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Just some of my plants grown from Chiltern Seeds supplies

In memory of Douglas Bowden

I was saddened to hear of the recent death of Douglas Bowden, founder of Chiltern Seeds, an extraordinary Cumbrian company dedicated to supplying a vast range of common and rare seeds to discerning gardeners all over the world. It was the CS annual catalogue that really excited me about creating and planting the very large garden I have in the Lake District, making it possible to trial and error my way through raising thousands of plants inexpensively and experimentally.

Chiltern Seeds also recently sponsored all the seed for our project What Will the Harvest Be?, a generous gesture to a project hundreds of miles away in London.

I met Douglas back in 2004, when I was writing an article later published in the Northern Garden magazine. I thought it would be nice to reproduce it here:


A PROFILE of Chiltern Seeds

At the end of last year I spent three months in New York City. Whilst I had enough fun there to (almost) forget my slumbering garden back home in Cumbria, the one thing I beat the front door down to get to on our return was the Chiltern Seeds 2003 catalogue.

I am not alone in my fanaticism for this South Lakeland based company. Exporting to 100 countries, and acknowledged by the gardening cognescenti as the plantsman's seed list, that idiosyncratically-written catalogue, its slim, handbag-friendly format belying its 4000-plus entries, gives little away about the rest of the operation behind CS. My gardening friends, whose questions (like my own) begin with "Why Chiltern when its in Cumbria?" but get considerably more horticultural in flavour, are green with envy as I wind my way out of the Furness town of Ulverston to Bortree Stile, the HQ.

The large Victorian villa which accommodates both the domestic and work life of Chiltern Seeds' co-founders Douglas and Bridget Bowden, is set aloft a hilltop overlooking views to Morecambe Bay and beyond.
It's a blisteringly hot spring day, and co-founder Douglas Bowden greets me in shorts, apologising that his daffodils - that Lakeland stalwart, and the source of most of the very little seed sold in the UK - are already over. A quick glance around has me wondering where the business end of things happens - there's a large polytunnel and conservatory on view but nothing at all resembling a production line fit to service the world's seed-a-holics. As I'm wondering if an underground bunker had been excavated, we make our way steeply uphill by a pretty stream where Douglas has discovered a naturally-occurring deep pink variant of Primula Vulgaris. He's dug some up and is hoping they set seed.

The polytunnel, which is (naturally) brimming with seedlings, is the domain of a fairly recent addition to their household - a gardener, Adrian. It transpires that, what with the business and children.... well, the Bowdens just hadn't got round to really having a garden until now.
The development of their steeply sloping 2 and a half acre site has been the focus of much energy and resources over the last few years, so our next port of call is there. (En route, we pass what looks like a recent, and very tastefully done, extension on the house. "Offices", Douglas says casually, but on a day like today neither of us is keen to rush indoors.)

We make our way down steep steps in a magical woodland area, carpeted with wild garlic and sparkling with fresh young growth "Actually we've just Round-upped all of this" says Douglas matter-of-factly.
We pause to take in the stunning vista of farmland from the foot of the garden, before heading towards the more formally landscaped section of new garden. Douglas is philosophical about the patch of japanese knotweed nearby, musing on the sinister implications of distributing viable seed from the dreaded plant. His conversation is scattered with botanical references but he's no plant snob - though he is a keen plant collector his garden features as many commonplace things such has Euphorbia characas as oddities from the catalogue such as his Zantedeschia 'Green Goddess'.

We make our way up a substantially landscaped slope, featuring slate terracing, raised beds and pathways, built by a local team and designed by its owners with their gardener Adrian. The piece de resistance is a major stepped water feature running the vertical length of the garden, which continues from the stream behind the house at which we began our tour. A coved 'beach' of pebbles on its banks provides one of many charming seating areas. Despite this areas' clear labelling and hospitable landscaping there are no plans as yet to open the garden to the public.

Douglas' enthusiasm for seeds is enthralling, though he confesses to not having sown one himself for years.
Bridget has evidently been busy at it though, as he takes evident pleasure in stocking his garden with 'home-grown' plants ("Think how much a couple of fuschias like that would cost you in a garden centre!") and we both marvel at a 2 year old climbing rose 'Kiftsgate' which has carpeted a good 12metres of wall. Other experiments are always underway, for example in siting two seed-grown olives outdoors, and a stunning patch of 2metre high echium pinnana which have survived our last cold, wet winter. A whimsical crenallated 'tower' offers us a resting place for a birdseye view of the garden, passing by a greenhouse stuffed with enviably ordered seedlings.

The moment has come to see the hub of the operation. Through a door set into the Bowdens' kitchen wall, we find ourselves in the warren of offices which somehow house CS' 25 staff. We pop into the printing room, where an old-fashioned press and type run off CS' unique seed-packets. Upstairs we arrive at the light-filled and airy seed-store, a room the size of a large garage. At first glance, the impression is of a esoteric library filing system, with operatives (no lab coats) flicking carefully over yards of card dividers and labels. After orders are computerised, Douglas tells me, the rest is fairly manual. When I complement him on the CS website (from which around 15% of their orders now come) he tells me he's not too keen on computers, and I can see there's not much they could do to come near the efficiency of these careful staff.

Their busiest time is post-Christmas, when their carefully-timed catalogue mail-out returns thousands of orders dreamt-up in that grey area between Christmas and New Year. Their team can expand to 45 at busy spells, but CS focuses on mail order seed selling, not producing, cleaning or retail. None of these are really viable for such a scale of operation, Douglas tells me.
He is clearly a man reluctant to divide home and work, business and pleasure, but as we continue our tour I realise this doesn't make him a workaholic. His business derives from a boyhood passion for seed-growing, but in fact it was only when his company Chiltern Water Treatment was struggling in the late seventies, that the dining-room table sideline of Chiltern Seeds was born. Based at that time in Surrey (hence the enduring name) the couple decided to relocate and devote themselves to sourcing and supplying the out-of the ordinary seeds they loved. The early days weren't easy, but Douglas now describes seed-selling as a 'relaxed' way of earning a living compared to the water treatment business. He manages to balance his clearly encycloepaedic knowledge with a laymans attitude to gardening and plants, saying that he's 'fed up' of Chelsea (but loves Kew), and doesn't fancy plant-hunting as a holiday as he's not that dedicated.

Over a cup of tea in the living room, I compliment him on those idiosyncratic catalogue entries so beloved of CS fans -an example, characteristically witty but not without pathos 'Magnolia campbellii....Such glory takes many years to achieve but, an object lesson, had we sown a packet when we arrived at Bortree Stile in 1980 (seems but yesterday!) we would have something marvellous to look forward to to this spring - we didn't and we don't! " He concedes that he enjoys the sourcing and describing of new items the most of all aspects of the business and cites a heavy US tome 'Cornucopia' from which he derives much advice on edible plants. Cunningly, if a plant is shown to be edible it escapes VAT, so his scholarly curiosity accompanies a shrewd business sense, confirmed by his dedicated lobbying on the subject of US export legislations. Sales are stable, he says, despite TV makeover shows making seed-sowing look like a very distant cousin to the plants shoe-horned into the average suburban plot.

Being someone whose hobby became their business, he has no plans to retire and still delights in extolling his passion to all - a recent member of his family sowed their first tray of seeds recently and phoned Douglas to share his excitement at their germination. He was delighted of course, but "I didn't like to say that sowing radishes in a seed tray wouldn't end well...."

crumbs !

Our early work is featured in a new book just out, by new media's first ladies Sarah Cook and Beryl Graham

See more about it here.

That was the year that was - Somewhere's 2009 *round robin

Dear Friends of Somewhere,

A belated review of 2009 for those of you who - like us - blinked and almost missed it:

January 09 kicked off with a couple of US screenings of our second feature doc Living with the Tudors in the windy (and apparently also freezing) city of Chicago. The movie continues to be distributed in the US by Indiepix on both download-on-demand (something we hope to get going on this here website too in the near-ish future) and also on DVD. It's not exactly a box office smash but trundling along nicely, as is our first film Bata-ville which on direct-from-us DVD sales reached 200 in 2009!

Film-wise 2009 was a big year of R & D for P & G: irons in the fire include new projects on cat breeding, Jaywick, service stations and the Mass Observation Archive. Can you see the theme emerging? No. Nor can we - so if you can email us and let us know. The first two are now proceeding apace, having met our feline guide the lovely Anthony Nicholls, a cool young cat breeder from Camberwell and - in Jaywick - having been recruited as Essex County Council's lead artists for an far-reaching project what termed 'Jaywick Parklands' and consequently getting to spend a lot of time on the Essex seaside. And its not as sunny as you'd think, by the way ;-)

Speaking of Jaywick, this project focused on forming longterm concepts to improve access to and quality of the neglected green (and brown) spaces in and around this unique coastal town, indisputably down-at-heel now but with a fascinating history and a loyal community who love it.
Working closely with ECC Built Environment's landscape architects was a first for us and really productive - they seemed to enjoy our left-field input and we enjoyed their sensible translations of our ideas, which included a social enterprise plant nursery, a bespoke seed-mix that can be used inexpensively to improve empty spaces immediately, and the mass planting of 1950's style 'garden escape' plants in the wilderness around the town.
Through this project we also got to work with the excellent Anwick Forge on a temporary roof garden of native plants we placed on Jaywick's Martello Tower, and with James Hitchmough, a meadow expert from Sheffield University whose work we'd admired for ages. The project concluded with a rare Somewhere exhibition at the afore-mentioned Martello Tower, including some glorious flower arrangements by Clacton Flower Club, dozens of miniature gardens by kids from Frobisher School and several hundred hydrangea plants.....

An exciting and unexpected turn in the legacy of Somewhere came in the form of the acquisition of our 1999 piece 'An Artist's Impression' by London's Science Museum. The piece toured the UK extensively after its ICA premiere as part of the Cap Gemini Digital Art Award (ah, I still recall Terry Gilliam's opening speech - he had to stand on a crate to be seen and heard...) Departing from its damp Lakeland storage barn, we were very happy for this vast installation to head south to the latex gloved conservators, and have to thank Tilly Blyth and Charlie Gere for smoothing its path. We have an appointment to visit it again in its hangar this summer, of course we will take flowers and chocolates.

Karen finally brought 6 years of planning permission battles and trips to Travis Perkins to a merciful end as she and partner Adam got their little Lake District house, the Love Shack, finished. And lovely it is too. She moved for the third time in 18 months, back into her house at Grizedale Arts' HQ Lawson Park, opened her garden there for the second year in the National Garden Scheme - it rained - and said garden was acclaimed by both Eric Robson and Nick Serota. Get in! Karen continues to work on web development and graphic design for Grizedale Arts with a lot of gardening on the side too. Her Exmoor National Dress was exhibited in Somerset and Devon throughout 2009 and is now in Newcastle, and her films made with inmates of HMP Preston were shown at the Harris Museum in Preston.

Somewhere hopes to team up with Grizedale Arts, public works, myvillages and Dorian Moore on an running an online version of our multitude of honesty stalls this coming summer. In the meantime our lovely multiple 'Titchy / Kitschy' can be bought very reasonably on our website shop....

Nina took a trip back to the Czech Republic with Bata-ville passengers Joan and Mike for the excellent Zipp conference "Utopia of Modernity: Zlín" - it's nice to be the film stars of a conference! We are now featured in the excellent publication produced following the event. She also continued her long running teaching post in the Design Interactions department at the Royal College of Art. The '09 batch of students were great ,making a full range of work from The Cloud Project (think nanotechnology meets cloud seeding from an ice cream van) to an automated coin flipper and the all-time over ambitious student project Open_Sailing.

Undoubtedly Somewhere's fattest 09 project was What Will the Harvest Be?, a public art commission from Newham Council a stones throw from the London 2012 Olympic site....Propelled by the energetic Friends of Abbey Gardens we defiantly went on site despite many last-minute logistic setbacks and against most advice (Councils are very 'sensible'). So in early 2009 there was a mad dash to turn the neglected site into a productive 'harvest garden' by summer. It worked. Again Anwick Forge came up trumps with our bespoke raised beds and thousands of seedlings were brought on by novices in their back gardens. Kilos of vegetables poured forth. Somewhere new recruit Chris Cavalier ably led the onsite garden club and Sam Clark of Moro fame fed the 5000 (ok, more like 200) at the project's first Harvest Festival. A fantastic portakabin was customized inside and out. Phew.
And it all starts again in a few months time - that's Mother Nature for you.

We were invited to propose a project for the Tatton Park Biennal with Manchester's Castlefield Gallery and curators Danielle Arnaud and Jordan Kaplan. Unfortunately after much to-ing and fro-ing with potential partners (let's name them - it was Moto who run Knutsford services - the ultimate Somewhere site - discuss?) we had to admit defeat, but the insightful tour of Tatton Park's majestic gardens by the old-skool head gardener remains a highlight of the year. We hope to work with Castlefield in the future so all is not lost....

That's all folks - onwards into 2010!

* round robin definition here!

Alwyn Hill with some of her cats

25 Sphinx cats and a Munchkin

We've been spending a lot of time editing our footage of Jaywick recently and it is most definitely a town where the dog is king ... there's hardly a shot with out a 'continuity dog issue' to be found!

Meanwhile though we have also been doing lots of work on our other potential new film project Cat Fancy Club, and a couple of weeks ago we were very lucky to have Dr Leslie Lyons (Associate Professor of Genetics from UC Davis in the States) join us for two days shooting with some breeders here in the UK. It was a relief to be filming with a crew again, especially as it was with John and Paul who shot and recorded our two previous films.

As usual working with a crew and hired camera means packing a lot in and it was a rather frantic two days - massive thanks to the breeders who let us visit them at home and told us in detail about their cats and links to genetics and in some cases to Leslie's actual lab. We started off the trip with Professor Tim Gruffydd-Jones at the University of Bristol, School of Clinical Veterinary Science Feline Centre, many thanks to Anna Virtue who brought in one of her lovely Burmese cats for us to film there.

We then hit the road for two days of tea and cats chat starting with Alwyn and Ted Hill their database of Birmans and I have to say pretty sizeable cat collection! On day two we joined Jen Lacey and her impressive collection of Korats (a really interesting breed in relation to good practice from breeders and connections to genetics) and ended back in London with Anthony Nichols and his LaPerms (a new 'rex' or curly breed still going through the GCCF recognition process).

This Saturday I was back out with Anthony at the Croydon Cat Club show, sadly without the crew or in fact even Karen (so massive thanks to Chris for stepping in as my impromptu sound assistant!). Anthony's cat got the next certificate she needed to help with moving the LaPerms towards full breed recognition, I met up with some breeders and judges I hadn't seen for a while and I also met a man who has 25 Sphinx cats plus a Munchkin! Almost as impressive was the fact that the leading judge at the show was apparently in her 90's and very sprightly with it - not to mention immaculately turned out including high heels.

More pictures from our various cat-related trips can be found here.

Job at our What Will the Harvest Be? garden

We're pleased to announce that the part-time job of Garden Club Leader is now being advertised, working this season (the garden's second) at our East London garden project, What Will the Harvest Be?

The job involves leading weekly garden sessions with learner gardeners of all ages and backgrounds, advocating the project locally and keeping on top of routine maintenance and garden records.

What's not to go for?! Outside with nice people, more vegetables than you can imagine, all summer...

More info on the post here - deadline March 5th

What Will the Harvest Be? - join us this Saturday

6th Feb / 10.30am-3.30pm / Abbey Gardens, Baker's Row, London E15 3NF

Join us tomorrow to plant the 'wall of fruit' , a final touch for the garden - all welcome, tools provided, bring your own lunch - more here.

Bata-ville screening

We're delighted to be screening Bata-ville on Thursday this week at the Architekturmuseum, München. This is part of their excellent show all about Zlin.