Camera in hand, I have spent the last year or so exploring and documenting my travels around this vibrant and enigmatic city that I now call home. More than simply a travel journal, The Sunday Londoner was created by an inherent need to focus on the beautiful and inspirational at a time when my sense of normality had been thrown into a dizzying spin. Undeniably, these last few years have been a whirlwind of emotions and upheaval for all of us. Personally, relocating to a new country, although exhilarating, was marred by the inevitable fear of that great unknown. And moving to a new country during a worldwide pandemic caused a veritable smorgasbord of emotions and unrest. I needed to create a connection to place, and to feel, in some small way, part of this incredibly overwhelming, yet wonderfully welcoming city. Put simply, I needed to get out of the house!
A Shockingly Chilly Arrival
London can be fickle and cumbersome during the coldest months. An often-ominous grey sky, now completely overcast and sullen, bookends the frigid winter season with unrelenting audacity. December, that most festive of months, bellows its Christmas cheer in a joyfully heroic effort to stave off all thoughts of winter gloom. And yet, with practiced precision and a complete disregard for all things bright and cheery, January rolls around with a dour thud and parks its gloominess upon us well into frigid February.
Slapped in the face by the icy winds of autumn my formative few months in England were spent enveloped in what I deemed ‘the ugliest coat that ever graced this earth’. What has now become a series of joyous jaunts through some of the city’s prettiest winter landscapes, was, back then, a continuous struggle to contain my hatred towards that ever-present coat. Every daytrip was blemished by the inevitable and necessary appearance of that puffy, hyper-synthetic beast. Where I went, it went. We became inseparable, like a symbiotic two-headed monster; our very survival was inextricably intertwined. I quickly transformed into one of those annoying expats who moans about their adoptive weather every chance they get: ‘Another beautiful day in paradise’ I would grumble sarcastically while dragging my puffy behemoth behind me down the entryway stairs.
A Sartorial Revelation
Although not saturated with vibrancy and colour, winter in London has its own jewel box of beauty and wonder to discover. What seemed, only a mere few years ago, to be a bleak and bitter landscape, has transformed itself into a cornucopia of endless wintery possibilities. As time rolled by, I began to notice the seemingly insignificant details that make the winter months so uniquely enchanting. Icy shards of frost cling suspended from bare branches like tiny armaments poised for battle against the relentless elements, while myriad spring bulbs hide deep within the earth waiting patiently under foot for their glorious moment to shine, when they burst forth upon the landscape like tiny resplendent jewels. Adorable robins, orange-breasted and enchantingly cute, flitter amongst the branches in a frenzied territorial flutter that sounds so undeniably sweet you wonder how their chirping song could ever be considered anything but dear.
Yet with winter’s undeniable beauty and my appreciation of the new, it was the passing comment of a new acquaintance one gloomy winter’s day that changed everything for me. Commiserating with my distaste for cold weather she simply said, ‘If you want to enjoy the winter, you must buy yourself a fabulous coat!’. A revelation. And although I hardly run screaming into winter now, arms spread wide in a warm and welcoming embrace, I have begun to rather relish the chilliness and the chance to wrap up well. What a difference a fabulous coat does make!
A Glorious Place to Roam
Plant nurseries and fabulous coats are two things that, when presented together as a combination on paper, simply do not mix. Any gardener worth their peat-free soil would hardly don their Sunday best for a serious perusal around Big Jim’s Garden Shack. Sumptuous cashmere bell-shaped sleeves do not mingle well with great hefty bags of animal manure and the sticky fire-red stems of the dogwood tree. Big Jim commands practicality on the very highest level: sturdy rubber soled boots and an attire completely sun-faded is the uniform du jour.
However, today a rather different nursery is on the agenda.
No matter the weather, the entryway to Petersham Nurseries in Richmond is determined to stay continuously soggy. This little slice of naturalistic paradise, nestled perfectly out of sight along a bend in the river Thames, requires a little effort and cunning from its eager visitor. Nuzzled between Richmond’s royal deer park and a water-logged paddock, home to grazing fat cows and their flat round deposits of bovine dung – like steaming brown landmines to be avoided at all costs, Petersham is undoubtedly worth the perilous effort. With its otherworldly beauty and aesthetic charm, Petersham may be the only nursery in the world where fabulous coats, though not exactly mandatory, are a warm and welcoming delight.
A Jewel in the Hollow of a Hand
The elegance and charm created at Petersham by owners Gael and Francesco Boglione, and their four grown children Lara, Harry, Ruby, and Anna is wonderfully apparent from the moment you happily saunter in. Nature comes into her own here and the naturalistic beauty of the countryside, combined with the picturesque riverside setting, harmoniously blends into the discerning space. Nevertheless, there is nothing here that has not been carefully considered. The gorgeous array of objects d’art for house and garden are punctuated by striking flower arrangements created by Petersham’s talented and resourceful inhouse florists. This elegance is tempered by the rustic charm of the red-earth floor and vine laden pergolas which grace the antique-filled shop and adjacent café.
Teeny tiny snowdrops are beginning to bloom in the dappled shade around the nursery, their snow-white heads drooping and bobbing in the gentle morning breeze. I spy a myriad of erect, fresh green shoots bursting through the damp soil, as though proudly declaring to all who entered that ‘Spring was in the air!’. Ornate and perfectly weather-worn terracotta pots dot the space, their moss covered earth crowded with expectant spring bulbs like an overloaded swimming pool on the hottest day of the year. During warmer weather the pots are a tangle of scented jasmine, old-fashioned roses, and pungent herbaceous lavender. Their collaborative scent fills the air with the wistful, poignant smell of summer.
Even in the very depths of winter’s gloom, Petersham is awash with drifts of colour and scent. All who enter, whether it be for a bite to eat in the teahouse or café, or a leisurely peruse around the treasure-filled shop, leave with a little piece of Petersham’s undeniable charm. With each visit I become aware of something gloriously new: an intoxicating and unfamiliar scent, a brave and invigorating colour combination, or a culinary idea sparked by some bold and revelatory flavour combination.
My Window Box Runneth Over
Although no real excuse is needed for a little Petersham visit, today we don our fabulous Sunday coats in search of something lovely to fill our empty window boxes. With limited seasonal options I am more than relieved to forgo the usual turmoil that comes with choosing blooms in summer, and instead heed the advice of British gardener extraordinaire, Monty Don, who suggests a simple pairing of winter-flowering hellebores and sweetly scented japonica for a shady container planting. Our window boxes are perfectly positioned in dappled shade and will provide the ideal home for a modest selection of hellebores, whose calamine-lotion-pink petals and drooping buds will bring us joy each morning while we enjoy our daily brew.
With plant choices made in record time, we are happy to while away a lovely afternoon spent among some of the prettiest scenery in London. Petersham has been lovingly and thoughtfully created with Mother Nature in mind and the space, with its elegance and charm, links beautifully with the wider landscape beyond. Such a serene and peaceful environment and I could not think of anywhere else I would rather be on this perfect winter’s day.