Gardening and me

I LOVE GARDENS BUT I am not, and never have been, a great gardener. As a child, I used to mow the lawn and cut parts of the privet hedge surrounding our garden in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Neither of these activities endeared me to gardening. In 1983, I became a homeowner in Gillingham, Kent. My house had a 180-foot-long garden which was about 30 feet wide. About 120 feet of it was lawn bordered by narrow beds and the rest of it was, I imagine, once dedicated to growing fruit and vegetables. On taking possession of my new home, I was determined to make a success of the garden.

For a few weeks, I dug up weeds, hoping to clear a space to plant potatoes and onions. Day after day, I would return home from a session of pulling out teeth and other dental activities and then get down to pulling up weeds. It was disheartening to discover that a patch, which I had cleared a day earlier, was already becoming refilled with weeds. What I did not know at the time was that my garden was infested with a weed that was extremely difficult to eradicate manually or even with chemicals. The smallest fragment of this horrendous plant was enough to ensure its rapid and thorough propagation.

After a while, I abandoned my grand ground clearance plans and lowered my ambitions. I decided to clear a small patch to grow some parsley, a herb that was only available in local shops at Christmas time. I planted the seeds as instructed on the packet, watered them as required, and inspected the parsley patch every day.  Soon, tiny green shoots began appearing. I was horrified. I thought that once again the weeds were beginning to defeat me. So, I plucked them out to clear the ground for my parsley to have the best chance of its survival. It was only later that I realised that what I had regarded as weeds was in fact the parsley I was hoping to grow.

My solution to managing my garden was simple and effective. I began visiting garden centres to buy fast-growing shrubs. I had decided to let them compete with the weeds instead of me. This plan was successful. Soon, I had plenty of attractive plants that were growing larger in height and volume at high speed.

The long lawn proved problematic after a while. I bought an electric mowing machine that trimmed the grass nicely. However, it was not long before I began sneezing violently whilst mowing the lawn or even driving past a lawn that was being mowed. I tried mowing while wearing a paper face mask such as is commonly seen today during the covid19 pandemic. The mask proved to be useless even though it covered nose and mouth. My solution was to abandon mowing and just to let the grass do ‘its own thing’.

My neighbours were not happy about my wild looking garden, which, incidentally, became a haven for butterflies. They complained to me. My solution was to mow a winding path, the width of the mowing machine, through the savannah that was developing on my lawn. I explained to my neighbours that this was a carefully conceived plan to create a wildlife garden. I am not sure that this convinced them, but the level of complaining diminished. My neighbours were not so keen on wildlife as the following will demonstrate. One evening, someone living in my neighbourhood rang my doorbell. He asked me whether I wanted to contribute some money to help pay for the hire of a professional gun man to shoot the local foxes. I sent him away empty handed.

One evening, I returned from dinner with friends and as it was a pleasant night, I stepped out into my garden. I was surprised to smell burning but could see no fire. On the next morning, I met one of my neighbours and mentioned the burning to him. He told me that he had extinguished the fire before it reached my house. He said that the elderly lady who lived on the other side of my house had become fed up with the state of my garden and had set fire to it hoping that might prevent the spread of weeds from my garden to hers.

What is interesting is that when I came to sell my house back in 1995, at a time when the property market in the area was sluggish, it was the garden that appealed to the buyers. Apart from the fact that the house was the kind that they were seeking, it was the prospect of taming the garden, which the estate agent had described as being “in its natural state”, that appealed to the buyers. Sometime after the purchase was over, we dropped in to say hello to the new buyers. They showed us the garden. It looked as if it had been sprayed with a strong herbicide. The grass had gone, so had the atmosphere of wildness; the garden seemed sterile. However, I noted that all my shrubs had been preserved.

Now, I do not want you to get the impression that I have something against gardening. I do not like doing it, but I admire those who do it. Gardening is a complex art form in which human beings have to harmonise with nature to produce aesthetically pleasing results. Not only does the geometry of the laying out of plants have to look good, but garden planning must take into consideration the passage of time, the seasons, meteorology, the behaviour of pests and weeds, and ecology. In addition, there is also the distribution of form, colour, and odour that must be planned. And above all, the maintenance of healthy growth adds to the complexity of gardening successfully. A successful garden is multi-dimensional artform involving all the six senses as well as the relentless passage of time and the endless changes in the weather.

Rather like music, which I enjoy listening but cannot perform, I gain great pleasure from gardens, but prefer others to create and maintain them.

Remembering Madras

WE PARKED OUR CAR next to Petyt Place close to Chelsea Old Church and the Chelsea Embankment on the River Thames. Our aim was to cross the river to take a stroll in Battersea Park, but before we had gone a few yards, we came across a granite Victorian drinking fountain, which turns out to have connections with India.

BLOG Sparkes

The structure was designed by the architect Charles Barrie (Junior) who lived from 1823 until 1900. He is responsible for many buildings in London and the south-east of England. His father Charles (Senior) was the architect of the Houses of Parliament, which were rebuilt between 1840 and 1876.

The drinking fountain was erected by the widow of George Sparkes of Bromley (Kent), who died in 1878 during his 68th year. Sparkes had been in Madras (now Chennai) in southern India. Seeing this sparked my interest and inspired me to find out more about the man in whose memory it had been constructed.

George Sparkes (1811-1878) was the oldest of the six children of George Sparkes and his wife Ann Alice Wiple.  He was educated at Eton. His great grandfather was John Cator (Senior). George spent his younger years in the Madras Civil Service possibly in association with his relative Peter Cator. The latter, who served as a barrister and Registrar to the Supreme Court in Madras, was involved in education in India and published a book, “Christian Education in India: Why Should English be Excluded?”, in 1858. According to an issue of “Asian Intelligence” dated 1835, Peter donated 10,000 rupees to the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in Asia.

Like his relative Peter, George was part of the legal system of the East India Company. He had been a judge.  A book, “The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British India and Its Dependencies, Volume 16”, records that in April 1835, George was appointed ‘assistant judge and joint criminal judge of Malabar’. Malabar, being on the west coast of southern India. Earlier that year he had been appointed ‘registrar of zillah court of Malabar’, a zillah being a subdivision of a British Indian province. The same volume states that George landed in India on the 17th September 1834 having sailed from London on a vessel named ‘Arab’. Just in case you are wondering what the Malabar coast had to do with Madras on the other side of India, let me explain that during the existence of the East India Company, part of the Malabar was under the jurisdiction of Madras.

By 1846, George had returned to his native place, Bromley in Kent. That year, he published “An Easy Introduction to Chemistry”. Its publication was noted in the ‘Books Received’ column of the ‘Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal’ dated 14th of October 1946. Clearly, Sparkes had versatile mind.  Sadly, a review published in “The Chemical Gazette, Or, Journal of Practical Chemistry, in All Its Applications to Pharmacy, Arts and Manufactures” was critical of it, stating that it contained a number of mistakes and had failed to keep up to date with the latest developments in the subject.

By 1851, George, living in Bromley where today stand Bromley’s Central Library and Churchill Theatre, had become Director of the ‘Reversionary Society’. This might have been The Reversionary Interest Society Ltd, which dealt with reversionary interest connected with trust funds.

In the 1850s, George bought number 16 High Street in Bromley. He renamed it ‘Neelgherrries’, his spelling of the Nilgiris, hills in Tamil Nadu to which he would have retreated to escape the heat of Madras in the hot seasons. The author of a website, londongardenstrust.org, wrote:

“Contemporary photographs of Nilgiris in the 19th century show an Indian landscape very similar to the uninterrupted views that Sparkes enjoyed from his house in Bromley.”

Sparkes was a keen gardener and in 1872 he wrote to Charles Darwin, who lived nearby, to discuss the results of his experiments in crossing primula plants. By then, he had been married to his second wife Emily Carpenter (1819-1900), his housekeeper, for seven years. On his death, he left Emily the considerable sum of £140,000 and his house, Neelgherries. She remarried a Mr Dowling, but the union was not a great success. It was Emily who was responsible for commissioning the drinking fountain on Chelsea Embankment. When Emily died in 1900, she:

“… left Neelgherries and grounds to the town of Bromley for ‘education and learning’, in accordance   with George Sparkes’s wishes. In 1906 the Scottish philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donated £7,500 for a new library in Bromley and this was erected on the site of Neelgherries. The gardens became the pleasure grounds, these were the first Bromley Library Gardens…”

Had it not been for Emily’s decision to provide Chelsea with a public drinking fountain, George Sparkes would most likely have been completely forgotten outside Bromley. I suspect that most people walk past this memorial to an erstwhile Civil Servant of India and textbook writer without giving it a thought. I have done so several times in the past but am glad that I stopped to examine it today.

 

SOURCES INCLUDE:

http://www.beckenhamplaceparkfriends.org.uk/catorsbyPManning.pdf

https://londongardenstrust.org/features/bromleylib.htm

https://www.bblhs.org.uk/east-india-company

Climate changes

BLOG CLIMATE

 

DURING THE 1980s, I lived and worked just over fifty miles south-east of central London in Gillingham, one of the Medway Towns in Kent. Usually, I drove to London on Saturday afternoons after my morning dental surgery session ended at 1 pm. Then, after buying innumerable gramophone records and later also CDs and seeing friends, I would spend the night at my father’s home before returning to Kent late on Sunday evening.

One winter Sunday evening, after visiting friends, who lived in South Hampstead close to the Royal Free Hospital, I began driving towards Kent. When I reached Lewisham in south-east London, snow began falling lightly. I thought nothing of it. By the time I arrived at the start of the M2 motorway, the situation had changed considerably. The motorway was under several inches of fresh snow. The few vehicles travelling at that late hour drove on a pair of groove-like tracks made in the snow by vehicles ahead of me. It was rather like the page in the song “Good King Wenceslas: ‘Mark my footsteps, my good page, Tread thou in them boldly … In his master’s steps he trod, Where the snow lay dinted’.

The snow continued to fall and by the time I reached the motorway exit west of the Medway Bridge, I decided that it might be better to drive through Strood, Rochester, and Chatham rather than along the motorway that by-passed these places along a hilly exposed rural route, which I believed might have been badly affected by the snow.

It was about 2am when I left the motorway. I joined a line of cars that was crawling slowly towards Rochester – a traffic jam at 2 am. Eventually, I drove across the River Medway on the bridge at Rochester. The traffic was slow moving and dense despite the time. I decided to leave the main road and follow a back road that wound around Rochester Castle and avoided the city centre. I drove about fifty yards upwards along a steep snow-covered lane and then the car would go no further. Its wheels were unable to grip the road and I slid down to the bottom of the hill where I had started. There was no choice. I had to re-join the slow procession of traffic crawling through the interlinked Medway towns.

When I reached Gillingham, it was long after 3 am. I turned off the main A2 road and drove, or rather slid, downhill along Nelson Road which was covered with deep snow. At my street, Napier Road, the snow was even deeper and had not been compressed by passing vehicles. I headed towards my house but could not reach it because my car became wedged in a drift of densely packed snow. It remained locked in the snow for over three weeks.

The following day, the Medway Towns were almost paralysed by the snow. However, the only stretch of railway that was still operating was between two neighbouring stations, Gillingham and Rainham, where my dental surgery was located.  I managed to reach my surgery by train in my Wellington boots and wore these whilst treating the few patients who decided not to cancel their appointments. The only patients who struggled through the snow that day were elderly people who considered that cancelling appointments was disrespectful to the professional. All those brave souls, who made it through the hazardous snow, were seeing me about false teeth.

Although the snow did not disappear from the Medway Towns for over three weeks, the rail service to London resumed quite quickly. So, I continued to make my weekly visits to the capital. Fifty miles from snow-covered Gillingham, London was free of snow. Exaggerating slightly, visiting London was like travelling from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. Few of my friends in London could believe that my home in Kent had sufficient snow to keep most skiers happy.

The spectacular change in climates that I experienced that winter when shuttling between London and Gillingham occurred long before the concept of ‘climate change’ became widespread in the public eye.

Long lasting

A bunch of flowers

Brings endless happiness

And plenty of  good cheer

 

Back in the early 1990s when I was practising as a dentist in Kent and owned a house in Gillingham, my future wife and I visited the local superstore, the Savacentre. Its name has nothing to do with the River Sava that meets the River Danube near Belgrade in Serbia. The shopping mall in Kent is pronounced “saver-centre”.

We wanted to buy some flowers and approached a florist within one of the wide corridors of the mall. He had some blooms of a kind we had never noticed before. We asked him what they were, and his answer sounded like “owlstromeriya”.

We bought a bunch of these attractive flowers and asked him how long we should expect them to survive in a vase. He answered:
“No worries there. They’re good lasters.”

And, he was right.

Alstroemeria, or Lily of the Incas, are native to South America but I guess many of those on sale in the UK are grown elsewhere.

Dinner dates

A few days ago, some friends invited us to visit them one evening. We sat with them for several hours, drinking and eating light snacks. As time passed, my stomach began rumbling and I wondered when we were going to eat dinner. This reminded me of an evening many years ago when I lived in Kent (UK).

Some Americans invited me to dinner. To reach them, I had to drive through the countryside for two hours. When I arrived at about 7 pm, I was offered a sandwich. I refused this, muttering that I would wait for dinner.

Another guest arrived. We sat talking and the time passed pleasurably. However, there was no mention of dinner or any food at all during the rest of the evening. At 10 pm, I began my two hour return journey without having eaten. As I drove home, it dawned on me that the sandwich I had been offered was actually the only evening meal that my hosts were planning to serve.

When I reached home at midnight, starving, I prepared a hasty snack.

On reflection, on the recent occasion, we had visited our friends assuming that we would have a pre-dinner drink before going out to dinner. In reality, they had only invited us for a drink; they had not mentioned dinner.

Moral: don’t assume anything!

Photo of shaami kebabs

Bad hair day

hair

When I began practising as a dentist, I worked in a small town in north Kent. My working week stated on Monday afternoons. So, Monday morning was available for me to do whatever I wanted. I used to have my regular haircuts on Monday mornings at a barber shop owned by Dave. He often cut my hair and always did a good job.

One Monday morning, I entered Dave’s establishment and as Dave was not around I had my hair trimmed by a young lady. She did a good job but handled my head roughly. She knocked my head around as if it were one of those balls that boxers use for training. I am exaggerating a bit, but there is no denying that having this lady cutting my hair was a stressful experience.

Some hours later, I rang Dave to tell him about my recent visit to his shop. I wanted him to know that if his assistant persisted in treating customers the way she did to me, he would lose business. Dave apologised, and then told me that his young lady had had a bd weekend, a row with her boyfriend. 

I suppose that Monday was what people call a ‘bad hair day’ for me.

 

Bad hair day: a bad day a day with many problems, annoyances, etc. (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bad%20hair%20day)

A surprising place

F48 Folkestone Habour Station

 

After getting off the train at Folkestone Central station in Kent, you might wonder why you had bothered to travel there. The way from the station to the town centre is far from preposessing.

Until 2001, trains used to run along a branch-line through the centre of Folkestone along its pier to Folkestone Harbour Station, where passengers could embark on one of the many regular cross-Channel ferries shuttling between Britain and France. Between 2001 and 2009, special tour trains like the Simplon-Orient Express  used the station. In 2014, the line was closed. With the opening of the Channel Tunnel and the closure of Folkestone Harbour Station and the line leading to it, Folkestone declined in importance. Knowing this, I expected the town to be very depressing, but a recent visit proved me to be completely wrong.

You might be wondering what prompted us to visit this formerly important  seaport. What caught our eyes was an article about how Folkestone has become a town of art filled with open-air sculptures and other artworks. It has what one of its publicity brochures describes as “The UK’s largest urban contemporary art exhibition“. And, most of the art on display is permanently resident in the town. The works are by a large range of artists including,amongst the better-known: Yoko Ono, Tracy Emin, Cornelia Parker, and Antony Gormley. The artworks are to be found in locations all over the town, but are in their greatest concentrations within the picturesque historic centre and along the attractive sea front.

The long pier along which trains used to run and the disused platforms of Folkestone Harbour Station (see illustration) have been beautifully restored and have become a wonderful leisure area with lovely walkways, artworks, and a variety of refreshment stalls. The restoration has been done very sensitively and beautifully. 

The centre of Folkestone is, unlike the area surrounding it, full of life and ‘buzz’. There are many art galleries and eateries as well as a contemporary art centre, the Folkestone Quarterhouse. The Quarterhouse is well worth entering if only to see Ben Allen’s spectacular The Clearing (an architectural installation that has to be seen to be believed) on the building’s first floor.

What we particularly liked about Folkestone is that despite being chock-full of art, it does not feel pretentious. It is a place that people can enjoy the joys of the seaside (nice beaches and fine sea front) as well as, if you feel in the mood, the delights of contemporary art in charming settings. We spent about six hours in Folkestone. Next visit, we will stay there for a couple of nights.

Much more information available here: 

https://www.creativefolkestone.org.uk/folkestoneartworks/

Auto-biography

BAVARIA 87 Between Braunau and Munich Volvo

 

I passed my driving test in mid-1982, shortly after qualifying as a dentist. Like many dentists I have met, I went through a phase of fascination with cars.

My first car was second-hand. I was advised to buy something not to expensive just in case during my first months on the road I was to have had an accident. I bought an Austin Allegro from a local dealer. It seemed in great condition given its low price. However, it had at least one annoying defect: it would stop suddenly without warning. This defect was due to a loose connection in the ignition system.  After a very few months, the car began emitting blue smoke from its exhaust. This was due to some major defect in the engine, which would have cost more to repair than the car itself. When I confronted the dealer, who had sold me the Allegro, he reccommended that I bought a new car. I told him that I was not happy with his response because I had had the car for such a short time.

A local garage did something temporary to the engine to improve its part-exchange value, but also advised me to obtain another vehicle. To my great surprise, the local VW dealer offered me a very good part exchange price if I bought a VW. I bought a VW Polo Formel E. This was not a car for using on the Formula One racetracks, but a comfortable, very easy to drive, practical small car. The ‘Formel E’ related to the fact that the car had a gear setting that allowed low fuel consumotion. This car served me well and would have kept on going for many years, but I had my eyes on owning a Volvo.

The first Volvo I bought was a Volvo 340, a descendant of the Dutch DAF models. Like the Allegro, mine had a persistent problem. It also stopped suddenly and without warning. Despite many visits to the local Volvo dealer, no one could solve the problem. Eventually, Volvo recalled my car for a modification to rectify a design fault in the carburettor. After that, the 340 behaved well and survived a rear end shunt with very little damage. My lust for another car sent me back to the car showrooms after about two years.

I bought a Volvo 240 estate car. Though enormous and looking aerodynamically inefficient, this car was superb. It handled as easily as my relatively tiny VW Polo had done, and it could fly along if speed was needed. Once on the autobahn in West Germany, I managed to move the car at 105 mph uphill, and even then my foot had not completely pressed the accelerator pedal to its fullest extent.  This spacious, easily manoevrable car carried me right across Europe from Kent to Belgrade, and on another trip from Kent to Budapest. Why I traded in this Volvo 240 for a newer Volvo 240, I cannot recall. Both 240s were excellent, but a new model of Volvo had arrive on the market place.

I part exchanged my perfectly good Volvo 240 estate for a brand new Volvo 850 saloon. This was a complete disappointment after the 240 models. It looked good by Volvo standards but was not pleasurable to drive. When I took it to a Volvo dealer a couple of years later, I was offered a pathetic part-exchange price against a new Volvo. I was told that the 850 did not sell well second-hand.

Very disappointed with Volvo, I rang the local Saab dealership. When they learned my wife was pregnant, they offered to bring a model of the Saab (in our price range) to our home so that I could take it for a test-drive. As soon as I sat in the driving seat, I knew that we had to own a Saab. We bought a Saab 900, which lasted us well for a few years, and would have lasted us much longer had we not decided to trade it in for a newer model before its resale price dropped too far. We bought a Saab 9-3, which sadly lacked some of the quality of the first Saab we owned. 

Ten years ago, we set out to attend our friends’ golden wedding anniversary party in rural Kent. Before leaving London, we replaced our four tires as required after we had the results of our car’s official car inspection (MOT test). We arrived early and decided to visit a bonsai nursery that we had seen a few years earlier. When we returned to the car, ready to drive to the party, I turned the ignition key and all that happened was a grinding noise from the engine. We called the AA (roadside assistance), who arrived quickly. The engineer looked at the enging and discovered that the fan belt had slipped off its mountings. Worse than that, one of the parts of the engine thatrelied on the fan belt had a severely distorted metal part. We asked the enginner roughly how much it would cost to repair the fault. He said he thought it would be at least £300.

Now, when I had last visited the Saab garage, I had asked for a part-exchange quote for our now ageing car. I was told that £400 would be generous. Consequently, we decided not to replace the car, but to sell it to scrap dealers, who gave us a paltry sum for it. Since then, we have not owned an auto, and life has been, surprisingly, less stressful.

You may be wondering how we reached the party. The kind AA engineer took us to a local car hire place, and we picked up a car (paid for by the AA as part of our membership plan), and arrived quite late at the party.