Book review · Garden · Non-fiction

Book review: ‘Peaceful gardens’ by Stephanie Donaldson

When I finished reading ‘Peaceful gardens’ I felt a sense of disappointment. I turned the page thinking there was more to come, only to find I had reached the end. I got this book out of the library, but have enjoyed it so much I’d like to buy a copy to read again.

‘Peaceful gardens’ is what might be described as a coffee table book, full of lovely photos with detailed captions, interspersed with more general text about gardening. Although the front cover is not terribly appealing, the illustrations inside are quite the reverse.

peaceful gardens
“Peaceful gardens” by Stephanie Donaldson (2003)

The author, Stephanie Donaldson, was Gardens Editor for Country Living magazine for many years, and has written a number of other gardening books. Although clearly a knowledgeable gardener, her writing style is easily accessible to novice gardeners like myself. I’ve often been put off gardening books by too much jargon and technical detail; ‘Peaceful gardens’, by contrast, introduces ideas and tips about gardening almost without the reader noticing they’re being instructed. That’s my sort of gardening lesson.

The book is divided into three main sections: ‘peaceful shapes and spaces’, ‘tranquillity for the senses’ and ‘scent and sound’, all beautifully illustrated with photographs giving clear examples of what’s being described in the text. There are ideas and suggestions for rural and urban gardens, although the book struck me as being more heavily weighted towards rural or semi-rural gardens that might have space for a variety of features in versatile areas. The text is well worth reading, and nicely written, but even if all you did was look at the pictures you could easily find inspiration and joy in its contents.

Each year, at the start of spring, I have an urge to do something in the garden. I want to see things growing after the long winter months, but my enthusiasm often wanes rather quickly when tasks seem too daunting or the weather’s not conducive to pottering around outside. Perhaps this year ‘Peaceful gardens’ will provide the impetus I need to fulfil some of my gardening dreams in the months to come.



I’ve made two visits to Iceland, both times with a geologist friend on collecting expeditions, and it’s a place I often think about although it’s some years since I was last there.

Driving through the centre of the country was particularly spectacular although it was often a challenge to see where the road was, given the lack of tarmac and roadside markings. I’m not sure how anyone unfamiliar with the territory would find their way if it weren’t for the tyre tracks of vehicles that had passed the same way before.

Road through the centre of Iceland: rough black gravel patterned with tyre tracks indicating the route.

The roads through the central highlands are only open in the summer, and a 4×4 vehicle is needed to get across country. Rivers flow through this area but there are no bridges over them.

Crossing the rivers meant driving straight through the water over slippery rocks. Some of the rivers were quite deep and fast-flowing, but thanks to my friend’s expert driving we didn’t meet with any accidents.

Preparing to cross a river.
When driving through a river it’s important to keep going, slowly and in a low gear, avoiding calm stretches which could be deep, and following the flow diagonally across from one side to the other.
Reaching the far side without incident came as something of a relief.

A lot of things about Iceland surprised me, and the colours in the landscape made a big impression. At first sight there seemed to be a preponderance of black and dark grey, with obvious patches of green where vegetation was growing, but when I looked more closely there were many more colours in evidence. The palette was subtle, but the variety of shades was remarkable.

I remember standing in the middle of the country, on a high piece of ground, looking all around. Every conceivable colour was represented, in a most unusual selection of muted tones. The pictures below were taken in an area of the Icelandic highlands called Landmannalaugar, part of the Fjallabak Nature Reserve.



On my second visit to Iceland I was hunting for zircons, tiny mineral crystals often found amongst the sediments of a stream. The work involved hanging around rivers, shovelling spadefuls of sediment into a pan and swishing the contents round.


It wasn’t all hard graft though. Driving across the country between different locations meant seeing a variety of scenery, in all sorts of weather. It was August, so there was no snow falling although it was quite chilly at times, especially in the interior. Round the coasts, and in the lowlands, there was some lovely sunshine.

View from a window of a guesthouse we stayed in.

Very close to the guesthouse with the view pictured above, there was a small turf-roofed church with a graveyard. Before setting off on our rock-collecting expeditions one morning, we took a wander round the church.

Little turf-roofed church.
The ground round the church was bumpy and springy with soft grass.
Inside, the little church was plain and restful.

The graveyard was set slightly apart from the building. Each grave was marked with a white wooden cross, set against an impressive backdrop of jagged volcanic rocks.


Like most places, Iceland looked beautiful in the sunshine, but I was glad to see some mistiness as well. I suppose it made me feel at home.


As well as the subtle colours, the shapes in the landscape were striking. Sharp dark peaks and severe inclines would no doubt make for some interesting hiking.



In some places, where you might expect to see white or creamy colours in other countries, in Iceland you get the polar opposite. I remember my dad telling me about beaches he’d been on in Hawaii that were too hot to stand on because of the black sand. I don’t know if it ever gets hot enough in Iceland for that to be an issue.


It’s strange sometimes, the things that become tourist attractions. As we were driving along the south-east coast, my friend pulled off the road to show me a local point of interest. In 1996, following a volcanic eruption, huge chunks of ice were washed off a glacier. As they flowed down to the coast they ripped a metal bridge apart. All that’s left of the bridge now is two massive twisted metal girders that have become a sort of monument to the awesome power of nature.

My party trick: supporting metal girders with one hand. Note the picnic table, thoughtfully provided so that visitors can enjoy their sandwiches while admiring this curious monument.

Iceland is well known for certain aspects of its natural environment, particularly its glaciers and hot springs. Vatnajökul, one of the largest glaciers in Europe, creeps slowly down the south-eastern part of the country, occupying over 8% of Iceland’s landmass.

For many visitors to Iceland a highlight is the famous Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa in the south-west of the country. When I arrived, my friend picked me up at the airport (which is near the Blue Lagoon) and we visited the spa briefly, but didn’t test the waters. We had other fish to fry, and as we drove to our first destination there were plenty of other signs of geothermal activity to be seen. Plumes of steam spouted out of the ground in unexpected places and grassy hillsides were dotted with chimneys of vapour drifting upwards. At one place we drove past a coiling snake of steam boiling up out of a heated river.


Near the river a hot pool was open to visitors, bearing a sign warning that the water temperature was 80˚F (about 27˚C). Unlike the Blue Lagoon, it was temptingly deserted but unfortunately we didn’t have time for a dip.


One evening, en route to our accommodation for the night, we stopped at a place that transported me into the realms of fantasy fiction. It seemed to me the sort of place a hobbit or wizard might make their home. To my mind, quite a bit of the country had a fantasy feel about it, with the black rocks and the lunar-type landscape.


Perhaps the strangest thing I saw in Iceland was an iceberg lake on the south coast. The edge of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier is about a mile inland and the lake sits between it and the coast. When icebergs break off the glacier, they float into the lake, which flows into a river that discharges into the North Atlantic Ocean. As the ice travels through the lake towards the coast, the icebergs break down into smaller bits of ice you can pick up in your hand.

Icebergs calving off the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier.
Smaller bergy bits floating towards the coast.
Chunks of ice small enough to pick up in your hands.

On leaving Iceland we had to take my friend’s truck back to the UK, so rather than flying we took a ferry, via the Faroe Islands, to the north of Scotland. The ferry left Iceland from the town of Seyðisfjörður on the east coast. It’s a remote part of the country and getting there involved a beautiful road journey. Coming round the mountain pass above it, we had a splendid view of the town and its fjord.


I don’t know if I’ll ever return to Iceland, but I would certainly welcome the opportunity. I found it a surprising and strange, but endlessly fascinating and magical, place.

An Icelandic sheep keeping an eye on proceedings.
Photography · Scotland

Friday Photo: Portpatrick Harbour

Boats in Portpatrick Harbour, in the south-west of Scotland.

Portpatrick is a small coastal village in the far south-west of Scotland, and only a few years ago the state of its harbour was a cause for concern. Suffering from poor facilities and disintegrating infrastructure, there was serious doubt over its future as a working port. Desperate to prevent it from falling into disuse, local villagers formed a trust and bought the harbour from its private owners.

By 2015, struggling to pay back a loan that had been used to finance the purchase, the villagers decided to sell shares in the harbour to raise money. The trust became Scotland’s first community benefit society (an organisation run entirely for the benefit of the local community, with profits being put back into the community rather than given to shareholders). Three weeks after the shares went on sale the trust had raised the money they needed (£100,000).

A new film called Keepers, starring Gerard Butler, is currently being filmed in the area. The film is inspired by the true story of three lighthouse keepers who mysteriously disappeared from the remote Flannan Isles (off the north-west of Scotland) in 1900. Portpatrick harbour is one of the locations being used for the film.

Garden · Photography · Scotland

Scotland’s Gardens: Backhouse at Rossie Estate

The Backhouse family has a long history of working with plants. Throughout the past six generations the family has produced a number of horticulturists and botanists, including pioneering daffodil grower, William Backhouse II, who was born in the early 1800s.

Later generations carried on the tradition of daffodil development, and many varieties of daffodil can be seen each spring at Rossie Estate, home of the current generation of the family. In 2016 the Backhouse daffodils were acknowledged with National Plant Collection status, a conservation scheme for cultivated plants in the UK.

I visited Backhouse Garden, which is located just outside the village of Auchtermuchty in Fife, for the first time this week. Unfortunately I was too late to see the daffodils, but there was no shortage of other things to look at.

The first thing that caught my eye was a circular grass maze that reminded me of my youth. My mum used to leave the grass to grow long in our back garden and then mow a maze into it, for the entertainment of me and my siblings.

Circular grass maze at Backhouse Garden, with standing stone in the middle. (Note the intrepid adventurer about to enter the maze. My dad had a bash at the maze but after wandering around, sweltering in the sunshine and getting nowhere, he eventually gave it up as a bad job).

The maze was situated in a very large walled garden that had a number of interesting features. Around the inside, expanses of wall supported numerous varieties of heritage fruit trees. The apples from some of these trees go into the garden’s own apple juice, which I can confirm is absolutely delicious.

Apple trees in walled garden at Backhouse
Fruit trees growing against a bit of the walled garden. Dead daffodils can be seen in the foreground, in front of small box hedges. All round the garden there were decaying signs of the national collection of daffodils, remnants indicating what must have been a magnificent display.

Along from the grass maze was an extensive herb garden, filled with culinary plants. Two elegant seats and a table positioned among the herbs made me wish a waiter would appear with a silver salver bearing afternoon tea.

afternoon tea table at Backhouse

Beyond the herb garden lay a succession of arched trellises with roses growing up them. I imagine later in the summer when the roses come out it must look, and possibly smell, beautiful.


The wiggly path beneath the trellises was designed to represent the double helix of a DNA molecule. The twisting strands were picked out in grey stones set against a background of crushed white shells.

There were several other references to science and art in the garden, as well as a fascinating water feature. The water bubbled up into a well-like structure, creating vortices on the surface.

Water feature at Backhouse
You can’t tell what’s going on in this picture, but the water came up in the middle of the feature and swirled around the shallow curved areas in a quite mesmerising manner.

Disappearing again through the holes in the middle of the structure, the water reappeared at the bottom, pouring into a long straight channel leading to a pond guarded by lions.

Lions guarding the pond with water flowing down from the mesmerising water feature.

In other parts of the walled garden, flowers burgeoned in beds lined with hedges.

Burgeoning flowers at Backhouse

Beyond the walls lay other attractions for the visitor. These included a putting green, which I didn’t have time to investigate, and a tree-lined walk to a Covenanter’s Tomb, which I did go and see.

The start of the walk to the Covenanter’s Tomb.

It was an usually hot day and the dappled shade of young trees along a grassy path was very welcome.

grassy path to Covenanters' Tomb
En route to the Covenanter’s Tomb.

To get to the grassy path, a stone style had to be negotiated. It was challenging for someone with mobility problems but my mum, who is still recovering from a knee replacement operation earlier this year, managed it okay. The same could not be said for the second style that came after the grassy path.

Although she climbed gamely up one side, the other side proved rather too difficult, with the first step down being a 2 foot drop.

Style number 2 with a steep drop

She decided against attempting it and later learned of another way into the area via a flat path leading off the main driveway into the garden. (Something to remember for the next visit.)

Not being hampered by a dodgy knee, I went over the style and had a look at the Covenanter’s Tomb.

Covenanter's Tomb
The Covenanter’s Tomb, seen from one end of the building. (The wooden fence is there to deter people from climbing on the ruins.)

Deliberately constructed to look unimportant (there was never a roof, so that seen from a distance it would look like an abandoned building) the tomb is thought to contain the remains of Sir James Scott and Lady Antonia Scott, both of whom were Covenanters in the 17th Century. (The Covenanters were a group of Scottish Protestants who opposed the belief in the divine right of kings. Their name came from a document called the National Covenant, which supporters signed in 1638.)

Covenanter's Tomb 2

On arrival at the garden (before we saw any of the above) we went straight to the cafe, housed in an old stable block at the entrance to the garden, for a spot of luncheon.

Garden entrance with cafe on the left.

The menu was unusual, offering daily specials using ingredients grown in the garden. I was tempted by the prospect of homegrown asparagus on toast, but opted instead for Orkney cheddar and homemade apple chutney open sandwiches. My parents had bread with hummus, and mini croissants with cheese and ham. We all enjoyed Backhouse apple juice, which was extremely refreshing on a hot day.

Before leaving the garden we called in at the cafe again for afternoon refreshments. The ‘cake of the day’ was lemon drizzle and we each had a slice, with breakfast tea for the parents and Earl Grey for me. The teas were loose leaf and branded with the names of previous Backhouse botanists. The sturdy glass teapots held more tea than we could drink, but we certainly drank our fill and it was a splendid way to round things off.

tea and cke
Tea and cake at Backhouse Garden. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a little vase of buttercups on a tea table before.

Backhouse at Rossie Estate is open from 1 April to 30 September, Wednesday to Sunday (closed Monday and Tuesday) from 10:00 to 16:00. Entry to the garden costs £5 for adults, £4 for senior citizens, £3 for children aged 5-16, and under 5s go free. If you’re a member of the Royal Horticultural Society you can get in for free on Fridays. If you’d like to read more about Backhouse, you can visit their website here:

Garden · Photography · Scotland

Scotland’s Gardens: Dundee Botanic Garden

I enjoy visiting large gardens and although my photographs rarely, if ever, do these wonderful places justice, I thought I’d start a series on Scotland’s gardens to illustrate the botanical splendour on offer in this part of the world.

The first garden I’m featuring is a relatively new botanical garden, set up and run by the University of Dundee. The garden is spread out over 9 hectares, divided into geographical areas containing plant species from all over the world.

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The glasshouses and Mediterranean area of Dundee Botanic Garden.

From the early 1970s, when the garden was created, it has been run on a small budget. The objective of maintaining it as cheaply as possible remains an important policy of the garden today.

Beyond the glasshouses lies the Garden of Evolution, which contains some impressive dry stone walling.

Dry stone walling in the Garden of Evolution.
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Entrance to the Garden of Evolution.

When the garden was in the planning stages, the only suitable site that wasn’t too far from the University lay just north of the River Tay. From the southern edge of the garden you can see the Tay, separated from the garden by a busy road and Dundee’s small airport. The amount of traffic nearby makes this far from the quietest of gardens, but perhaps it makes having a garden here all the more beneficial.

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Dundee Airport and the River Tay, seen from Dundee Botanic Garden. The land beyond the river is the northern boundary of the Kingdom of Fife.

If you’ve spent much time in Scotland you might agree with me that hothouses are a welcome addition to any garden. The ones at Dundee Botanic Garden were much appreciated on the rather nippy day when I was taking these photographs.

Entrance to Dundee Botanic Garden’s hothouses.

My camera lens kept steaming up in the jungly atmosphere inside, but it was bliss to let the heat seep into my bones as I strolled amongst exotic foliage.

I wasn’t the only one enjoying the warm, moist atmosphere.


As you might expect from a university-run enterprise, Dundee Botanic Garden places an emphasis on education. The garden provides a wide range of programmes for school children of all ages as well as occasional courses for adults.

The garden is open all year round (apart from a few days over Christmas and New Year) and at time of writing a day ticket costs £3.90 for adults and £2.90 for senior citizens, children and students. Students of Dundee University and Dundee College, and members of the Royal Horticultural Society get in for free.

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Striking white bark and a white turret, Dundee Botanic Garden.
Photography · Postage stamp · Royal Mail

Postage stamps: bees

In August 2015 Royal Mail brought out a series of stamps depicting six bee species found in Britain. Prior to the release of these stamps, research was commissioned to find out how much people in the UK knew about bees.

The research revealed that although 87% of Brits said they cared about the bee population, 53% couldn’t name any species of bee. The UK is home to around 250 different bee species, but over 70% of people surveyed thought there were fewer than 20 different species buzzing around the British Isles.

I’m sorry to say I hadn’t heard of any of the bees featured on the stamps: the Scabious Bee, Great Yellow Bumblebee, Northern Colletes Bee, Bilberry Bumblebee, Large Mason Bee and Potter Flower Bee. The first two have become familiar to me now because I have the stamps that feature them.

Two bee stamps

The Great Yellow Bumblebee, shown in the 1st class stamp on the left enjoying the flowers of Bird’s Foot Trefoil, is one of the UK’s rarest bumblebees. It is found only in the northernmost highlands of Scotland and on some of the Scottish islands. The population has declined by 80% over the past century, due to changing agricultural practices across the UK. In the areas where the Great Yellow Bumblebee survives, wild flower meadows proliferate and traditional crofting practises hold out against modern intensive farming.

Great yellow bumblebee
The Great Yellow Bumblebee, happy to buzz around the quiet places of northern Scotland.

The Scabious Bee is depicted in the 2nd class stamp sitting on its namesake flower, the Field Scabious. This plant is essential to the bee’s survival, and is found in undisturbed sandy and grassland areas. Like the Great Yellow Bumblebee, the Scabious Bee’s population has declined in recent decades and the bee is now confined to southern England and some parts of Wales. It is one of Britain’s largest solitary bees and is a so-called ‘mining bee’ because it burrows into the earth to create its nest.

Scabious bee
The Scabious bee, content in the more southerly climes of the UK.

Although neither of the bees featured on these stamps can be found in the area where I live, I have noticed several different species of bee in the garden. I don’t know what they are, but they all seem to love the Pieris flowers.