There are larger objects such as agricultural implements, a full-size loom, a beautiful lace-maker’s pillow from more recent times, complete with needles, threads and bobbins, in excellent condition.  There are also displays of coinage, and a number of scarce items saved in extremis from churches and the cathedral as well as a series of sculptures and architectural pieces.

On Friday night our male neighbours come in for pool, accompanied by Oncle Ives who is visiting his nephew Francois.  Liz, Sue and I join them in the rafters complete with pre-cut sections of coloured crepe paper and reels of fine wire.  We are making simple flowers to be strung in garlands throughout St Vaast for the Festival of the Sea on July 18th.  There are thousands to be made for 4 houses in our ‘coin’ and 2 boats, Aroona and La Marante, alone.  I had wondered how on earth I would find the time to make my share.  Generously Liz and Sue have had a flower-making session each day to help me get through the box of paper.  We are on the home stretch and they think they can finish them all before they leave on Sunday.

Saturday is market day and we are also racing for the finishing line on the flowers.  Liz and Sue put in hours whilst I start to ready the house and garden for our absence.  Sue takes us out to supper in the evening at La Marina and before we go we enjoy aperitif with Daniel who brings some of his amazing cuttlefish strips on sticks to enjoy with his homemade mayonnaise.  He tells me how he prepares this and I’ll have to blog the recipe another time, although I remember that the first part of the process involves a tenderising session before the pressure cooker is brought into service.

After the girls go on Sunday I put in as much time as I can outside.  Watering, weeding and ferrying the pots to sheltered places.  As always I am sorry to leave the plants which are just starting to perform, notably the delphiniums.  There are also globe artichokes to pick and the strawberries are waiting in the wings.  Fortunately our neighbours will not let them go to waste.


A Slapped Wrist

During our wanderings through the Venetian labyrinth of alleyways, bridges and canals on the south side of the city, we happen upon a box office selling seats for a show called Venezia. Our tickets also buy us a viewing of a documentary video in the theatre, before the live show which tells the story of Venice, taking events from its colourful history.  Both are informative and the show Venezia combines energetic live performances from a cast of 5 players with filmed sequences.  The show is informal but skillfully executed with on-stage costume changes and a fluency and humour that hold the attention throughout.

While there are no historical records that deal directly with the obscure origins of Venice, a mix of tradition and available evidence suggests that the original population of Venice consisted of refugees from Roman cities and from the undefended countryside, who were fleeing successive waves of Germanic invasions and Huns.  Some late Roman sources reveal the existence of fishermen on the islands in the original marshy lagoons.

The buildings of Venice are constructed on closely spaced wood piles. Under water, wood does not decay and the piles penetrate a softer layer of sand and mud until they reach the much harder layer of compressed clay. Wood for piles was cut in the most western part of today’s Slovenia, resulting in the barren land in a region today called Kras, and in some  regions of Croatia.  Most of these piles are still intact after centuries of submersion.

The foundations of the city rest on the piles, and buildings of brick or stone sit above these footings. The buildings are often threatened by flood tides pushing in from the Adriatic between autumn and early spring.

During the 20th century, when many wells were sunk into the periphery of the lagoon to draw water for local industry, Venice began to subside. This sinking process has slowed markedly since wells were banned in the 1960s. However, the city is still threatened by more frequent low-level floods  that creep to a height of several centimetres over its quays  following certain tides.  Indeed, on our last evening in Venice, as we crossed St Mark’s Square to take a vaporetto back to Verity, we were amused to see young Japanese tourists cavorting  in about 15cm of water which was lapping across the square.

Some recent studies have suggested that the city is no longer sinking, but this is not yet certain.   There is a project underway to evaluate the performance of inflatable gates; the idea is to lay a series of 79 inflatable pontoons across the sea bed at the three entrances to the lagoon. When tides are predicted to rise above 110 centimetres, the pontoons will be filled with air and block the incoming water from the Adriatic Sea. This engineering work is due to be completed by 2011.

But a University of Chicago physics graduate has suggested that the best way to protect Venice is to physically lift the City to a greater height above sea level, by pumping water into the soil underneath the city. In this way, some hope, it could rise above sea levels, protecting it for hundreds of years, and eventually the inflatable pontoon project may not be necessary.  It’s a question of balancing the effects of altering tidal patterns in the lagoon and damaging some wildlife with the uplift solution, against the inflatable pontoon approach which, by its very nature, is a temporary solution which would not be expected to protect Venice for more than 100 years.

I find it incredible that countless art treasures have been constructed, or are housed in buildings, in a city that is supported by a submerged forest of tree trunks.    You can be only too aware as you travel the Grand Canal in a vaporetto that the houses on the waterfront virtually have their feet in the water.  Architectural marvels such as the Basilica of San Marco, the Rialto Bridge and the Campanile in Piazza San Marco required hundreds of thousands of the wooden piles to sustain them.

During our visit we have focused most of our sight-seeing in the southern part of the city.  When I leaf through one of the guide books on Verity I am intrigued to find that there is an area in the north known as the Ghetto.  It was an area in which Jews were compelled to live under the Venetian Republic.  What I find most fascinating is that the etymology of the word ‘ghetto’ is Italian.  It is derived from the word ghet, meaning slag, because the island on which the Jewish confinement took place was also where a foundry was situated.  I stumble on this interesting aspect of Venetian history during supper-time on the boat.  Nick has taken another turn at the stove, so it’s omelette time!  Because Nick is particular, the omelettes come from the pan to plate and must be eaten right away.  This makes for a more informal meal-time and as I’m served first, and even though I eat slowly, I finish first too.

As the meal progresses Nick and Mike discuss the finer points of Verity’s plumbing, and I continue to flick through the guide book.  But what I have read about the Ghetto is so interesting to me I ask the others if they knew about it.  I think we are all stunned when one of our number turns to me and says “Jan, I’m interested to know if you think it is acceptable to read a book at the table whilst the rest of us are eating?”  After a floundered reply that I did not think I could contribute much to a discussion on pipework, I sit humbled until I’m allowed to get down from the table.

However you can always turn a situation round and in the quiet of my cabin I hit upon the idea of having an omelette session when we entertain friends to supper after our return.  When we get back to the UK Nick and I have a day to regroup then two of our cherished grandchildren come to stay for a week.  During this time I have rashly arranged for William, Diana, Charles and Susie to come for kitchen table supper one evening.  It’s got to be easy so here it goes.  We start with a simple risotto topped with a trio of tiger prawns, Nick then makes omelettes with fillings to order from a range he prepared earlier, and he’s even bought two cheap pans so he can serve a duo at a time.  With the omelettes there are green and mixed bean salads.  (You can now get frozen Soya beans as well as Broad ones to add to the dried pulses to make the bean salad really green!)  Some cheese follows, then a glass of Beaumes de Venise, with biscotti to dunk, wraps it up.  ‘Simples!’…………….

…………..fortunately, with the recent election a hot topic, there is so much hearty and polarised debate between Nick and Charles, with the rest of us chipping in when we can, there’s no room for sensibilities.  And when they come to leave, Diana is moved to say that she has seen a tectonic shift in William’s views.  It’s a great evening.

Feasts for the Eyes: Renaissance and Modern

We’ve got two full days to spend in Venice.  Luckily we are with friends who’ve been here before.  After breakfast, we take a vaporetto across to St Marks Square and cut up through some of the narrow streets and alleyways.  We are making our way north across the city to the Grand Canal frontage by the Rialto Bridge.

As with most cities which become tourist centres of the first order there is a mix of low-end trinket stores and middle-market-to-upscale boutiques lining the principal Mercerie running north between Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge.  More expensive clothing and gift boutiques can be window-shopped on the Calle Larga XXII Marzo which runs west of Piazza San Marco to the Accademia.

Venice is uniquely famous for local crafts that have been produced here for centuries and are hard to get elsewhere: the glassware from Murano, the lace from Burano, and the famous Carnevale masks made of papier-mâché which are offered in numerous botteghe.
As it starts to rain we decide to shelter and take coffee.  A canalside restaurant is willing to give us a table outside under the awning even though we are not taking lunch.  We sit and watch the water traffic: a gondola bearing a bride and groom complete with their photographer, and a bit later, another gondola bearing a coffin.  We linger over a second cup of coffee then trickle our way back along to an alley where we had spotted a small trattoria.
It looks less formal than a restaurant with a simple board rather than a printed menu, casual but busy service and modestly priced primo and secondi plates served from large bowls on the counter and in the window.  There is one table for 4 remaining and we have the impression that our lunching companions are regular clientele at their lunch hour.
After lunch we walk west, through the area of emporia.  There is a shop selling ornate silver- and pewter-ware and a one selling Italian majolica pottery, closed for lunch, but which I’d hope to refind on a return visit.
Crossing a small bridge we arrive at the Accademia.  The guide book tells us that there are 500 years of Venetian art exhibited here and that the finest works in the collection are housed in rooms 3, 4 and 5.  Bellini, Carpaccio, Titian and Tintoretto: the roll-call of painters is illustrious.  There are a number of paintings of the holy mother and child and the one I particularly like is Bellini’s Madonna degli Alberelli.
It’s all too much to take in and appreciate in an afternoon and as I walk around I pick up some of the printed commentaries which are intended to elucidate the paintings.  But I can’t help feeling it would be lovely to be accompanied by a knowledgeable companion, like my niece Briony, to really gain an insight into the themes and meanings of the pictures, and techniques employed by the artists to create their great masterpieces.