A Garden for the middle classes: A tour around Blakesley Hall’s garden

Blakesley Hall was once a modern and fashionable middle-class home, located in what was the countryside, covering acres of land. While the Hall was certainly an impressive feature in the landscape, how much do we really know about its gardens? The original owner of Blakesley, Richard Smalbroke, a wealthy middle-class gentleman, would have wanted his garden to be just as impressive as his home, stopping onlookers in their tracks. In fact, Blakesley Hall was built at a time when the very concept of a garden was evolving and the Smalbrokes would have certainly been influenced by the changing fashions and ideals of the period.

The Herb Garden at Blakesley where useful plants would have been grown by the housewife.

The Tudors were very fond of formality and it was this which characterised gardening in the 16th and 17th centuries. This was a time when gardens were designed to demonstrate power, wealth and status, instantly letting onlookers know that you were ‘important’. Certainly, fashions filtered down through society, and a man like Richard would have wanted a garden that reflected his status, maybe even exaggerated it to complement his modern home. Our garden today is probably more formal than the one which would have originally existed at Blakesley, but it certainly reflected the designs which were popular at the time.

Up until the mid 1550s gardens were viewed as practical spaces to grow and produce food, and not as we know today, as spaces to ‘unwind’, relax and grow plants to admire simply for their beauty.

It was hard work in the Tudor garden. Notice the formality and straight lines of the beds and borders (Source: Tudor Garden 1485-1603).

The catalyst for this change was the Renaissance where new concepts were emerging from France and Italy, and pleasure or flower gardens, as they were known, were quickly becoming the new fashions of the day. While growing food remained important, the concept of how a garden should be used was slowly changing, and the very idea of a garden solely used for pleasure, was slowly being embraced by society.

Although a very wealthy middle-class gentleman, Richard couldn’t have afforded the kind of luxuries present at the local and wealthier residence of Kenilworth Castle, but would have nevertheless maintained a well-presented garden that certainly impressed onlookers. And not forgetting that because Blakesley was also a farm, most of the land would have been used to grow and produce crops, keep animals and to ultimately be functional.

The Elizabethan Garden at Kenilworth Castle, depicting the formality of the Tudor period.

Blakesley’s garden consists of many parts. From the intricacy of the knot garden, to the formality of the herb garden, families like the Smalbrokes would have used their outdoor areas for both pleasure as well as functional spaces. And the Smalbrokes did exactly this at Blakesley. Just as we beautify our own gardens today, by spending money on the latest plants, furniture or water features, other Tudor families would have also invested money and time into their outdoor areas, making them attractive and pleasant spaces.

We have no documentary or archaeological evidence about the type of garden that existed at Blakesley but we can be certain that there would have been a sizable kitchen garden present for food production. The kitchen garden formed the focal point of daily life and was therefore much bigger in size than the one we have today, probably the size of our herb garden. It was the life-hub of the household, providing necessary food all year round. Our kitchen and herb garden are separate today, but would have been interchangeable in the Tudor and Stuart periods, consisting of fruit trees, herbs and vegetables, or useful plants as they were known in this period. The terms kitchen garden and vegetables would not have been used; rather useful plants was applied to all manner of plants and herbs at this time.

Blakesley’s Kitchen Garden used for food production.

Also known as the pottager, the kitchen garden was located very near to the house. It was both a formal and practical space, with straight lines and geometrically-laid-out beds, intertwined with paths creating a sense of balance which would have been very pleasing to the eye.  But the primary reason for rectangular beds separated by strips of land as the photo above illustrates, was practical so as to allow access to the plants so they could be easily tended to and looked after.  Essentially, this area was a utilitarian space but the period favoured function co-existing alongside beauty. Take a look at the photo below; gardens had a sense of regularity and often included repeated patterns and this is the style that the Tudors and Stuarts loved so much.

A room with a view. The Herb Garden at Blakesley with lavender in full bloom; a popular Tudor plant.

The population at that time had a great belief in the power of herbs as medicinal remedies so they were widely grown and used by all levels of society, particularly as medical doctors were rare. This was the Tudor housewife’s domain and she would have been responsible for growing and harvesting vegetables for her family, whilst working alongside her servants.

From the familiar lavender, to rarer herbs and plants like sweet cicely and borage, our garden reflects popular plants present in the 16th and 17th centuries. Sweet cicely produces a wonderful aniseed smell that freely floats through our garden and would have had many uses in Tudor times, but its main use was to aid digestion and soothe stomachs. And according to Nicholas Culpepper, the 17th-century herbalist, it was also “very good for old people that are dull and without courage”. Maybe a little harsh but the point here is that herbs and plants were widely grown and used medicinally because their use was believed to aid health and well-being. Another common complaint, the headache, was treated using a concoction of lavender, sage, marjoram, roses and rue. But fresh herbs were only available in season, so they had to be preserved for use throughout the year by making salves, syrups, candies and sweet waters.

Essentially the idea of distilling was to try and preserve the essence of herbs all year round. Without question, every lady who could have afforded a still room would have had one, using it primarily for the production of medicines for her family.

Moving on to the aesthetic area, the pleasure  or flower  garden as it was also known, is where intricate knot gardens and rows of tulips were planted for their wonderful display and bursts of colour in spring. Our Friends’ Garden represents this idea with the sole purpose of simply looking attractive, and not necessarily having a function as such.  Colourful, attractive plants played their part in alluring the attention of onlookers and fulfilling the Smalbroke’s desire for simple pleasures. Tulips were a very popular Tudor plant, not just because of their beauty but because they acted as a status symbol for the wealthy. Only the rich could have afforded Tulips and the bulbs were even used as a form of currency in Holland. The Smalbrokes would have most likely had tulips in their flower garden at Blakesley as well as other eye-catching plants such as foxgloves and roses. In short the knot garden at Blakesley is perhaps the most recognised Tudor creation and represents the period’s love of formality, intricacy and structure, and perhaps what best represents a Tudor garden.

Colourful tulips in the Friends’ Garden (Pleasure Garden).

It wasn’t until the 18th century that gardens experienced a rebirth moving away from the straight lines of the Tudor period to a natural curved design that we’re more familiar with today. Yet the period’s influence and legacy is still present today, and lives on through the formal flower borders and beds that we have in our very own gardens at home. So this summer when we sit out in our gardens sipping drinks and pottering around in our allotments, think about how much we owe to the Tudors for embracing the idea of the pleasure garden and bestowing this wonderful pastime on to us. Unquestionably, the Renaissance was truly a period of new discovery that helped to create the modern garden we’re familiar with and love so much today.

Spring is here…almost

A rare occurrence in Britain- the sun was actually shining today, and it feels like spring may have finally arrived, so obviously I didn’t need much encouragement to grab my camera and head out into the garden.

Since I was small I’ve always loved pottering around in the garden, planting bulbs and adding colour, and one thing I have on my ‘to do’ list this year is adding a vegetable patch, but making it puppy proof is going to be difficult. In fact, I think it’s going to be near impossible- still I love a challenge. But today, as I ventured out into my garden I could see daffodils and tulips emerging, the first buds on the trees, and colour finally making an appearance.

It’s no surprise that I love capturing the intricate details of plants, so I had my macro lens at hand, ready to capture those hidden details. And after watering the garden, I then noticed a menagerie of droplets on the daffodils, delicately glistening in the sunlight, and I really couldn’t miss the opportunity to capture them. I hope you enjoy.

Daffodil droplet


macro daff

And I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, the world just looks better through a macro lens. Happy spring!

What inspired Birmingham’s first Pumpkin Flotilla?

New York during ‘fall’. Think russet-coloured leaves, and pumpkins adorning stoops of brownstones, along beautiful tree-lined streets. My idea of heaven!

NYC pumpkins beautifully adorn stoops.
NYC pumpkins beautifully adorn stoops. ©Anne-Marie Hayes

Many films growing up sparked a love affair with New York, but none more so than Home Alone 2 Lost in New York. Ever since I can remember, autumn and winter have been my favourite time of year, and in 2010 my twin sister and I managed to tick Christmas in New York off our bucket list. Now it was time for Halloween, another one of our obsessions. The idea of seeing copper-coloured leaves, and pumpkins, filling the narrow streets of New York City was a dream, something I had always wanted to see. So in 2012 we booked our flights and I was in charge of research. I was busily looking for exciting things to do and I came across a pumpkin flotilla in Central Park. I’d never heard of such an idea so naturally it intrigued me- this was something I HAD to see.

About four days before we were due to travel, I received an email from one of my American cousins, with the subject ‘Potential for severe weather- next week’, so curiously, I opened it and it read….

“see below girls- it could have an impact on your time in NY and PA, so keep an eye on the weather and prepare accordingly. It may also affect us travelling into Philly.”

I thought, okay, a bit of wind and rain won’t affect us too much will it? Little did I know that the biggest storm to hit New York and the East Coast, and the largest Atlantic Hurricane in history was on its way. It was dubbed many names, ‘100 year storm’, ‘Frankenstorm’, and ‘Superstorm Sandy’, but  the the email above was of course referring to Hurricane Sandy.

The day after Sandy hit New York, fire fighters are removing fallen trees and debris.
The day after Sandy hit New York, fire fighters are removing fallen trees and debris. ©Anne-Marie Hayes

Not surprisingly, the flotilla didn’t go ahead that weekend. In fact New York City unprecedently shut down, the subway was suspended, shops closed for days and flights in and out of the East Coast were cancelled. The last time this happened was in 2001 during September 11th.

Washington Square Park. All of NYC's parks were closed due to fallen trees.
Washington Square Park. All of NYC’s parks were closed due to fallen trees. ©Anne-Marie Hayes

Our visit was a truly historic experience and we still managed to go about our trip- we just walked 100s of blocks to most places throughout the city, and even got the first train out of New York to Philadelphia, two days after the hurricane hit. Walking the streets and seeing Manhattan in complete darkness is something I’ll never forget. The city that never sleeps was unrecognisable.

Documenting our holiday. Shops closed the day before the storm hit.
Documenting our holiday. Shops closed the day before the storm hit. ©Anne-Marie Hayes

Everything below 34th Street lost power. This is 5th Avenue in darkness. Luckily our hotel's generator kicked in and we kept power
Everything below 34th Street lost power. This is 5th Avenue in darkness. Luckily our hotel’s generator kicked in and we kept power ©Anne-Marie Hayes

It wasn’t until a year later that I suddenly thought about bringing the flotilla to Birmingham and could think of no better place than Sarehole Mill. The Mill Pond would be perfect. I tentatively suggested the idea to Irene DeBoo, who was the Property Manager at the time. I thought she’d laugh it off as a stupid idea (but in a polite way of course),  and I was thrilled that she completely loved the idea and immediately started making plans a year in advance. Irene recruited the volunteers, two of which really made it happen, Allan Long and Dave Broadfield. Both designed and built the floats that the pumpkins would sit on while floating on the Mill pond. We had a test run a week before and everything went perfectly!

The test run at Sarehole Mill.
The test run at Sarehole Mill. ©Anne-Marie Hayes

Last year’s flotilla was a massive success and I hope this year’s one will also be. Without the support of Irene and the creativity and ingenuity of the Mill volunteers, I doubt my dream would have been fulfilled. It goes without saying that I owe a lot to them!

So if you’re free this half term, try to make it to the UK’s only pumpkin flotilla and hopefully we won’t have to battle with the storm of a generation, maybe just a little bit of rain. But in fact, I owe a lot to that fateful trip, because if Hurricane Sandy hadn’t hit New York, I may not have been inspired to bring the flotilla to Birmingham, but rather, savour my memories of Central Park.

Pumpkins adorn the Mill Mond during the test run.
Pumpkins adorn the Mill Mond during the test run. ©Anne-Marie Hayes

Sarehole’s Pumpkin Flotilla is on 29 and 30 October. To book tickets please call 0121 348 8263.

Happy Halloween!

A Weed Through A Macro Lens

Last week I set myself the challenge of photographing weeds, yes, weeds! I can guess what you’re thinking- weeds are ugly, pointless, perennially-annoying things that we try to rid from our lawns and borders every year! Think again. Believe it or not, weeds are often much more photogenic close-up than a flower, because I find their structure is more striking and intricate when magnified.


So, what’s the difference between a weed and a flower? Well, not a lot actually. Simply put, a weed is defined as “a plant growing out of place”, so any plant could be considered a weed if it’s not where you want it. Think a poppy growing in your lawn- maybe you don’t want it there. Maybe you do- it’s simply a matter of opinion. But enough with the science, let’s get to the artistic stuff.

Wildflower Meadow
Wildflower Meadow

I decided to photograph some weeds around the local area, and I have to say, I much prefer delving deep into a weed’s structural beauty than that of a traditional flower. I think it’s because a weed surprises you with its fragile beauty, something that we rarely see as we’re only too keen to remove them from our gardens. I myself have been guilty of mowing over buttercups, dandelions and daisies, but now I see them differently, and maybe in the future I won’t be too quick to rid them from my garden. Through a macro lens, a weed is suddenly transformed into a graceful-looking and delicate structure. Its rough and unrefined texture instantly changing into an ethereal form, or at least, that’s what I see anyway.

newhall 9 (2)

Without weeds our ecosystem would disappear because the array of animals and insects that rely on them would no longer be supported and able to survive, their habitat destroyed. That’s why wildflower meadows are so important, but sadly they’re in decline.

Wild thistles in a wildflower meadow
Wild thistles in a wildflower meadow

It was only when I was photographing weeds last week that I actually stopped to notice the number of fauna that depend on weeds and wildflowers, as the bees and butterflies nonchalantly went about their business, hovering above me. And as I held my camera, ready to take my next snap,  it occurred to me that I’ve seen a distinct lack of butterflies this summer, but as soon as I walked into a wildflower meadow just a mile away from my house, there it was, a menagerie of butterflies and bees, freely floating through the summer breeze.

Butterflies love wildflower meadows
Butterflies love wildflower meadows

Butterflies love weeds, so manicuring our lawns to perfection and introducing non-native species of plants is actually doing more harm than good, to wildlife that is. So if you have time next spring, sow some seeds and leave a section of your garden to become a little overgrown, and simply let nature do its thing. You won’t be disappointed with the result, especially when nature takes hold once more, and if you’re a keen photographer like me, what a sight it will be!

The Beauty of Rain Through a Macro lens

Okay, okay, I know we moan about the rain and constantly talk about the weather in Britain, longing for hot summer days to arrive so we can bask in the glorious sunshine, but have you ever stopped for a minute to notice the beauty and intricacy of rain? The structure and fragility of a rain droplet is simply beautiful, especially as it balances precariously on a tulip petal, displaying all of its cylindrical beauty. Capturing its bubble-like quality is something I absolutely love, and as it rained briefly overnight this weekend, I grabbed my camera and out into the garden I went to take a photo or two.

april am 11

Rain has an ethereal quality that sometimes we fail to notice, as we’re more content with keeping our hair dry and sheltering from the impending downpours that are so commonplace in this country. And let’s be honest, do we really care how pretty rain water is if we want to keep our feet dry? Perhaps not.

april am 9

The beauty of shooting in macro is that a droplet of rain is swiftly transformed from an invisible and microscopic structure into this larger-than-life, visible entity that has a fairy-like quality from another world. As I said in my previous blog, macro photography delicately frames the structures of nature that we don’t usually see giving us a rare glimpse into a hidden world- a world we really shouldn’t have access to.

april am 12

My sister and I adored Art at school, studying it until A Level, and we actually owe a lot to our art teachers, because at age 14, we were introduced to artist, Georgia O’Keefe, best known for her paintings of flowers and skyscrapers (another one of my loves). Today, as I look through the camera lens, I am still inspired by O’Keefe and attempt to somehow create my own O’Keefe-like images that will continue to inspire me for years to come.

april am 14

Next time you’re sheltering from the rain, or get caught in an inevitable downpour, maybe imagine the beauty that is ready and waiting to be captured, and if not, make sure you carry an umbrella, but just remember what you’re missing.

Thanks for reading!

Follow me on Twitter @AnneMHayes

Spring Through a Macro Lens

It’s April and spring has well and truly arrived, with the browns and fawns of winter finally disappearing, slowing transforming into the lush, rich greens of spring. So what better reason to dig out my macro lens and start snapping. Macro photography is something that has fascinated me for a long time but I only started shooting in macro relatively recently, around two years ago.

ladybird TT 2
A lady bird making its way in Thinktank’s Science Garden, Birmingham. ©Anne-Marie Hayes 2015

I especially love the freedom a macro lens gives the photographer, enabling you to get a sneak peek into an intricate world, and up-close and personal with nature itself. There’s so much that we can’t see with the naked eye, but a macro lens instantly changes all of that, taking you on a journey into a ‘hidden’ world in a matter of seconds. As soon as I look through the lens, I’m propelled into a new world filled with intricate textures and vibrant colours, and that ‘hidden’ world instantly becomes larger than life.

Ladybird and tulip 2
Up-close and personal with a lady bird and a tulip ©Anne-Marie Hayes 2015

The texture and detail a macro lens captures is just stunning, framing the delicate structures of nature that we don’t usually see, and I feel as though I’m being allowed behind-the-scenes access when I look through this lens, obtaining a unique glimpse of nature.  My favourite things to photograph range from flowers, lady birds and bees, but kindly asking a bumble bee to stay still is not an easy feat, so you’ll definitely need some patience if you want to shoot in macro. And don’t even try to shoot on a windy day because that is near to impossible- still I love a challenge.

Capturing the delicacy of a tulip. ©Anne-Marie Hayes 2015

Photography has literally changed the way I view everything, constantly looking for my next photo, and with the beauty of spring finally taking hold, I can’t wait for the sudden bursts of colour in the summer as our gardens transform into lush and leafy spaces yet again. So, when you walk around your garden this spring, think of that hidden world that really isn’t that invisible after all.

Just hanging around
Just hanging around ©Anne-Marie Hayes 2015

Look out for my blog post next month as I capture the South of France through a macro lens, or follow me on Twitter @AnneMHayes.

Thanks for reading.

Anne-Marie Hayes