Just a Park?

A little while ago whilst staying away from home, and with a need for some fresh air, I carried myself and the little ones off to Herrington Park, Sunderland. On the surface, I simply wanted to experience some of the bracing wind, some casual walking and, I hoped, some late February sunshine. There was also an ulterior motive to get the kids away from their screens and outdoors for a while.

Landscaped over twenty years ago, Herrington Park features machine-sculpted hills and hollows and is dressed with hedgerows, trees and shrub-filled thickets. These plantations are busy and mature, now bringing life to the park with significant opportunity for nesting and foraging birds. Additionally, the planting doubles up to control views and create wonderful characterful areas too, where cleverly a path appears to loop behind every shrubbery to draw you always onward. Any Georgian landscape garden worth its salt could hardly have bettered this achievement – if I dare to draw a comparison that is.

New year foliage off and away…

As we walked, I couldn’t help but notice that buds had begun bursting on some of the thorn shrubs – somewhat early I thought. Tiny fresh leaves in patches had unfurled, boldly opening to soak up some of that same winter sun that I sought, appearing from a distance as green confetti caught in thorny twigs. Mind you, with February temperatures hitting double figures of late and hazel catkins visibly shrivelling as their work neared its end, I shouldn’t have been surprised to witness such eagerness for spring.

Aside from the thickly planted, wilder and open pool spaces though, the expansive park is largely mown grass. To this I can’t help but think that its summer cutting offers a monotonous task each week for someone, not least for the extra challenge of trimming a large grass amphitheater, with its many steps and angles. All that cut grass though, aside from creating acres of playing space does assist appreciation of the sculpted ground forms, and when scanning the landscape, those smoothly contoured and mown slopes often encouraged my eyes, if not my feet, to fly out across and into the view.

Layer upon layer of goodness…

There are curvy peaks and troughs across much of the park, but its success for me is the balance struck between detailed, more intimate spaces and wide open ones. On that blustery day, those thoughtfully composed areas worked perfectly to shield us from the weather’s worst, allowing us to sit calmly on a sculpture bench and watch the world go by in one spot, whilst also giving opportunity to connect with the more distant views in another, most notably the impressive Penshaw Monument, an awe inspiring Greek style structure just across the way.

Another strong and evocative presence in this park is the rows of terraced houses nestled towards the perimeter. I took them for miner’s housing from yesteryear, on the basis that this whole expanse of land was once a colliery from the 1880s, through to the 1980s. Green and pleasant it might now be and a space for people to roam free, but once upon a time it were a working mine, where hard physical inputs had to be matched with revenue building outputs – or else! These time-served houses connected visually and mentally with countless others in nearby estates, and quite appropriately stood as living mirrors to the history of this place.

Look no hands!

Today, Herrington Park is an exemplar venue for rebirth and recreation. Ponds and streams, trees and tussocky grass, pitches and play grounds, ice cream vans and interactive sculpture now populate and heal a place once plundered for its mineral assets.

Artistic and landscape considerations aside, I was drawn whilst walking on that windswept day to consider the park’s impact on us. At one point, after a mini rock climbing moment, my kids were perched on a huge boulder that in turn was perched atop a hill we’d zig-zagged up. They both stood up momentarily in defiance of the wind that threatened to lift them clean off, but on hearing their shouts of pure joy and raucous laughter proved to me that every step of the walk had been worthwhile, and to feel the exhilarating wind that screwed their eyes and chilled their cheeks, was priceless. Talk about being in the moment…

Daring to face the wind!

A football might have been kicked along and carried as we walked but it was landscape, nature and fresh air that lifted our spirits in that park, on that day. People walked dogs, pushed chairs and fed waterfowl, kids played on equipment and wheeled around the skatepark. Birds chased others through branches, a duck danced above the water to stretch its wings and people queued for snacks at the park hub. Everywhere we looked, folks were actively enjoying and drinking it all in.

Herrington Park is, like all other parks I suppose, an engineered and reworked landscape; a re-dressed piece of earth if you will. As I reflect now, understanding more of its past than before, I realise there is so much more to that park with a history deeply imbedded beneath its smooth mown grass. As we walked and talked, observed and experienced during our February visit, what I felt then and what still resonates as the days pass, is that Herrington Park is as rich a resource now as a public park, as ever it were as a colliery; and long may it remain so.

Gary Webb. February 2023. My writing journey continues…

Garden Journal 1.8.20

Welcome to a slice of my weekly gardening journal – an entry for the week leading up to Lammas Day, Saturday August 1st. This week: Maintaining sweet peas in Every Which Way, pond weeding in All in Good Time, and botanical illustration in Sharp Pencils and Inspiration.

‘The last week in July’ – what a week that was! Monday I took a day trip to a near-ish garden in Northampton called Canons Ashby. Following this it was head down for the working week, where the temperatures continued to rise each day, ending with the fan-oven Friday ridiculousness. It might have taken all of Friday evening to top up my fluid levels, but at least now I’ve thankfully returned to my normal self – apart from permanently etched tan lines of course…

A few images from the garden at Canons Ashby in Northamptonshire
The scarecrow summed up my response to the weather at Canons Ashby

In a works capacity, irrigation of containers and raised beds became something of a priority due to the temperatures, but all came through the week nicely. Indeed this was the very same with my containers at home, with additional watering needed each evening, and occasionally in the dark!

Garden Journal 21.6.20

Welcome to a slice of my weekly gardening journey – a journal entry for the week leading up to June 21 2020. This week I’ve learned a major lesson about how not to mow grass, and made a shocking discovery in the engine room.

GardeningWays Journal Photo’s for 21 June 2020. Gary Webb.​
GardeningWays Journal Photo’s for 21 June 2020. Gary Webb.

On the whole, this week seems to have passed by in slow motion – like they do sometimes. Rain has (yes, he’s mentioning the weather already…) made its presence felt and the wind has blown scattering dropped foliage and immature fruits here and there. There has though been stunningly beautiful moments with tall billowing clouds above, and the lushest, freshest of garden scenes below.

Flowers have drooped heavily during rainfall and many blooms have been damaged beyond repair yet between the showers, even with the most fleeting of sun rays, blooms have opened and glistened with intensity and indeed, for those who’ve opted for scented plants in their garden I’ll just say Wow! – aren’t the roses delivering this year!

Pyramidal orchid photo
Pyramidal orchid me thinks…

It has been great though to see the much needed rain fall, as not only were many of our gardens becoming dust bowls, the plants just do prefer rain as opposed to mains water.

Picking up on my ‘major lesson learned’ comment, it came from a patch of ground that, through time running short, hadn’t had its once-a-fortnight mow. It’s generally a tree dominated space and whilst sunshine does penetrate the glade-like space, there’s little effect on the ground except for lush grass and a collection of docks.

However, on my ‘catch-up’ mowing round on Tuesday, I pootled around the space in ever decreasing circles, as you do, only for a little speck of purple to catch my eye. On closer inspection it turned out to be what I took for a pyramidal orchid, or Anacamptis pyramidalis – although I’m no orchid expert.

Naturally I steered clear of this exquisite little wild orchid, but didn’t I scold myself for not picking up on this earlier! As it happens, there has already been discussion about this particular area and the desire to encourage wild flowers, and although some mowing has happened regularly, it’s only been to hold the area until there’s time to give it proper attention. Suffice to say though, that this little discovery gives me hope for the potential of this space to deliver much more than presently meets the eye – and isn’t that often the case with a garden…

Before I leave the no-mow thread completely, the foliage from the oxeye daisies shown above became apparent to me many weeks ago. Its leaves stood out from the grassy crowd so to speak, and so I mowed around the patch. What a vivacious bunch of daises it turned into – not only do they look great but they’ll subsequently offer free seed for sowing in other wilder parts of the garden.

Next up is that ‘shocking discovery’. Even after years in gardening, plant identification challenges still like to appear on a weekly basis. Furthermore, there’s also the interesting and additional challenge of putting names to fungi, animals and insects that also live in ‘our’ gardens. Once you’ve made an identification, you can better understand how friendly or not, and how useful or not, an individual may be.

Well, I was working away in the garden’s ‘engine room’ as I like to call it – the compost bin area to every other normal person, when on moving a piece of cardboard, (yes cardboard and paper composts perfectly!) I was given a bit of a shock.

Grass snake in compost
A snake in the…..compost!

The shock was around a metre in length and it, a grass snake, refused to move as they usually do. A gentle lift with the muck fork only encouraged it to slide out between the slats, and back into the bin lower down, suggesting to me that she was shielding a nest.

Naturally, with four compost bays in production, there’s no need to disturb a nest, indeed it is enough to know roughly where it is and to ensure its protection. Whilst it was a shock at first, I soon read up and gained the knowledge to make an informed decision, and will in future go a little steadier when forking through the compost! For what it’s worth, over the years I’ve discovered mice, rats, slow worms and wasp nests in compost heaps, as they can offer dry and warm cavities in which to nest. It pays therefore to remain observant, to water the heap if necessary, and to turn those engines over regularly before anything moves in to throw a spanner in the works!

As seen on TV!

Elsewhere in my working garden, the stunning pots some of you may remember from BBC Gardeners World last year continue to delight and entertain. Under different none-COVID times it would have been nice to have added some fresh plant material, but I’m sure you’d agree that the plants originally chosen still look brilliant in their potted quarters, and but for a refreshing of the compost, regular feeding and a gravel mulch; look as good as ever.

Below is a lovely rambling rose called ‘Chevy Chase’ – I must admit to being a tad suspicious when I read its name label for the first time back in winter, but what a stunner it is! There was little I could do back then but tie in some wayward stems, adding a couple of wall pegs for good measure, but the growth since has been phenomenal and the weight of one stem and flowers even broke the string – hence the ladders to tie in a main lateral. My main learning point going forward is not to judge a plant by its name alone… and to use stronger string!

Rambling rose ‘Chevy Chase’ - Rose Chevy Chase
Rambling rose ‘Chevy Chase’

Before I move onto my final image, I like to record how my working week looked, as follows:

  • Monday – Day off!
  • Tuesday – Composting; photos for Sunday Times article; mowing & orchid discovery!
  • Wednesday – Tied in sweet peas; weeding; feeding; tree pruning; composting including snake charming!
  • Thursday – Cleaning; Machinery research; stone delivery.
  • Friday – Cleaning; potting up; watering and feeding; rambling rose attention.

Next up is not a simple tree image, but a snapshot of a day in the long history of a tree at an historic garden. It’s a mature and very solid sweet chestnut tree situated beside the Elizabethan gatehouse in Charlecote Park.

I was fortunate to visit last Sunday and with the central gardens closed, took the opportunity to look more closely at the parkland and its trees.

Sweet chestnut at Charlecote Park
Sweet chestnut at Charlecote Park

This particular tree was pollarded maybe ten years ago, and I remember seeing it pretty much straight after the work was complete. As harsh as it always seems, that is the cutting back of the main branches quite severely; a healthy tree of the right species very quickly responds with a host of new shoots from those chopped stems. Indeed, the image above shows the tree having again been pollarded to keep the system going – and I’m sure there would have been a host of useable stems from the cut wood.

I’m touched for some reason by the fact that pollarding, as for coppicing is an age old process, one that gives a renewable and useful product, and in cases where the activity ceases, can leave a tree that lasts much longer than if left to its own devices. Of course it depends on numerous factors but the very fact that centuries ago, people learned that certain trees could be pruned and manipulated to provide a renewable source of timber for construction, for tools, for firewood or as animal fodder is incredible. For me, viewing a tree like the chestnut above speaks of tradition and ingenuity, and it’s heartening to see an actively managed pollard such as this one. Long may it continue!

All of the above is by no means the entirety of my gardening experiences this week, but I’m sure is enough to capture the essence of my week for future reference. Until next time…

Garden Journal 14.6.20

Welcome to a slice of my weekly gardening journey – a journal entry for the week leading up to June 14 2020. This week it’s a tale of three very different garden situations: my work garden at Broadwell, home garden in Warwickshire, & a first post-lockdown garden visit to the Elizabethan Garden at Kenilworth Castle – and what an experience that was!

At the beginning of the week it still very much felt as though irrigation was the order of the week both at home and work, as forecasted rain hadn’t materialised in any decent quantity previously – it turns out I have no influence upstairs after all…

Furthermore, rain was still expected but couldn’t be relied upon and so – off to water I did go. In the midst of this I rediscovered an old favourite plant of mine called Knautia macedonica, otherwise known as scabious.

It took but a few seconds to witness and remember how good these flowers are at attracting pollinators, for every flower had at least one, and more often two bees on it. It’s no coincidence that it gets the RHS’s ‘Plants For Pollinators’ badge of honour! As you can see from the image below, the intensity of the flower colour alone is reason enough for growing a scabious like this, let alone its attraction to bees… A top herbaceous plant for sure.

Macedonian Scabious (Knautia macedonica).

Moving onto other tasks, the working week looked a little like this: Monday – Watering. Strimming to edge-up or reduce long grass areas. Planted sweet peas. Tuesday – Collected Monday’s debris. Trimmed Pyracantha hedge. Fed sweet peas & weeded herbaceous border. Potted up seedlings. Wednesday – Compost bin emptying & border mulching. Thursday – Watering. Feeding kitchen garden plants. Auriculas. Composting. Mowing. Friday – Day off! No gardening at all – well just a little bit at home…

Compost clear out!

The image above shows one of four bins that I emptied on Wednesday. This was quite a task without the tractor and bucket I’m more used to, but a steady dig away was achievable and revealed some lovely, crumbly material that spread beautifully as a mulch around the recently planted dahlias.

Some material had become compressed at the bottom of the very full stack with the result that it hadn’t decayed completely, but this was easily worked into the remaining material when spreading, and the border worms will make short work of it I’m sure. I may not have started this compost heap, but I was glad to get it emptied and to finally see it begin to work its magic out in the border.

Sowing some beetroot…

In my garden at home, my ‘grow your own’ spirit has eased just a little because the space available has progressively reduced over recent weeks, yet my focus on all the plants hasn’t eased up at all – quite the opposite. As larger containers have emptied following spring bulb displays, options have opened up for planting out baby veg’ plants and for sowing a few more seeds, and it won’t be long before I’m emptying large (ish) pots of 1st early potatoes – and their pots will also be put straight into use. It seems like every pot and corner is important, and I’m loving the challenge!

The image above shows a new sowing of ‘Boltardy’ beetroot in a nicely formed tin container with room enough, after thinning, for a reasonable hoard. Beetroot can be sown in succession until July, and I’ll hopefully be sowing a few more in due course – as soon as I empty another pot that is!

Yellow loosestrife (Lysimachia punctata)

Above is another of my all time favourites, the yellow or dotted loosestrife. I’ve always admired the toughness of this plant, although I haven’t often seen it for sale. I begged a piece from my parents garden some while ago and as they’ve since moved house and left theirs behind, I’ll soon be well placed to offer them some back – unless they moved house just to be rid of the stuff of course!

The image below, taken on Saturday 13th of June marks the first ‘proper’ outing and visit since lockdown began. Knowing the venue well, and understanding that risks were mitigated as far as could be reasonably expected, we were relieved to take the opportunity to pre-book and visit Kenilworth Castle.

The Elizabethan Garden at Kenilworth Castle.

Believe me, it was with some trepidation that we ventured out, indeed it was the first time I’d taken my car off the now established work-home-supermarket-home routes. It was good though to be waved through the gate once the appropriate QR codes had been scanned, at a distance of course, and to head into a favourite heritage venue of ours.

There was a one way route in operation that flowed easily, and with enough space to social distance for those who chose to, which was most people, and we slowly glided along the inside of the curtain wall of the south court.

A fragrant ‘Gillyflower’ or Dianthus.

It felt weird, I have to say, but there was reassurance in being out amongst folk at a safe distance, and especially to walk amongst scented roses and pinks – the ‘gillyflowers’ of the sheltered Elizabethan garden.

Bright blue skies, fluffy clouds and sunshine looked kindly on our day. Our children were stretching their legs in an old haunt that possessed a new atmosphere, and along with us so called grown ups, were breathing fresh air deeply and smelling the flowers that seemed stronger than ever.

It must have been a big day for the staff as well as they adapted to that ‘new normal’ we keep hearing about; as if anything can be called normal. They collectively handled the visit efficiently, if tentatively, and our first step out on a reignited 2020 season was really enjoyable – it was an absolute treat and very much needed.

Plant vacation!

Last thing I want to cover is the break in weather that happened this weekend. Fortunately for us it was after our day out on Saturday and came mid-evening, giving me chance to set out some of the houseplants that would benefit from a good rain soaking – I trust.

Real, heavy, soak-you-through raindrops were dropping as I stowed away the garden chairs and moved plant pots into the open to take full advantage. The air felt charged and the thunder rolled which, although half hearted, added to the atmosphere that filled the garden. As I understand ‘petrichor’ is the smell of rain falling on dry ground, and I’d put a nugget on that being the scent present, and wasn’t it a delight. As long as foliage isn’t being battered to the ground or having flowering stems snapped, many plants thrive in that atmosphere, and I was very happy to see them enjoying the moment – it’s been a long time coming.

It’s been a late journal entry this week due to a lovely family weekend, so I hope the post knitted together well from your perspective. Until next time – enjoy your gardening and do get out and about if you can.

Kind regards, Gary Webb

Link to explore your visit to Kenilworth Castle & Elizabethan Garden