In the poet's garden

what happens when nature and culture meet

End of Year Show

To forget how to dig the earth

and tend to the soil

is to forget ourselves.

Mahatma Gandhi


A year ago, recovering from an operation, I started this blog as a suitable activity for a convalescent.  Once I’d mastered the technology (which is actually ongoing…), it quickly became a source of pleasure – a way of ‘writing’ when I couldn’t write, a counterpoint to the deep immersion of poetry, somewhere to gather and share my thoughts and photos of plants and gardens.  I’ve really appreciated the folk who follow this blog and those who’ve posted comments.  Lots more have told me personally how much they enjoy getting an announcement in their inbox.  One person said reading my blog was like stepping off a very crowded train and finding herself in a garden.  The internet is indeed a very crowded train…

…And not that I want to add to the mess and clamour but I am now gearing up to starting a brand new blog.  Some of you will have noticed that my recent posts have had a liminal quality to them – I have been very aware of being on the verge of change, doing something different.  I have an innate horror of anything becoming over-familiar and going stale – whether it’s your writing or your life, it always seems to me the worst kind of danger.

The garden that is finished

is dead.

H.E. Bates


I’ve enjoyed the free-form miscellany of my postings so far and it’s been useful while I’ve acclimatized myself to the idea of a wider audience.  Maths isn’t my forté but I calculated that I’ve had 25 times more readers than an average poetry collection in the past year.  However last week I got the go-ahead to enable me to do some more garden-related research, supported by an Arts Council grant.  As part of that exciting journey – exploring our relationship with plants via Botanic Gardens in this country and abroad – I will be writing a dedicated blog at and would be delighted if you decided to follow me there and offer comments on my progress.  This site will remain accessible and I will continue to add work to the Anthology section.  In fact new poems and pictures from Jill Arthey, Cynthia Fuller, Lesley Mountain and Tess Spencer are now available.  Do click here to visit.

Last September I wrote about the Chrysanthemum Show at Hexham Cricket Club.  To complete the circle, the pictures in this post are from Saturday’s Village Show in Corbridge.  The Parish Hall looked wonderful, fresh and full of nature’s bounty.  There was something touching about all the care that had gone into both the growing and the presentation of the flowers and vegetables.  It was good too, after such a disappointing summer, to see the fruits of local gardeners’ labours and feel part of a deeper cycle, the rhythms of the seasons, which lately have been so disrupted.

Come quickly – as soon as

these blossoms open,

they fall.

This world exists

as a sheen of dew on flowers.

Izumi Shikibu

(970 – 1030)




 at Moorbank

It borrows the lilt of the land,

as all gardens must, terraced

with ancient stones.  At its head,

purple and white bells are played

by foraging bees.  Fern and sedge

set the coordinates for shade, fringe

a dark eye of moorland water.

It is earth for foxgloves, catkins

furred with yellow pollen.  Ling

drapes this bed’s bold curves,

the shape border winds make

stroking the rise of a fell into song.


Kim Lewis and I are putting the final touches to our new pamphlet – Border Song – a collaboration that we worked on a few years ago with the benefit of an award from VARC.  It appeared as a small exhibition and I did a few readings but folk were very keen to have a copy to take home with them. And so Hareshaw Press was born to make it happen. Beautifully designed by Melanie Ashby to complement Through the Garden Gate, it will be available in the Autumn.

What I want to sing to you is this:

come, my love, kiss me with your lips,

fresh as the rowanberries we picked

to brew a gallon of wine.  Isn’t it home, this

hillside?  The bowl of the valley is ours.

On the Edge

Driving west out of Hexham and into Haydon Bridge, as you slow down at the 30 mph sign and the speed camera, you have ample opportunity to take in the topiary hedge someone has lovingly created by the side of the road.  It’s a fairly modest example of this strange art but there’s still something cheerful about it, playful and eccentric.

One of the books beside my bed at the moment is Hugh Barker’s Hedge Britannia, subtitled ‘A curious history of a British obsession’.  It’s a slightly potty book, maverick and enthusiastic – a little on the edge of things, as befits a book about hedges.  The ultimate expression of the gardener’s mission to control and subdue nature, Barker tracks the history of topiary back to the Egyptians and the Romans, who imported it into Britain in AD 43.

He quotes the critic Joseph Addison (1672 – 1719):

Our British gardeners, on the contrary, instead of humouring nature, love to deviate from it as much as possible.  Our trees rise in cones, globes, and pyramids.  We see the marks of the scissors upon every plant and bush.  I do not know whether I am singular in my opinion, but for my own part I would rather look upon a tree in all its luxuriancy and diffusion of boughs and branches, than when it is thus cut and trimmed into a mathematical figure; and cannot but fancy that an orchard in flower looks infinitely more delightful, than all the little labyrinths of the most finished parterre.


I have trouble with my own garden hedge.  Between me and the field and fell in front there is a wooden fence to keep out the sheep and cattle.  It doesn’t stop the rabbits though and their tunnelling means that anything planted along the line of the fence suffers, struggling to survive.  When I moved here 18 years ago I inherited a privet hedge, which I experimented with over the years, creating some of my own curves and waves – not quite topiary but inspired by the idea of it, via a mad frustrated Matisse.

When it became too straggly, I had all the privet dug up and a friend planted a line of white Rosa rugosa for me.  I thought their spiny stems would be impervious to rabbits but, undeterred, indiscriminate, they nibbled the young plants away before they had a chance to take hold.  Two of them survived – and both turned out to be pink, as if someone had come and painted them in the night. So now I have no hedge at all and have learnt to enjoy the uninterrupted view.

The Weed Garden, or, Indolence Justified.

 From Ian Hamilton Finlay’s  ‘Detached Sentences on Gardening’


Back in 1990 I was awarded a month’s residency at Annaghmakerrig, the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in County Monaghan.  It marked an important edge for me – when I first started seeing myself as a poet.  Out walking in the local lanes I came across washing laid out on top of the hedgerows to dry, an old country tradition.  I put the poem I wrote about it at the end of my first collection, Red, which came out two years later.

I was reminded of all this by Kathleen Jamie’s piece in last Saturday’s Guardian, considering the process of dismantling that occurs at the end of one book and before another properly begins.  I remember that feeling and think perhaps I’m tasting it again as I gather myself for the beginning of a new term and this work towards a new book, a new self, which is still beyond, or below, me – a seed anyway of what might grow, the imagination’s unknown shapes and colours.

 Where the viewer is solitary, imagination is the scale.


Hedge Laundry

The sun strokes the thin skin of the sky,

opaque and absent-mindedly warm;

spills on the greening flat-topped hedge

that’s the next-door cottage’s washing line,

a floral dance of towels and shirts and vests,

tip-to-tip hooked on spikes of poking branches;

fills their flattened spaces, their open-weave

with summer air, bleaching them clean and dry,

lightening the burden of another wearing.

Their phantom forms – uncrumpled by days

spent pounding tarmac, spines beaten into iron,

nights bending backwards, playing chameleon –

stretched back to the shape of perfection,

a remembered Eden, where everything is in touch,

in its element, no flaws, or loose ends,

and all linen is clean; everything fitting

a mathematical formula that’s death

to a thousand pencils.  The full open air’s a mirage

of stillness, cloaking the imperceptible bleaching

of threads, the way colour evaporates,

how a ladybird, creeping along the chequered

carriageway of a cotton collar, lays the trail

of a trickle, a freshness to breathe in:

the clean shirt sweeping new, as near

as you’ll get to fresh skin, an improved model;

another chance to sample the theories,

wear your clean linen as good as new,

a new thing under the sun stroking your skin.


A Sense of Belonging

One of my sons is currently helping out in the book section of a charity shop in town.  Even though we’re really not short of books in our house, I couldn’t resist paying him a visit and taking a peek in the storeroom.  I managed to be fairly restrained and only came away with six books – and two were for someone else…

One I was particularly happy to find was The Batsford Book of Country Verse, a paper-wrapped hardback, edited by R.S.Thomas in 1961, dedicated to his son Gwydion.  In his introduction Thomas writes:

 …English literature is rich in nature poets.  At times it appeared almost as though a special feeling for nature was the equivalent of, or the qualification for, being a poet.  Most young poet’s first attempts at verse have been based on some description of the natural world.  But such times are passing, if they have not already passed.  The environment of the majority of our population today is that of science, technology and industry.  The natural world is presented fitfully and transitorily on the television screen or during a short holiday.  Yet nature was man’s background for thousands of years; the seasons provided a lovely rhythm to his life and thought.  The country is still linked dearly and beautifully with us through our childhood memories.  My first hope, therefore, in compiling this anthology has been to re-awaken those memories.  We know that the most important thing in life is, as Van Gogh said, to find something to love.  And perhaps one of the wisest ways of setting about this is to begin with the near and the familiar.  It is in learning to love and to cherish our own little tree, or field or brook that we become fitted for wider and deeper affections.

Things have changed a little since 1961 but most contemporary poetry in the UK is written in response to an urban setting, reflecting the reality of most people’s lives today.  What ‘nature poetry’ there is is often elegiac, tinged with anger or melancholy, unavoidably aware of the fragility of the natural world.  But there is still wonder and a sense of recognition in those poets happier in the ‘wild’ – a longing for something both known, reliable and beyond themselves.

In the pot of pens on my desk there is a newspaper cutting, collected some time ago, with no record of where it’s from or who it’s about. I’ll take a guess the ‘He’ quoted is Robert McFarlane.  If anyone knows otherwise, I’d be delighted to hear from you.  This is how it goes:

He talks about the poet John Clare, who as a child walked beyond his knowledge, beyond what he knew, only to find that he no longer knew who he was because the birds and the trees didn’t know him.  “This is what I feel about this landscape.   I’ve walked out into it so often that it accepts me.  Bits of stone and river accept me, and I know myself by that.   If the landscape changes, then I don’t know who I am either.  The landscape is a refracted autobiography.  As it disappears you lose your sense of self.”

John Clare is one of the poets in Thomas’s book – all familiar names, familiar, much-loved poems.  His poem is The Peasant Poet:

He loved the brook’s soft sound,

The swallow swimming by.

He loved the daisy-covered ground,

The cloud-bedappled sky.

To him the dismal storm appeared

The very voice of God;

And when the evening rack was reared

Stood Moses with his rod.

And everything his eyes surveyed,

The insects in the brake,

Were creatures God Almighty made,

He loved them for His sake–

A silent man in life’s affairs,

A thinker from a boy,

A peasant in his daily cares,

A poet in his joy.

Our most fundamental sense of well-being is derived from the conscious experience of belonging. Relatedness is essential to survival. When we feel part of the whole, connected to our bodies, each other, and the living Earth, there is a sense of inherent rightness, of being wakeful and in love. The experience of universal belonging is at the heart of all mystical traditions. In realizing non-separation, we come home to our primordial and true nature.

 Tara Brach


Don’t think too much.  If you think too much, you get complicated.  If you get complicated, you get sad.  And if you get sad, you lose your luck.

 Raymond Chandler

Lucky Clover and Lemon Balm

Oxalis deppei ‘Iron Cross’ and Melissa officinalis

I hesitate to blow my own trumpet but last week I was lucky enough to be given this year’s Andrew Waterhouse Award at a ceremony in the Great Hall at Northumbria University that managed to be grand and friendly at the same time.  Many thanks to judge Paul Farley and New Writing North.  It’s intended to ‘buy’ me time to write while I’m working on my new ‘botanical’ poems.  I am immensely grateful for this – it’s always been hard to survive and earn a living as a poet but in the current economic climate, it seems more difficult than ever.

My Award – an origami circle of Northumberland,

by Yvette Hawkins.

Andrew was a good friend and I watched him become a fine poet during the time we knew each other.  Just before he died we were planning an Arvon Course at Lumb Bank we were to co-tutor, based on writing in response to the natural world, a common interest.  I’m very sad that course never happened – it would have been very exciting.  I’m sad too that we never saw how his writing would have turned out if he had been able to stay with it.

Andrew Waterhouse

1958 – 2001

Anyway, it’s been good to be reminded of Andrew this past week.  I also found another book of his (apart from his poetry, that is, published by The Rialto and to be found here) at the bottom of my writing drawer – A Year in Northumberland (Windhover Press 1999), a strange concoction of historical oddities, facts and folklore, with illustrations by Andrew’s friend, Ian Patience.  Here’s a couple of the entries for July:


A farmer in Belford was having his horse reshod on this day in 1888 when a buttercup was found rooted into the horse’s foot.  Allegedly, the flower was healthy and in full bloom.


The meteorologically odd summer of 1792 featured a ferocious hailstorm in Newcastle.  Some of the stones weighed over half a pound and filled a pint pot when thawed.


1891 was a bad year for the Northumbrian turnip.  It was reported that crops throughout the county were decimated by the caterpillar of the Diamond Back Moth.

This year lemon balm has been one of the successes in my garden and, as well as making a tincture of it, I’ve been drinking lots as tea.  Maybe that, or something more mysterious, was what reminded me that the last time Andrew came to visit me he brought a pot of Melissa he’d bought at Wallington Hall.


For A.W.

Your last visit you brought Melissa –

powerfully chasing away melancholy.

Ten years and I’m still bruising the citrus

in its leaves, wondering who the balm

was for, which of us needed it most?

I wish I’d asked.  I wish you’d said,

as you held out your hand, terracotta,

lemon, green – a comfort to the heart.

I wish I believed with Paracelsus

that it could bring a man back to life.


A Renga in July

Last weekend six of us sat in the meditation garden at Harnham for a summer renga. The weather was windy but kind – lovely to be outdoors after so much rain.  I’m not sure why I’ve gone monochrome for this posting  – maybe it reflects the subdued summer we’re having here or that I’m feeling slightly out of sorts.  But I am drawn to its subtle simplicity, a complement to the plain beauty of the renga form.

Cat’s Cradle

A tender postscript

to all the wet –

sprays of elderflower froth


one gate is new

the other crooked as ever


swallows skim

the grass

then soar


moons of white lichen

on the dry stone wall


limbs outstretched

leaves receiving

what the sky has to give


the cast iron drainpipes

conform to regulations


is he pushing the mower

or does the mower

drag him along?


silhouettes of the Cheviot and Simonside

anchored in the wind


hawberries beginning

to blush

on the tangled thorn


friendships thread

a cat’s cradle


it feels ridiculous

to believe

what the hormones say


filled to the brim

ready to pour


take your aching bones

to the top

of Harnham Hill


I look down to the lake

and dream of trees


the red admiral

wings wide awake

amongst rosebay willowherb


that which knows the breath

is peaceful


on one face

in the bright night

highlands shadow the plain


the Ajahn’s garden

unfolding silver and mauve


across our expectations

the jet stream

plots its course


let us make the best

of what comes.

A summer renga

at Harnham Buddhist Monastery

on 22nd July 2012.



Ajahn Abhinando

John Bower

Linda France

Geoff Jackson

Tim Rubidge

Christine Taylor



Into My Arms

I don’t believe in an interventionist God

But I know, darling, that you do

But if I did I would kneel down and ask Him

Not to intervene when it came to you

Not to touch a hair on your head

To leave you as you are

And if He felt He had to direct you

Then direct you into my arms

Into my arms, O Lord

Into my arms, O Lord

Into my arms, O Lord

Into my arms

And I don’t believe in the existence of angels

But looking at you I wonder if that’s true

But if I did I would summon them together

And ask them to watch over you

To each burn a candle for you

To make bright and clear your path

And to walk, like Christ, in grace and love

And guide you into my arms

Into my arms, O Lord

Into my arms, O Lord

Into my arms, O Lord

Into my arms

Nick Cave

 at Dunstanburgh Castle Peace Camp

20 July 2012

In Arcadia

Storm clouds, rain, hail, when we have survived these we seem to have taken on some of the solidity of rocks and trees.

Thomas A. Clark

A couple of lovely days in Yorkshire looking at Yorkshire rain for a change.  I was very keen to see the Miró show at Yorkshire Sculpture Park and wasn’t disappointed.  It was beautifully curated – in the Underground Gallery, images on the wall placed alongside the sculptures and outside in the Park, sculptures pleasingly set at vantage points on the grass and walkways.

I was reminded how striking Miró’s work is – playful and sacred at the same time.

It was good to see Alec Finlay’s Bee Library hung from the trees around the lake.  I’d seen photographs of this work but it was clear they really need to be found as you walk along and look up among the light and the leaves to be felt fully.  Alec’s just back from Sydney, where the Bee Library and more bee-related work is being shown as part of the Biennale.  The website is worth a visit if you can’t make it to either Sydney or West Bretton.

Since last year there has been another reason to travel down to Wakefield – the Hepworth Gallery.  It was good to go back again and see it a year on.  If anything I enjoyed it more this time.  As well as the gorgeous Hepworth sculptures, which it’s hard to have enough of, there is currently a show of work by Richard Long – sculptural and wall pieces.  We’d seen his Red Slate Line in the woods at YSP so it felt particularly lucky to reconnect with this selection, part of the Artist Rooms touring scheme.  A new wall work brought all the force and spit and spray of a waterfall into the calm stone-filled space.

Luke Fowler’s film The Poor Stockinger, The Luddite Cropper and The Deluded Followers of Joanna Southcott was an unexpected delight.  A powerful collage of archival material related to E.P.Thompson’s Workers’ Educational Association classes in West Yorkshire with new footage (and hilarious readings by Cerith Wyn Evans), it reminded me of my early days in Adult Education – both as a student and a tutor.  After returning to study via a New Opportunities for Women Course in 1984, I found myself teaching Creative Writing at Hexham Hospital’s Spinal Injury Unit for the WEA; followed later by Creative Writing, Women’s Studies and Literature Courses in Hexham.

And here I am today, doing variations on the same thing, still believing in the importance of the hive of learning and labour and that ‘the struggle is never wasted’ (EPT).

What I take with me, what I leave behind, are of less importance than what I discover along the way.


The End of Civilisation

On Friday I sat and watched a grand piano burn for two hours.  Which is not a sentence I’d ever imagined I might write.  It was a showing of Douglas Gordon’s new film The End of Civilisation at the Tyne Theatre in Newcastle, commissioned by the Great North Run Cultural Programme.

I didn’t know what to expect – always a good place to start from; we never really do, even though we persuade ourselves we know what we’re going to get.  One of Pema Chödrön‘s favourite phrases, and mine, is ‘Not what you think…’.

A scattering of people filled the grand rococo auditorium, boxes embellished in gilt with the names of famous composers and playwrights.  On the stage a double screen hinged at the centre showed one film, on the left, of the piano burning and one on the right, of the surrounding landscape, just south of Hadrian’s Wall in Cumbria – a constantly circling shot over the course of  two hours as the sun set and darkness fell.

On a narrative level nothing much happened but the scope and impact was profound and affecting.  To begin with it seemed only natural to ask what was ‘it’ ‘about’?  The title is unambiguously directive, suggesting all the more obvious associations evoked by the desecration of  a noble, beautiful musical instrument – arson, destruction – and this in a borderland setting with a history of warfare and rieving between the Scots and the English, as well as local feuding families.  The Wall is an enduring symbol of the Roman Empire and its incursions – both civilised and barbaric.  There was the sense too of plus ça change – how much we still resist ‘civilisation’, destroying culture(s) and the environment in our quest for progress and self-advancement; how much we’re preoccupied by the idea of ‘endings’, decadence, apocalpyse.  All this taking place in a landscape I love meant it went straight in.  I was as absorbed as if I were watching an edgy complex thriller.

It wasn’t really surprising that after an hour or so my thoughts settled down and the act of looking became more like a meditation.  It was enough just to witness the piano burn, notice the details of the lid collapsing, lacquer spitting and keys shrivelling without analysing; see horses walk onto the hillside and the light change with an open, unclassifying mind.  Two hours felt a good length of time to be able to notice the changes in one’s experience as the images in front of your eyes unravelled.  I was impressed by the quality of the audience’s attention, refuting the story that people are no longer able to concentrate effectively.

Meditation, as a skill of observation, gives us the overview of the causes that our minds generate, and their effects.  As a healing response it enables us to relinquish what harms us, and to contact and bring forth what is good and enriching.  There is nothing more essential to learn in order to live life well.

Ajahn Sucitto

After so much rain it was a welcome change to focus on another element and feel warmed and cleansed by the flames, which had their own ‘terrible beauty’ (Yeats).  I enjoyed the contrast of the single image of the piano with the wider rotating view of the land, earth and sky.  The awareness was simultaneously deepened and broadened, opening and expanding.  Coming back out into the dark and the rain, I experienced myself as more alive, changed, reminded once again to ‘make friends with impermanence’  (Joan Halifax).

Douglas Gordon, Never Never (Black), 2000