Lotus Eating


I've so far said very little about the physical shock of removing myself from the clutches of a hard, grinding USDA Zone 5 winter in Clinton Corners, NY to a moist and mossy, mid-forties USDA Zone 8 'winter' in Cambridge, England. For someone as interested in horticulture as I this has meant one moment of astonishment and exclamation after another.  I arrived in mid-January (mid-January!) to find winter aconites, crocuses, snowdrops and hellebores blooming everywhere. A number of shrubs like Daphne and Mahonia Japonica, with ravishing fragrance, are now at the height of their powers.

It so happens that this town boasts a fine botanic garden. The brainchild of John Henslow — a professor of botany at Cambridge University and a teacher of Charles Darwin — the garden comprises 40 acres and began development in 1846. I'm quite sure that my stalwart and husband Robert Webber and I courted in this garden thirty years ago (I have a dim-ish memory of being there together and feeling absolutely thrilled by the novel intimacy of my hand in his); but I knew nothing about plants then. In fact, for all these years I've remembered the place as an arboretum rather than the beautifully designed and intriguingly filled garden that it is.

So my forays this time have been to feast my eyes on the orchid festival now in progress in the garden's extensive Glasshouse. Midwinter is the time orchids bloom in this half of the world. I made my way over on my bike in the rain. Here are some of the pleasures for you snow-blind, winter-weary Zone 5s:

A Paphiopedilum hybrid

A different Paphiopedilum hybrid

The second type of orchid I encountered in the Glasshouse was the Cymbidiums, all of which varieties, incredibly, seem to have their origins in the land of haggis and bagpipes. Who knew Scotland was an orchid-breeding hotbed? Please share if there are any orchid historians out there.

Cymbidium Loch Lomond x Angelica's Loch

Cymbidium 'Loch Helen'

Cymbidium 'Sandridge Torch'. This orchid's
coloring is a combination of rust and port.

Miniature Cymbidium Strathclyde 'Lewes Fire'. This picture
does no justice; this orchid is literally merlot-colored.

Next I found the miraculous Vanda orchids.
The Vanda orchids are like exotic birds. Suspended from
 the rafters, living off the air and nestled in small
 contraptions called Vanda boxes (I swear; do a web
 search). They must hang above pools of water which
 provide the requisite humidity.

This is a Vanda hybrid white. Another case of my skills at
photography failing to do the luminosity of these flowers
 justice. They are by far the most beautiful of all the Vandas:
 white petals like crisp bed-sheets with perfect lavender centers. 

The Vanda hybrid blue.

This photo below is loosely one of a Vanda hybrid pink. But really it's a stealth photograph of a couple who — while I was lurking in the Vandas — appeared with a photographer and proceeded to have their wedding photos taken. They were both middle-aged. They had just come from the registry office. She was French, like a worn and emaciated Piaf bird in black and brown knit with a black net eye veil. He was English and unremarkable in a standard bad suit. Their appearance during my orchid investigations was a gift. "Okay.............stand there," said the photographer. "Darleeng," she said, "Don't hold me so tight." "Is that alright?" She, fretful: "Mmm." Despite my excitement I had the presence of mind to offer them felicitations. They seemed pleased.
The wedding couple obscured by Vanda
hybrid pink.

Following this excitement I took myself off to the Canary Island House (arid) to wait for the rain outside to stop. There are definitely drawbacks to Zone 8. But when it finally did stop and I began to walk towards the garden's entrance, imagine my astonishment when this ran across my path:

A Reeves's Muntjac deer. Also called a barking deer.

It looked like it could be a small dog; or a large rodent; or a deer whose legs had been sawn off midway. Fortunately I bumped into a garden employee who was able to explain what I'd just seen. There are about 5 to seven of these little deer living in the botanic garden. They're rarely seen. She told me they all seem to eat the most expensive plant material. (Incredible, isn't it? Their bastard relatives in Clinton Corners do the same goddamned thing!)I've now read that Muntjac come originally from southeast China and the ones in England are the result of escapees from captivity.  They're about a foot and a half tall and have little tusks growing out of the sides of their mouths. There's a governmental open season on Muntjac; but looking like that you'd have to be pretty hard to take their extermination up as your idée fixe.

Getting To Grips


Finding my feet in Cambridge has proved a far more faltering and unsure course than I predicted. Somehow I expected I'd arrive and hit the ground running but this hasn't been the case at all. So bear with me.

The centuries-old open-air market in the center
of Cambridge runs 7 days a week. 

I thought I'd remember every nook and cranny of this town only to find that — despite much of it being ancient and thus unchanging — it's hugely changed. More prosperous-looking now, its hugger-mugger shops are upmarket and shiny and clearly cater to a more sophisticated clientele than when I was first here.

Trinity Street, across from Trinity College. Lots of
charming little one-off shops.

Yes, I see many more chain-store premises (frankly now a pretty ubiquitous first-world problem);

This mall....err...arcade wasn't here 30 years ago
 and is full of chain stores.

but there are also plenty of much more interesting stand-alones.

And in thirty years there's been a tech boom running alongside the business of the university which has changed the face of the area. Collectively this cluster of start-up companies concentrating on biotechnology, software and electronics is called the Silicon Fen and its businesses operate in a number of purpose-built 'science parks' sprinkled in and around. Very like Silicon Valley, the success of the Silicon Fen has affected the housing market and sent prices through the roof. There's still plenty of new luxury building going on around town — with the really prosperous boffins commuting from fancy piles in the surrounding countryside. And with all this new focus, getting back and forth to London has become a dream — a 50-or-so-minute dash versus the bad old days of slow, stopping trains that could take two hours. But the result of all this development is that London aside, I read that Cambridge is now the most expensive place in the UK in which to live. I find the price of everything here shocking; but then I'm trying to slide along on a modest budget. 

During a recent cab-ride my driver was eager to talk to me about the interesting work in which these Cambridge technology companies were engaged. "My brother-in-law was explaining it to me," he said; "They're working on drones the size of flies over there. Can you believe it? Drones the size of flies!" I must tell you I've really been mulling that one and intend to make enquiries.

By the way, still no sign of Prince William.