Insights • Inspirations • Destinations • Design

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Thin Places: The Gardens, Spaces, Books, and Beliefs that Take Us Places

Last week, I learned a beautiful new phrase. While chatting to a publisher friend called Joe about the horrors of politics, we somehow segued (thankfully) to something else entirely: the calming nature of the Italy countryside. "Italy is a place," said Joe, "where you can escape the nastiness of life, and experience sights so magnificent they remove you from the everyday." These Italian scenes are often transcendent, explained Joe. Otherworldly, even.  They transport you.

Then he told me about a phrase that's used to describe these curiously moving spaces and landscapes; these places that take you away from mundanities and disenchantments of everyday.


Thin Places, explained Joe, was an old Celtic term used to describe those spots where the walls between reality and beyond, or between Heaven and Earth if you like, are almost transparent. Places where you're immediately inspired, and beguiled, and often moved to emotion.

A thin space could be as ordinary as someone's garden (see above; story to come), or as sacred as Rumi's tomb in Turkey. (Rumi and his Persian poetry have become popular since singer Chris Martin credited them for saving him from depression.)

Thin Places usually happen when you least expect them -- often when you're travelling. They suddenly appear before you, beautiful and fleeting. They remove you from whatever you might be enduring in life, and remind you that there are better things, both on this side and the other.

A well-travelled friend calls this experience jouissance; a transcendent state that fuses the emotional, physical, and mystical. She says it often happens when she's in a garden -- be it Sissinghurst or the shores of Lake Como.

I experienced a Thin Place last week.

It was 5.30AM and I was driving to a photo shoot at a garden called Picardy, located in the green hills of Gippsland, where I grew up. I thought I knew this area but on this morning the landscape looked different. A strange layer of mist had settled over the hills, giving the place an ethereal feel.  As I drove through the quiet backroads, the hot sun started to burn away the light fog, leaving patches of 'clouds' in its wake.

Arriving at Picardy Garden a few minutes before sunrise, I noticed the mist hadn't yet lifted on this hill, and there was a curious glow to the garden. The light was golden, almost otherworldly.

The owners, Marian and Bryce (now new friends) came out to greet me, but I was too enthralled to come inside for a cup of tea. It was as if Heaven had come down the Earth for a few moments. The light, the landscape, the flowers, the birdsong and butterflies and crabapples. It was pure felicity.

These snatches of pleasure in life are what sustain many of us, alongside family, friends, work, and other quiet delights. In a month when the nastiness that has seeped into society has affected us all, when people are forgetting their good, kind sides and blindly subscribing to the foulness, and then being malicious and mean and downright undignified with their newfound ill will, Thin Spaces take us out of all the dirtiness and drama.

Thin Spaces transport us to a better plane -- "going high", as Michelle Obama famously quoted. They enable us to see the joyfulness of life, rather than the hatred. The radiance and grace of places, and people, rather than the dark side.

Like many friends, including Joe, I have stopped subscribing to nastiness. We all have enough to contend with in life. And you can't work professionally, especially in an international arena, if you practice such manners. (Some of those I've liaised with this year, such as Carolyne Roehm and Paolo Moschino and Robert Couturier, have reminded me just how far good manners and kindness will go in life.)

As Joe said, we need to seek the delights of life -- in places and in people. Even if we don't like a place (I had mixed feelings about Gippsland for decades), or we're not sure about a person, reserving judgement and holding back on criticism may reward us with a sublime surprise. Gippsland's quiet beauty certainly surprised me last week.

(Loved the dovecote potting shed.)

The most amazing thing about this day, and this garden, was seeing this: a rare kind of Robinia that looks identical to pink wisteria. Many gardeners feel this Robinia is the most beautiful tree in the world, and indeed it's accorded that award in many horticultural lists. I've been searching for it for years, without success. 

As Marian and I turned a corner at the bottom of the crabapple walk, we paused in our chatter and I happen to look up, to the sky above. There it was. Dangling quietly above us.

Marian is currently working on a book about her beautiful French / Italian-inspired garden, so there will be more images down the track. 

In the meantime, here are some more books and beautiful landscapes to lift the spirit at this tail end of a very long year.

NB: Articles about Thin Spaces can be found here -- NEW YORK TIMES or here THE GUARDIAN


Amazon has just delivered a box of gorgeous books to our doorstep in time for Christmas. Some are for us; some are for friends. These were a few stand-outs in the pile. 

Mad Enchantment . The story of Claude Monet and the painting of the Water Lilies series. An uplifting account of how painting and gardening save this great artist's spirit at the end of his life, as the war encroached on his bucolic corner of France.

On The Fringe: A Life in Decorating. A fascinating insight into Colefax and Fowler by the decorating company's glamorous doyenne, Imogen Taylor.

The Country House in Literature. A little academic, but good to dip in and out of.

Landscape of Dreams. The first monograph from Julian and Isabel Bannerman, the Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin of garden designers.

Signature Spaces: Well-Travelled Spaces by Paolo Moschino and Philip Vergeylen. (last pix, above). I had the great pleasure and honor of having lunch with these two lovely gentlemen in their country house in Sussex this year, so this book is a little special. If you've followed Paolo since his days with Nicky Haslam, you'll know he's an extraordinarily talented interior designer, but it's his partner in business and life, Philio Vergeylen, who's the real surprise -- funny, kind, stylish and  talented at everything from gardening to storytelling. A great book for design fans.


If you or someone you know loves fashion, these are two sure winners for Christmas gifts. 

Alexander McQueen's Unseen is a behind-the-scenes look at the designer's remarkable fashion collections and catwalk shows. 

And Alexandra Schulman's Inside Vogue is a diary-style account of working behind the editor's desk of UK Vogue, including the enormous cover-up she had to do to keep the cover of the Duchess of Cambridge a guarded secret.


A recent slideshow of some of Vogue's most memorable libraries over the years.



Finally, friends and long-time readers know that I've been working quietly on this biography for many years. I've not mentioned it much because there was a change of publishers (in an unconventional move, I decided to return to my beloved publisher at Murdoch, Kay Scarlett, who's now with Bonnier International). Since the change, in May, there have been months of refinements, particularly in the content but also in the design, which is now beautiful!

The story of Joan Lindsay's life and how she came to write her famous bestseller Picnic at Hanging Rock at sixty-nine years of age is a complex story, and we took a great deal of time working out what to include and what to (respectfully) leave out. We also consulted people like director Peter Weir and others who knew Joan Lindsay personally, and they kindly gave their input. 

Now, after five long years of research, and almost a year of production, the biography has gone to print TODAY. (I can't even believe I'm writing that.) Advance copies are due to arrive January, and the pub date is 1st April, so I will post details on this blog and Instagram as well as to all those in my email database. We are also working in marketing, including a doco-ette and a book tour; details of which are to come.  

The biography will soon show up on Amazon and other book sites, so keep an eye out.

Beyond the Rock  is a curious book, which falls somewhere between biography and true crime (hence the title), but Joan Lindsay's life was also curious; curious and mysterious and often remarkable.  So I hope you all love reading about it as much as I loved researching and writing it. 

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a novel version of a Thin Space, and as far as I can tell, Joan certainly intended that. It's beautiful, mysterious, memorable, and utterly otherworldly. Fifty years after it was first published, it still transports us. 

If only politics did that.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Finding Inspiration from Grand Travels and Quiet Corners

A few weeks ago, I went to the Dominican Republic for three days, to look at some gardens for a new book. It was my first time to DR. This is what happened.

The tiny Puerto Plata Airport on the north coast of DR was barely more than a cheery steel band bashing out a welcoming tune, a relaxed chap holding his hand out for $10 for a visa, and a gaggle of grinning Immigration men hanging around the luggage carousel. With no checked luggage, I was off the plane and into sunshine in 8 minutes. (If only Heathrow was like that.) Then it was a two-hour drive down a coastal road so quiet that often the only 'traffic' was a herd of cattle and some carefree chickens. A few hours down the coast, my driver and I finally landed here, at Playa Grande; one of the most beautiful, most extraordinary places I've ever been. It was, quite simply, astonishing. Let me show you.

Conceived by New York designer Celerie Kemble, Playa Grande is a remarkable place -- more of a private estate than a resort -- which is made up of collection of exquisitely designed beach houses that are so sweet, so irresistible, it's as if Tim Burton had gotten together with Karl Lagerfeld to create a Chanel show for the Caribbean. It's also so well hidden that not even the chap next door, whom we asked for directions, knew it was there. I mean, how often do you find a place like that? Where even its neighbours don't know it's there?

Now the architecture here is eye catching, but it's the interiors where the exclamations really begin. Everything at Playa Grande is inspired by gardens and botanical motifs, so lights are shaped like palm leaves, lanterns look like exotic tropical pods, and even the smallest light switches resemble sweet lily-of-the-valley bouquets and new spring buds. Most were made by a local metalworker, and most are done in copper, so that when they age and patina turns to green, they'll look even more like leaves. It's ingenious.

There was also, surprisingly, a lot of timber, which must mean a lot of maintenance given the tropical weather. Even the table 'tassels' were done in timber. Like so:

Another interesting aspect to the estate was that the gardens were allowed to grow wild in some places, particularly over the verandahs, leading to a kind of 'lost in time' feel that didn't feel messy or unkempt but fantastically, memorably romantic.

The second destination was older but no less beautiful; a small hideaway called the Casa Colonial, which was in fact an ode to the grand, colonial hotels of yesteryear. With acres of white louvres and ceiling fans inside and gardens full of tropical palms and foliage outside, it was a dream of a place, and even though I was the only guest there by the end -- hurricane season had emptied the rooms -- it still felt cosy and intimate and elegant and welcoming. 

There were other places on The Reccy List too, but after three days in the Caribbean heat, travelling on remote roads, with few tourists around, and no G&Ts (I never drink while working, and even while not working, but the tropics makes you long for it), I was well and truly ready for something stiff in a tall glass.

So I packed up, took one last look at the beautiful beaches, and boarded the plane back to New York.

Back in Manhattan, the heat was like nothing I've experienced in that city; raw and angry and full of honking horns and irritated people and on-edge traffic. (The queues to get up to Connecticut one weekend were insane!)  But there was one place where calm and civility reigned; The Beekman, an amazing new hotel carved out of an equally amazing historic building in the previously-dull-but-now-buzzing district of FiDi. (Vogue has also moved into this area, as has Cos, so you know it's officially cool.) 

The opening of The Beekman Hotel is one of the year's most anticipated New York hotel unveilings. Its amazing, semi-derelict, nine-story atrium was for years used in fashion shoots and parties (Jay Z had a brill soiree here) until Thomson Hotels swept in and restored it. There are some beautiful images here. The rooms are expensive (and not particularly sexy), but the restaurant by Keith McNally is beautiful, so just go for dinner and enjoy the interior. 

From there, it was off to the cool, green countryside of Sussex in England,  and what a welcome change it was. There were a few garden shoots to look at here too, including one at one of the most beautiful gardens I've ever seen; a gentle, enveloping embrace of a place that reminded me why I loved gardens so much. And how lucky I am to do the job I do.

Owned by two of the kindest, loveliest, funniest, and most gracious men I've ever met, Paolo Moschino and Philip Vergeylen (for those who don't know them, they are the design talents who bought Nicholas Haslam's legendary store / business in Pimlico and made it into their own, and now do the interior design for dozens of extraordinary estates over the world), this country retreat is the kind you always hope to own one day. It's a perfect blend of country house and garden, where both merge into the other in such a way that you're constantly wandering from room to terrace to greenhouse to courtyard to parterre to pool and back to the library and parlour / sitting room again in a happy daze. Look at the blue-and-white library. And this comforting guest room. 

We had a long and memorable luncheon here on the terrace, which lasted for far too many glasses of wine. Paolo and Philip told a very funny (but still respectful) story of how Princess Diana visited one summer's day, which made me laugh until I had a stitch. As they chatted, I was reminded of how nice some people are. Here were two men who have met just about everyone I idolise (they even stay in Oscar de la Renta's old estate in the Dominican Republic), and who didn't need to spend time with a stranger from Australia (who was weary beyond belief and trying desperately to remember her social skills through the haze of jet lag) and yet they did -- and they made it an afternoon to remember. Courtesy and chivalry are not dead, after all.

There were a few more gardens, such as this dahlia-drenched one in Dorset... 

And this gorgeous castle and its grand farmyard and kitchen garden in Oxfordshire... (I loved the onion drying rack the best). 

But that's enough stories for one blog post, I think

I'm home now for a little while -- and how happy I am too, after three round-the-world trips in three months! There are books to be written, edited, expedited through the production process. But there are also beautiful ones to be ordered for Christmas. (Have you seen all the lovely new titles out there?) As well, the new fashion collections for Spring / Summer 2017 are appearing in the media, and they're heralding a glamorous new year. Just look at Jasper Conran's designs, above and below. Thank goodness glamour is still in fashion.

Until next time, happy travels, happy reading, happy frock shopping, and happy gardening, wherever you are.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

LONDON SECRETS: A new book for architecture, design, fashion and garden fans

I'm delighted to write that my new book LONDON SECRETS: STYLE, DESIGN, GLAMOUR, GARDENS (Images Publishing) is being prepared for a publication date that's not far off.  One of the loveliest books I've ever had the pleasure of producing, shooting and writing, LONDON SECRETS attempts to uncover many of the city's most fascinating design destinations, from hidden streets full of extraordinary architecture to memorable National Trust properties, beautiful historic houses, fantastic design-focused museums, glorious gardens, glamorous hotels, wonderful stores selling everything from textiles to antiques to vintage fashion, and intriguing restaurants and bistros.

I lived in London for many years in the 1990s, and still return (with a sentimentalist's heart) several times a year for work. And each time I arrive here, I relish the chance to wander down the cobbled mews and quiet side streets to discover the city's urban treasures. In fact, no matter how many times I visit, the place continues to surprise and delight.  I hope this book offers some great ideas for your next trip, whether you're an architecture aficionado, a design fan, or simply a lover of gardens, textiles, fashion and style.

(Note: One of my fellow authors, Driss Fatih, has also done a London book, so check the author on the cover if you want my book, as there's a little confusion. Driss' book will focus more on architecture and restaurants, while mine covers fashion and style, bookstores and gardens, historic houses, and other glamorous things.)

LONDON SECRETS is due out soon (date TBC), so do look for it in bookshops and online, but in the meantime, here are a few places worth noting:


Soane Britain in Pimlico (which is different to the similar-sounding Soane Museum) is a wondrous aladdin's cave of rattan and wicker, fabric and textiles, prints and lamps, and all kinds of furniture, from elegant desks to cheerily chic side tables. But it's far more than just a store of sophisticated, irresistible homewares. Co-founder and creative director Lulu Lyle set out to save many dying British crafts by either buying factories, such as the last rattan manufacturer left in England, or employing British craftspeople to create special goods using skills that go back to the 18th century and beyond. Fabrics are woven in Suffolk and printed in Kent, while furniture is made by blacksmiths, carpenters, upholsterers and gilders in the far corners of England. Even the wallpapers are hand-blocked by expert English printers.  But it's perhaps the traditional crafts, such as iron forging and leatherwork, where you can really see the skills being utilized in modern forms. Lulu commissions unusual leather desks, ornate iron lighting and other unique pieces to reinvent these materials for contemporary living. Alternatively, clients can chose their own materials and finishes from Soane’s in-house collection of timbers, metals, textiles and leathers, using Soane's furniture styles or their own designs.

There's a lovely article on Lulu's own London home here, which is a carnival of colour  --  LINK HERE 
Or you can browse the website here -- SOANE BRITAIN


Many people already know about Firmdale Hotels and their wonderful London hideaways, including Number Sixteen and the much-talked-about Ham Yard. But what isn't as well known are their impeccably decorated suites and townhouses, which not only accommodate a family or group of friends, but offer interior design that is even more glamorous than the famously sophisticated 'standard' rooms. The Covent Garden's suite (above, with whimsical watering cans), and the Haymarket Hotel's townhouse (top) are two of the most beautifully designed hotel rooms in London and they're ideal if you need to spread out (such as for a company presentation) or require a kitchen for a long stay. Many fashion companies book the Covent Garden Hotel's suites to do presentations, and then stay the night. Not a bad 'office' to be in for your London stay.

More details may be found here -- FIRMDALE HOTELS


If you're after a hotel that offers stunning spaces for small groups to have get-togethers, cocktails or other functions while in London, some of the prettiest are those rooms offered by The Pelham Hotel in South Kensington. The Pelham was actually one of Kit Kemp's (Firmdale Hotel's creative director) first hotel designs, and still reflects her attention to detail in textiles, furniture, antiques and bold patterns and print. The Pelham is perhaps my favorite hotel in London and not just because it posts the fabrics and trims in framed mood boards outside many of the rooms. Its front desk is a welcoming dream of a space, its parlour and honesty bar a relief after a long day of walking the streets for work meetings, and its rooms are quiet havens of luxury for very little money.  Best of all, it's right opposite the South Kensington Station, so you can jump straight on a tube in less than five minutes! Look for the understated facade; it's difficult to see because it's so discreet.

Details here -- THE PELHAM


New York Times' T magazine recently published a superb story on Rebecca Louise Law's 'flower studio' in London; a romantic, poetic, flower-and-book-strewn space where she creates her famous flower installations. Louise LawBut London is home to a scented plethora of petalled florists, many of whom offer superb classes in everything from flower arranging to event styling. Judith Blacklock is one such florist. Her classes are held in a pretty building in Knightsbridge, but it's her tours of the New Covent Garden Market that you should aim to get a place on. The day begins at 8AM with a long wander around the various traders of the famous flower market, and continues with breakfast and a flower workshop back at the store.

Petersham Nurseries has also started to offer wonderful horticulture courses, with the Scented Gardens being one of the most popular. And in the West End, the Covent Garden Academy of Flowers offers all manner of floral classes in an airy, light, easy-to-reach boutique that's brimming with glorious blooms.


London is dotted with gardens and parks, but few visitors realize there are also dozens of restaurants, bistros and pubs that are designed for fans of horticulture and greenery. Maggie Jones in Kensington is a lovely little place relished by locals for its cosy, romantic atmosphere as much as its baskets of flowers (dried and fresh). The place is designed to feel like a rustic barn, complete with faux beehive, but the food is anything but rough. Farmhouse-inspired, yes, but it's still delicious and beautifully prepared. ( 6 Old Court Place, London, Kensington,

The Ivy in Chelsea is another that's pulling in the green-thumbed crowd. Athough it's more sophisticated than Maggie Jones, it's no less charming, with menus designed to look like garden plans and a courtyard full of wicker chairs. The interior, meanwhile, is punctuated with botanical prints, and the colour palette is a summery combination of tangerine and green. (195 King's Road, Chelsea, )

Finally, Bourne & Hollingsworth has been popping up on blogs and Insta posts for a year or two now, but it's still sweet, especially the petite conservatory full of ferns and floral armchairs.  (42 Northampton Road, Clerkenwell,


London will see some stunning new museums opening in the next few years. The Museum of London is one, with a spectacular design for the museum's new location that features a monumental domed atrium, spiral escalators, and a sunken garden.  But the two that will really prompt designers and decorators to queue are Sandycombe Lodge and Sir John Soane's home, both of which are currently being restored to their former glory.

Sandycombe Lodge is the home of the celebrated painter JMW Turner, and was, in its time, a blissful hideaway hidden away in the bucolic setting of Twickenham, where the wealthy were building grand homes amid the pastoral scenery.  Twickenham was “a place of experimentation” for Turner; somewhere he could escape his life in London to paint in peace. Turner’s father, a retired barber who was also his son's studio assistant,  also lived at Sandycombe Lodge, and made the 10-mile commute to London daily to open his son’s gallery, initially by foot, then by hitching a lift on a vegetable cart in exchange for a glass of gin. (!)  The house is a small gem that recalls the 19th century in much the same way as the London-home-turned-museum of the architect John Soane does. Soane was a friend of Turner, and visited him often, so it is fitting that Soane's own rural home nearby, Pitzhanger Manor,  is also being restored. An illustration for the restoration of Pitzhanger Manor is above, but work has started on the building and all its glorious interior. The bold paintwork is especially beautiful, so particular attention is being paid to the walls, ceilings and frescoes.

Details on the restoration of Turner's house can be found HERE And details of Pitzhanger Manor can be found HERE .

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