The (un)enchanted April

April 27, 2024

As I write this on the last bitterly cold weekend in April 2024 I’m inevitably drawing comparisons with Aprils in years gone by.

April (and September) are my favourite months. I say it every year. April signifies the start of the year here, with the growth of the flowers, the mood-enhancing early morning light and the return of all the guests. I’ll not bore you again with the sound of bleating lambs.

Guest work from April
In an earlier journal entry here, 7 years ago in April 2017, I described one of the most enchanted Aprils ever. An April that took me to an unforgettable garden which has entered my thoughts every spring since. I will probably never have the espaliered apples that protect the treasure-filled courtyard at Allt-y-Bella and I’ve never harboured any hope of an Arne Maynard-designed garden (I’m not sure he ever ventures this far north). But I checked back on that previous post, and we do now have the drystone wall around the compost heap and an auricula collection that is filling me with joy – not least because there are no tulips. Tulips. Bloody tulips! There has been a lot of trouble with them over the years, and this year I may finally be forced to admit defeat. We’ve been outflanked by mice through chicken wire in the crates and, in another area, the dastardly deer. And, as for the fail-safe species tulips….well, it’s been an exceptionally wet winter and most of them haven’t emerged. They didn’t even get chance to succumb to fire.

I began the month in my thickest jumper and I can honestly say I’ll end it in the same knitwear and maybe a thermal or two. Frost gave way to rains and gales, and now there is a glimpse of sunshine and the land is finally dry enough to stand on but we still awake to frost each morning and nothing seems to be growing. That is, nothing is growing north of the Cheshire border…..

In much need of a restorative retreat, I was relieved to remember I’d had the foresight of Eleanor Lavish (I know, it’s wrong to cross over into EM Forster when your mind is on Elizabeth Von Arnim). Together with a friend a mid-April break was booked “at the back end” of last year when we were both utterly broken by the time we reached October. A weekend that has kept me going for months if “looking forward” to something can be described as keeping you going. 

I very much doubt that Rose Arbuthnot and Lottie Wilkins would have found themselves seduced by the prospect of a Hopewood Baskets weekend class in Worcester instead of an Italian castle by the sea (cf The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim, one of my favourite ever books/films) but a most conducive weekend was had by me and another Sarah (Whiting of Nettlewood Flowers; yes, the buttercup grower). I can’t think of a better way to escape the world than by being sequestered under a railway arch with two peaceful people who can teach the ancient art and craft of basket making. Have a look at their work; I think you’ll agree (  My own basket, whilst not at all beautiful, is most definitely useful and will be making many trips. It sits securely in the passenger seat and can hold a lot of stuff. Imagine it as a posh tub trug. 

Whether you take the Orient Express to Venice or the M6 beyond Birmingham, it’s the journey home during which you’ll have the best ideas. I often say that April is the month where England is like two countries. Maybe even more than two. Travelling from the barren lands of the North, where the birds know it’s spring but the plants have yet to listen, I was struck by the difference in seasons. Beyond Birmingham it really was burgeoning. The AA Blossom Trail past Broadway led me into our fancy B&B, where I immediately went and sat in a swinging egg-shaped chair in the garden and looked at lilac and some emerging wisteria on an East-facing wall. There were signs of cow parsley in the verges and the vivid green colours were almost shocking to my sleepy northern eyes. There followed two whole days of blue skies, looking up to see the buddleia balancing at the top of those railway arches as I hugged my new basket almost as closely as the bucket of tulips that had been brought from Sussex and which lived on for another week. 

I’d been wrestling a thought. Tulips… grow more next year or to set fire to a pile of £10 notes?  It’s a similar thought to the time I did a summer of back-to-back weddings and cried over all of the composted roses that weren’t fit to be used. Out of adversity usually comes something good and on that Sunday evening drive there was time to think and reach a conclusion. I suppose I could give up growing flowers and invest in willow….it might not be such a bad idea, especially if the trees were planted in an area where they would soak up water. But, as I say in all business chats, the best businesses are based upon simplicity. I teach flowers, I do flowers for a few weddings and events, and I grow some flowers too. It’s a job I love. If tulips no longer work, I know that fritillaries do. Next year we’ll concentrate on them. And then the lightbulb moment! Up and down the land are growers of tulips and other interesting spring flowers, all emerging at different times. I’ve got a new basket and a camera. Why not spend the month of April visiting other places where tulips grow? 

So, there we have it. 2025: The Enchanted April Tour (or might it be better named Desperately Seeking Tulips?). I know that on 1st April I’ll be in Inverness, so I’ll start there and with my little camera with the big lens I’ll document what’s out. Then I’ll move down to the south, to the very bottom of England passing through Cumbria, Yorkshire, Cheshire, Worcestershire, Somerset, Sussex and maybe a few other places on the way back up. I’ll be travelling with my new willow tub trug, my camera, the special notebook I’ve had for ages waiting to put something useful into and I can call anywhere en route for a cup of tea, a good chat, and a look at your tulips. I suppose I could possibly do a class but that really would need some strong tulip guarantees. I’d welcome any suggestions you might have on places to see. I could put on a coach trip but I think that’s best left as a separate idea. Don’t worry, it’s only England, it won’t take long so I’ll still also be at home for some of the month to start another year of classes too – perhaps with more of a spring in my step.

And finally, on the subject of April and all that is poetic, I’ll leave you with two opposing thoughts  not created during a drive on the M6 but, I suspect, arrived at independently in two very different places and in different Aprils. 

April is the cruelest month. 

Oh to be in England now that April’s there. 

PS “May is the month of expectation. The month of wishes. The month of hope.” Emily Brönte. I hope someone gets in touch in May to help me plan my tour. 

PPS if you too are troubled by tulips and whether to grow them again maybe you should throw caution to the wind and come on my coach trip……or better still, book an Italian castle by the sea and invite us all.