Herb Walk and Lecture by Fiona Taylor at Hadsham Farm, Oxfordshire

I’m the first to arrive at Hadsham Farm, and Fi appears through an archway, beneath an exuberant pink-and-white rambling rose.

‘Hello!’ she says, and I grin. I’ve been looking forward to tonight: Hadsham’s a beautiful place and Fi’s always interesting – I’ve never once been bored listening to her.

The other guests start to arrive the moment I’ve parked my bicycle, and we all start with a glass of ice-cold wine. I only know two of the other guests, but the rest are lovely; everyone’s smiling. I start to feel the stresses of an ordinary chase-around Thursday slide off my shoulders.

There’s a big jug of home-made elderflower cordial on the table, and it smells gorgeous. An old-fashioned pump spills water down to a little trough, and we can hear the farm’s sheep in the distance. The evening sun is slanting through the willow, and we all agree that that the evening couldn’t be more perfect.

Fi’s spent forever building up her gardens, and broadly speaking, they’re in five main sections arranged in a big backwards ‘C’ around the house. Directly in front of the house is the terrace, where we’re standing, and it falls away past a weeping willow to a lawn, bracketed by another big bed at the bottom. The lawn is protected from the valley beyond (the one I can see from the very top of Bramshill) by Leylandii, and there are odd gaps so we can see the splendid views. The third section is a sweep by the drive and the fourth is my favourite: the kitchen garden. The fifth is a lovely square outside the boot room door, and the place for hanging laundry and snatching quick handfuls of herbs for the cooking pot.

The sweep beside the drive - Fi explaining Achillia, also known as 'Soldiers' Woundwort'.
The sweep beside the drive – Fi explaining Achillia, also known as ‘Soldiers’ Woundwort’.

The tour is about to start, and we meander obediently after Fi, carrying our drinks, pointing things out to one another. Roses clamber everywhere, like inquisitive children, and I notice them in each of the gardens. I admire a massive trough beneath the kitchen window, planted with trailing red geraniums.

We begin the tour at the sweep by the drive. Practically every plant is either medicinal or useful in some way, and we learn about cat mint (which looks like a cross between culinary mint and a nettle) and rue. There’s Rhodiola growing in the gravel beneath the shade of a tree, and Fi explains how it can be used by athletes to enhance mental and physical performance by increasing the oxygen in the blood. It also goes by the name Aaron’s Rod, which sounds rather dubious.

We continue to the bottom of the lawn. ‘Anyone for Angelica seeds?’ asks Fi, and her eyes widen in surprise as we all shout yes. I love angelica; it looks like a souped-up cow parsley, or a less-thuggish hogweed. We look at horse-heal, burburis, digitalis. No medical herbalist is allowed to use fox gloves any more, its active ingredient is too variable in strength and impossible to measure without a lab. We move onto the serious big boys: Rheum, gelsenium. Fi mixes the latter with lobelia, so if anyone accidentally overdoses, they’ll be sick.

About digitalis - the valley you see from the top of Bramshill is through the trees behind
About digitalis – the valley you see from the top of Bramshill is through the trees behind

We start to move up back towards the house, Fi pauses to point out Vitex, a purple-flowered shrub talked about by Pliny-The-Elder in the days of the Roman Empire. Its alternative name is ‘chaste-berry’, and it’s used for lowering libido. I have an image of Aaron’s exhausted wife, crumbling the leaves into his supper.

Two of Fi’s dogs are at the conservatory window, scrabbling madly for attention and clambering all over the back of the sofa. ‘Off!’ shouts Fi, to no effect.

Molly and Pip, gorgeous little terriers (Pip is Dora's mother). Tryiong to lick my reflection
Molly and Pip, gorgeous little terriers (Pip is Dora’s mother). Molly’s trying to lick my reflection








She shakes her head and leads us all through to my favourite bit, the kitchen garden. Here, everything is as perfectly McGregorish and neat and productive as you could wish it might be. Potatoes stand in perfect lines along their long ridges; sweetpeas gaggle up a twenty foot wide net; feverfew and borage flower  in esoteric pattern alongside marching cabbages and neatly-staked tomatoes.

A fork left for digging potatoes for supper - the amount of work that's created this garden is evident whichever way you look.
A fork left for digging potatoes for supper – the amount of work that’s created this garden is evident whichever way you look.

To the left, there’s a huge bank of raspberry canes, and there are two cages of strawberries. My daughters think of this garden as something akin to heaven. We listen to a bit on thyme, and its modern use in fighting super-bugs. No thyme leaf is exactly the same, so a bug can never change to become resistant to it. Fi is a great believer in the use of a plant as a whole, rather than extracting just one aspect of it. Happily, modern medicine is beginning to share similar thoughts.

I admire the calendula blooming around my legs. Marigolds; bright orange and yellow, like sunshine caught on stalks.

We move up the garden past the wall of sweetpeas to a tower of mallow.

The pharmacy in a flower-bed.
The pharmacy in a flower-bed.

‘A pharmacy in a flower bed,’ says Fi,pointing to the valerian. She tells us about wood bettany –  good for those who’ve been ‘away with the fairies’. Fi has an strong interest in plants to treat dementia, and her sons bought her a Ginkgo tree for a birthday. It grows just outside the kitchen garden and is distinctive with its frilly-cape leaves. Ginkgo’s are known as ‘living fossils’; they date back 270 million years, and, fascinatingly, drop all of their leaves all at once.

Next up is the boot room garden, and by now, I’m in a state of complete zen. The sun has dropped from the horizon, and I’m surrounded by beautiful, benevolent plants that smell  like holiday memories, childhood memories – everything happy I can think of.

I wander slowly at the back of the group, letting words and scents and gentle calm roll over me.

Fi ben
Fi beside her Gingko Tree

I stand dreamily by a tall, gnarled rosemary and imagine how wonderful it must be to grow a garden full of food and medicine.

The last point on the walk is Fi’s dispensary and consulting room. We try tinctures and diffusions, sigh over how lovely everything has been. ‘Perfect, completely perfect.’

I thank Fi and drift out to find my bicycle, clutching bottles of elderflower and lemon balm cordial.  I take one more look at yet more roses, high against the wall of the house.

Rose petals, hips, bark, all good for the heart, the soul. Rather like Fi herself.





Up The Clump – Friday 19th April

In the foulest, foulest mood when left house today – total hormone soup.

Poor Dora walked beautifully to heel in the hope I wouldn’t bawl her out. But by the time I’d walked up the Jackie Chan, I’d started to hear the swifts, and I could smell the battalions of daffodils, nodding their heads in sorrow above the last few drying snowdrops.

A fallen twig caught my attention as I drew level with St Ethelreda’s, and I stopped the angry-pants march to have a look. It was Horse Chestnut, the length of my forearm, the width of my finger, and had an exploded bud on the end. Glossy brown, with the palest green leaves beginning to splay forth. I felt a ridiculous tenderness for such waste, and had to be towed onwards by Dora.

We walked down Hornton Lane – still no blossom on Horley Manor’s fruit trees – and turned up the Clump. Green! Elder, reeking and making me think of goats. The leaves are still tiny, surrounding a little floret of buds, like sprouting broccoli.  When I was little, my Mum’s goats used to go mad for elder, and would climb the hedges on their hind legs, grunting their approval from deep in their chests. Every year I swear I’m going to make elderflower cordial, but never do. This year!

I carry on up the Clump, checking on the bluebell clumps (looking healthy, but no flower shoots yet), and I wonder why there’s no wild garlic around Horley. Why? All filched by mad vampire-fearing house wives?

I stop to look at some blackthorn, with its creamy buds like fat pearl-headed pins. Some of the flowers are out, perfect and white, with orange-yellow floating dots of stamen.

Ross has put a crow scarer in his field, and emerge from the hedgerow just as it goes off. I jump about two foot in the air and yelp, then feel very silly, and walk extra fast to hide it. There’s no one around, but you never know in those fields. Handsome ravaged-looking men in flat caps pop up in the most unexpected places.

Dora and I whiz over the brow of the hill and drop down into the spinney. Poor trees have had a horrible winter, and the snow and wind has torn branches from almost every one. A hawthorn is bravely pushing frilled green leaves out, and I think of how my Nanny Dot used to tell me how poor people ate them, and called them ‘bread and cheese’.

Clambering up the Toboggan Hill, a man planting fence poles waves at me, and I wave pathetically back, all my energy drained by the hill. I’m so low to the ground as I toil up that I can admire discs of daisies, close up and personal. I’m not so keen on the fox crap.

With all my note-taking and nature-gazing, I’m late for the bloody bus, and have to fling myself over styles and speed-walk down Little Lane. I don’t bother putting Dor back on her lead, and when I see a removal van at the bottom of the road, I just think, Oh, how nice. New people. With a really nice standard lamp.

I forgot about Dora and her huge crush on men in vans. A builder friend of ours (in a big white van) once gave her half a bacon sandwich, and she’s never forgotten it. She made a total bee-line for the van, ignoring my calls, little legs carrying her at bustling speed.

‘Oo,’ I cried, uselessly.

Two removal men in overalls were carrying something sheeted, and they didn’t smile. Dora decided they weren’t going to be forthcoming with sandwiches, and shot into Jeremy’s garden, and then straight through into the new people’s back door. At the school bus stop, we’d heard they were called Birch, were doctors, and seemed friendly. But no one is really going to be friendly when  stray dog bursts into their new kitchen, demanding bacon.

‘Oo,’ I said again, hovering at the gate. I flapped my arms, and the removal men ignored me and kept removalling.

‘Dora-you-bastard-bag,’ I hissed. No sign. Christ.

I dithered. The school bus due any moment.

The removal men had gone in after Dora, and I hesitantly crossed Jeremy’s gravel – so loud! – growling ‘Dor-Dor-Dor’.

Just as I reached the Birches’ new back door, scarlet in the face, Dora sped out, her mouth open, showing her pink tongue, grinning and ultra pleased with herself.

Unable to face anyone angry, I turned and fled, Dora under my arm like a laughing handbag.

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