Last week while I was feeling the breeze in Barbados and reconnecting with long lost Bajan Cumberbatches (an extraordinary story of which I will write later ) the garden was busily bursting forth in an explosion of tulip colours. On the plane home, I was yearning for the Bajan sea colours which are of unspeakable beauty: gazing from the verandah each day at a glassy expanse of dark blues on the horizon, then ultramarine, and in the shallows, luminous turquoise flecked with white froth. But after battling against the early morning commuter flow at Clapham Junction and dragging my wheelie bag up and down the hill, my mood lifted as soon as I saw the floral beauty by my very own back door .
NB I planted the bulbs randomly and so not quite sure what is what, but know that that the varieties include: Lilac Perfection, Violet beauty, Fringed fancy frills, Lily flowering China Pink, Triumph ( the white and beetroot coloured ones) and blue parrot tulips, from Dejager
Crocus and Rose Cottage .
Spring nettle soup, home made granola, blazing fires, chairs to fall back and doze in and gorgeous beds make Ett Hem in Stockholm a luxurious home from home. I am hooked after spending the weekend in this intimate 12 bedroom hotel designed by Ilse Crawford.
Take a photo of your favourite Pure Style-inspired spring feast.
Sunday morning market in Estoi a few miles inland from Olhao. It`s hot by 11, I need my hat (a pleasant need it is too) and the breeze carries a richly textured smell of churros frying, horse dung and spring flowers, from the sprawling market site on the edge of the village. Everyone is here: gypsies in black waistcoats with black flat caps and thick beards; farmers from little fincas dotted about the countryside; children; dogs; lovers; groups of men in hunt of jamon and beer from one of the many food stands.
Digging and musing, I think about a man I know and his mid life delusion: leaving home for an ex-council bedsit, smoking, the Affair. They say that clinging to the death throes of youth is a temporary fix - like Botox. What if the energy could be channeled into something really productive .......like gardening? Clubs even where you can ` Dig for a new lease of life` Nurturing a pumpkin patch could be so much more rewarding than lusting over Janet in Accounts. And pumpkins make good soup.
I stab the bramble roots at the thought of the colossal parking fine I paid after yesterday`s visit from the bailiffs. How so I didn`t see the previous warning letters? It`s not unusual for stylists on shoots to help themselves to my stuff for props in a shoot scene. Parking tickets lost in a Day in the life of British Gas or Moshi Monsters Christmas. Or is it just a case of me throwing them in the bin by mistake?
Fresh air, light, space. ... suburbia is the place to be. Screened-out I can tour the last rose buds, pick a green tomato, (see above) and fennel (see below) for fish, or check on the sweet pea seedlings in the shed to revive me. How I used to pace from room to room in our last flat high above the City where one fragile weed on the roof top opposite was the only spot of green. It`s only a bus and a tube ride away from the bright lights. Recent highlights: more al fresco swimming at the Oasis in Covent Garden followed by clams and razor clams at Barrafina as fresh and garlicky as they could be outside of an Andalucian beach bar; Tim Wright`s figurative paintings in Shoreditch and last night`s treat a groovy basement bar The Social with readings by Faber Man Booker authors, Adam Foulds, Deborah Levy and Sarah Hall .
Wouldn`t it be fun to create paint colours for each season. Autumn references of golden yellow, ,orange, earth brown are here, leaf confetti at my feet. And all in a morning`s dog walking across the dew grass in Brockwell Park.
I can`t stop clicking away at my tulip beauties. At least this is a wholesome no-strings infatuation . Nip outside. A break in the Tulse hill monsoon. It feels heavy, cool. Grey, a monotone sort of day. But the tulips are swaying and fluttering like floral clubbers in a riot of pinks, whites, and purples. I crouch at their level, and aim at my favourites: beetroot and raspberry rippled `Triumph` and `Rems` look almost good enough to eat. Keep the camera steady- with right elbow resting on my leg. It`s good to be down here at bee level and close enough to count the beads of rain drops on waxy curled and feathered petal cups. Some of the white Parrots are flopping, on the road to petal decay and an even more langorous laid back beauty. It`s May and, bother, way past my season for thick black wool tights. Something must be done because I`m a bare legged sort - and like the feel of sun and air on skin. But maybe I`m going to have to wait a little longer until the barometer rises and the rains of the ` wettest drought ` subside. There was everything from fuzzy black and white film of prim couples dancing at the festival of Britain in 1952 to the first Habitat catalogue, and spriggy Laura Ashley wallpaper at the V&A`s British Design 1948-2012. (Where was the iconic Ercol windsor chair or Robert Welch`s cutlery? ) This was an inspiring and informative show. ` Ooh I`ve never heard of him ` before exclaimed the young architectural student behind who was admiring carpet designs from the legendary Sixties` interior decorator David Hicks.
I know there were head shots two or three posts ago, but can`t resist showing you more frilly and voluptuous tulips from the garden . They give me the kind of visual and visceral pleasure I was yearning for after the clinical, blokeish spots, pickled animals, and pharmacy displays at the Damien Hirst show, Tate Modern. It`s funny to think that Hirst`s £50million diamond skull and £30,500 plastic version in the gift shop are as hyper inflated, as the humble tulip was during the period of Tulip Fever in Holland. One `Semper Augustus` bulb could be exchanged for several acres of land until 1637 when the bubble burst and prices plummeted. Art, bulbs, anything, can be engendered with hyped up value when rich and gullible go together.
Now for the technical stuff. I spotted a mistake in the Hot Cross bun recipe in my book. It should not be 1 tablespoon milk, but 170 ml tepid milk. Sometimes we just miss these typos. And , like the red faced filler of the over flowing bath at home last week (a mini Niagara descended upon the room below) I offer my apology.. Here`s the recipe: 450 g plain flour 55g caster sugar pinch mixed spice l and half tsp dried yeast 75g raisins 55 g candied peel 1 egg 170ml tepid milk 55g unsalted butter melted for the cross 80g plain flour 2 tbsp caster sugar 100ml water for the glaze 2 tbsp soft brown sugar 2 tbsp milk l tbsp marmalade Sift the flour into a bowl and add the sugar, mixed spice, dried yeast, raisins, candied peel and grated orange rind. Beat the egg with the milk and add the melted butter. Tip the mixture into the flour and stir. Turn out and knead on a floured surface for 5 minutes. Divide into 12 buns and place on floured baking sheets. Cover with a damp tea towel. Leave in a warm place for about 90 minutes until almost doubled in size. To make the cross: Mix the flour, sugar and water until smooth. Put the mixture in a piping bag and pipe a cross on each bun. Place in a preheated oven , 180C for 20 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. To make the glaze: Simmer the sugar, milk and marmalade in a pan for a few minutes until syrupy, stirring all the time. Sieve the syrup to remove any pieces of orange rind and pour over the cooked buns.
Mixing everything in, above, and, below, risen dough buns decorated with crosses
Hot cross buns for tea - doesn`t have to be Easter to make them. I split them in half and eat toasted with butter and jam.
So much texture and nature to devour and fill the senses with, here in the Lake District. I can happily spend the whole day investigating lichen the way it is spattered across rocks, trees, and walls, like organic and earthy paint palettes. My son wants to take me up Hellvelyn. Sounds good. I need some leg stretching. How long will it take, envisaging a couple of hours hard walking? Looking back I suppose I didn`t process the reply.
I pack the camera in my rucksack hoping for some more lichen moments and yell a breezy goodbye . There are eight of us in assorted jackets and hiking boots. Who`s got the whistle and compass, the water proof trousers? I`m looking forward to this - getting out in the fresh air. Replaying it from the comfort of my pillow I feel quite nauseous to think I had considered my Spanish riding boots - with the slippery soles. When we pile out of the cars at Glenridding I ask where we`re heading and am pointed in the direction of distant snow laced peaks. The penny drops. My stomach does a vigorous revolution . How am I going to get up THERE? The first vertical ten minutes up a winding track are excruciating. Will I simply pass out and die, here- at the beginning? `You all right mum?` `Yes, fine I just need a couple of biscuits and a defibrillator.` By the time we`re up on Birkhouse Moor which is relatively flat, by hill standards, the summit disappears in an assault of angry cloud hail and sleet. We take shelter behind a wall and I`m not the only one who`s probably hoping that it will get so bad we`ll have to turn back. But no, it`s clearing and the sun`s coming out. Already reeling at the thought that this is a seven hour-all-in excursion, I`m not prepared for the next bit of news. That knife edge ridge with the plummeting sides, looks hairy. Glad we`re not going in that direction. ` Mum thats Striding Edge and the way to the top`. I lose all sense of time, climbing and clinging to the rocky and sometimes snowy ridge which falls away to sheer slopes hundreds of metres below. Panic, vertigo ,quivering hands and legs have to be supressed. Or....... What am I doing here? "Living in the moment Mum, look at the view, this is amazing` `When will we get to the top`? I whine parent child roles reversed. I can`t look anywhere but the rock face. To cut a long and dry mouthed story short- we all make it to the summit - all 950 metres (3,117 ft) above sea level, and the third highest peak in England. The prizes: a sense of acheivement, elation, wonder at being out in a wild and beautiful environment and, very Pure Style , jamon and rocket sandwiches. PS the descent at Swirral Edge is not particularly pleasant either, but afterwards it`s a walk in the park all the long and windy knee- assaulting way to the bottom. Very large glasses of chardonnay finally still my shaky legs. If you want to put life into perspective - have a go at Hellvelyn
We have fled the urban beat to Wordsworthian daffs, wide skies and contours of the lake district. A buffeting wind and skylarks twittering above the bleak brown fells are mental liberation . We walk the limestone `pavements` , strange grey layers of rock gratin ( `O` level geog` textbook stuff) and trace the course of glassy streams, low for this time of year. Marked by classic drystone walls ,and decorated with lichen and moss the texture of soft buns, fields of spring onion green roll up and down, over and over. Ewes and lambs are the only crowds here. Bleating and baaing as sheep do.
The Easter Egg hunt is a mad dash by adults and under fifteens alike. Even the dog spots a shiny foil wrapped egg and gulps it down in one.
So good to spend long hours with book: Jeanette Winterson`s Why be happy when you could be normal ? and Julian Barnes` A sense of an Ending keep me engrossed by the fire .
I`m happy that bank holiday Monday is sodden because it means a trip to Blackwell by Lake Windermere . This An Arts and crafts feast, especially the tiled fireplaces .
Raspberry ripple, ice cream and raddichio leaves, that`s what my fuschia pink and white streaked `Triumph` tulip petals look like. And how that pink would look so good as lipstick - Talking of which , I`m aiming for the gorgeous violet blue Lancome shade that might just usurp the old faithful Barry M colour 52. I will let you know.
Post dog walk I couldn`t resist two pots of muscari - grape hyacinths , another floral thing that looks like something else. With their lime green leaves and blue blue bobbly flowers a crowd of these little bulbs so sum up spring.
Don`t you just love the look of white eggs ? I don`t hunt them out especially but when I do have a box or two (these are ducks`) its pleasing to put them in a dish on the table- a simple study in edible and natural decoration.
Nameless kitten latterly known as Chanel, is now plain Coco. It sounds like chocolate and after all she does look like a rather deliciously dressed truffle .
Mopping up a trail of the teenager`s false tan splodges (the new floors really are tough) is my friday night treat, this, and finally putting the house back together again after it`s paint and brush up. There`s time to post these shots from my short break to Olhao a couple of weeks ago. Spring is springing here on the Algarve. The fizz of candy floss almond blossom, flapping storks and grilled sardine smells are my kind of exotica. The house is stone cold but a small discomfort when you can step out first thing into the street all sunny and blue. My thoughts are ferry and beach and this is where we head to sprawl on the sand and, even swim. I skip like a child in the shallows. It is bliss, like an icy rinsing and sloughing-off of winter.
We eat one of our typical Olhao beach picnics: crusty buns filled with chicken and coriander. Handfuls of dried figs and almonds are also perfect picnic finger food.
Waiting by the pier for the ferry home I watch seagulls bob around looking for an opportunity, and fisherman swill out their boats and grease engines. Their ropes and nets are organised in artful heaps. Old ways can survive in the age of plastic.
The Saturday market is also a stylist`s dream, so vibrant and rich in its everydayness. See below bunches of herbs tied with string, bundles of wild asparagus, clementines, and thick wedges of pumpkin laid out like a Melendez still life. This bustling outdoor visual and edible feast is so much a part of Olhao`s heart and soul.
The best thing about Valentine`s Day is Rachmaninov`s Piano Concerto No 2 on Radio 4. I almost fly the A303 in fifth gear to the same crashing bars and waves of musical emotion that speak the stifled passions of Celia Johnson`s and Trevor Howard`s lovers in Brief Encounter. Back in town, there`s more romance with couples holding hands and cellophane wrapped roses.
I can`t ignore the scuff marks on the walls and the wet dog paw effect which make the white floors look pallid and under the weather. Everything is in need of a lick of white paint and a good spring clean. So decorators Bob and Keith have set up camp with paint pots, wads of sandpaper, ghetto blaster, and saucer of used teabags. I am on my knees, housemaid-style, scrubbing the kitchen floor to get it prepared for coats of white floor paint. Everyone`s saying, "Mum, how can you have white floors in the kitchen (we have plain oak boards) they`ll get dirty ? "We have them everywhere else" I retort and think, but don`t say (Idov quite a lot of this) that apart from Lina on Saturdays I am the only one to have a one to one with the floor mop.
Ten degrees warmer than last weekend. It feels like summer in comparison and so I have a little wander in the garden. The wallflowers, globe artichoke and agapanthus lie in limp and soggy frost damaged clumps. But alliums, tulips and blue bells shoots are pushing through and the fennel`s delicate fronds have proved to be astonishingly hardy.
It`s mild enough and motivating enough to unwrap the willow sticks with which I will make twiggy wigwams to support the beans. PS My 13 year old godson and I laugh at the slapstick in Comedy of Errors at the Olivier.
Suffused in pools of light and shade this May afternoon the garden seems to take on an air of secrecy and serenity. It is my place of shelter and repose from the roaring traffic and sirens on the South Circular, just two streets away. I turn on the hose and give everything a good drink (drought conditions continue, and gardeners are being asked to create mud pools so the house martins and swifts can build their clay like nests). The arc of water plays like a silver stream over the last tulips, rosemary, alliums and clumps of purple chives. It leads my thoughts to a piece I have read about Islamic gardens, and how we owe a huge debt in the West to the Muslim ideal of paradise. This is encapsulated in the design of the Persian `chahar bah . This enclosed garden has a central fountain which flows into water rills which represent the four rivers of Paradise. Famous examples include the Taj Mahal garden in India and the Court of the Lions in the Alhambra, Granada. In his book` Gardens, An Essay on the Human Condition`- the academic Robert Pogue Harrison argues that it also provides a key to understanding Islam in the modern world. He suggests that where paradise is imagined as a garden of perfect tranquility our incurable Western agitation takes on a diabolical quality. It would be wonderful to have world peace and understanding through gardening.
On a personal level, working in my garden takes me away from just about every mental annoyance that happens to be swirling around. I enter a calm non judging head space when having to concentrate on the delicate and precise task of lifting fragile radish and bean seedlings into position for the next stage of development. My senses are energised: bad or dull feelings float away with the smells of damp earth as the hose plays across the beds, and I feel more in touch with the elements as my legs are lightly tickled by lavender that has spilled voluputously over the brick path.
The Constance Sprys, are in themselves a vision of petally paradise, tumbling luscious pink blooms over on both garden fences. Not only visual balm, but with a scent that is so light and sweetly fragrant that I feel I want to drink it .
Then there are the equally fabulous frilled and frothy pink peonies, (below) the ones I lifted and divided from my childhood suburban garden after my mum died. It is reassuring that she lives on, in a way, through this yearly renewal in the garden.
I`m always coming up with ideas for Pure Style this and that - one dream is a heavenly little hotel with a walled garden and bright white bedrooms. If there was to be a Pure Style scent, of course `rose` would get a first look in, but I have to say that if anyone could help me bottle the delicate vanilla fragrance of my wallflowers this spring( see below) I am sure we could be on to a winner, too.
I wake early with the encouraging limpid blue of an English Spring sky. Since I`ve been away in Olhao the apple tree has blossomed in a candy floss of fluffy pale pink petals.
The morning sun warms the worn red brick paving tiles and spills across the newly opened array of tulips. I can`t remember planting quite so many gorgeous varieties. (Not that surprising because when I did so, the garden was coated in a thick white icy coat of snow and it was all I could do to force the bulbs randomly into snow rimmed earth holes before it all became too cold and unpleasant and I had to scurry inside, toes and fingers numb.) It is so exciting to watch this blast of petally colour unfold.
See above from left to right: Spring Green; Black Parrot ( a straggler from bulbs that I planted three years ago ); Lilac Perfection.
The purple and white striped `Triumph` tulip reminds me of the purple and white colourings of red onions; it has to be the most stylish of my tulip flock.
Hardly have the bags been unpacked and the weeds attended to, then our spring jaunt continues with a large family get together in Suffolk. By now the air feels midsummer balmy and the weather people are in high excitement about the early heatwave that is hitting northern Europe. Whilst I am ambling along dewy lanes, alive with cuckoo song , lilac, and wild asparagus (see above), a subdued text from our tenant in Olhao describes great winds and rains and a request for wet day activities in the area. Wow, we had a narrow climatic escape.
We visit Walberswick, rather like an English east coat version of the Hamptons, on Long Island, all beautiful picturebook, wisteria-clad houses and cottages with immaculate picket fences. There is a village green with swings, well behaved children and a horizon with simple beach huts. We crunch along the pebbly beach and some of the party, plus the dog, embrace the unseasonal warmth and swim. Of course, the sea is still winter cold and we drive home with the heater full on to keep hypothermia at bay. I negociate a detour to Wootton`s nursery which has everything from agapanthus to old fashioned cottage garden plants, and the most amazing selection of auriculas (see above) all massed together in a light white greenhouse. I come away with a box of cat mint and lavender for the potager beds, blue geraniums for ground cover, and an exquisite lemon secented old perlagonium called Mabel Grey which I shall keep in a pot to sit on my desk through the winter.
Sufffolk (and going over into Norfolk) is also very blissful with its wide flat watermeadows around Harleston and Beccles, where cows swish their tails in the shade of ancient willows and the river Waveney is cool and meandering. We bike past hawthorn hedges frothing with white blossom and look over to into fields where hares leap across the furrows. The county`s vast field aspect can be overwhelming, as are the electric yellow swathes of rapeseed. Sometimes I catch the whiff of a more industrial and stinky smell than anything with more rural connections. There are clues in the anonymous green lorries thundering past gnarled greening oaks to what is probably hidden away landfill. We eat well on Suffolk honey, the new season`s asparagus, cod landed at Lowestoft and rhubarb for pudding. The Ship inn at Dunwich serves the best fish and chips of the week, and is also a only a few minutes walk to the beach , where it is said that divers can hear the ghostly clang of church bells that succumbed to the sea.
Arriving back in London through steamy streets where the thermometer is hitting 27C, I am almost bowled over by the riot of colour (see above and below) that that has taken over the garden. All the tulips are now full and voluptuous on leggy stems. I watch their cups open up lazily in the sunshine and close in the shade as as if to keep warm.
New this year to my bulb order are `Silver ` parrot tulips (see below right) which when they first came out weren`t in the least bit silver, more bright raspberry ripple. Now that they`ve matured, the pink has faded a little and is rather fabulous.
I wake to the mass twittering of sparrows and a distant bell. The air is sea salty, the breeze warm and the sky is bright morning blue. Olhao. Weíre here again for the spring holiday with a case full of books for revision and fabric to make cushions for summer. Breakfast is toast with soft springy sourdough-like bread which they slice for you from the cafť on the corner. I have a jar of orange flower honey from which I spread a thick coating onto a slice along with curls of butter. We eat outside in the quintal and squint at the sun which is glowing with promise for the day ahead. Oranges are so good and fresh here; so much sweeter and more intensely orange flavoured because they`re not long picked from a tree. We squeeze juice with the 13 euro juicer - a definite qualifier for what I think is a `best buy`- and pour it into small glass tumblers. So much more of an enjoyable experience than opening up a carton.
I throw black jeans, sweater and thick socks to the back of the wardrobe and feeling expectant for a first of the season session at the beach pull out last summer`s floaty cotton dress, sandals in which to brave winter feet, and straw hat. Iíve been through quite a few hats here, one or two have blown into the sea whilst on a boat of some sort; one was washed away by a rogue wave, and another met its end with an uncontrolled puppy. The fading terracottas, yellows, and greens of Olhaoís crumbling faÁades are balm to my tired city eyes. Most luminous are the pale cobalt blue lime washed walls that give the buildings a mediterranean seaside flavour. My friend Piers mixes blue pigment with white cal (lime) to create this timeless effect.
At the Saturday market the senses are hit with the aromatic smell of mint and the fragant childhood summer smell of strawberries. Wrinkled men with flat caps look after stalls groaning with oranges, pumpkins, broad beans, and peas. Cages with live rabbits and uncomfortable looking hens are clustered by the sea wall. I want to take to take it all home, all of this colour, and sensation. We settle for eggs, a bag of plump peas shelled by the vendor, a bunch of radishes with pink roots slashed rather stylishly with white, more sweet oranges and a kg of plump and richly coloured strawberries for the picnic.
The garden is growing growing growing. The warmth and sun of the past week has kick started the spring juices and the little beds in the parterre/potager are greening and filling out fast. The tulips that started as a flop of leaves have developed slender stems with tight buds. The first to flower is the variety Lilac Perfection (see above) in fabulous bowls of fuschia pink petals.
This natural beauty in my backyard is a kind of antidote to all thatís commercial and mass market: ads that make us want more even though we donít need whatever is being pushed, or the TV mush of American teen soaps and celebrity dining shows. This, and my desire to live more simply and without so much fuss is also where I am at with my Pure Style philosophy. I think I must be on the right track when I read that my design hero Terence Conran has a buff label on his desk with the words ĎPlain, simple, useful` and says that we should apply this attitude to everything we own and use. I am also a fan of John Laneís Timeless Simplicity - in which he explains how to live more creatively in a consumer society.
It quite a revelation, to see that itís not the first time there has been a reaction to the consumerism in society. Go and see the V&A`s exhibition Escape into Style, `The cult of beauty: The aesthetic movement 1860-1900í which is about the late nineteenth century revolt against Victorian industrialism by artists and architects who wished to create a new ideal of beauty in wallpaper, painting, architecture, textiles and poetry. NB: Although it`s really all about middle class family angst - and a rather too close to home portrait of it too, I recommend the film, Archipelago, to see some truly mesmerising visuals of the natural beauty on the wild and windswept island of Tresco in the Isles of Scilly.
The new greens are in season. Whatever else might be thwarting my daily progress, young bean green shoots and fresh bright spring green grass are reassuringly sprouting and budding outside the kitchen window. I canít resist bunches of Ďmuscari Ď grape hyacinths (see above) delicate blue flowers on equally delicate lime green stems. They are packed fresh from the fields in a box propped up outside the florist with the logo, Cornish flowers on its base. At £1.25 a bunch I am surprised that by lunchtime the sales woman says that I am the first to buy some of these vibrant and colourful pieces of spring.
With its potent link to nature, green is one of my favourite colours to have about the home. (Have a look at the exciting greens for faux suede by Designers Guild). Its presence as a decoration tool can be as minimal, as a flash of a lime green painted flower pot to brighten up the bedroom, or as all encompassing, as our lime green painted loo. The latter idea is a very good way for me to incorporate a rich green colour in a house that needs to make its living being painted white almost all over! And I have also managed to make way for some muted greens in the tv room and garden shed as the shoots are very keen to use them for backdrops to simple and natural still lives. As soon as thereís a day with the faint burn of spring sunshine my thoughts turn to picnics. I like to head for that south facing spot on the tussocky slopes that frame our walks along the Somerset valley on visits to my father. Feta cheese, basil and cucumber is one of our favourite fillings in hunks of sourdough bread that come freshly baked via our local corner shop.
The kitchen needs an update. Not only is the paint peeling off the drawers, but one of the white cupboard doors refuses to shut, the sink blocks and the cooker is ailing and working at half speed. Then thereís the location element to think about. Iíve been told that I will get more kitchen shoots if I have an Ďintegrated Ď dishwasher (the dishwasher door is faced in a panel to match the other fitted door fronts). You see itís not very Ďlifestyleí in the advertising world to have kitchens with all the ordinary workaday things on show. I must say itís never bothered me that the dishwasher is on view, but then I have always rather resisted the concept of a fitted kitchen that might be fabulously organised and clean, but looks completely clinical and soulless.
Hereís the plan: I wonít be starting all over again, that isnít my thing, and neither do I have the funds. I am very fond of the existing white tiles, now rather worn wooden worktop and recycled white shelf. After all, these are the simple and textural details which make my kitchen feel personal and look individual. I need some new units, but where to get them? I canít face the flat pack experience of Ikea. After trawling the web for cheap kitchens I come up with a surprise - Magnet, which appears to have undergone a wonderful metamorphosis. ( Ten years ago, no, even two years ago, design sensitive souls would not have been seen dead with one of their mass market models. ) Thus I find myself at the local showroom, desiring a very pretty pale duck egg blue range (see the finished effect in my kitchen above and below) that is simple, classic and looks great. (Except for the chunky handles which you donít have to have because there are plenty of other shapes to choose from. ) ďHow much is your limit ? says the salesman hopefully, "some of our customers spend £30,000Ē. He seems a little downcast with my minimal budget for a modest kitchen run of about 3.5 metres, but is helpful , attentive, and comes up with a good price.
A couple of weeks later and the big day has come, a breather between shoots, blog posts, and garden tidying, for the ripping out of the old and the installing of the new. The most important thing is that I have lined up a builder type to fit it all. It would soon be like a scene from Danteís Inferno if my husband and I attempted to grapple with rejigging the plumbing, fitting a new sink into the old worktop and marshalling all the Magnet components into place. Bar three knobs which havenít arrived, and for which I have to dash out back to Magnet for replacements, all goes according to plan. Itís a tough job though, sorting out the stuff Iíve unloaded from the old cupboards which now lies in untidy greasy swathes across the kitchen floor. I wade through and dispose of half empty packets of flour, corks, old chopsticks and other kitchen junk that no one else in the family would think to edit. The cherry on the cake is filling up the new pale blue duck egg drawers to look neat and housewifely (how long will that last?), and cooking a big plate of roast vegetables for lunch in half the time that it took in the old oven.
NB: It`s noon, and a Country Living shoot is filling the house with summer colours and ideas. Thereís a handsome man in black cycling shorts dashing up the stairs with a handsome vase of summer petals and blooms from Scarlet and Violet and the bathroom papered in floral sprigs looks like a set from Lawrie Leesís Cider with Rosie. Even our Tulse Hill cat looks like a country cottage puss dozing in the sunlight on a pile of Cath Kidston towels. Eyeing the props, I have fallen for brilliant floral cushions from the Conran shop, pretty pleated paper lampshades by Elise Rie Larsen and painted metal stools with rough wooden tops from excellent online resource, The housedoctor.dk. NNB. I ate delicious flat bread, olives, and delicately fried squid at Morito, the latest offshoot of Spanish/North African influenced restaurant Moro in London`s Clerkenwell.
Ha Ha! I am right on trend in my several-seasons-old canary yellow buttoned J Crew cardigan, as the March issue of Vogue proclaims Ďfashionís new love for colourí. Of course we all know itís not really new, as fashion is all about an ongoing passion with colour in some form or other. But there is something particularly resonant about the newness and vibrancy that Spring brings to everything. A sense, too, of optimism and possibilities - from the leggy amaryllis by my kitchen window (see above) about to unfurl in a whirl of striped pink and white petals, to the Spring pages of fashion mags washed in bright shades of tangerine, raspberry and quince. (I look forward to the first swim of the season at the lido and have my eye on a hyacinth blue retro spot halterneck swimsuit in the Boden catalogue that plopped through my letter box last week.) When I havenít seen my children for a while and we meet after a fortnight away or longer, thereís a sense of seeing them as new people, almost like getting to know them all over again. Thatís how I feel, in a way, when I hold the neatly bound sections of the new book, all ready to be sent off to the printers in China. Is it really three months since I turned in the final acknowledgements? I am excited, because I now see the book with a fresh eye. Itís not tiring to scan the spreads that I checked over and over during the editing process. I hope it doesnít sound puffed up to say itís looking good!
Feeling buoyant I am inspired to revisit a piece of half finished patchwork that has been lying in my large turquoise canvas remnants bag for the last year or so. Itís made up of blue and white pieces cut from various sources: pairs of worn out childrenís pyjamas and tattered jeans. Thereís also a bit of floral Liberty print from a dress that I cut up because I grew tired of its shape. (Although quite expensive, I also like the idea of pre cut Liberty patchwork squares sold by the bundle.) Foot on the accelerator I motor along on the rather battered Elna Lotus SP that my parents gave me for my 21st birthday. The process of pinning and stitching, trying to steer not only a straight path but also fingers away from the dagger effects of the speeding needle, are all good for freeing the mind of muddle. As good as digging the garden, or beating egg whites to frothy peaks. Once everything is sewn together I hem the edges of what is to become a kind of patchwork loose cover for the seat of the chesterfield. I say, loose, because the dog, and the cat, are very fond of this surface, and it would soon look very sad, very quickly if I couldnít whip it off to be washed and revived. NB Must catch the British photographer E.O. Hoppeís modernistic portraits (Vita Sackville West, John Masefield) at The National Portrait Gallery. NNB I made pheasant and pea (frozen petit pois are delicious) risotto last night, with the leftovers and home made stock from a brace of pheasants from the Farmerís market. Itís good not to have to be a hunting shooting fishing type in order to enjoy the mildly gamey flavour, and lean texture of these inexpensive birds.
This feels like spring. A brilliant sunlight filled day and a plate of Daisyís eau de nil and chalk white eggs fresh from her hens. I check outside and even the bare flower beds have little patches of brilliant green where the chives, and tulips are having a go at bursting forth. I know that the doom mongers say thereís plenty more foul wintry weather to come, but you canít ignore the fact that it stays light until teatime. And as it turns dusky velvet blue, the sky has the luminous feel associated with softer, warmer and longer days ahead.
I like to bring the spring feeling inside even if it hasnít quite got going outside. There are inexpensive bundles of daffodils, or pots of delicate grape hyacinths at Jayne Copperthwaiteís fragrant flower shop which she recently opened in Balham, south London. Itís my daughterís 17th birthday weekend and so thereís every excuse to come away laden with bunches of blue hyacinths and sweetly scented white narcissi.
I prefer my flowers to sit in containers that donít shout: simple glass vases, pint beer gasses even, or the white enamel bowls that I fill with bulbs and layer with moss.
I lay the table with a suitably spring green cotton cloth made out of a furnishing fabric remnant from my store cupboard on the landing. Later at the birthday dinner, there are candles, pink fizz and large slices of chocolate cake. (I feel very short amongst the beautiful gazelles in high heels.) NB: Before I push Publish, I must say how really cross I am that the Government wants to close hundreds of libraries (481 libraries, 422 buildings and 59 mobile libraries are under threat according to Public Libraries News). As an 8 year old, it was a first taste of independence, wheeling my bike back from Earlsfield library with an Everlasting Toffee strip and a bagful of books dangling from the handlebars. The shiny parquet floors and hushed atmosphere made the library seem all at once very grow up but somehow calm and comforting. Choosing books from packed shelves, rows and rows, was like being in a kind of sweet shop of words and ideas, and all the better because you could take them home for free. My current local library at West Norwood is a brilliant source of everything from thrillers, to the latest Booker Prize winner in a pristine dust jacket. There are mothers with young children getting their first taste of reading books, old people who come to read the newspapers, seek some companionship. Even the disruptive teenagers calm down in this airy, peaceful environment. And in common with other libraries around the county, it is also a lifeline for the one in five people who do not have the internet at home and need their local library to look for jobs. The libraries must stay open.
Very very late in getting this post out, but my fingers have been racing over the key board writing text for the book. Driven by a surge of fear and enjoyment I plug into Al Green`s `Let`s Stay Together ` and try not to be distracted by You Tube comedy clips and the latest updates from THAT volcano. The spewings of which, we were lucky to avoid returning from Olhao, where, hooray! the room on top is complete and wonderful. Filipe Monteiro of White Terraces is the architect of this little white gem. From simple white wooden beams to curved detail on the stairs up to the roof, he has cleverly interpreted traditional Olhao building features to make the structure look as if it has been there for ever. And together with his gang of men, Mr Martinho is the builder from heaven.
In Olhao market, spring is here with the juiciest oranges billowing herbs and plump `favas` broad bean pods. The fish market is full of fish because it`s Friday, and there`s the fresh ozone sea smell rising from wet slabs displaying everything from the anonymous `pescado`, 1 euro kg, so ordinary it doesn`t deserve a name, to thick white fillets of corvina 16 euros kg. From their perches on cranes, and spires, the storks are gnashing their great beaks in mating calls, sparrows twitter and the 11am hooter whines like an air raid siren : the boats have come in.
In London the garden is green and glossy, and the tulips are bursting out in bloom with more vigour than I remember. Maybe it was because winter was so long and so hard that all growing things seem to have extra reserves of energy to launch themselves into the new season. Against all these signs of nature`s renewal, it is particularly sad and poignant to hear of the sudden death of mother, and brilliant garden and interiors writer Elspeth Thompson. What a great loss. A fellow blogger, she was most encouraging to me. At the very least she will live on through her evocative words and thoughts.
I never quite know what will come up on the tulip front, and I`m really pleased that the black Parrot tulips from last season have reappeared. Watching them go through the budding bit to their unfurling into a whirl of feathery petals the colour of dark beetroots is absorbing
Black Parrot tulips in bud and full frilly bloom
Unfurled `Blue` parrot tulips, look like striped fruit drops from an old fashioned confectioner or even a head of salad radicchio. Where`s the blue?! and when they are in full bloom the striped effect fades into an all over fuschia pink.
New to the garden this year, and from another really good value bulb order from Crocus the single late tulip, Violet Beauty, is more of a slender, elegant thing than its more wayward and feathery Parrot tulip companions.
Only a few piles of dog eared admin remain before we can escape to Olhao and the new room on top. On the way to the post office, mimosa and forsythia are fizzing with yellow. It seems a little wasteful to be leaving behind the first budding and greening signs of spring but the draw of sand between toes and sardines are tantalizing too. And after more technology malfunctions (I won`t even go there) parking ticket angst, missed train connections, and near hospitalisation involving clogs on a down escalator, I`m ready to walk there, let alone fly .
Just have to get in a session of dough making for pizza (artichoke hearts, green olives and parmesan, is my current favourite) and other homemade creations (see here my sister in law`s divine rye sourdough bread) to illustrate my new book. The four legged paparazzo is enjoying the cooking sessions too, hanging around the worktop for crumbs, and helping herself to the subject matter of a flapjack shot when no one`s looking. It`s all go putting together the pages, and the deadline is no tiny speck in the distance anymore. But that`s good, too, because it means the weeks are slipping away until the backpacker daughter returns.
When I`m back first stop will be gorgeous fabrics at the V&A exhibition, Quilts 1700-2010. Might even get round to a spot of quiltmaking with pretty seaweed prints from the museum`s collection of archive printed cotton. Check out more print ideas from Printand pattern.blogspot.com and Liberty prints at knockdown prices in the new range for American chain store Target .
Spring garden notes: Divide agapanthus: I have an extended family of agapanthus plants that came stashed in a suitcase from Spain and are now packed tightly in a pot like chocolate fish in a tin, which is how they like it. This year, though, division is necessary to keep the plants vigorous and I cut them down the middle with a fork and plant the new half in a fresh container. Feed shrubs and climbers: I started with the standard roses, and have now worked in more compost and bonemeal around the shrub and climbing roses, and gorgeous pale lilac wisteria at the front of the house. Sow seedlings half hardy under cover: Nicotiana and zinnia seeds saved from last year are germinating in a tray on the windowsill. Sow less than think as a pinch of seed goes a long way. Prepare trenches for beans and `chitted` potatoes and dig in muck or compost (on another sea salty note, I remember my grandmother lined her bean trenches with seaweed and newspaper to conserve moisture).
Bother! I`d hoped to get my post out before the end of February. I am diverted from my laptop to equip the eldest daughter with `wedding ring`, door wedge, extending washing line and all the other stuff for the gap year female traveller. It is like losing a limb when she walks through Terminal 5 departures, but I can get in the bathroom now. And in the way that life sometimes seems to synchronise itself, my new book contract is signed and the deadline is just about the date she returns. Publication is next spring, but I`ll give you some sneak previews along the way. Some design notes:I won`t ever tire of gingham, it`s a really inexpensive way to add a spot of spring colour to the home: a simple pull on chair cover ,say . My temple is MacCulloch & Wallis who sell online as well as from a shop crowded with young fashion students in central London. Look out, too for enamel alphabet letters and numbers from Hyperkit, more timeless simple design. RIP Lucienne Day one of our great designers, known for her painterly and simple Fifties` fabrics. I also have a passion for the stacking Polyprop chairs that her husband Robin Day designed, and can still be picked up from secondhand shops and markets.
There are walking babies, crawling babies, sicky babies and back-up babies modelling shoes in the house, and so I escape to the garden. It`s looking spare (an understatement) but crocuses like bright fruit drops are pushing through. I prune the roses with vigour giving the 4 standards the equivalent of a military short back and sides. But they will flower well and spread without looking wild and untidy. They have a good feed with shovels of rich earthy compost from the bottom of the bin. It`s so cold I can`t be bothered to dig it in, but it`s raining so the nutrients will wash down to where the roots need it . The room on top in Olhao is nearing completion after the builders have ducked and dived the thrashing winds and rains of the Algarve`s worst weather in 30 years. It`s a whole new vista up here. In the distance, a band of cobalt sea beneath a grey blue sky, tv aerials, flapping laundry, a silver winding mesh of homing pigeons, the fizzing pink of an almond tree. And all with the Olhao soundtrack of dogs barking, bells, and the strains of a fado song on next door`s radio. NB The dearth of photographic evidence is due to further gadget malfunction, this time, my newly acquired i-phone, a marvellous invention, when it works The blues and greens of the seaside are exhilarating but no less than the rolling hills and valleys on the drive to see my Dad in Somerset: a mossy palette as if from a Farrow and Ball paint chart. And then there is more heavenly natural colour at the Van Gogh exhibition, where my rushhour Friday stress melts before the artist`s drawings and paintings of French gardens and vegetable patches
What with all the backpacking details I almost leave the marmalade making too late, but am saved by the last boxful of Sevilles at the local greengrocer. Soon the kitchen is a bittersweet aromatic fug and the mind only focused on the job. No wonder DH Lawrence said "I got the blues thinking of the future so I left off and made some marmalade." I read though that 80% of marmalade eaters are over 45. Don`t you think we should champion the young to get boiling and stirring? It`s such a pity that marmalade has that fusty old major at the breakfast table image.
I pot the marmalade in recycled jars that I save and store under the sink. Holding one`s golden efforts in a simple glass jar topped with a cellophane lid and decorated with a homemade label is pure pleasure; so, too, is a slice of bread topped with marmalade and a spoonful of creme fraiche.
Horrors. Some beastly person took a chance in our side passage and nicked my bike. Simple. I had neglected to lock it. I take a walk outside and let the beauty of the curled and furled parrot tulips take the edge off my frustration. The feathered buds seem to have been dipped in blueberry juice, clasped together like the furled wings of some exotic bird. In fact, more birdlike, than the the parrots` beaks they`re named after. Soon they will unfold in a riot of undulating and frilly petals. Some will be white, others blue (actually a fuschia pink) and black ( not black, black, but more a deep burgundy black). I`ve got to get replacement wheels, immediately. Not a pretty sentiment for someone who`s always banging on about the evils of self gratification, but the cycle bug has bitten and I`m fretting that I can`t hook the dog`s lead over the handlebars and let her take me at a cracking pace to the park, or nip to the Turkish shop for a bundle of early mint. Justification swims around in my head for quietly siphoning off the family`s holiday money to fund the purchase, from petrol saving, to the health benefits that will stave off some horrendously expensive operation in my old age. I will make it up to them, I think , feeling like a wife who plays bingo with the housekeeping, on my way to Recycling at Elephant and Castle . And thank goodness, that in the third bike crammed aisle is a reconditioned classic sit up and beg, Raleigh, with my name on it. After a short test cycle under the grimy railway arches of one of London`s most gruesome interchanges (although developers have grand plans for it) the deal is done. Not the bargain rate I got in the wilds of Norfolk, but not a bad one either. I"m back in business,and doing more making up to the family, by tearing up leaves of Jonny`s father`s wild garlic to strew in a gorgeous soup made with leek and potato. This is the season for wild garlic, `Allium ursinum` or ransoms, and you can find it in any damp, shady woodland, or even a suburban garden, which is where mine came from. The flowers taste delicious, like garlic, too, and you can toss them in salads along with the leaves.
Living with all this white, is great because the location shoots that come to the house want a space that is light and airy, which is just the kind of feeling exuded by a white painted room. It doesn`t have to be a very specially mixed kind of white either, just a qood quality paint, in white. Dulux brilliant white matt emulsion is always reliable. I can`t resist new colour though, and have taken the opportunity to spruce up the wood panelled attic, now my son is at university, with Paw Print` a lovely muted stone shade from the environmentally friendly paint range by Earthborn.
Pedalling past marzipan scented broom and blazing white magnolias in Battersea Park each morning put my head in the right place, for 4 days hard study at the botannical painting course I attended last week. The freesia is not my first choice to put in water on the table (maybe because the modern hybrids are too uniform in shape) but I began to appreciate its structure and complexity as our teacher Elaine Searle calmly guided the group of aspiring plant painters to observe, sketch, and watercolour the specimens. The final painting now stuck up on my noticeboard, is far from brilliant but I`m pleased with my efforts. What`s best is that I`ve been given the tools to be more confident at painting herbs from the garden, the best escape from a dismal tasks like appealing against parking tickets. NB I must return the magnifying glass,needed for the course, and on loan from the local newsagent whose heavenly home cooked lunch time curries waft comfortingly around his shop. I`m so enthused by my nascent painterly skills I shall go out and buy my own lens even if it does make you look slightly odd peering intently at a lone tomato.
The sprouting seed nursery in the office is getting under my feet as the fledging plants make their break towards the light. I have transplanted the zinnias into peat pots, which can go straight into the ground later on, as I they don`t do well with too much handling of the roots. I have a passion for the riotous pinks and purples of this frilly late summer flower, which looks so colourful in the border and as decoration. The basil is brimming nicely and that will be next in line to pot on. I might even put the sweet peas outside next week, covering them with a bit of fleece to be on the safe side. CH Middleton an old school BBC garden expert from the thirties whose book An Outline of a Small Garden, I picked up for 3.00 from a junk shop suggests that the best way to get fine big flowers , is put them at least six inches apart in a deeply-dug and well manured soil, and give each one a good long cane or stick to support it; then as they grow, nip out all the the little side shoots as soon as they appear, leaving the one stem to each plant. In this way you will get very tall plants and extra fine flowers. I am also really hoping that the sprouting leaves of night scented stock will be successful. You hardly notice it during the day, but on a summer evening it entices you outside with its powerful scent. I shall grow it in pots near the garden table so we can enjoy its scent on one of those calm balmy nights which are possible in this country if the isobars on the weather map are wide enough apart. Out digging in more manure, and weeding last weekend, I noticed a garden regular, the blackbird with an albino patch, having a feast on unfortunate worms revealed by the earthworks. And sometime later the cat struck lucky with a mouse that she laid separated from its head at the bottom of the stairs...... to greet me first thing Monday morning. (Wild)life is tough on the flowerbeds in suburbia.
Thinking about the most delicious things I`ve eaten in the last 48 hours, the lemon cake was good, after our trip to Tate Modern to see Roni Horn`s exhibition, but not as good as the fork biscuits, made by my friend, Fiona .The recipe involves little more than flour, butter, sugar, lemon zest, and a fork for making ridged patterns on each round biscuit shape. I think they`ll be good for tea on Easter Sunday, and less sickly than all the chocolate that will be scattered about. I like to decorate eggs, and am excited with the acrylic colours I found in Green & Stone , one of the most fabulous art shops in London. See how easy it is to do on my Youtube Make and Do series.
It`s been snowing blossom. Our suburban streets have been turned into bridal avenues of trees laden with white and pink scented petals. Even the faceless housing estates look more inviting with clumps of daffodils and flowering cherries planted in the communal spaces. Yesterday I was up early and staggering outside with a weighty bag of seed compost to get on with sowing. I tend to pick up seed packets on a whim rather than on a preordained expedition. I know more or less what I want, but like to gather together elements of my summer garden bit by bit. It gives me breathing space to mull over ideas. It`s not that I`m a procrastinator, rather that I enjoy the adventure of coming across surprises, like the chilli seeds raised by Latin American chilli lovers at the local community allotments. When I was visiting my father in Somerset a couple of weeks ago, I wandered into a typical country high street hardware shop brimming with tools, and, inspired by the equally well stocked racks of seeds ,bought packets of zinnias the colours were so irresistible. And summer visions of salads tumbled with leaves aromatic basil, meant that there was no alternative but to ditch smelly cheese, for two varieties of basil from the artfully packed range of Italian Franchi seeds at the local deli cum cafe cum veg shop. So back to the garden, and a balmy Sunday morning filling plastic trays with handfuls of compost and various seeds from little black specks of nicotiana ( heavenly scent on a summer evening) to peppercorn sized sweet peas. I soaked the seven year old sunflower seeds in water, gathered from our garden in Andalucia , and prized open the tough striped casings to remove the seeds. They look healthy enough, but I`ll know in the next 10 days or so, whether there`s still potential in them. The trays are lined up, like cots in a nursery, in my office by the window on layers of newspaper and an old door so when I water them it will not soak the floor. I sit writing, glancing maternally at the potential garden offspring beside me.
I like a bit of architecture in my garden. Not waterfalls, giant urns or grand gazebos, but wigwams. Wigams of willow sticks , that is, and I`m very excited to have discovered the English Hurdle company on the net, who swiftly dispatched two bundles of willow sticks which I have bashed into the earth with a mallet and tied together at the top with all purpose hairy garden string. These twiggy structures are placed at the four corners of the flower and vegetable patch (my informal version of a traditional potager) and will support the climbing beans and nasturtiums. Until this year I`ve used cane pea sticks for my wigwams, but the willow looks more earthy and organic, and although its more expensive, will last longer than the canes.
My son is back for Easter and wants to know where to take his girl friend for lunch. Somewhere suave, mum, he says. How did I raise a boy with such expensive taste? Maybe he`s winding me up but then, he is a child of the boom time when expectations were high. Without extending his student overdraft even further , I think there may be a solution more in keeping with these straitened times. Ok, Brixton market, might not be the capital`s most romantic spot, but at franca manca wedged between stalls selling yams and Rastafarian bonnets, there`s the romance of eating the most heavenly sourdough pizzas baked in a special Naplese wood fired oven. And it won`t cost them more than ¨®¨£20.00 to eat sumptuously, in the word`s of one reviewer `the best place to eat pizza in the UK`
Spring has sprung with many of the season`s new frocks decorated with pretty florals. I have always fallen for buds and blooms and they needn`t look girly if you mix them with blocks of colour. And just as you don`t want to look like a flower border so you should also use florals in moderation around the home - as accents rather than all over floralness. Sprigged prints on lampshades are a good starting point if you want to introduce some simple country style in a plainly decorated room.