Spring Fling

April 1, 2024

March is most definitely the cruelest month; I don’t care what that TS Eliot bloke said. And let’s face it, these days taking climate change into account, March really is April, and April is the new May. I love April….and May. June can be a bit hot. 

This March was no exception. In like a roaring lion, with gales, rain, mud and not one but two eyes taken from the small dog. I said eyes not Ides of March, although the final operation was on roughly the right day. And with that, all hope abandoned. All hope of the “all seeing” little dog, who can always find the best light and the perfect branch, gone forever. Kind words flowed in. “She’ll adapt. Her other senses will kick in”. Well, this is an unusual dog, one that can’t actually smell a bowl of chicken right under her nose. So, all hope went towards those big ears. From being the quietest household in the world, we were forced into using way more sound than I’m comfortable with. Walks have become like the percussion section of the brass band, with clicking and whistling. Seriously, I’m looking for a small bell that jangles in the most delicate way. But no wind chimes. I absolutely draw the line at the cacophony they would create in the small corner which gets frequent gusts. 

Briefly I entertained the idea of flinging myself on the compost heap in despair but, after that split second, I galvanised and remembered the business motto of maintaining dignity and a sense of humour at all costs. As for the dog, she is fine. Still snoozing gently next to books, walking when the weather conditions are to her liking and, thank goodness, still able to run on the beach if within earshot of her whistling owners. Also still able to recognise the sound of a shutter on a camera and turn her head towards it. Cuter than ever in my truly worthless opinion.

We took ourselves away. It was the wrong thing to do according to all the books. That is, all two of the books. There is a surprising lack of written information out there about blind dogs. Perhaps finally I’ve found a gap in the market to write something! I’ve never been convinced that The Trouble With Tulips would be a best seller (a Lady Whistledown-like romp through the scandalous flowery world), and, having devoured the newly published The Tulip Garden by Polly Nicholson, I definitely know that’s the only book any true tulip lover will ever need. It really is good. As is The Tulip by Anna Pavord of course. “Don’t move the furniture or change your dog’s surroundings” was a consistent theme. I do love a consistent theme. It usually means there’s some substance behind it. So, yet again, I had cause for concern.

It was a fine balancing act. The dog loves the beach. We don’t have one at home. All of the other books – you know, the ones from my real gurus called Charlotte, Emily and Anne (and I daresay even that Jane one) – tell you of the restorative powers of the sea and fresh air. We needed both. It was still too cold for ice cream and Darjeeling tea is in short supply because of Houthi rebels in the Red Sea. So the normally fail-safe comfort factors were limited. We needed to get away. 

If I were ever to write that book on how to have a contented blind dog, I’m sure I’d suggest that it starts with the owners being happy and calm. And if as a dog they make you travel, it’s all OK as long as you have your own blanket and a familiar lap on which to lie.

What’s your dream job? A question I often ask of guests in business chats. Obviously I’m doing my dream job all of the time, but occasionally things happen that are beyond my wildest dreams. We had in fact already booked to go away. We booked it a long time ago. After our previous holiday in summer at a place in the Scottish Highlands called Aldourie, in the cottage with the yellow walls. I’m one of those folk who finds things (and people) they love and sticks with them. Books, Blundstone boots, Bosie jumpers, Borja bowls, Barbour or Belstaff coats. A consistent theme again. In came an email. Another genius by the name of Elliott (not the author of The Wasteland but the one who creates poetic planting schemes in the land around Aldourie Castle). Whilst on our five-day break away from the noise of the world, would I be able to give a class to the garden team? And there it is. Dream job. Teaching flowers in a garden. Yes indeed, I am a creature of habit, someone who is consistent. And this is a garden beyond my wildest expectations. Please don’t worry, you know there’s another garden that has my heart. But these days my heart is big enough for more than one garden and the new lens on my camera can most definitely take it all in.

Resting on the banks of Loch Ness, Aldourie Castle isn’t quite by the sea, but it makes up for that in fresh air. Driving along to Garden Cottage my own eyes were out on stalks looking at every tree dripping with lichen. Each one cloaked in perfect celadon-coloured fluff, a colour that has been echoed in the silk wall coverings of the Castle drawing room. Celadon vases had been chosen for the rooms of our more modest cottage by gardener/florist Alice (@alicesleeperatkins). She met us at the door clutching an arching piece of Ribes sanguineum, wondering if we had objections to the scent. Mr Simply cheerfully told her that the small dog had no sight and a rubbish sense of smell and I went inside to blind dog-proof the rooms and to squeal with delight at the beautiful vases of flowers in every room, tumbling over with delicate spring foliage and tiny muscari. Blossom on the kitchen table….which might later find itself in other stuff. Alice was good. They didn’t really need me. 

It turns out that Aesop hand cream and Floppy Ears 100% venison dog treats are two things the small dog’s nose does respond to and in no time at all (having exercised her right to roam and prance outside in the wide-open landscape) she was negotiating the short corridor between kitchen and lounge following my citrus-softened hand and the odd finger click. Finally at ease after almost a month in a state of high alert….that’s me not the dog. 

A day of full sunshine took me on a quick tour of foraging areas and all of the buildings that are not the Castle alongside Alice in her Gator. We stopped every now and again to photograph light on flagstones and there were several “bloody hell” moments as I looked around the vast barn that is home to the garden team. Craftsmen have worked on every last drainpipe and cattlegrid on this estate, and on every hinge and handle. Stonemasons, landscapers, cabinet makers, joiners, curtain makers, decorators, garden designers, interior designers, artists. The bespoke floor-to-ceiling British oak-wood cupboards in the garden team’s barn are for hiding ….chainsaws. The attention to detail in every aspect of design is mind blowing. Common threads flow through; that consistency word again. The tasteful thistle (by which I mean it hardly looks like a thistle at all) that can be seen up high on the castle roof had been chosen as a motif that appears in various places. The silky smooth, curved wooden bannisters leading up and down all the staircases in the Steadings and the Boathouse have tactile wooden thistles to top them off. Nothing feels rough to touch, not even the cobbles. And as for the drystone walls, I spent a lot of time looking at these. So much so that I was asked if that had been the job I did before flowers. I wish. 

Teaching the garden team was really the dream. Apparently they wanted to know “all my secrets”. I presumed this to mean secrets of doing flowers, which as you know amounts to just three things. I’ll not bore you with them here – and if you don’t know what they are…..come on a class, there are always good flowers. Good flowers and good vessels aren’t my secrets. I’d say they are obvious. And this is entirely in line with all that I’d been looking at over the last day. In a place where every door and curtain is weighted to perfection, then flowers grown on site and gathered in from the woodland, the walled garden and some of the cottage gardens are key to the integrity of bringing flowery life into rooms. I’ll admit I cheated slightly because I knew that the Highlands were still on “winter opening hours” and there might not be species tulips or fritillaries just yet. So I asked Jill Shaddock if she could send up a snuggly-packaged box of the Yorkshire Flower Patches’ finest, which could be used in “collaboration” with all of the lichened branches, the delicate early blossom, the honeysuckle, berried ivy and emerging beech. 

I’d packed a small bag of some of my favourite vessels. Different shapes, all easy to use to make “gardenesque” arrangements and all made by craftsmen and craftswomen whose work is worthy of gracing those smooth refectory tables. Out of their tissue came bowls, beakers and a couple of small vases made by potters such as James and Tilla Waters, Jill Shaddock, Borja Moronta, Bert the Potter and The Modern Potter. In went some game-changing Niwaki pin frogs. 

By lunchtime, after some interesting discussions about sustainability in flowers, locally grown vs imported, and the challenges of well-heated rooms and the expectations of guests, everyone had made their own still-life vessel that looked as if still growing. In the afternoon we moved onto a large-scale vase in an area of visual importance and a tablescape (I think that’s now become a real word) in a room where the light had changed considerably since the morning. Have I mentioned before the importance of light? 

Light matters so much. It really is the game changer and a definite mood enhancer. And it’s free.

The following morning, which happened to be my birthday, the light was magical. A 7am photoshoot of my new fritillary vase (by master craftsman Borja) was followed by a quick private tour of the castle from Oonagh, who was knowledgeable, kind and understated (a perfect fit in this place). As Mr Simply marvelled over some prehistoric Irish Elk antlers from a peat bog in the Jonquil pink-painted Great Hall, I caught the sunlight resting on copper beech topiary, filtered through the view from the burnt orange castle window, which from my viewpoint was framed by a bronzed oak leaf hydrangea. Clever garden design by Tom Stuart Smith. Details everywhere. It was a shame Molly couldn’t see it all. I feel sure she’d have been very happy to curl up on a squishy sofa next to a scented pelargonium but we carried her round, regally, in her Claudia-inspired cable knit green jumper. Actually Molly had it first. By the time we reached the boot room I knew how Penny Mordant must have felt last May, albeit the small dog weighs twice as much as that sword. 

What makes me happy? Light, tea, books, walking the dog, great pottery and flowers. There was a whole day, a day they call Good Friday, in which I could have it all. First there was the usual pint of tea, a posh breakfast and a read of the book (easy reading for this week: The Fair Botanists by Sara Sheridan). Then the dog walk. Possibly one of the most memorable we’ll ever have. Across the fields, up to a tiny castle, along to the loch, past the boat house, views of the big castle through the huge celadon-coloured trees, and finally to a resting point in a tiny dell. The small dog did her best spring dressage moves along the soft pathways and had no problem keeping up with us or knowing where we were because of my constant exclamations of “look at the light”, “gaaaahhhh”, “it’s all so beautiful”, “I’m not sure I can actually take in any more beauty”.

After a hot cross bun there was work to be done. The light would be good around 3.30pm and the garden team had kindly left me a wooden stool (the one that someone called Lizzie has etched her own motif on) in a lean to greenhouse. Carefully re-using Alice’s blossom alongside the first Belle Époque tulips (there is always a record made of this moment) and adding in some branches of curving emerging beech from the dog walk. Final delicate gestures of Easter chicks from the Sylvestris tulips and chequered fritillary. Listening to a podcast on re-wilding….how appropriate in this place where restoration of the natural environment is actually the most consistent thread running through (https://wildland.scot/mission-and-vision). I genuinely couldn’t have been happier, a world away from the first Friday of this particular month. Out came the camera, off I went, trying not to skip like a lamb, just the few steps from the back door of the cottage and into the garden to check out the light in the greenhouses. Maggie was watering the pots and singing quietly. A mug of tea and some notes balanced on a low wall. The dahlia tubers had been potted up. And, resting my bowl on a long table in the fancy ‘orangery’ whilst I went to find Lizzie’s stool, I noticed a bumble bee making a swift landing on the blossom. Poetry in motion. 

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