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Miss Willmott's Ghosts

Miss Willmott's ghost

This week I have been listening to the audiobook of Miss Willmott’s Ghosts by Sandra Lawrence. The book is a biography of Ellen Ann Willmott who created amazing naturalistic gardens in the early twentieth century. In the way of these things where women are rare in a particular setting, she was seen as the ‘other’ female gardener by the media, deliberately made into a counterpoint to Gertrude Jeykll. Over the years Ellen acquired a reputation as a bitter, cantakerous and miserly old woman, carrying a revolver in her bag and laying mines amongst her expensive daffodil bulbs. This book is an attempt to overturn that and give her back the reputation that she deserves.

Miss Willmott was born into wealth, astounding wealth where as a small child she would be given thousands of pounds in cash with her birthday breakfast, but she had no sense of money. She simply knew how to spend lavishly to fund her various interests, to give her access to the kinds of intellectual, artistic and learned people that she wanted to mix with.

The late C19th and early C20th was a time of obsessive collecting with wealthy people frantically building up personal, and very eclectic, collections. It was a time when collecting and status were strongly linked - William Burrell and Isabella Stewart Gardner whose collections are now the basis for museums - were contemporaries of Willmott. When you hear the lists of her purchases read out - historic instruments, decorative silver, paintings, antique carpets, tapestries, sculpture - you can see the links to their collections.

At times I found the book a difficult listen - all this avaricious drive to own items no matter what the cost. Many of the things she bought, on a frenzied shopping splurge, were never even unpacked.

It is for her gardening however that she was best known - she made three gardens, the main one at Warley Place near Brentwood in Essex, one near Aix-les-Bains in France and one - hardly visited - Ventimiglia in Italy. In all she grew 100,000 different plant species and cultivars, employing 104 gardeners to care for them.

Many of these were from Ernest Wilson’s plant hunting trips which she part funded in return for seeds and plants. Again it was a frenzied business, with decency and measure left behind; Ernest Wilson collected plants from cemetries, digging them up from graves, bringing them back as rarities to be grown on for his sponsors and for the newly developing nursery trade. He named dozens of them after Ellen.

When the money ran out - after World War One - she simply couldn’t accept it. She just kept buying things - silver mustard pots, an C18th lute - defaulting on loans, and not paying wages until her staff left and her mortgages were called in.

It is this period that most of her reputation as difficult seems to have been based on, yet it was the part of the book where I had most empathy for her. The lack of cash meant that her car was gone, so she took the cheapest train up to London for RHS meetings, with a long walk home from the station at night (possibly explains the gun in the handbag). She accessorised old, mended, unfashionable clothes with buttonholes made with from rare plants only she had been able to get into flower knowing that, in the right circles, they screamed money and talent. She tried to set up various businesses, a garden centre, a plant rental scheme, a seed catalogue - they were all loss making in the end, but they were pre-cursors of the types of businesses which would take off decades after her death.

The book left me wondering whether - had she not had to, as a woman, buy her way into the intellectual society she craved - she would have been able to live the kind of life she wanted. A life of writing letters and nurturing plants, taking photographs and making wooden boxes.

As soon as the staff left the gardens of course they became overgrown. Couch grass and bindweed moved into the nursery beds and the collections of rare plants disappeared very quickly.

The ground at Warley Place is now a nature reserve, managed by the Essex Wildlife Trust where Ellen’s collection of daffodils bloom every year.

The photo is of the most famous plant that is associated with Ellen Willmott - a sea holly, Eryngium gigantium, known as Miss Willmott's ghost as she scattered its seed around gardens when she visited.

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Stillness is such a difficult skill to acquire.  I suspect that so much of the rushing about that we do is simply an attempt to avoid being still.
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For if we stopped, paid attention to ourselves, to the world around us, let everything sink in - well that might be very scary.
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But I do think it is the most important skill - a five minute pause, a checking in.  I'm not talking about meditation here - nothing as formal as that - just a stilling and listening and paying attention. Appreciation, recognition, renewal.
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It is something that I am very bad at by nature - but I have been taking lessons from Dixie. 

For if a spaniel can relax into stillness, nosing into a shaft of sunshine, then I'm sure I can.
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Teasel isn't quite there yet.

#aseasonalway #springerspaniel #springerspanielsofinstagram #slowlivingforlife #lessonsfromdogs #bringyourdogtowork #storiesoftheeveryday
One thing that gardening teaches you year on year is that so much is beyond your control. Some things will thrive, others won’t, and mostly it will be nothing to do with anything you’ve done. 
Some years will be great for one crop, terrible for another. This is a great year for garlic here, awful for beans. 

It’s the same with business - a lot of things happen that are due to the ‘weather’ of the world. We can pivot and turn, change our tactics, Google ‘how to make reels’ and so on - but we can also choose to embrace and lean into what is working well. 

My Friday letter today is about social media and all the ways I’ve used to connect with people over the past 21 years - if you fancy a read you can sign up in my profile. 

And in the meantime I’d love to know what’s growing well for you. Or indeed, what has been a disaster! 

#theartofslowliving #livethelittlethings #nothingisordinary #natureandnourish #embracingaslowerlife #aseasonalway #seekthesimplicity #scotlandsgardens #growyourownfood #cornersofmyworld #greenthumb #rusticgamesttong #cornersofmyworld #simpleandstill #vintagegreenhouse
Each year I have a personal project running.  Something just for me. Something that allows me to experiment and play. 
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The first year that I became obsessed with using the plants here to dye textiles - back in 2019 - it was twelve skeins of a raw slubby silk yarn that I  had been hoarding for decades. They became a patchwork cable blanket that now sits on the back of the sofa.
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In 2020 it was double knitting yarns, in dozens of colours, knitted into a stripy jumper to keep me cosy in the Studio.
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Last year I dyed linens and am gradually making them into patchworks and appliqués - many I am squirrelling away for a project that I may or may not ever begin.
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This year I am using mini skeins - in an attempt to keep it more manageable - and exploring the differences in colour caused by the pH of the original extraction. 
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There are four skeins for each plant, two for neutral extraction, two for alkali - with one of each pair being dipped in iron to 'sadden' the colour.
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If science had been like this at school I might have paid more attention . . . .

#botanicaldye #alchemy #growyourowncolour #gameoftones #plantdyed #naturallydyedwool #plantdyersofinstagram #craftwithconscience
#shadesofnature #extractedfromnature #inspiredbynaturesbeauty #plantdyedyarn #naturaldyedyarn #foragedcolour
This is a tomato salad that was inspired by one I ate a few years ago in a cafe in Mingun, Myanmar,
There it was mainly made with green tomatoes, sharp against the shrimp powder.
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In Myanmar the military junta have begun to execute activists arrested after the coup in February 2021. The brutality and violence continue, the quashing of democracy, the corruption. 

11,759 people, arrested after the coup, remain in detention, 78 people, including two children, have been sentenced to death.
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You won't usually find much out about Myanmar in the 'fed to you' media, but this week there has been reporting and a Dispatches programme about mass killings  was on Channel 4 on Monday.  The Guardian has consistently been the newspaper reporting most on the aftermath of the coup and you can also follow hashtags like #whatishappeninginmyamar here. 
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There may seem little we can actively do about the horrors in the world, but people involved always say that what matters is knowing that people care, bear witness and don’t simply forget when the news cycle moves on.
We always have a slight breeze here - a blessing as it stops the midges flying.
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It often gets up at night after a warm day, seeming to breathe its way round corners. 
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If you walk through the garden in the evening at the moment, the scent of Lilium regale drifts about you in eddies of spice.

#simpleandstill #capturequiet #beautyyouseek #calm_collected #aseasonalway #aseasonalshift #cornersofmyworld #slowlived #slowandsimpledays #quietchaotics #ofsimplethings #beautyinsimplicity #floralstories #allthingsbotanical #underthefloralspell #livethelittlethings #thehappynow #ihavethisthingwithflowers #moodforfloral #aseasonalway #slowlivingforlife #aflowerfilledlife
The more I travel down this road the more I realise that deciding how you live, which values you honour, what you will prioritise all have to be deliberately chosen. 
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You can’t just drift into a slower, more intentional life. 
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You can’t buy it. 
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You have to make a commitment to actually live it. 
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And that’s not always easy. 
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It is why I go to events like last weekend’s summer camp @thegoodlifesoc . 
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It is also why I surround myself with a supportive community where my choices don’t seem weird.

It is why my to do list today has sitting with a coffee taking in the swoony scent of the sweet peas on it. 

#howihueit #simpleandstill #capturequiet #beautyyouseek #calm_collected #aseasonalway #aseasonalshift #cornersofmyworld #slowlived #slowandsimpledays #quietchaotics #ofsimplethings #beautyinsimplicity #floralstories #allthingsbotanical #livethelittlethings #thehappynow #ihavethisthingwithflowers #moodforfloral #cornersofmyhome #aseasonalway #slowlivingforlife #aflowerfilledlife
This is the actual physical Studio.
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It is a little cabin between meadow and wood - a space for creativity and connection a space that I deliberately and intentionally worked towards for a number of years.  There is a sunny deck looking onto trees for the summer, a wood burning stove for the winter.
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The Studio is also another thing - it is a club of amazing people who are intentionally prioritising their creativity and connection to the natural world. 
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It is a community of great humour, support and inspiration - the best thing that I have ever had a hand in.
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The Studio Club is closed to new members at the moment and the doors will open to new members again on the Autumn Equinox. 

I'm currently working with @fbarrows, who is providing a gentle and encouraging outside eye, as I decide on what we will be doing in the club over the next six months.
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I've been surveying all the members to find out exactly what it is they enjoy most, what they feel I could do better. 

In this week’s Friday letter I've included a link to a short survey, because I  think it would also be useful to know what people who follow me, but are not members, feel about these things. 
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If you get it, it would help me so much if you could take a minute to fill it out - there are only five questions and there is also a bribe . . . .

#slowlivingforlife #simplelife #whereiwork #simpleandslow #creativelifehappylife
The more we actively take time to pause, to sit still and watch, the more we see. 
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My Friday Letter this week is all about taking advantage of some unwanted early wakening and starting to use the binoculars which have been hanging on the coat rail for eighteen months.
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Twenty minutes with a cup of tea, the binoculars and a lawn full of early birds and their worms.

#momentslikethese
#the_gentle_manifesto
#daysofsmallthings
#natureandnourish
#aseasonalway
#daysofsimpleandslow
#ournaturedays
#aquietmoment
#pocketsofslow
#thesweetlifeunscripted
#folkandstory
#pause
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About Snapdragon Life

In the Studio Club I gently guide you through bringing the changing seasons into your daily life, helping you slow down, so that you can experience increased well being, calm and creativity.

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