Monday, 20 July 2009

Visiting Open Gardens

One of the things I was really looking forward to on this visit to the UK was visiting gardens. Being summer (well, British summer anyway) it is the height of open garden season. The National Gardens Scheme (founded in 1927 and patronized by HRH The Prince of Wales) raises funds by opening gardens to the public. The funds support several health and garden-related charities. On Sunday July 12 we set out to take part in this charming tradition.

We had 2 gardens on our list to visit that day and the first was just outside one of our favorite villages, Dogmersfield. We started with a country walk planned to circle around and deliver us to Whispers (name of the house) just in time for its opening. It was a dry and comfortable day and we enjoyed our usual walk routine of starting off with a plan and then diverting from it until we were lost. At one point I stopped to take a panoramic video to illustrate how the public footpaths actually pass through different fields and properties so that you are walking well away from towns, houses, and roads at times.

We arrived at Whispers just a bit after opening, purchased our entry, and entered a real beauty of a private garden. John, the owner, is a former nurseryman who used to own the next door property. When this property went on market he didn't want to see someone build something he might not like next door and he wanted a retirement project so he and his wife purchased it, built a new home, and set about creating a real paradise. Of course "teas" were for sale featuring homemade cakes provided by friends and family for purchase. We wandered the garden and sat on the back patio enjoying our tea and the gorgeous water feature which drained magically under the flagstones and got a chance to talk to John for a bit. He was a wonderful character and reminded us a lot of Robin's dad.

We tore ourselves away from the garden and teas to make our way to our 2nd garden for the day at Farleigh House just outside Farleigh Wallop. This property is the family seat of the Earl and Duchess of Portsmouth so we knew this garden might have a different feel than Whispers. It is a very nice property and an impressive house but we both felt we preferred the personal touch and care of Whispers.

The teas offered at Farleigh House were in the barn down the road. We stopped in there and felt
the clear demarcation of the public having tea in the barn as opposed to sharing in it with the owners on the patio was a bit too much for our American sensibilities so we skipped the tea! Uppity revolutionists we!

Hampton Court Palace Flower Show

After Robin knocked off work on Friday, July 10 we, along with Brian and his son Harrison, headed up to Hampton Court Palace - the favorite crib of Henry VIII (after basically stealing it from Cardinal Wolsey - it's good to be the king!). Brian and Harrison went to visit the palace while Robin and I were there to attend the world's biggest annual flower show. Robin got a bit itchy at first as the crowds around the 6 themed gardens for the 6 wives of Henry VIII were a crush but things cleared out away from there and we happily wandered around enjoying the display gardens, nursery booths, and vendors. Here are 2 of the queen themed display gardens:

We sat in on a floral arranging presentation and one of the displays there was a sweet "tea" made completely from flowers:

An interesting p
art of the show was dodging the "wheelie boxes" that so many of the show attendees had to carry their purchases. When I stopped to take a picture of these 3 ladies with their wheelie boxes the one on left caught me in the act and came over to chat. I said "they look handy by they seem a menace" and she agreed and said they had just bought them out of self-defence! Walking amongst the crowds it would be very easy to trip over their boxes as they trailed behind them.

I really liked the display gardens in the sustainability area. One that featured a water fountain coming out of a wall-mounted Royal Mail box and another edging fences made from woven willow:

After the flow
er show closed up we wandered a bit on the grounds of the palace which looked much nicer than when I visited them in the winter time:

As we left and returned to the car we were kicking ourselves for not thinking ahead like many of the others and bringing along our table, chairs, tea sets, and snacks and cakes to enjoy before heading back home! We made up for it by stopping into one of my favorite pubs, The Swan in Ash Vale, for dinner.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Finding a new rhythm

Robin and I have been in England since mid-June and it has taken me a while to figure out my daily "routine". Just before we left home I got 2 new contract jobs lined up but had kind of put them on hold while we did some work on the garage (repairs and painting) and I tried to make up for a whole spring of neglect in the yard and garden. We have a wonderful housesitter this time who is an avid gardener (and horticulturist by training) so I wanted something she could get into and maintain (and as a bonus have some homegrown vegetables awaiting our return!).

The first week and a half here Robin was working 2n
d shift and we both struggled with sleeping since it is getting light here around 4:30am and we are used to getting up early anyway. This week he switched to first shift which suits our personal styles better especially for these long summer days.

I am finding a completely different rhythm of life here this time around. My first long trip here I was training for Ironman Canada which gave me a very structured schedule and the 2nd and 3rd trips I was fortunate enough to make fast friends with first Brenda and then Rachel (other Boeing spouses) giving me some wonderful pals to explore and play with. Rachel was due to come this time as well and I was very much looking forward to spending time with her again but her mother became gravely ill and she instead went to Tennessee to spend her last days with her. A blessing for both of them. After getting the apartment set up the way we like I got stuck in with a daily work schedule trying to get a firmer handle on the more demanding of my new jobs (still working on that!) and this week I have incorporated an exercise routine as well so finally I am in a groove.

So, what exciting things have we been up to since we got here?

We've done a couple of nice walks with Steve - one to a beerfest and another past one of my favorite houses - Dipley Mill. I'
ve only ever seen Dipley Mill zooming by on the road on our bikes so taking a walk that actually went around 3 sides of the property was a treat. Here we are on the little humpy bridge in front of Dipley Mill.
and a photo of the house and garden. We pretty much think our place will be looking like this soon...

Over the weekend we drove to Wales to watch the British Cycling Road Race Championships. We arrived on Saturday just in time to see the Junior Men finish their race and then the Women had their race in the afternoon. The women's' race ended with 2 circuits of the town and we found a great place to see them pass by a couple of times and then got to the finish line to see Nicole Cooke take her 9th consecutive national title and 10th altogether. Nicole is also the reigning Olympic and World Champion and is Welsh so we were very surprised at the lack of crowd there to witness the event. I had deliberately reserved a B&B in a neighboring town to avoid what I assumed would be a zoo in the host town of Abergavenny. A few pictures of the day:

The start/finish in town:

The start of the Women's Race - that's Nicole in white and the world champion stripes:

Walking around Monmouth Robin liked this wonderful 4-story skinny building:

Sunday was the men's race and there were a few more people around but still not at all what we expected with big names like David Millar, Bradley Wiggins, and Mark Cavendish - all big Tour riders. We stayed in the lovely town of Monmouth, visited the ever-present local castle ruins, had a great dinner, got a bit lost on a walk, and had time the next morning to drive to Skenfrith and ride the 13 miles to Abergavenny. We watched the start and then headed out to catch the action on the big climb up and over Iron Mountain. That's where we finally saw some crowds as many people drove and rode to the top. We got there early at about noon and decided to go to the nearby pub for some lunch. I made the mistake of skipping the prepackaged sandwich and ordered the jacket potato (that's a baked potato back home). The result - we missed the race going by! Oh well, back down the mountain and into town to catch the 10 finishing circuits which were very exciting and then the finish.

At the start line for the Men's race one of the neutral support mechanics is put to work before the race starts:

Here are some folks riding to the top of Iron Mountain to catch the action:

The view from Iron Mountain over the southern Welsh countryside:

The longtime race leader on the finishing circuits - cruel fate dictated he ended 4th on the day:

We b
oth thought the ride back to the car might be a bit of a grind but the quiet road over the rolling hills with the fabulous views of the Welsh hillsides dotted with farms and sheep was very enjoyable. Back in Skenfrith the ruined castle was now a bustling local craft fair with lots of folks out enjoying the warm and sunny afternoon. Two boys were hitting a tennis ball against the side of the castle - how casual is that?

Back in Farnborough on Monday evening I grilled some sausages from the organic farm shop and Robin fixed some greens then proceeded to eat THREE of the sausages which he immediately regretted. He was sick for the next 2 days! I did my best to nurse him and he seems back to his usual self now. No pictures to share of that you'll be thankful to know!

So, life goes on here with extensive coverage of Wimbledon on the telly and the Tour de France starting this weekend seeing us spending a bit more time on our fannies than we should! Pair that with my complete lack of will power when in comes to the plethora of high quality cakes and goodies here and I'll be having a hard time wearing anything but a (large) sack soon!

As I've been typing this Serena Williams has been playing her semi-final match against Elena Dementieva and she just won a very tough match! Oops - it has taken me a day to get the pictures loaded and since then now Venus Williams won her semi-final making a Williams' Sisters Final on Saturday and tonight Andy Roddick upset British favorite Andy Murray and will meet Roger Federer on Sunday. GREAT tennis watching and a guarantee of at least 1 and possibly 2 American Wimbledon Champions this year!