Sunday, 26 May 2013

Days in the limelight

For many celebrities, fame is only fleeting- fifteen minutes of being in the limelight, a brief chance to shine. This week I went to see a tree like that....a very nondescript tree for most of the year....the sort that you pass without noticing. But at the's centre stage and the star of the show.
I found the tree at  Belgrave Hall, a house built in the reign of Queen Anne, which has been a museum in Leicester for the last sixty or so years. Step a few yards from a busy suburban street, all terraced houses and noisy cars, and  you're in a different world, a different time.

Go through the gates, straight through to the back door to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

Instead of walking down the path, turn right, dive behind a brick wall...and this is the tree....the handkerchief tree, otherwise known as Davidia involucrate or the ghost tree. You can only see why it's called that for only two weeks of the year. Two weeks when it blossoms...

Isn't it striking?

The tree comes from China and was discovered there by a French priest, Father Armand David in 1868. Thirty one years later, Ernest Wilson, a young English botanist was commissioned to go to China to find the handkerchief tree. When I say he was young, he was only twenty two, didn't speak Chinese, and had never been abroad before. Also, there was only one specimen of the tree known to exist, so the whole project didn't exactly seem viable.

All Ernest had was a  hand-drawn map and a few written notes.....but he set off , surviving being attacked by bandits, nearly drowning,...and oh yes, a potentially deadly disease. Despite all these setbacks, he actually found the exact location of the tree, but...and wait for had been chopped down to build a house! I can't imagine what was going through Ernest's mind by this stage - I think I would have collapsed and wept. But this wonderful young man managed to find some other seeds....and two years later they arrived back in England.
What a story...and what a find...because when the tree flowers it really is stunning. Although the white "handkerchieves" aren't the flowers, they're actually the bracts, or protective leaves, outside the flowers. The flowers are quite tiny and purple.

But like the handkerchief tree, the two acre garden at Belgrave Hall deserve a spot in the limelight too.
For hundreds of years this was a family house, and the gardens have grown organically with lots of places to sit in private, hidden spaces away from the formality of the view from the back door.

This is one of two ancient mulberries which stand guard...

While this statue remains ever watchful.....

I love gates which beckon you through...rather than shut you out....

to quiet spots for contemplation...

And where the gardeners would have been busy

And taking a brief sit down is my guide Valerie Hartley , the gardens officer with the Leicestershire Museum Service who took me on a whistle stop tour of the garden where's she based. I can't think of a lovelier spot to work from  - can you?

All too soon it was time to head back towards the hall...

Turn around and take a last glimpse of the garden

Before time travelling back to the 21st century in the space of a few steps.

I've been coming to this garden since I was a baby, when my mother and her friends would push their prams here after a few miles walk , and sit all the babies on the lawn on a summer's afternoon.

If you'd like to visit ( taking a pram is not obligatory), the garden is open on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons during the summer months from 1pm until 4pm,and admission is free.. You can take a picnic, even play croquet on the lawn or just admire the plants and trees.

Today's track is bang up to date, it's catchy and it's from Laura Mvula...and captures the delicious feeling of escaping from the hurly burly of the city into a "Green garden"...



  1. What lovely pictures.

    There's an oak tree in Savernake Forest (near where I live) that is over 1000 years old. It was a sapling when William I landed in Hastings. Henry VIII hunted wild boar here. Roundheads hid in its branches while Cavaliers marched by. And now it stands next the the cricket pitch - supervising a more gentlemanly way of resolving disputes!

    1. Thanks jo...and I didn't know about YOUR tree! That's wonderful ..being present through so much of our can it still be alive?

  2. I love Belgrave Hall but I didn't know about that tree. What a story!

  3. Ros, I didn't know about the handkerchief tree until this week's fascinating isn't it?? It's a story that you couldn't make up...../

  4. Oh, I enjoyed that wander around the gardens! Must go back and visit again before too long. And the handkerchief tree is wonderful. Looks like a tree of ghosts .... thinking of which, did you meet any?

  5. So pleased that you enjoyed the tour Pippa! Ghosts? No I didn't meet any in the garden....but there are, or course, rumours that ghosts are there. But who knows, on my next visit I may meet one.....