a holiday postcard

Weathervane at the top of Sissinghurst Castle tower

We are halfway through our lovely holiday in East Sussex. The weather has been sublime, very hot and sunny, which apart from the sunburn is a real treat for us pale-skinned northerners. My bones feel warm for the first time in ages, especially since the last two summers were such a chilly wash-out.

Vita's sculpture of the vestal virgin underneath the weeping pear in the famous White Garden

Garden visiting has been high on our agenda. On a hot summer's day, what better activity is there than a leisurely stroll through beautiful borders, down little brick paths and across wild meadows, followed up by a visit to the tearoom for a lovely pot of tea and some scones with cream and jam?

Much inspired by the recent BBC programme and Adam Nicolson's excellent book, we made Sissinghurst Castle our first port of call. The ruins of the Elizabethan mansion surrounded by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson's gorgeous gardens are certainly very romantic and there is a wonderfully erudite atmosphere, but we were surprised to find the place seemed a little run-down and the toilets rather smelly. However, it did provide some lovely photos for this post, which is a good job as the next two days I forgot either the memory card or the battery or was too lazy to take any pictures...

As you begin the climb up the tower at Sissinghurst you come across these tiles on a windowsill. Vita's writing room was - and still is - halfway up. You can peep in and see her desk, books, pictures and rugs.

The very lovely White Garden

The second day we visited Great Dixter which we found a far superior experience and even though I had not expected to like Christopher Lloyd's exuberant planting, I found all the bright colours quite uplifting. The old house is beautiful and it is a far nicer place to visit, probably because it's independently run (ie not National Trust).

East Sussex is a very ancient and beautiful landscape. It is very wooded and has a very interesting history of farming, smuggling, ironworking and pannage (driving pigs into the woods to scoff acorns). Today we went on a delightful walk around our local area, down ancient holloways and sunken green lanes, across heath and streams and through coppiced woods to see a ruined priory and the earthworks of a medieval iron furnace. Plenty of cold pizza and kitkats were consumed and a large pot of tea was required on our return. Sadly no photos though, due to the aforementioned forgetfulness issues.

This is the candleabra at the bottom of Sissinghurst Tower instead...

The other lovely thing we have done is pay a visit to the very sweet, charming and creative Gigibird who made us delicious sandwiches and cake and took me for a walk to the beach to see the beautiful beach huts. We had a lovely afternoon chatting and looking at ribbons and fabric while Rory was packed off to see old aeroplanes. She and her friend Stella make the most gorgeous corsages and other desirable things which you can see on their Florence Hope blog.

There are still so many places to visit and if I remember my camera I will share them with you soon. Meanwhile, here's a photo of beautiful Mrs Duck who hatched her eleven ducklings on the pond the day after we arrived. They are unbelievably cute!


My Flickr favourites folder is bursting with loveliness at the moment and bringing me such a lot of pleasure so, I thought I'd share some of them with you all. A big thank you to all the creators of these gorgeous photos.

In a couple of days we're going away to visit beautiful Sussex, to see some gardens, splash in the sea, walk in the woods and hills, and meet a friend. I can't wait.

1. Cactus Monday - 'Love' Cactus ATC, 2. Leaf buttons (C365: day 98 ), 3. Cinquefoil, 4. felt pebble bangle, 5. indigo dyed beads, 6. Untitled, 7. Thanksgiving 07 Heart leaf, 8. Like a fern - necklace with crocheted motif, 9. tiny poetry heart

more thoughts on the journey

A big thank you to all of you for your heartening and inspiring comments on my last post. It's always, always good to know you're not alone with things.

One of the people I keep going back to for a good dose of wisdom, sensitivity and honesty is Megan at The Scent of Water. Quite a while ago she posted on the subject of our muddled, squiggly lives, talking of:

'teaching myself to manage happiness, encouraging it to sit alongside the heartaches and frustrations that necessarily accompany life, rather than using it as a shield against them. It isn't that I believe there is good in every situation; it's that I believe there is good.'

This is something I have thought about over and over, especially with respect to the largely unhelpful perspective the world often takes of our 'journey' in life. It seems more and more to me that our walk is not meant to be a linear one, where we gradually move closer and closer to perfection and happiness. I'm really not helped by the concept of Nirvana: life just keeps barging in and spoiling the enlightenment, like a drunk stumbling into a yoga class. Our path feels more like a squiggle on the page: we travel great distances yet often criss-cross paths we have been on before, revisiting places, feelings, people. The great trick, and the way to keep moving forward, is to continue in the direction the squiggle is taking, not to take the wrong path and find ourselves back in the loop, like those old Beano puzzles where the fisherman catches an old boot...

Along the same lines is a remark that Nigella Lawson made in an interview I found here. I like Nigella, at least I like her writing, her thinking, and the fact that she's nice and curvy. I'm not so keen on the camped-up parody of herself and her life that she peddles on TV. She is certainly someone who has had her share of grief and pain though, and she is nothing if not honest. In the article she speaks of her experience of life, explaining that although there is a process to grief, it is not linear:

'You don't feel this on a Monday, that on a Tuesday, as though you are making steady progress from A to B while all about you are being supportive. It's as if people think you are either happy or unhappy, one or the other. As though happiness is like some kind of domestic cleaning product you spray around to get rid of those nasty, dark, dusty corners. I don't think happiness is a remedy for unhappiness, like there, that was unhappy, now this is happy! What kind of a life is it if you don't have both? You don't go around grieving all the time, but the grief is still there and always will be. That John was so ill for so long is a cause of grief for as long as I remember it, and I have no wish to forget. I have room in my head. It's all right. I don't want to put my mind in order as I might with work or a store cupboard, because that wouldn't be a fair representation of the way things are. It is difficult to explain this to people. Language is more articulate than emotion, but it doesn't do the job. Emotion is messy, contradictory ... and true.'

I think this is the same for creativity, and probably much else besides. Everything lives alongside everything else. We can't compartmentalise, nor does it help us anyway. It's the mixing up of things that makes it interesting.

Images are from my concertina sketchbook that I started last year. I made a list of interesting words such as bird, garden, moon, teacup, spoon, kettle, and gave them all numbers. Then I wrote the numbers down on little pieces of paper and put them in a jar. Each time I do a page of sketchbook I pick three numbers out at random and that's what I draw...

a creative conundrum

To be truly creative in the midst of crisis is something only a few can do. War poets, Picasso, Dylan Thomas: quite a few men that's for sure.

What difference does it make, I have been wondering, if the crisis is 'domestic'? What if you are, like most mums, responsible for the well-being of others? What if you're not? What even constitutes a crisis? What about months or years of just sheer hard emotional work? Does crisis inspire creativity for some and not others?

When my first child was born I was only eighteen months out of art college and considered myself an artist. I had probably thought that I'd be there, creating art in the middle of the nappies and bottles and happy baby muddle, a bit like I imagine Barbara Hepworth with her triplets, sculpting away while the littlies played in the woodshavings.

But that didn't happen. Our children were notoriously hard work: while others slept through the night or played peacefully with perfect skin, happy tummies and hardly a whimper, ours grew huge and heavy, needed constant entertainment, wouldn't sleep and were prone to eczema and ear infections. All thoughts of paint, paper or thread got shoved to the bottom of the nappy drawer. Other mums manage it, I know. I see you doing it all the time on your beautiful blogs. But I couldn't, and still can't.

You see, I found that I just couldn't separate out my various parts. When I am being creative and am absorbed in a project I get totally immersed, and snap savagely when required to stop, like a wolf interrupted eating its prey. When you have tinies to look after, you simply can't allow that to happen. So, I starved myself of art. I didn't even visit a gallery or a degree show or read an art book. I didn't dare to be tempted by inspiration. I found I could only really do one big thing at once.

Of course, on a day-to-day level we do hundreds of things at once: as mums and partners and friends and daughters and workers we stoically keep those balls up in the air, and some days they even start to make quite a nice display up there. But when it comes to real pen-and-ink, thread-and-needle, brush-and-paint creativity, as soon as something starts to gnaw at my emotions, or I am full of worry or tiredness or stress or even sometimes excitement, I simply cannot create. Even the thought of it panics me.

What I can do is maintain a sort of simple conversation with the creative world: photographing, gardening, cooking, looking, doing crochet, threading beads, sorting through fabric, arranging things. I can even manage quite intense bursts of energy at something I am already quite good at, like doing the tea and cake last weekend. But when my emotions and energy are already all used up, I find that original thought and visual inspiration trickles away to virtually nothing. It's very frustrating, and I sometimes think that if there was a way to burst through the bubble, the creative process in itself would start to turn the circle and create an energy itself. This is something I long to be able to work out how to do.

So this, of course, is how I'm feeling at the moment. Worn out with all the emotion involved in mothering, grandmothering and wifing. It's ok. We all get a bit of a pile-up from time to time, and it will pass. But I'm missing the making, the mess and the flow of ideas. It seems like a long time waiting for its return.

Do you ever feel like this? What do you do to balance things out at these times? Is it even possible? I'd love to know your thoughts.

All the photographs were taken two years ago in the beautiful walled garden at Croft Castle in Herefordshire. We spent the first part of our honeymoon here, before we got flooded out... Do you see the mistletoe growing on the apple tree? This was the first time I'd seen this and I thought it was beautiful.

a garden tea party

Despite the torrential rain, we had a lovely time yesterday serving tea and cakes to over two hundred garden visitors in my best friend Anne's lovely cottage garden. The sun went in at 12 noon on the dot, and returned later on after everyone had gone home, but we were not daunted. After all, we are used to this sort of thing, we have survived the war, we are British!

...as I exclaimed dramatically to various people throughout the afternoon, including my proudly Irish former neighbour, at which point there was an awkward silence. Sorry, Joe.

Anyway, it was all a huge success and great fun. Everybody loves tea and cakes, don't they? I so enjoyed seeing the delighted expressions on people's faces as they took in the vintage china, bunting, pretty cakes, tablecloths and 1940s music playing over the loudspeakers, not to mention Anne's gorgeous garden. It was a treat to be a purveyor of simple pleasures and make people's afternoons into something a bit special. More than a few people have raised their eyebrows over the past week or two, unable to get their heads round the madness of homemade cakes for two hundred people, handmade signs and 'all the bother' of setting out tablecloths, doilies, and my eclectic collection of bone china teasets, but for me it has been a wonderful opportunity to be creative and do what I do best. It's that old chestnut again about homemade over bought, artisan over mass-produced, time spent on more than just the basics, a delight in doing things well and beautifully. Something that sadly for many people is lost and no more than a memory. Anne often says that people make the gardens they feel they 'ought' to have rather than the ones they'd really like, and I sometimes wonder if we extend that to the rest of our lives occasionally. Anyway, it was altogether a lovely day, full of fun and laughter, and hopefully lots of people will remember it and decide to fill their own lives, gardens and teatimes with a bit of creative gorgeousness.

One of the things I felt the occasion necessitated was a new pinny, and after a bit of research into patterns and a rummage in my fabric cupboard I decided to chop up a piece of vintage cotton I'd been hoarding for years and try to create something jollier and a bit more flattering than my usual. I was quite pleased with the result which I hope has the feel of a sort of 'going-out' apron... what do you think?

Lastly, a very big thank you to all of you for your help and encouragement with our moth problem. We now have a nice new carpet and everything but everything has been hoovered and sprayed and replaced carefully with a bit of extra hoovering just to be sure. As much furniture as possible has been raised off the floor to allow for better housekeeping and we are all going to be very, very vigilant from now on. Fingers crossed!

Finally, a couple more photos of Anne's lovely garden where we have spent many happy hours putting the world to rights over a glass of wine!