Saturday, 24 August 2013

Tillypronie garden opening

The Tillypronie garden is opening tomorrow afternoon (Sunday 25th August, from 2 until 5pm), so I'm hoping that the weather forecast is accurate, and that the skies will be clear. The garden is looking lovely: the heather is out, and scented like honey; the herbaceous borders are blooming and the water garden flourishing; while nestled beside the house, lavenders and jasmines are still flowering. Along the lane, wild raspberries are growing, and cornflowers wave between the harebells. Much baking is already underway for the teas (scones, flapjacks, and a great many cakes), and I have been gathering sweet-peas, which are heavenly this year.
Somebody said to me the other day that gardening is the closest thing to play for grownups, and though I'm sure many professional horticulturalists would disagree (any full-time job is hard work), I find it a beguiling mix of being soothing and absorbing. There's something about dead-heading roses or weeding the rockery that clears my mind of the infernal, internal chatter of workaday worries or stress. You can never finish a garden, which is one of the things I love about gardening -- and nature is a good antidote to the idea of control, or completion, or deadlines (in the words of Margaret Atwood, 'gardening is not a rational act'). In the four years that I've been coming to Tillypronie, the garden has taught me that it is futile to plant anything that rabbits and deers find delicious, and that the weather will always outfox us. Instead, I've learned to appreciate the joys of self-sewing plants (foxgloves, forget-me-nots, bluebells), and to bless the rugged rosa rugosa, that survives the hungriest rabbits and the deepest snows.
Anyway, it was a great pleasure to meet so many people at the last garden opening, at the beginning of June -- including the visitors who had been evacuees to the school at Tillypronie during the Second World War -- and I'm looking forward to talking to other visitors soon.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

E. Nesbit's birthday

Glad to see that google has celebrated E. Nesbit's birthday today with a railway children inspired drawing on the home page -- but sorry that a google elf got her age wrong. She would not have been 89 today, having been born in 1858... Anyway, here's my own tribute to the great writer.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Tillypronie in summer

Apologies for the long silence; it's mainly down to the demands of my day (and often night) job at Harper's Bazaar (you can read my editor's letter for the August issue here; Charlotte Bronte fans will, I hope, approve). And then when I did try to write a blog last weekend, I was inexplicably excluded from my own account. Anyway, having spent several frustrating hours attempting to be allowed back in again, here I am, at last.
London life has been busy, busy, busy -- and tremendously hot in the recent heatwave. Not that I'm complaining about the sunshine, after several summers of rain, and such long and icy winters. The city now feels, to me, mostly centred around the world of work -- of rushing to the tube in the mornings; of always being behind on my list of deadlines; of coming home in the evenings, feeling almost too tired to walk. There are great pleasures -- dear family, close friends, the camaraderie of an office, the sense of achievement at completing a huge September issue; excursions to the opera (an amazing evening of Tosca at the Royal Opera House); a memorable outing to Buckingham Palace -- and there are small frustrations. The endless whirr of anxieties that come with editing Bazaar; the buzzing worries in my head about budget and circulation and advertising revenue... and then the moments of exhilaration, with a sense of creativity shared and unexpected successes (our August issue has been the best-selling of the year so far... although the second I write that, I fear that I am tempting the gods, and will be slapped down for even the slightest sign of hubris).
Thank heavens, then, for the solace of Scotland, which offers such gentle peace at weekends. This has been the first summer that I have experienced long spells of sunshine at Tillypronie; previous years have been marked by wind and rain. So I have fallen in love with the place with even more passion... swimming in the cool, peaty water of the loch, then floating quietly, watching the swallows dart just above the surface, seeing their silvery feathers closer than ever before. And the garden has captured my heart entirely... the brave roses, finally emerging with green shoots after the rigours of snow-bound months; the heather, coming into flower again; a bed of self-sown forget-me-nots down beside the pond; the scent of mock-orange blossom and lavender; the bees buzzing amidst foxgloves and daisies; a wild-flower meadow filled with buttercups, cowslips, harebells and cornflowers. Each week, something new comes into bloom; fading petals replaced by fresh buds unfurling. Here, then, is a sense of blessings... of the year turning, quietly, untouched by the hurtling speed of the city. Soon there will be raspberries ripening, and the deepening purple of the heather-clad hills.
And so I give thanks for the high, clear sky, the cry of the curlews, the lapwings as they soar through the mountain air... and the man I love, who brought me here, safe in the heart of the Highlands.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Tillypronie garden opening

The garden is looking lovely in the evening sunlight, before tomorrow's open afternoon (from 2pm to 5pm, with tea and cakes, as always; all proceeds to charity). Such is the lateness of spring that there are still some narcissus in bloom, and the bluebells are coming into flower beneath the rugosa roses. The rhododendrons are already opening, but the azaleas only just beginning to unfurl. The weather forecast is good, and baking well underway. (All my fingers crossed that the skies may stay clear...)
Up here in the Highlands, the curlews are nesting, and oyster catchers are looking quite at home beside the stream. It's so peaceful, yet the world around us is busy, busy... baby birds to be fed (including the swallows beneath the eaves), and a host of young animals on the hillsides. Long days, short nights, and nature hurtling forwards, after that long frozen winter. Does a new season look more glorious with each passing year?

Monday, 27 May 2013

Painting and decorating

Up at Tillypronie, where the sun is shining at last, we have been dabbling with different paint samples, trying to find the right shade for the morning room (redecoration having been called for after the depredations of a cruel winter). I was determined to find an exact match for the beautifully faded chintz cushions; was their background Wimbourne White or Pointing, or could it be String or Clunch? Yes, we ventured down the Farrow & Ball path -- lured by Slipper Satin and Calamine -- but in the end, settled on Classic Cream, from Homebase House of Colour. (And if you ask me, it's just as subtle as F&B, and much less expensive.)
Meanwhile, I have also been diverted by a picture in the study by Winifred Austen (a painter and engraver of birds and animals), which is a preparation for one of her delicate etchings. She sounds intriguing (you can read a little more about her here); and even the briefest biography suggests the outline of a story worth telling at greater length. One of her teachers at the London County Council School of Arts and Crafts was named Cuthbert Swan; her first commissioned work was in 1898, when she was 22, for E. Nesbit's 'Book of Dogs'; her housekeeper in Suffolk, Mrs Field, was also known as Mouse (oh, and she had an early interest in psychical research).
Much more to report -- including a trip to Braemar Castle, on the trail of a former editor of Harper's Bazaar; but first must quickly get outside for a walk in the heather, before returning south to London and the working week again...

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Magnolia blossoms for Charlotte Bronte's birthday

Charlotte Bronte was born on this day in 1816, and I thought of her today, while walking in the park. Hampstead Heath is far less windswept and wild than the Yorkshire moors that inspired her, although spring has been a long time coming this year, and the blossom seems far later than usual.
Anyway, I have been trying to write a piece about the brief blooming of magnolias, and the flowering of the Bronte sisters' talent, but every time I have tried to post it, my internet service provider (the inappropriately named Talk Talk) has silenced me (or rather, this blog). Which is probably a useful lesson in the impossibility of making plangent connections between petals and poetry. Better, by far, I have decided, simply to let Emily Bronte's beautiful poem, Love and Friendship, do the talking here...

Love is like the wild rose-briar;
Friendship like the holly-tree.
The holly is dark when the rose-briar blooms,
But which will bloom most constantly?
The wild rose-briar is sweet in spring,
Its summer blossoms scent the air;
Yet wait till winter comes again,
And who will call the wild-briar fair?
Then, scorn the silly rose-wreath now,
And deck thee with the holly’s sheen,
That, when December blights thy brow,
He still may leave thy garland green.  

Monday, 1 April 2013

Thoughts on a lost dog

Anybody who follows me on twitter (@JPicardie) will know that we have been searching for Bill since he went missing on Saturday afternoon. I had taken him for a walk -- although that seems the wrong phrase to use, given that it was Bill who taught me about the footpaths around Tillypronie; a loyal companion in the (nearly) four years since I first started coming here. Anyway, as I say, we went on a very familiar route -- down the top drive, cutting through the woods to the bottom drive, and then back up towards the house together. He rarely stayed at my heel, as was often the case -- like many cocker spaniels, Bill went off on his own adventures, chasing the scent of rabbits, disappearing through the snowy undergrowth and then reappearing as if by magic again; never gone for long, never less than joyful, always faithful. I crossed into the garden, and he was still within sight -- albeit on the other side of a fence, in a next door field, running fast, and then he vanished. Bound to run back up to the house, I thought, presuming Bill would be taking the swiftest route to return to his beloved master, my husband. But he was not there, and has not been seen since.
I have retraced my steps so many times since then (and as you can imagine, I feel terribly guilty, as he was lost on my watch). Bill loves (can't yet use the past tense) my husband with every fibre of his body; and they have been the very best of companions for well over a decade. One of the reasons I love Bill is because he loves the man I love, with complete unselfishness; with such dogged devotion that he also accepted me.
So, we walked and called and whistled and looked until after darkness fell on Easter Saturday, and then from dawn, just as the sun rose, on Sunday. The snow is still deep on the ground here in the Highlands, but it is no longer silent; we have heard the cry of birds, and the sheep as they shelter from the icy weather; we have seen the sun rays dazzling in the daylight, and the sky turn bright blue, then fading again, streaked with sunset pink; and then the dusk falling.
Today I went out again, following the path of our Good Friday walk; up through the snow-covered heather, to the hillside that Bill knew so well. We had walked along this track three days ago -- Bill running in front, my husband striding ahead, his footsteps making a path through the snow that I could follow, close behind. Half way along, we reached a stone known as the Laird's seat -- the place where Philip's father used to sit, looking at his favourite view across the mountains. We talked of the past, and of the future; of the trees that Philip's father had planted before his death, and how tall they had grown; of the trees that might need to be felled later this year, and of the planting that we had done, after our wedding here last summer.
Then we continued, along a track I had never taken before -- cutting across the hillside, to avoid the snowdrifts, and back down the house again. Bill had been happy -- just as he always was. This was his land, as much as his master's; this was his territory, where he had grown up...
A lost dog... such a plaintive, sad phrase. We have sought sightings of him, via twitter and email and the local radio station; registered his details with the police and elsewhere. Others have joined the search for Bill -- neighbours who were fond of him, and knew him well.
Now we are in limbo -- still hoping for the best, but fearing the worst. As I have walked, I have seen his paw-prints everywhere; clear in the snow, seeming to offer clues, yet apparently leading nowhere. If we do not see him again, then perhaps he may see us, sensing his master, yet running free as the wind; up on the hill, higher even than the Laird's seat, at the summit, where a cairn was built as a memorial for my husband's father. Up there, it seems closer to heaven; the mountains all around, the moss soft between the heather, the sky high and clear, the curlews calling, the lapwings soaring... just the place for a lost dog to find peace.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Good Friday in the Highlands

Deep snow-drifts on the hills today, and a beautiful light gleaming through the clouds, with glorious splashes of blue sky. While we walked, the sun was mostly shining, but then came a light scattering of snowflakes, which has grown heavier as the afternoon goes on. All is quiet, and like the beginning of a fairytale; the snow still falling, the silence unbroken.
Inside the house, the hyacinths scent the air, which has reminded me of The Waste Land (and doesn't T.S. Eliot seem appropriate reading on Good Friday?):

"You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
They called me the hyacinth girl."
-- Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

While I was gone...

I am so happy to be back in the Highlands again, after a month of fashion shows and travelling (New York, London, Milan, Paris...) If any of you have been reading Harper's Bazaar, you'll know something of what I have been doing there as the editor (you can read more here and here), and I have finally succumbed to twitter (@JPicardie). But I suppose what might not be apparent in those mediums is all the other, more internal thoughts that have been skittering through my mind. Like:  When will the daffodils finally emerge in Tillypronie? Did the mice eat all the crocus bulbs in the garden? Why is it still snowing in March? And where did Louis MacNeice write this poem about snow?

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes -
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands -
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

Is that not a wonderful poem? In the room where I am writing, there are no roses, but a bowl of sweet-scented blue hyacinths. The snow outside is silent, but I am going to light a fire, and curl up in front of it with the dog and my beloved...

Wednesday, 13 February 2013


I've been in New York since Sunday, arriving in the wake of the snowstorm otherwise known as Nemo, with the streets piled high with frozen drifts. The snow has been slowly melting for the last couple of days, slush collapsing in great heaps, although a few snowmen survived at the Lincoln Centre, which is the hub of New York Fashion Week. Anyway, I've been meaning to post these pictures that I took in my local park in north London a couple of weeks ago, during the last heavy snowfall. There's something magical about snowmen -- occasionally eerie, sometimes sad, or wistfully touching, perhaps in their suggestion of otherworldliness... and the knowledge that they will disappear (as we do, too). I love the inventiveness of whoever made the snow-dog, and the snowman in the tree. And since then, I've been thinking about snowmen and fashion; which might sound pretentious, but I hope not... there's no theory or philosophy attached to these thoughts, just bits and pieces, meandering and drifting in the midst of the babble of Fashion Week, about how that which seems frozen is also fragile.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

The February issue

In a flurry of packing for a trip to Paris tomorrow, to see the couture shows, but crossing my fingers that I get there. Eurostar has just cancelled my train in the morning -- snow on snow on snow -- so I'm hoping to squeeze onto the next one, because it would be very sad to miss Dior couture. Meanwhile, here is the February issue; hope you enjoy it... (and if you do, please consider subscribing; though I know some of my lovely blogosphere friends have already done so, for which many thanks!).

Monday, 7 January 2013

Hawks and the Little Owl in Manhattan

I'm just about to board a flight home to London from New York, but just had to post about the wondrous sight of red-tailed hawks from our room at the Pierre hotel, overlooking Central Park. The picture at the top comes from a website devoted to the Manhattan hawks (named after Pale Male, the original founder of this extraordinary urban colony), and until I saw the hawks for myself, at dawn on Saturday morning, I'd never known of their existence. Since then, I've been watching them from my eyrie at the Pierre, in between meetings at the Hearst Tower (although that's another story; first, I feel I need to read more about Citizen Hearst Himself).
Oops, flight has just been announced, so had better rush, but before I go, I must also mention the loveliest downtown restaurant, the Little Owl, of which more later...

Apologies for the abrupt departure; home again in London now, and drooping somewhat with jet-lag and a long day at the office. Anyway, back to the Little Owl, a Greenwich Village neighbourhood restaurant that serves the most delicious food, in an atmosphere of friendly good cheer. I went a couple of years ago, and wondered if it could be as good again on this trip, but it was... so I'm already looking forward to a return visit next month during New York Fashion Week. (Roasted cod with squash risotto or crispy chicken with lemon, sherry and dijon? Yum yum...) Which may be why I've suddenly been overcome with a craving for chocolate, but there is none in the house, so will have to make do with Horlicks instead. Night night.