Back during the heady days of August, the stylist Ginny Au came to teach a five-day Creative Process Workshop in Bibury, Gloucestershire, bringing her dream-team with her – the floral designer Sarah Winward, prop stylist Ginny Branch and photographer Erich McVey. Being just across the border we offered to help out for a few days – as runners, flower mules, whatever they needed, really – it was a chance not to be missed to meet and work alongside such a talented bunch of Americans on our own doorstep. And so it began – prop amassing, foraging, conditioning, arranging flowers. Days of hard graft and laughter, and a very great deal of beauty.
Funnily enough, the degree of beauty is precisely why I have put off writing this post. I can’t abide writing – or reading - too much gush, but a Jacobean manor (and a prettier Jacobean manor you never did see – gables, mullions and all, set in landscaped gardens running down to the River Coln) stuffed with brilliant artists wearing ice-blue linen aprons, prolifically making beauty in every corner of it, well – how do you get around that? So, to counter-act the almost ridiculous overdose of aesthetically-pleasing images here, I will tell you that the drawing room at Bibury Court did display some especially hideous purple satin cushions and lampshades (being chosen – apparently – by the new Russian oligarch owner, who clearly has a fondness for bad colours). Or it did before one of the Ginnys hid them in a log basket. (Cue collective sigh of relief.)
A portion of the classes were given over to flower arranging, the majority of the attendees being florists and/or wedding stylists. And so, on day one, we drove in convoy (linen aprons, wicker baskets and designer clippers in tow) to Green & Gorgeous flower farm, presided over by the wonderful Rachel Siegfried and her partner Ashley Pearson, to pick from the cutting gardens there. Buckets were filled to overflowing, tea and home-baked cakes produced and partaken of, butterscotch whippets admired.
Small-scale flower farms like Green & Gorgeous are part of a revival of new growers in England determined to exclusively cultivate just-gathered, homegrown flowers that are seasonal, scented and nostalgic. In the 19th century, daily trains carried violets from Dawlish, snowdrops from Lincolnshire and narcissi from Cornwall, now planes fly in our straight-stemmed roses from Kenya and hot-housed tulips from Holland throughout the year. But they aren’t a patch on a bouquet of old-fashioned roses and apple-mint and all the other delicious garden flowers of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers for fragrance or romance.
The following day, Sarah Winward taught an urn-arrangement class in the shade of an ancient tree in the gardens, while a black swan – no less - patrolled the chalk stream. Watching Sarah arrange is nothing short of mesmeric - she is Arwen of Rivendell disguised as a mortal – graceful, composed, but nevertheless strong as an ox and I daresay as determined. I have never seen so slight a woman wield a cast iron urn in quite the same way. Probably never will again. And she wears beautiful shoes (crafted, I imagine, by elfin-maidens), so there’s that.
There followed hours and days that merged into one generally sublime experience – flowers and detritus thereof strewn on lawns and riverbanks, bare feet, bottles of wine. Half-drunk in the hours of one afternoon dwindling towards evening, under a bower of grape-vines, I sat listening to intermittent clippings of secateurs and the odd hoot of laughter drifting around the house. The truth is that I was happy; there are some environments (Arcadian setting aside) where work and ambition and lifestyle and dreams all come together. For Jesse and I, who spent our childhoods fiddling and tinkering and scene-setting, it feels entirely natural to spend hours on our knees, hunched over, perfecting. It could be an entire banquet or a single bread-board, we have always ‘styled’ – even when it was meadow picnics for rag-dolls and one-eyed teddies, it was with utter seriousness and concentration that we made an occasion befitting the honour of their attendance. I remember that, as if it were yesterday, and that day in August made me feel that we had fulfilled a circle in some way. Whenever people said ‘I always knew I wanted to be a veterinary nurse/landscape gardener/quantum physicist’ I remember feeling faintly envious that I didn’t have something like that, something I was always good at, that I always knew I wanted to be. Leaving school, the careers advisor (who interestingly was the least inspirational speaker I had ever listened to) never said – 'hey, how about styling flowers?' She just droned on about ‘playing to your strengths’. And so I read English because I was in love with William Shakespeare and got good marks in my essays. The least vocational subject of the lot. Jesse read History. The second least. But circuitously, life seems to have brought us back to where we started anyway.
Here, in Bibury, we were happily ensconced in the minute, pain-staking act of smearing honey-comb onto a breadboard, crumbling cheese, cracking quails eggs for a photoshoot – and that didn’t seem strange at all. Putting together objects, colours and textures that sing. And we were surrounded by other women - all different women, all on their own journeys, not thinking it was strange either. And then more wine appeared, and Ginny B said Yes way, Rosé! in her gorgeous Southern drawl, which I think is quite the most brilliant thing to say when booze arrives, and the rest of the afternoon passed in most pleasant haziness.
On the final night – collectively exhausted and exhilarated we ate steak and parted as friends and colleagues, back to the Northern counties, back to Ireland, California, Alabama (and back to Oxfordshire). Our heartfelt thanks go out to both Ginnys, Sarah and Erich for having us on board for this lovely workshop that really goes down in history as one of the most beauty-saturated weeks ever.