“Tell me two things,” I said to anyone capable of listening (as well as looking) as they went through the small opening in the golden sandstone wall that leads into the heart of the garden at Cambo. “How does it make you feel?” and “Have I bigged it up too much?”
I was worried this year about having dragged folk on a far-flung journey to Fife based upon my own feelings about a place. They were travelling some distance. I worry a lot about this – that you can seduce people with photos and flowery language and that the reality might not meet expectations. To be honest, it’s my biggest fear for all classes. It’s an even bigger fear than not having enough flowers.
Of course, I had my answer way before the guests arrived. I’d wandered around late Sunday afternoon, all alone in the rain, admiring the subtleties of colour in the Sahara section of the cutting garden and stroking the grass that looks like angels’ hair. I felt unusually calm. When Rachael (Hedgerow) arrived the following morning, the sun was out. We rattled a few buckets around in the workroom before stepping out with the camera because the light was good. “That’s better,” she sighed as we reached the tactile section with those grasses. It had taken no more than 50 steps to restore humour and shake off the Edinburgh traffic and the background noise of all of life.
I don’t know if you have the Home and Dry weather app? It tells you exactly when it will rain, at any location, and how much rain there will be. For Tuesday we could expect a storm at 9.30 am.
It was a spectacular storm – thunder and forked lightning against an unnaturally slate grey sky that made the apple trees and every yellow flower stand out like neon lights. Coats with hoods and fetching Vera hats were found. In we went, seeing that garden, just as I saw it back on my first visit in 2016, in pouring rain. And, I kid you not, nobody noticed! As we reached the potager, a procession of umbrellas amongst the umbellifers, the fennel seed heads soaked, some dripping with small stripy snails, a clap of thunder with a simultaneous flash of light lit up the scene. I looked at them all – Fiona the gardener explaining to Annabel and Debra that the tiny blue/lilac daisies were asters (I’m not using the fancy new Latin name for them). And, even better, crouching down, amongst the angels’ hair grass was Rachel (@travelswithmycamera) in her element, capturing it all on camera. The best gardens are those that sing in the rain.
The guests the following day saw a different place.The garden in full sun-teaming with bees, butterflies and insects and with a few more dogs walking their owners. Shadier areas had to be found for photography and, after a three day wait, I finally captured two bits of grass in the prairie garden in some magical afternoon autumn light. Can I mention that we ate lunch outside to the tune of a harpist too?
Flowers for this year’s classes (each lasting a day) came from just down the road – grown by Sarah Hunter at Keeping the Plot. Since we had with us for both days the Queen of The Slow Flower movement (and podcast) Debra Prinzing, all the way from Seattle, it seemed appropriate to let her see where the flowers we had in the workshop had been grown. On a run out along the coast to Elie we stopped off at St Monans so that Debra could see this meticulously run Scottish flower farm and note down some dahlia varieties they don’t have in the USA. Rachael and I amused ourselves throwing stones for Hebe the dog and checking out the hollyhocks – at least we thought that’s what they were….
There’s always a new bowl for Cambo. Something to take home, hopefully a reminder of time well spent. This year’s were made specially by Edinburgh based potter Borja Moronta (www.borjamoronta.com). You don’t have to use it. You can make anything you like, or nothing at all. I managed a half-done one – the distractions of the garden, the light and of course the guests didn’t matter, because for me and Rachael these days are about seeing the light in people’s eyes and watching from the sidelines as they all fall under the Cambo spell.
Everyone comes for a different reason and they take away their own memories. Over a cup of tea first thing we tried to find out what they wanted. Rest and relaxation, inspiration for classes at home, inspiration for a future perennial garden with muted pinks and yellows, how to do better flowers for home, creating a still life photo, making a breathtaking urn and this, possibly my favourite :”just to take it all in”. I did the last one too and I hope that between my memory and my camera I’ve produced an accurate record of Cambo 2022 – the year things returned to normal.
A few Cambo stories of people. In alphabetical order:
Annabel (@thecontentedmole): loves gardening, photography and anything to do with flowers whether it’s arranging or making structures for them to grow through, or making artworks with pressed flowers. A teacher by trade who now runs classes from her home and garden in the Peak District. Annabel wanted to create the perfect bowl to reflect the Cambo garden, and to capture it with her camera. Some of our guests this year had recently lost loved ones and I’ve a fair idea that at many points as she wandered through the garden, first in rain and later in dappled sunlight, Annabel was with her dear dad, who was also a great gardener. When she said she was overwhelmed by the garden and didn’t know where to start I knew just what she meant – how do you decide what to use when faced with so many treasures?
In the end she chose one flower, the one that caught her eye/captured her heart/made her go ‘phwoar’ and from that flower – a Wild Swan anemone – she was off, into the prairie garden with all of the lilacs and the floaty grasses that catch the light on any photograph. “Totally mesmeric and absolutely absorbing – you can think of nothing else” were the words she used to describe her day. “Looks like something by Constance Spry” was a comment from a lovely artist who just happened to be watching as we took photographs in some window light.
Carol (@carolsgarden): queen of flower growers. I say this because each time I mention her name on any social media channel I get back lots of crown emoji’s and messages that say ‘our queen’.
She needs little introduction but to finally be able to see what she thought of this garden was, for us, a bit special. “I’m not bothered about a photo or creating something brilliant,” she said firmly. “I’m here to see this garden and get ideas for something”. I showed her the grass that always makes me think of her and I watched as she created a visual note of all the ingredients she had gathered that might provide inspiration for a future garden. “A flat lay doesn’t have to be flat,” she announced, as she crouched down on a pathway to photograph her collection from a jaunty angle. I fought back the urge to lay down a tarpaulin square for her to kneel on.
The light was too much for Carol to resist and, at 3.30pm in the prairie garden, she gave in to my badgering and allowed me to take a few memorable portraits under some Betula jacquemontii (which I bet don’t go into her future garden). Under the shade of a different tree she sat and made notes in a notebook, reminding herself of what she’d like to achieve in the next few years, what to do differently, and how to develop the flower fields for a more sustainable future. According to Carol it was a day that will stay with her for a long time and has already changed her plans for this autumn. And, afterwards she sent me a note that said, “You’re not overrating it”. Phew.
Debra (@slowflowerssociety/@dkprinzing) : Founder of the American Slow Flowers movement, author of Slow Flowers and The 50 Mile Bouquet, and presenter of The Slowflowers Podcast, Debra is a busy woman and was in need of a break. A few days in Fife is guaranteed to restore humour and Debra has a very good sense of that. “It’s always good to have dangling bits,” she told Rachael as they worked on a large Dutch masters-inspired piece of Cambo in a long copper vessel outside in the tunnel of soft autumn light. A branch of bright pink spindle berry had inspired this piece which moved into dahlias and cosmos and had Debra’s signature Rodgersia leaf at the front. Watching Debra chat to everyone about their flowery journeys I was in awe of her interviewing techniques…and, if you’ve ever listened to her podcast you’ll know what I mean. Skilful stuff. A night out with Debra is always memorable and I’ll not forget the post prandial promenade along Elie beach as we all chatted about…..flowers of course.
Elizabeth (@faffing.with.flowers): “Just flowers and other stories” is how she describes herself. Extremely capable gardener, flower fettler and photographer (with impeccable taste) is how I’d describe her. It’s taken a good few years to get ‘Faffing’ up to Fife. I think the five-hour journey has something to do with it, but I’ve a feeling that between Toppings bookshop, Jannetta’s ice cream parlour and the way the light makes her hair shine in the prairie garden, there’s enough going on to persuade her to come back one day.
The following day she messaged to say that she was drinking coffee in her little holiday cottage, listening to a grand storm and staring at her bowl of soft as cashmere Cambo flowers and grasses. That she also had a small pebble collection developing was incidental.
I’ve been to other great gardens with Elizabeth, usually in April, and they’ve all been enchanting. About Cambo she said simply this: “It was magical” .
Fiona (@fionapaterson668): gardener at Cambo, flower lover and definitely a budding florist. Fiona describes herself as Queen of Weeds in the Cambo garden. She must have been working overtime before we arrived because no rosebay willow herb was to be found. She knew exactly what she wanted to make: a big urn. And, with some architectural guidance from Rachael on how to start – with the right lines – she spent a happy few hours choosing very carefully which of the best bits of Cambo were going in. The giant Scabious had been earmarked I’d say several days before and shows just what a good eye Fiona has. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone’s eyes shine so brightly as she finished and took the urn to the tunnel for the photo session. A group of Cambo gardeners gathered around and made approving noises of appreciation for the garden captured in such a magnificent way. I got my camera out and said “phwoar” quite a lot.
“I’m still buzzing,” she told us the following day as she came to stroke her urn on the way to cut back a rampant rose.
Katy (@no_fifty_nine) : runs an elegant and peaceful bed and breakfast retreat in a garden studio just south of Cambridge. As well as being a keen gardener, Katy is a fan of bringing flowers inside and wanted to learn how to do something that didn’t involve just a jug and water. So a bowl was a perfect starting point and I’m sure bigger things are going to be tried out soon. She’s about to start a year-long cut flower growing course and wants to return to Cambo, so maybe I didn’t “big it up” too much after all. I often say that if you ask a stranger three questions you’ll end up being related. We had never met Katy before but it turned out that Rachael used to live in the same village and Katy and I did the same job. Small world.
“I felt I was in the right place,” was what Katy wrote in a note afterwards. I told you didn’t I?
Rachel (@travelswithmyphone)….is an enigma because she had to get back to Edinburgh early and managed to avoid my own camera. Since she is a proper photographer I’d have been nervous anyway. But I’m hoping that she and her camera will be back at Cambo soon. Rachel wanted to learn how to make a still life with flowers (she does commercial photography with food and interiors). Two days later she sent me a superb floral still life, done back home, and it’s those photos, of what folk make at home, that make me the happiest.
What also makes me happy is having to make something out of the left overs.
Eventually. I finished my Cambo bowl, by adding the angel hair grass to some golden Saharas. The following morning, after a very un-English ‘selfie’ with Debra at the station, I heard on the news that the real Queen – HRH Queen Elizabeth II – was not far away with all her family. Later that day, the sad news of her death was announced. With the news in the background I made a bowl from all that was left from the week just gone. The hollyhocks will probably last for several weeks yet (in fact they are not hollyhocks but Alcalthaea suffrutescens ‘Parkallee’) and, as the new Gardener King talked of flights of angels, I couldn’t help but think they were an appropriate flower for the moment and probably each time I see them from now on, I’ll think of that day.
There are some more classes at Cambo planned for the future.
The Autumn Class 2023 is likely to again be a series of day classes – 4th-6th September 2023 – and if you’d like to be placed on the list please do get in touch.
There are also other seasonal classes at Cambo too. Here are the dates for the next two:
Monday 14th November 2022: Quietly Preparing For Winter. Join me for a day as we prepare for winter using all of the garden (especially dried elements) to create arrangements for the home to see you through the darker days. 4 places. Price £295. Includes lunch and lots to take home.
Monday February 20th 2023: The Winter Garden, with me and photographer Éva Nemeth. Capturing snowdrops, seed heads and the bare bones of the winter garden on camera, and using the limited winter colour palette to create beautiful still life scenes. A full day of tuition on photography by Eva and guidance from me on making a stunning composition in a special bowl to take home full of tiny treasures to keep you warm until spring. 8 places. Price £350. Includes lunch.
Finally, I am ever conscious that some of our classes are not easily affordable to everyone. There is a free place available this year for anyone who has financial difficulties and can tell me what a day at Cambo might mean for them.