Posts by Emma Latham

I'm a writer of fiction and non-fiction.

A Crash Course in Survival

Brian Latham, 96, remembers flying a glider over the Rhine in Operation Varsity in 1945, the last and largest airborne assault of the Second World War 75 years ago today.

‘It was probably the most exciting and frightening day of my life.’ 

Our landing zone was by Hamminkeln station. In this photograph, you can see the station on the right, and my glider behind the trees. I’d just banged it into the ground. The crashed glider on the tracks in front – my friend Jameson was in that one. We lost so many on my squadron that day.

Sgt Pilot Brian Latham - Horsa Gliders, Mk II. Operation Varsity - aerial view at Hamminkeln railway station. D-day plus one - 25th March 1945.
Photo © Airborne Assault Paradata

I was a 20-year-old RAF pilot, hoping to fly Spitfires when I was seconded to The Glider Pilot Regiment. They’d lost so many pilots at Arnhem (in September 1944) that RAF pilots were to volunteer for glider duties. Initially, very few volunteered. Then we were told if we didn’t we’d either go in the infantry or down the mines – we’d never fly again. So we became voluntary conscripts and very bolshie.

The Regiment was considered a Corps d’Elite, on a par with Commandoes and Special Forces

We trained hard for what we knew would be a crossing over the Rhine. In a short time, we learnt to handle the Horsa (glider) under all conditions and to operate with any of the troops we may carry, as airborne infantry. God, we were fit in those days – I couldn’t even walk up to the town now.

We’d won our Red Berets and on March 23rd, we loaded the glider, put our possessions in bags to be sent home in case we did not return and wrote letters. I don’t think any of us expected to come back.

Takeoff was at 0600 on March 24th from Gosfield, Essex. My load was a mortar section of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry – one officer and seven men with their jeep, trailer and a motorbike. The Dakotas (our tow planes) taxied onto the runway, and the cables were attached first to them and then to us. We were to be the first squadron to land, and my brand new Mark 2 Horsa glider was Number 14 to go. The station personnel lined the runways and waved us off. 

Sgt Pilot Brian Latham in command of Horsa glider during Operation Varsity, 24th March 1945.
Photo © Sgt Pilot Brian Latham, Operation Varsity 24th March 1945

Dakotas filled with Paras passed underneath us and plenty of fighters milled around to discourage enemy aircraft in the four hours of flying, before the navigator in our Dakota said, ‘You’ve got another half mile to go. Okay chaps, look after yourselves.’ At 2,500 feet, we were released and once you’d come off the cable that was it – down, down.

There was no time to think. The flak was very heavy – you could’ve got out and walked on it.

There were gliders going down, there were Dakotas going down. The smoke was just like fog. So we just had to go down through it and hope that we’d see something at the end. We were hit very badly. A shell came into the cockpit and blew the air bottle, which operated our flaps and brakes. Then we were hit in the right wing and lost a wheel.

We were going at a hell of a rate when we landed. It tore off our nose wheel, which smashed up through the cockpit – the whole front of the aircraft had gone. My feet were resting on the grass. I released my safety belt, stepped out and looked back to make sure that the troops were okay. My co-pilot was thrown out through the nose, but he was alright. He got up and went off with the troops to take out a machine gun nest that had started firing at us. By the time they came back, I’d got the tail off, and they were able to manhandle the jeep and the trailer out – and off they went, we learned later, to relieve Belsen.

There were a lot of wrecked gliders and burning Dakotas around as we made our way to our rendezvous; a farmhouse where all the glider pilots were supposed to meet – the ones who were left. We reached the farm, and the terrified occupants were taken to Hamminkeln, out of harm’s way. 

Then we dug in, close to the railway station, to take and hold the bridge over the canal, and we realised that only an hour had passed since our landing.

A week later, we marched through the landing grounds, through the forest to the Rhine and across the bailey bridge to the western side. Many paratroops had been killed after landing in the trees.

Once we were back over the Rhine, it was probably safer than London on a Sunday evening.

And we were just thankful that we were going home.

Interview by Emma Latham

©Photo of Claire Fuller by Emma Latham

Interview – Claire Fuller

Emma Latham talks to the award-winning novelist and sculptor about gender, art and being a writer who doesn’t like writing.

A hare shapeshifting into a woman with a bloody wound on her head? The bellowing of a white cow in the corner of the bedroom?  If you aren’t familiar with Claire Fuller’s command of the unsettling, allow me to introduce her. A voracious reader of contemporary authors she populated her teenage bookshelf with the novels of James Herbert, John Wyndham and William Golding – books that were guaranteed to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. She once arranged for a friend to shoot a squirrel so that she could gut, skin and eat it. She takes her husband foraging for deadly mushrooms – all in the name of research.  Just to be safe, I’m definitely ordering the drinks when we meet in the buzzing café Eat, Drink and Be, in Winchester.

Claire Fuller at work in her writing room. Photo by Emma Latham

Claire Fuller at her desk

©Photo by Emma Latham

The day is bright and sunny, the café doors are open wide and I sit near a window contemplating a bronze sculpture by Elizabeth Frink outside, and reflect on Fuller’s many creative talents, wondering whether the rhythm of a sentence is as shapely as a piece of sculpture. The author and artist, who for her first degree studied sculpture, has carved substantial figures, heads and ammonites, from limestone. She’s made lampshades from pieces of sand-washed and stained glass. She creates animated videos, draws and, of course, writes award winning novels. She arrives smiling and relaxed, to tell me of her plans for an easy going day. From coffee here, she’s going to meet one of her best friends for lunch – her ex-husband Paul. To read Fuller’s work is as satisfying as looking at a good piece of sculpture. She’s found her real métier in writing, expressed in novels that appear perfect from every angle.

Claire Fuller is the award-winning author of three novels all of which have themes and elements that unnerve the reader. Crafted in a lapidary narrative style her works resonate with shadowy paranormal motifs, undertones of the sinister and are peppered with disturbances. Her readers return to the riddles and ask questions that leave us in no doubt of Fuller’s skill in calculated uncertainty. Her willingness to answer those questions on social media platforms delights her readers, but she often remains ambiguous, allowing her readers their own interpretation. Her path to becoming an author of books sold in 19 countries, has come about because of this magnanimous attitude and an ability to put herself outside her comfort zone.

Now aged 52, Fuller, spent her early forties doing a series of madcap assignments for a worldwide collaborative art project with her future second husband. Fuller tells of a one person demonstration they did. ‘Tim made a placard that said “Less Driving, More Walking” and then he went and stood in the middle of a four lane road in Reading, while I took photographs.’ With an incredulous laugh she continues. ‘We did loads of them – maybe 30 . . . The ones I liked the best were those that made me feel uncomfortable, slightly embarrassed, and exhilarated afterwards.’ She honed her open-mindedness through daring. At the time she was following a book called: Learning to Love You More, by Miranda July. Fuller says, ’She encouraged people to go and do lots of projects, take photographs of them, send them off to her website and she would post them online. That whole website was sold in the end, to the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco.’

Keen to test her nerve further, Fuller joined a regular library event that entailed writing a short story that took five minutes to read aloud – in front of a paying audience. ‘Although it was scary, I enjoyed the challenge, and after a couple of years I applied to do an MA in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of Winchester.’ All this she did alongside bringing up her family and co-running a small marketing agency. Having gained her master’s degree, Fuller started to write her first novel.

She landed herself an agent and entered the publishing arena when her debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days – a haunting tale of broken trust, control and survival at a disturbing cost – caused a flurry of auctions amongst publishers at home and abroad. She chose Penguin in the UK. The novel, now translated into ten languages, has won multiple awards including one for first time novelists for its compelling narrative, arresting character, and which is both vividly written and confidently realised – the prestigious Desmond Elliott Prize.

©Photo: Shutterstock

It was the kind of glittering start that many people might not sustain, but as Fuller left the fanfare that goes with brilliant debut status, she showed that it didn’t affect her. Her next book, Swimming Lessons tells the story of a woman who disappears from a beach, having hidden, within the thousands of books her husband collects, letters detailing the truths of their marriage. The family exist in a dysfunctional limbo of hope and grief, some not realising that what they’re looking for lies hidden in the books that surround them. Shortlisted for The Encore Award for the best Second Novel, it shows Fuller’s insight into human behaviour and her ability as a serious writer, as well as displaying a playful, creative mind. ‘One of the inspirations for Swimming Lessons was a project that my husband and I did before we were married or living together. We decided we would write five notes to each other and hide them in each other’s houses. A couple of years after that we decided he would move in with me, and in the process of packing up, he found all five of my notes.’  But still, eleven years later, ‘there are two of his notes that I haven’t found, hidden somewhere in the house we share together. I’m certain they’re in the books.’

Another inspiration: ‘a piece of flash fiction about a man walking along a beach and the things that he found washed up there.’ He later became Gill in Swimming Lessons.

© Photo by Claire Fuller

Her latest novel, Bitter Orange became her third novel to be published by Penguin Books. It’s an unsettling, atmospheric story about puzzling secrets, loneliness and thwarted lives being changed forever. The characters are vividly realised in the setting of a dilapidated country house, which is so evocative that it achieves the status of a central participant in the faceted story. 

A Palladian Bridge inspired Fuller for her novel Bitter Orange

I point out that the buildings in all her novels seem to be neglected and difficult to live in. She says, ‘A friend of mine said “do you realise that nobody can actually live in all the buildings in your books – they’re all uninhabitable”.’ Laughing she adds, ‘and actually the building in Book 4 is the same.’

Earlier this year Fuller typed The End on the first draft of her fourth book. ‘It’s developed in an odd way this one. It’s changed completely from the point of inspiration.’ It had started with a character who took Fuller to a point where, she felt, it just wasn’t working. Starting again, from a different point of view, Fuller depicts a new pairing. Not, as in her other books, parent and child, not man and wife nor unrequited love, but twins. Fuller describes how they combine, then pull apart and the tensions that evolve between them as they find their separate identity. She told me that she scrapped tens of thousands of words before she got it right.

The twins in Book 4 are male and female – a further test of her writing sensibility? ‘I don’t think it’s any different writing men as opposed to women – we’re all human beings. We might have different agendas, but I don’t think that’s based on gender, I think that’s probably based on personality. When I finished the first draft it was mostly from Jean’s point of view, supported by an omniscient narrator, and then I thought actually we need to hear from her brother Julius. So now, in my second draft, I’m writing bits from his point of view just to weave in, so within a chapter – within a paragraph – it shifts point of view. Everyone says you shouldn’t do that, but if you can make the transition work between one point of view to the other, and you don’t lose the reader, then I think it can work well. Especially as you’re dealing with twins.’ After all, that’s what a stage play does all the time.

Actually, by her own admission Fuller doesn’t much like writing. However, she does enjoy the words on the page and the editing. ‘The fear of not knowing what I am doing and the idea that I’m lacking someone else’s authority to be allowed to write has never gone away. Writing is still an uncomfortable activity for me. But my early efforts taught me that if I keep writing through the disquiet and the angst, the results pay off. The books I like best are those that delight me and devastate me at the same time.’

I ask Fuller, having learned to create art in three dimensions, is writing comparable in certain respects? ‘To me, they are utterly separate disciplines; I don’t use one to think about the other at all, but I probably do work in similar ways – things happen organically I suppose. I know the kinds of books that I like, and I try to write a book that I like to read. So with sculpture, I would start carving and just go with it, in the same way, I do in writing. I haven’t done any sculpture for a long time because it feels like the writing is my creative outlet. I don’t know what that’s like for other writers. It might be that all writers see their work like that. It might not be because I’ve done art. I don’t know because all I know is the way that I do it.’ 

And why would she want to analyse it? With Hemingway in mind, I for one, wouldn’t want to disturb “the pattern made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings” . . . 

Fuller has made herself one of those people that she once thought of as different and special from others – a successful writer. Her website lists a full itinerary that makes me wonder when she gets time to write.

‘I think perhaps because I didn’t start writing till I was 40 and Our Endless Numbered Days was published when I was 48, that I don’t take any of it for granted. I say yes, more or less, to everything,’ she laughs, ‘because I think somebody might not ask me again.’

She’s become a kind of literary democrat and shares her creative vision through her interactions directly with other writers and her readers, as well as on social media platforms in an endearingly unselfconscious way. 

Fuller starts her next book in the slipstream of the one that’s just been finished.  ‘I want people to have some kind of emotional response to my books, but also I want to keep doing this for a living. And my agent is wonderful.’ So it’s not just about reviews. After the two years it takes Fuller to write a novel, she gives it to her editor in the hope that her publisher will buy the next book. ‘Then I have to see whether that’s enough to pay the bills.’

First Writing – There must have been writing before this, but I remember being told to be inventive for my English Language ‘O’ Level exam. The story title had to be Leaving Home. I wrote a story about a boy called Home, who left. (I got an A.)

First Memory – Drawing and cutting out some new heads for the paper dolls I had – the sort of dolls that you can dress in paper clothes with fold-over tabs.

First Book That Influenced MeWe Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. I didn’t read it until I was forty, when I was just starting to do some of my own creative writing.

Advice To My Younger Self – Leave that man before you turn 17 and he turns 31.


Take a closer look

Writing a Book: The Fuller Formula

  • You take a couple of points that pique your interest, often from one of your flash fiction pieces. You have characters that you want to know more about or an idea that you want to develop. This might be a boy in a news story, a character spying through a hole in an ornate ceiling rose or the idea of a man walking along a beach and seeing what he finds washed up along the shoreline. 
  • You don’t plan before you start writing. If you can somehow write, almost using your subconscious, then whatever seems to come out in the first draft will show you what it’s about. This means that you’re prepared to scrap an idea if it isn’t working – even if you’ve written 20,000 words.
  • You probably read around 160 books over the two years it takes to write your novel. You might feel the tone and style of one book or the content of another help to cast light on the story you’re writing. When reading nonfiction books for research, you might find a thread in a real story that can be woven into your own.
  • As the story emerges, you need to choose your music. A playlist or album will become the soundtrack for that particular novel, whilst writing, to the point of inspiring a kind of Pavlovian reaction when you hear the music.  For instance, you might look for a certain melancholic tone or more complex lyrics, to aid your writing mood.
  • Because of how long it takes, you need to like the characters – be able to care about them. So you thoroughly inhabit each one, allowing them to be true to themselves. You let them guide you through the story – slowly so that you understand where the story’s going. Sometimes you disagree with them and have to take them aside. Writing a ‘talk’ between you both, in a document separate from the manuscript, frees you to be candid, experiment with style and find out more about them.
  • You really see as you’re writing – it’s very visual. In your mind, you clearly see the characters in the place, whether that’s landscape, a house interior or wherever.
  • Rather than set a target number of words per day, you see it as a routine: you start at 9 and finish at 6. This may mean writing fewer, but better words. You don’t mind if it’s ten or a thousand words, as long as you’re writing new stuff and moving the story forward. 
  • You write a sparse first draft and it’s hard – almost painful for you, but the reward is in the editing. 
  • In subsequent drafts, you enjoy developing themes that have emerged and adding layers of complexity and richness to the text. You love rewriting, editing and polishing.

Claire Fuller is the English author of multiple award-winning novels, including Our Endless Numbered Days (2015 Desmond Elliot Prize for debut fiction), Swimming Lessons (Encore Award shortlisted for second novels and #1 best-seller in Canada) and Bitter Orange (Named book of the year by Amazon, The Spectator and Vulture). Her work has received critical acclaim, won prestigious awards, been translated into 16 languages and sold in 19 countries (and counting). Her short stories and essays have been featured in Sunday Express, Litro, The Telegraph, HuffPost and elsewhere. When not haunting bookshops nationwide, roaming the English countryside or wild swimming, she lives in Winchester.

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I Love the Smell of Gold in the Morning!

Last month the Sparsholt College team who created the garden: ‘Behind the Genes’ took it to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2019. Here’s what happened during the build, the show and after they brought it home . . .

The Sparsholt College team win gold at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2019
Winning Gold
The Sparsholt College team win Best Discovery Exhibit at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2019
. . . and Best Discovery Exhibit

The team was over the moon! Winning a gold medal for the 9th time with their garden ‘Behind the Genes’, as well as ‘Best Discovery Exhibit’ in the Great Pavilion.

Sponsors Thompson & Morgan achieved 3rd place in RHS Plant of the Year Competition with Agapanthus ‘Fireworks’

During ‘build’ week, in the run up to the show, the team would meet at Sparsholt College at 8.30am for the eventful journey to London. Some travelled in style – in the lorry with the plants. That meant plotting a careful route into London, taking into account the congestion charges and avoiding roads with low bridges. As the lorry approached Chelsea, they were directed to wait in Battersea Park for 2 hours. The reason? Security: The Duchess of Cambridge made an unscheduled visit to her co-designed ‘Back to Nature’ garden.

Others travelled with Chris Bird, lecturer in horticulture at Sparsholt College. Aiming to arrive at the Royal Hospital grounds at 1 o’clock, their journey took a different turn

There were a few disasters that day, as the minibus broke down and shut a lane on the M3. Chris didn’t arrive at Chelsea until 6pm.

Liz Smith

The shape of the days for the ‘Chelsea’ Team:

  • When the show opened they’d meet at Sparsholt at 5.30am and drive to London.
  • The latest time for them to arrive home from Chelsea was 11.30pm on the day they finished building and arranging the garden.
  • Watering and deadheading was done after the show closed. The team would head home around 9pm.
  • Fleet service station became the place to eat on the way home along the M3.
  • The team could take advantage of the quietest time at the show. One member arrived at 7.15 am, strolling around the show gardens – before the grounds were opened to the public.

Sparsholt's 'Behind the Genes' garden, mid-section showing the DNA helix, with Agapanthus 'Fireworks' placed in pots either side and Hydrangea hybrid Runaway Bride 'Snow White' behind, underplanted with Helianthus annuus SunBelievable 'Brown Eyed Girl'.
Behind the shed – showing the DNA helix, with Agapanthus ‘Fireworks’ placed in pots either side and Hydrangea hybrid Runaway Bride ‘Snow White’ behind, underplanted with Helianthus annuus SunBelievable ‘Brown Eyed Girl’.

When everything was in place the team realised that the DNA helix was backwards. They swiftly resolved the problem. Using mirrors to reverse the image of the spiral, it then appeared intentional. It was always supposed to be displayed like that!

Monty Don visits Chris Bird and the team on the 'Behind the Genes' garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2019
Monty Don dropped by for an unexpected visit.
The Rich brothers, who were presenting coverage of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2019 
came to visit Sparsholt's 'Behind the Genes' garden in the Great Pavilion.
The Rich brothers, who were presenting coverage of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2019
came to visit too

On the last day of the show many of the plants were sold to whoever could carry them away. The remaining plants were kept for a ‘rebuild’ back at Sparsholt College in Hampshire. In mid-June the team rebuilt the garden to attract future horticulture students from local secondary schools.

The Sparsholt team, back on home territory, having rebuilt the Behind The Genes 2019 garden. The team await 5 coach loads of Y8 & Y9 students from The Westgate School and Kings' Schools Winchester.
The Sparsholt team, back on home territory, getting ready for 5 coach loads of Y8 & Y9 students from The Westgate School and Kings’ Schools Winchester

  • Next time you visit:
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  • And read another of my 300 word stories here . . .

Hive of Activity: Before the RHS Chelsea Flower Show

The RHS Chelsea Flower Show opens to the public on 21st May, but the team at Sparsholt College are ready well over a week in advance.

Chris Bird, lecturer in horticulture at Sparsholt College, along with his dynamic team of past and current students are putting in all the hours. Every element of their garden is about to be transported to the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea in London, where it will be constructed within The Great Pavilion.

Not only are they under pressure to produce a garden filled with exceptional plants, including eight new cultivars, for the 157,000 visitors who come to the show, but equally they aim to keep up the medal-winning success regularly achieved by Sparsholt College in Hampshire.

It’s early May and I find the team in the ‘Chelsea tunnel’ all wearing sunglasses against the glare, along with a smell of sawdust and paint in the air. They’re preparing the hard landscaping for a trial build. They’re the shapes that will give their Behind the Genes garden form and structure and in this design includes a shed, some fencing, a sculpture and paving. As well as providing a base for the softer elements – the plants and flowers – each item has a function.

  • The shed will display a T.V. screen and an iPad – possibly sounding like the perfect shed to some.
  • The fence panels will create divisions and a foil for the plants, as well as exhibiting information boards.
  • The sculpture gives visitors a clue about the theme of the garden, as well as height and visual impact.
  • The paving, laid in a chevron pattern, will have potted plants placed on it.

Alex and Jess painting panels for the display

Helen painting the sculpture. This task alone took 12 hours

The DNA spiral ladder, known as a double helix, is represented here as a metal sculpture. A different colour depicts the unique bonds that form among each of the four nucleotides or bases. DNA is the genetic code that determines all the characteristics of a living thing. Plants use DNA to pass on traits like colour and height.
Steve making the wooden sub-floor that will support the paving for the Sparsholt show garden, at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2019
Steve mapping out and constructing the floor for the paving area, while Alex paints the shed
Alex painting the shed for the Sparsholt show garden, for RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2019.







Chris, Helen and Liz discuss hanging baskets, beside the painted DNA helix. An Agapanthus ‘Fireworks’ is placed in position at the base of the sculpture

As promised, here it is: the plant that’s been trained strictly anti-clockwise – practically since it was a seedling!

RHS Chelsea Plant of the Year 2019 entrant


Clematis ‘Kokonoe’ (above) has a magical quality: flowers that change shape. At first, rich purple blooms emerge with a single layer of petals, but as the season goes on it produces a wonderful pompom centre; a flower within a flower. It has a double-flower trait and its beauty is a sign of the success of genetics and plant breeding.





Peas, sweet-peas and mangetout behind a mouse-guard fence: Built by Chris with Liz’s help, it involved a fair bit of clambering over pipes and winding string all over the place. When it was finished, Chris thanked Liz for the limbo dancing tutorial!

Techniques used to improve plant species are also valuable in edible crops. Various peas grown for the Sparsholt garden, with wonderful names like ‘Jumbo’, ‘Shiraz’ and ‘Bikini’, have been developed with attractive attributes. Amongst the heavy croppers and dwarf varieties there’s a leafless pea; it’s been developed to improve harvesting, as the leaves tend to block up the threshing mechanism. How can it photosynthesise? Luckily Chris is nearby to explain: in the absence of leaves the plant uses stipules, a leaflike appendage borne in pairs at the base of the stalk.

Constant maintenance is needed:

  • Training and tying in of peas, sweet-peas and Clematis – anticlockwise
  • Plant spacing has to be increased as they grow
  • Monitoring for pests
  • Plants that are not up to standard are selected for culling
  • Moving plants to assist with irrigation, to harden them off or to encourage more buds to form
  • And watering . . .

Of course plants depend on us for all their requirements and Chris refers to the ‘Fine Art of Watering’

Well, watering really is a tricky thing to teach. The answer to how much and how often depends on so many factors. Like: how old the plant is, how hot or cool, windy or not conditions have been. And that’s just the beginning . . .

Watering tips from the team:

Not too early, to avoid the leaves burning in bright sunshine –


By hand: it’s a bit of a hassle having to keep refilling the can, but you’re able to get right in there with the water –


There are so many risks and responsibilities with watering –


Water leaves a chalky residue, which then has to be wiped off every leaf before the show –



‘Neo’ ‘Smokey’ ‘Painted Lady’ and ‘Fireworks’ have been chosen for the garden because they have a jumping gene. Prepare to be dazzled by them!

Each bloom gives the impression of being hand painted, as no two flowers are alike. The gene controlling the colour moves a bit too far or ‘jumps’ causing stripes, drips and flecks of luscious colour in one bloom or a solid colour in another. What an amazing mutation!

A stunning new grass, Chlorophytum saundersiae ‘Starlight’ – destined for the roof of the shed in the show garden, as well as an entrant for RHS Chelsea Plant of the Year 2019

And this beauty (below) went up to London for a press engagement a fortnight before this years show. It bears six times more flowers than the average hydrangea and with a long flowering period, it’s a match made in heaven for gardens in need of a hardy shrub. It gained RHS Chelsea Flower Show Plant of the Year 2018.

Beautiful white hydrangea plants clustered together in the shade tunnel, ready for Sparsholt's garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2019
Hydrangea hybrid Runaway Bride ‘Snow White’

How the foxgloves have changed in a month:

Overhead view of foxglove plants Digitalis Illumination 'Pink' 2019
April 2019
Digitalis Illumination ‘Pink’
May 2019
Digitalis Illumination ‘Pink’

In spite of the unbelievable level of care dispensed to the 2,500 plants being transported to London by Chris’s team, around 1,500 will pass muster and be used in the Behind the Genes garden. We hope to see you there!

Next Time:

  • Find out how the Sparsholt team get everything to London and how the ‘build’ goes . . .
  • Will Thompson & Morgan win Plant of the Year 2019?
  • Will Sparsholt College win a medal?
  • Follow my blog to find out!
  • Remember to share this blog with your friends too . . .

Behind the Scenes: Before the RHS Chelsea Flower Show

Sowing, pricking out and potting on are just some of the activities that started early this year at Sparsholt College, in preparation for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in May.

Chris Bird has been busy designing, planning and planting for his 22nd year at Britain’s most prestigious flower show, along with an enthusiastic team of past and current horticulture students.

As lecturer in horticulture, Chris has repeatedly led Sparsholt College in Hampshire to medal-winning success, achieving 8 Gold Medals and 5 Best in Category, to name a few.

  • Take a peek at some of the plants destined for  the Sparsholt exhibit at this years show
  • Discover the garden that will explain the science of plant breeding milestones with Behind the Genes
  • Understand the techniques used for future plant breeding targets

I meet Chris outside the horticulture shed, aka his office, where he and two of his team discuss ‘potting on and pinching out – down to the lower petioles,’ around a barrow of young sunflower plants. Amongst the seeds supplied by Thompson and Morgan, eight brand new plants are being showcased this year and New Product Development Manager Peter Freeman has come to see how the plants are looking. They’re thriving and growing fast towards their May deadline.

A weaning bench bears some stock for Chelsea:

Agapanthus ‘Fireworks’ – African Blue Lily

Pots of Agapanthus ‘Fireworks’ which are already showing a few buds.

Propagation schedules, that include several cycles of sowing, account for this and other eventualities. Losing batches of plants and planning for some that flower too early, or not soon enough, is the business they’re in. At this time of year the weather can go from sub-tropical to arctic overnight.

I linger long enough to admire rows of students’ projects, which I learn can be another potential hazard for the Chelsea team:

Alex Graham, who’s completing a part-time RHS Certificate in Practical Horticulture, alongside her job as a teacher, says, “A few weeks ago a student was doing a study on weeds – next to the Chelsea bench – which meant aphids and all sorts were keeping us on our toes!”

Digitalis purpurea ‘Primrose Carousel’

Pulled along in Chris’ slipstream we go into a large 4-bay polytunnel that houses row upon row of foxgloves at a cooler temperature. Plant maintenance instructions are discussed and the more mature plants are selected for potting on. I dream of shady spots in my garden where these could happily go with their unusual yellow blooms, finished with a heavy dusting of purple freckles. I can’t wait to see them in flower, on my return next month…
We peek into the open doorway of the ‘Chelsea Tunnel’ and see where some of the frameworks for the exhibit are kept. Chris talks different paint colours which are intended for the inside and outside of a large 3-dimensional double helix structure.
DNA helix structure.

You’ll find the Sparsholt exhibit in the Discovery Zone within The Great Pavilion, with this giant metal helix at its centre. “The DNA spiral has been made by a local blacksmith,” Chris says. “We like to use local artisans wherever possible.”

Inside the super-cool shade tunnel there’s an emerald carpet at our feet. While the team talk about how to register and submit a plant for DNA testing, I take in the visual feast . . .

Geranium ‘Rozanne’ are nestled amongst two more cultivars of foxgloves in vibrant tropical colours.
There’s ‘Illumination Pink’ & ‘Cherry Brandy’. Both promise to attract bees with hot pink blooms borne all around the stem, echoing the helix theme.
Digitalis Illumination ‘Cherry Brandy’ 

The ‘Digitalis Illumination Series’ is a hybrid, so does not set seed. It’s a perennial, unlike most foxgloves, which are biennial. On top of that it’s a semi evergreen with a long flowering period and should last for years. What a gem!

These Scabious ‘Butterfly Blue Beauty’ seem a far cry from Scabiosa the genus name, which comes from the Latin scabere ‘to scratch’. Perhaps in reference to the plant’s rough leaves.

Back at the horticultural practical shed, redolent of garden machinery oil, Chris grabs his jacket from the staff office, to go to his next meeting.

Liz and Alex potting on Helianthus, helped by Toby –

A future student, perhaps?

Next Month:

  • I’ll be looking at a brand new and rather magical clematis, which has flowers that change shape throughout the season. 
  • We’ll see how the team get to ‘wind-up’ the plants, before the show.
  • Tips on the fine art of watering.
  • And did I mention – loads more luscious plants? 
  • Follow me and share in the preparations for one of the most famous international flower shows, attracting guests from all over the world.

Found and Lost

In December 2018 this story gained third place in a competition, originally published at The Hampshire Writers Society. You can read mine here, but click the link to read the other winning entries.

Found and Lost

(The Dig Diary of Max Glover)

Pouilly-Le-Fort, 25th December 2018 

Just after sunrise: clear winters morning. Le Champ Maudi (The Cursed Field) next door to our rented gite. Walked the perimeter: the ditch contained the usual jumble of roofing tiles, a few broken bits of crockery, clay pipe head – Flemish? 

Ran my eye slowly over the expanse of corrugated mud, sparkling with frost. A larger glint of reflected sunlight caught my attention. As I worked to free the object I realised I was brushing soil from the brow of a skull, with a blue-green iridescent ‘pebble’ of glass lodged inside the eye socket; it’s rounded and frosted – blinded by the action of time. As more glass was revealed, I had one of those spine-tingling moments. I’ve found a tear vial bottle – intact! I suspect it’s Holy Land, Roman Period, 1st Century AD. Fantastic – a once in a life time!
Sent photo to Dan Bones (osteologist at the museum) with query: Roman? 

Punctured my thumb on a shard of bone which bled badly. I had to keep licking it, so returned to the gite for first aid. 

By the time I got back, the kids were awake and Christmas Day was in full swing. Nancy dressed my thumb and persuaded me to stay put. I’ll go back to the dig tomorrow. 

Dan emailed. He’s started his research – turns out we’re holidaying in the area where Pasteur performed vaccine experiments (1880s) on cattle infected with anthrax. Anthrax was so widespread that the abattoir on that field was closed down. 

I’m turning in early. Feel freezing/generally lousy and my thumb is as swollen and red as a Boudin sausage. 

Trembling, Nancy traced her index finger over her husband’s writing, then closed the tatty notebook, still unable to comprehend that these were his last words. 


  • What could I write?
  • Why had I even joined a writing class?

I looked around the room: Tired wallpaper was loosing its grip. Tea coloured stains advanced across the ceiling and down the walls, mapping out years of water damage.

Cardboard boxes, torn and overloaded with books, teetered in shambolic piles.

Lying amongst dogeared promotional boards and posters, dusty display stands held a few biros and mechanical pencils – long forgotten. A model Norman castle nestled in the disused fire grate, next to a large foam-board cutout of Mog the Forgetful Cat.

The sound of pencils whispering to the paper amplified, as each student made a start.

From my mug of tea, Miffy stared back at me, looking a bit dispirited. Her arms supported the simple outline that formed her head and ears. With only three marks for a face, a crosstitch mouth beneath eyes set far apart, this endearing rabbit took me back to my 1970s bookshelf where Dick Bruna was king. I remembered things that have lain dormant for decades – in such detail. Inspired . . .

I started to write . . .

  • Want to hear about my wonderful writing teacher?
  • And the best independent bookshop to visit in Hampshire?
  • Read about them in my next blog . . .