It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade. - Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
Spring. Ice white, primrose yellow and palest lilac. You can feel summer in the air, although at any moment it could revert back to frosty mornings, which creates the strange, hopeful alchemy that is spring. I notice it because (as usual preoccupied with food) I am craving fish tacos. Fish tacos with hot smoked fish and lots of chilli and red chicory and lime. The days of sandals and alfresco salads are on their way. In London the community is divided - some folks who have abandoned all restraint and gone sockless. And then there are the Italians, who will be sporting mink until the last weekend in May.
We scooped up all the prettiest flowers around for a shoot last week at Claridge's. Narcissus, parrot tulips, spiraea, fritillaria, hellebores. The most insane butterfly ranunculus from Japan, the colour of a burning Hawaiian sunset. I have had an about turn in my opinions on yellow, for the record, and can’t get enough of it. Buttery, lemony yellow flowers are all I want at the moment. Jess made a knockout bouquet of lemon-yellow and white, a chic little ruffly thing that I greedily squirreled home at the end of the day and kept on my bedside table for a week, ivory silk and lemon-curd ribbons spilling down over my books.
It felt like the first ray of spring, skirting Hyde Park that morning. A rite of passage for our new flower van, as shiny as a new mirror (almost certainly the shiniest it will ever be), laden with blossom and ribbons fluttering in the breeze like spools of liquid colour. From the seventh floor terrace of Claridge's Davies Suite you could see for miles across London’s rooftops. Shoots are very entertaining to be a part of - each one is different depending on who is involved but they bring together so many different professionals for a brief period of intensive creativity - models, photographers, stylists, makeup artists, and in this case security guards (due to the diamonds). There were a lot of comings and goings, a lot of coffee, a lot of waiting around, moments of laughter, moments of tension, service lift banter (very amusing). We flowered and ate sugared biscuits and sunbathed and eavesdropped on an intense and unlikely debate about boxing between the security guys and one of the extremely tall models.
It has been a peculiar, slightly stop-start beginning to the season. I shan’t go into the details because they are too boring for words, but the end of winter has coincided with a waiting game for us, waiting for things to come to fruition that have been in the pipeline for what feels like forever. I am terrible at waiting - patience has never been one of my strong points. But sometimes anticipation is forced upon you and you’ve no choice but to stick around, bide your time.
My cure for restlessness these past weeks has been to walk. I have inherited this pavement-pounding impulse from my mother, I expect, who in her youth was dubbed ‘the fast-walking woman of London’ for her uncanny ability to cross boroughs in the blink of an eye (she still does). Most evenings I walk around my neighbourhood - an hour’s loop, zigzagging across the river. Each time I take a slightly different circuit, down the streets that I haven’t walked before, the routes like ripples, circling out from home. This last week the blossom has opened - wild plum, ornamental cherry, quince, magnolia - there are torrents of it everywhere. On the corner of Spencer Road is a mimosa tree in full bloom, bright yellow against the blue sky and on a warm afternoon the surrounding streets are infused with the delicate and intoxicating scent of honey. One day the gardeners at Orleans House leave out buckets of pruned branches and I come home laden with their tiny quill-like leaves and pom pom blossoms, which fill the living room with their sweet perfume. I am slowly getting attuned to the rhythm of my new ‘hood, the uninterrupted birdsong of the mid morning, the orchestra of mothers and nannies, children and designer dogs at school pickup, the surge of suits walking home from the tube just after dark.
One Sunday morning before brunch we visit the annual camellia show at Chiswick House, reported to be the oldest collection of camellias under glass in the Western world. The long glasshouse is replete with blossoms, milk white to Schiaparelli pink. We add a couple of plants to our collection that have been propagated from the resident collection - C. japonica 'Incarnata', a tooth-achingly sweet pink and 'Alba plena', which looks as though the petals have been crafted from light porcelain.
Another excellent tonic for turbulent times is gardening - of course gardening is, in a way, the ultimate waiting game. The fruits of your labour are never immediate, there is no instant gratification. The cutting garden has absorbed much of our fidgetiness recently and is certainly looking the better for it. Our spring bulbs and seedlings are coming along beautifully and we will soon have the first crop of the year - narcissus, and lots of tulips. We've planted the first batch of sweet pea seedlings in a new polytunnel and are crossing our fingers for an early crop in June.
Curiously, I’ve realised recently that nothing makes me happier than shovelling. Anything - soil, compost, horse poo - anything. This might seem a paradox coming from someone who would never voluntarily live full-time in the country again, but it’s true. Open air, a small mountain of material to dig and I’m yours. Driving back to London from Hampshire the other night, Jess and I ruminated on this and we decided that living in a big, chaotic, vibrant city, but with regular deep immersion in the countryside, is our ultimate geographical balance. Somehow we have unwittingly designed our lives now to pivot around this play-off between one world and the other, and they couldn't be more different, or suit our rather schizophrenic tastes better. Coming from parents who are both Londoners, it took me a long time to realise that city living is somehow irrefutably in my blood. Until last year, in fact, I lived in the most chocolate-box, clematis-covered cottage in Oxfordshire. (And certainly gave provincial life my best shot.) But for me no amount of pastoral charm can compete with being part of a metropolis that never sleeps, the inexhaustible hustle, the sheer number of people and possibilities. Being able to walk in any direction through an unlimited, unending string of interconnecting villages and always coincide with an exciting new area or store, show or coffee shop. They say ‘when you are tired of London, you’re tired of life’ (well, Londoners say that, but they're biased), but for me it was the other way around. I exhausted all the other possibilities before I came home and started again.
It is getting dark and the room is filling with shadows. I cut a basket of kindling and light a fire and the room fills with the smell of woodsmoke. From the living room of my flat, on the ground floor of a Victorian house, you look across our walled courtyard to a canopy of trees in the long garden, and you could be anywhere in England but for the parakeets, which lend the scene an unlikely tropical air with the occasional flash of their lime-coloured underbellies. Local myth has it that while filming The African Queen back in the Fifties, the birds escaped from their aviary at the film studio and went feral, multiplying in the decades since by the tens of thousands. Now they are all over these leafy suburbs and the rather incongruous sound of their squawky chatter has become commonplace across Richmond and the surrounding area. Last week, walking with a girlfriend across Hyde Park, she commented on how strange the palm trees looked lining the front gardens of the townhouses along the Bayswater Road and I told her how my own palm, unhappy and unhealthy in Oxford had begun to flourish in my suburban London garden. Walking today I thought how extraordinary it is that the magnolia, whose prolific flushed flowers are blossoming in all the gardens of the white villas along the road home, originated in Japan, China and the Americas but have been naturalised to our climate purely because of the extreme, heart fluttering beauty of their blossoms. And so it goes for the majority of our most-beloved garden plants. I seem to end many of entries here with the progress of my Japanese maple, whose branches were until last week peppered with tight buds, but which has now unfurled delicate new leaves flushed with pink. When they turn bronze in a few weeks time I will have witnessed their changing colours each season for a full year, charted its way through the speckled hues of late summer and the sallow-yellow of autumn's leaf fall. And so another cycle begins again.
Ally's Bastardised Fish Taco Recipe
1) Make a finely chopped salad in a bowl - lettuce leaves of choice, red chicory, very finely sliced red chilli, piquito peppers & cucumber, a large handful of fresh coriander. Squeeze over lime juice.
2) In another bowl mix one third of a cup of soured cream with the same amount of mayonnaise, a generous sprinkle of dried red chilli flakes and the same of cumin, the juice of half a lemon, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.
3) Warm your corn taco shells for a couple of minutes in the oven.
4) Flake in some smoked fish (hot smoked salmon is best), a generous dollop of sauce and as much salad as you can fit into the shell.
5) Bon appétit.