Charleston Farmhouse | East Sussex | November 2016
One day in early autumn our good friend James Tregaskes called to ask us to style the florals for an upcoming event. The event was a Jo Malone London press day to celebrate a limited edition collection of fragrances eponymously named The Bloomsbury Set launching March' 17. Five fragrances, each inspired by the house and gardens and their legendary inhabitants: Blue Hyacinth, Garden Lilies, Tobacco & Mandarin, Leather & Artemisia, Whisky & Cedarwood. We were told it would be hosted at Charleston. And there would be young male models in French workwear. We said something like let us juuuuust check the diary; yes, no, I think we're free.
Charleston has meant something to me ever since I can remember. It has featured so prominently in so many parts of my life that the fact that I had not visited had become an almost ridiculous notion, a little impediment that was bourne of many false starts and amended plans. I - tenuously - already knew this place, had grown up knowing it mentioned as a small child, had absorbed its atmosphere via osmosis through the many books we always had lying around the house or my parents' studio, those that I might pick up idly as a knock-knee'd kid, petulantly perhaps as a teenager. I knew its colours, knew its patterns and as an adult, its secrets, or the secrets that others had written about in forensic detail - the racy, intimate, publishable ones. At certain points in my life I thought I identified with its inhabitants and frequenters, those who, according to Dorothy Parker 'lived in squares, painted in circles, and loved in triangles' - with Virginia Woolf because she wrote so exquisitely and I was trying, and (she hastens to add) failing, to write my first novel, with Vanessa Bell because she too fell deeply in love with a man who could not be hers. Charleston in some subtle ways, I think, is woven loosely into the story of my life. It means a great deal to me. But until now, I had never been.
We drove around collecting the flowers in London in the days previous, in pink, bitter dawns that heralded the beginning of winter. They were the first - so far the only - truly cold days of the year, sparkling with early frost and, in part, clouded with white fog. We played the by now familiar game of 'musical flowers', moving them from van to hall to garden to shed according to temperature and conditions - encouraging the ranunculus and the roses to unfurl their tight petals in a warm room, keeping the chrysanthemums and the dahlias cool, but not too cool. It's a balancing act, one that persists as we continue our search for a studio space in London. We're getting adept at it now by dint of necessity, and my husband is getting used to tripping over buckets of flowers in the bathroom.
With the first frost comes the abrupt about-face when the long season between April and October of using predominantly our own-grown and British-grown flowers - our special, scented, imperfect, unbeatable flowers - ends, and buying in from the auctions in Holland begins. We still source or forage much of our foliage on these shores, but flowers become fewer and further between in quantity and quality. I mourn for a while; I miss the freedom of summer, cutting from our own teeming garden, the personal connection to the growers we buy from - turning up and collecting buckets of the daintiest flowers in the world, surely - so beautiful they are almost illusory. Smaller, yes, erratic, yes, but nurtured, diaphanous wisps that make the heart flutter and speech and concentration falter. I feel like this about so many of our own flowers, old-fashioned roses particularly, that I'd bore you to tears listing them. If I haven't already.
And yet I've come to enjoy this period. The cold season. It's a challenge in many ways, a change of tempo, design-wise; it shakes everything up again when we were becoming complacent with those delicious blowsy roses and profuse cut-and-come-again annuals. One day there are dahlias in the garden and the next they are over, gone - and from that point on, in my mind, it is winter. But, crucially, from now until Christmas we still have work to do - parties to decorate and wedding bouquets to make, and we have promised our clients that we are purveyors of beauty, and colour, and there is a wealth of new and exciting ingredients available that we can use for them - amaryllis and anemones from Holland, ranunculus from Italy. Seasonality remains key to what we do, albeit a slightly stretched version of it which allows us to use roses and chrysanthemums in our arrangements this late in the year, but woven in with foraged berries and weird, wild local elements that also hail a connection to where they are now.
Provenance is something that we care about deeply. If we could, and perhaps we will, over time, we'd like to visit the Dutch growers that supply us throughout the winter. A recent trip to Aalsmeer in Holland was an eye-opener into an extraordinarily organised, somewhat monolithic industry that we are on the very fringes of. But behind that gargantuan, rather intimidating cliff-face are families, faces, interesting, expert (very tall) people, some of whom we had the fortune to meet and shake hands with. A lot of the time in the flower world (and this is something that we, in the long run would like to contribute to changing) people don't ask about where their product comes from - they don't mind, or they don't have the time to consider it, or they just don't care. In this global world where everything, anything is from anywhere and everywhere. And yet, conversely, more and more, people ask where their food comes from, they care whether it has been organically grown, whether the meat is free-range, whether it is in season, whether their clothes are ethically made. And they have the freedom of choice. Why should this not extend to flowers? A movement that only a few years ago was a laughable, hippie idealism is being taken more seriously, is growing, and financially viable independent businesses are growing with it. I hope that we will be one of them. In the meantime we will endeavour to keep pushing and reading and travelling and talking and gaining knowledge of our industry that will enable us to pass the knowledge of those choices on to the clients who come to us and the customers who buy from us.
I have never seen so many fat, healthy game-birds in all my life as in the fields surrounding Charleston. As we bumbled our way down the rutted track we scattered coveys of them into the fields, copper-red and gold pheasant feathers glinting in the sunlight, and the paler brown-gold of hens and partridges. It is a beautiful place even before you turn your eyes to the house.
The colours of the garden were gently fading. Watery winter light and weather-worn dahlias under the shadow of the Sussex downs. Nonetheless, it was magic - a kingdom of its own. Still a painters' garden, still tangled with palest pink cosmos and rangy hollyhocks. Summer here must be a riotous affair.
All that day - we were given over the cafe as our floral dominion and aided by the lovely Jo Frost who was freelancing for us - we made up vases and jugs and bowls of flowers, spilling outside where the sunlight warmed the roses, occasionally snipping something extra from the hedgerows behind the house, and weaving in silver-grey reeds from the stream along the track. Among David Austin roses, dahlias, chrysanthemums and ranunculus, there were the best of British rosehips, grasses, berries and autumnal foliage, leaves yellowing but clinging prettily to forked branches.
Arranging in situ, getting a feel for the atmosphere of a place is a wonderful thing - one that I enjoy most about our job, and this particular project most of all. During the morning we scoped the house for the right spots for each of the twenty-two arrangements, inadvertently in the process gaining a private tour with Charleston's curator Dr Darren Clarke and Maggy Tyhurst, who has been the housekeeper for over twenty years. Having been so lovingly and painstakingly conserved the farmhouse is cared for under the watchful eyes of a devoted staff, its keepers, and one can feel that in every room, cranny and shadow. Jo accompanied us with a roll of felt and scissors, so that each surface was protected, and generously Jess was allowed to photograph in each room the following morning as we went round again to tweak and add the finishing touches.
That night, cold-fingered and ravenous, we ate supper beside the fire at The Ram Inn at Firle and returned to our warm, comfortable room at Tilton in a wild, rain-lashed night, drawing the curtains on the gale rattling the window. Early the next morning, the rain still came down in torrents - polar opposite weather to the bright, glittering day before and, though we like to think we are hardened foragers, I'll admit we aborted our soggy mission that morning early and headed indoors. Charleston was warm, and, by this time, scented with the comforting fragrance of simmering apple and star anise prepared by the visiting chefs from Babington House in Somerset who were calmly working their ambrosial, culinary magic in the tiniest makeshift kitchen known to man in the lean-to beside the cafe. Flowers were tweaked, windfall fruit placed, the table was laid, handsome waiters dressed and styled like youthful Monty Dons, and at the end of the drive black cars emerged out of the rain-mist and from them members of the global press and beauty editors descended. We exited stage left and spent the rest of the day in Lewes, finding treasures at Closet & Botts and Flint, happily scouring the excellent flea markets and consuming coffee and cake at Flint Owl Bakery. Free to wander, free of chores, free time in an unknown town - it was the nicest day off we've had in a long time.
Much later, around the kitchen table at the farmhouse, and gratefully soaking up the heat of the aga, we packed vessels and dispersed flowers among the Charleston custodians, who are a wonderfully friendly bunch, and we had the pleasure of meeting the charismatic Mark Divall, head gardener at Charleston since 1986, who I wish I'd had hours longer to talk with. We left for London after dark, back down the long rutted track from whence we had come.
This morning, in a painted ceramic bowl on my dining table, I have 3 beautiful quinces gifted to me by Claire Ptak this weekend at the Violet + the Vicarage workshop. These fruits will forever now remind me of my first visit to Charleston - the first of many - and making that link between the dusty fruit and those yolky yellow roses that we were arranging with that morning. How later I stood alone in Duncan Grant's bedroom looking out of the window ringed by frail silhouettes of the leaves of a clambering rose beyond it and drank in the silence and atmosphere of that warm house.
Mid morning I make coffee and toast, spreading granary bread thickly with jam. The handwritten label on the jar reads apple + ginger jam (Charleston apples) October 2016. It is, of course, perfectly delicious.
I sign off this post with news that we are planning to host a 2 day & 2 night Floral Design Retreat revolving around this very special place during the rose-riddled month of June in 2017. Guests will stay with us at the beautiful Tilton House, a short walk up the lane from Charleston; and we will have a private tour of the house, garden and nearby Berwick Church, spending the following day foraging and creating floral designs (using our own-grown and locally-sourced flowers that feature in the gardens at Charleston) during a tutorial inspired by not only the exquisite paintings of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant but also the house itself and the surrounding area, which we will afterwards style and photograph. On the final night we will decorate an alfresco 'Bloomsbury Feast' with flowers and foraged foliage in the walled garden. This will be limited to a small group only and tickets will be available in January. If you would like to register your interest in the Retreat and to receive the first notification of dates and prices, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org