It was such an unseasonably warm and sunny patch that it felt surreal. We were in London at the same time last year, late February, and I remember trudging along the Thames in a snowstorm, public transport virtually at a standstill. That memory still fresh in my mind, London looked at once dazzling and dazzled last week, in all that glorious sunshine, those startling colours of full-on, bona fide spring. So much was in blossom, so much colour and scent, I felt inside an impressionist painting. But it was also disconcerting, the spring was happening too fast for me. Like travelling in a high-speed train with a beautiful landscape rushing by; pressing my nose against the window, trying to catch individual images and colours, in vain. Instead, a blur – parks and squares hazy with newly broken buds, trees and bushes in clouds of frothy blossoms, white and all shades of pink, the intense yellows of daffodils, mahonia and kerria, red blotches of berries on heavenly bamboo. All accompanied by intoxicating scent of daphne and winter honeysuckle and set against that incredible blue of the sky. Waiting for my kids at endless playgrounds, lying on benches and looking up, and seeing image after image of Van Gogh’s blossoming branches against that amazing blue.
In an old Slavic fairy-tale, called Twelve Months, a poor orphan girl is sent to the forest to collect snowdrops in the middle of winter by her vicious stepmother – a reward for such an unlikely feat has been offered by a silly little princess of their land. Nearly freezing to death in the snowy forest, the girl comes across twelve men – twelve months of the year – sitting around a campfire. Hearing her story, April begs his older brothers to swap places with him for one night only and the girl rushes to pick a full basket of snowdrops before the sunrise. I felt like a girl in that story during those strange days.
When the weather turned, it was almost a relief. As if the onset of rain and cooler temperatures might slow the spring down, halt the intense march of eager plants, give me some breathing space. There was one ticket left for the Sky Garden in the City and I grabbed the chance, leaving my family behind for a few hours. It turned out I left more than my family behind – also, a sense of time and place, entering yet another dreamlike setting. I found myself in a pre-historic forest, surrounded by lush, tropical foliage and bright, uncanny birds-of-paradise, at the background of grey skies and modern architectural landmarks of the City of London. What I first thought were palm trees turned out to be gigantic ferns. I spent a long time admiring their exquisite sequence of curls – the curl of a new branch, then of a new frond, then of a new leaf. Tradescantia covered the ground in a thick carpet – I wish I could do that in my shade garden but it’s impossible in zone 6. Then the rain started in earnest, obscuring the view, softening the City’s awe-inspiring silhouettes and, with eerie synchronicity, the Garden’s misting pipes came on, the fog now blurring the boundaries between inside and out, augmenting the surrealistic quality of it all.
On a different day, we fell under the spell of the Chiswick House gardens, with its fabulous camellia displays in the old orangery. Camellias have been grown at Chiswick since mid-19th century and the collection is spectacular. We were there on the first day of a month-long exhibition but because of the warm weather the flower parade was well underway – blossoming camellias standing in a row like debutantes at a ball; one lonely tree, a sentinel by the entrance, peeking inside, or perhaps having just escaped the beauty parade for a breath of fresh air; camellias scattered all over the grounds, even more beguiling to me in their slight wilderness than their groomed sisters in the glasshouse.
Camellias at Chiswick are underplanted by most enchanting hellebores, all moody colours, double petals and bowed heads, pensive, perhaps in a bit of a haze like me. They are magical, so different to my helleborus niger at home, a straightforward variety. I saw them again, on sale at Petersham nurseries which we visited on our last day. It was tempting to take a piece of magic back with us but I remembered our overloaded car and overplanted garden and sensibility won – as my thoughts turned to home and the allotment, I got a pack of sorrel seeds instead.