A couple of months ago, I became a signed-up, official Volunteer Litter-Picker for Cambridge City Council. This came about because I get furious about litter all the time, but had no idea what to do about it in any systematic way until I met, at the Friends of Cherry Hinton Brook biannual litter-pick, a nice gentleman who had his own kit, including a clever device for holding a bin bag open in one hand while wielding one’s litter-picker (which I have discovered also works for weeds, if the soil is moist) with the other.

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2020 in the Research Plots

Not all of 2020, in fact, as the Cambridge University Botanic Garden was sadly but inevitably closed between March and June … I began following a particular plant or hedge throughout the year in 2017, with varying degrees of success (= interest to my devoted readers), but in January 2020 I thought I had cracked it, with the most interesting and  fast-changing spectacle of them all, the Research Plots.

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Songs of the Nativity Revisited

A few weekends ago, I was multi-tasking between Christmas cakes and reshelving books, with the Advent Service from St John’s on the radio, when I picked up William Henry Husk’s Songs of the Nativity, the cover of which is one of my favourite designs from back in the day. This concatenation of events was clearly meant to be, so when I next had a moment, I sat down and re-read Husk’s introduction to his work, which is basically a lament for all the Christmas lore, customs and music which it seemed to him (writing in 1864) were passing away.

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Plant of the Month: November 2020

I am in the throes of having my garden made over. This is because, when I was young, and even more ignorant than I am now: (1) I put too many shrubs in too close together; (2) I maximised planting space by giving myself stepping-stones from which to bend and gyrate as I tended the plot. Now that my bending and gyrating days are very firmly over, and the shrubs are too big and too entangled (did I mention that I’m a lousy pruner, too?) for me to get through/round, I have decided that I need to future-proof the garden against my encroaching old age.

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Posted in Biography, Botany, Cambridge, Exploration, Gardens, History, Natural history, Printing and Publishing | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Anna Maria Garthwaite

It is a well-known fact that the Spitalfields district of London was, during the eighteenth century, entirely populated by French Huguenot refugees, all busy weaving away in their loft workshops, producing gorgeous silks for worldwide trade, and breeding auriculas and other ‘florists’ flowers’ (cuttings and seeds of which they had brought with them as they fled across the Channel) in their leisure moments. As with many well-known facts, this is true only up to a point. Consider, as a counter-factual, the career of Anna Maria Garthwaite, spinster daughter of an Anglican clergyman, whose designs for woven silk (many of them happily preserved in the Victorian & Albert Museum) were hugely important in the success of the silk industry.

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Posted in Art, Biography, Botany, Gardens, History, London, Museums and Galleries, Natural history, Printing and Publishing | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Ole Worm

I was prone to nominative determinism for more than half a century before I knew what it meant. A children’s biography of Grieg in my primary school library (who now remembers this series by Opal Wheeler and Sybil Deucher, which included Franz Schubert and his Merry Friends and Sebastian Bach, The Boy from Thuringia?) had a famous violinist say to the young Edvard, ‘You have made the voice of Norway sing!’

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Posted in Bibliography, Biography, Botany, Cambridge, History, Natural history, Printing and Publishing, The Netherlands | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments


On 7 October every year, I remind my faithful Twitter followers of the anniversary of the battle of Lepanto in 1571, at which the Ottoman Turkish fleet was comprehensively defeated by the combined forces of the Holy League – the Papal States, Spain, Venice, Genoa, the Knights of Malta, and various Italian duchies. After some argument among the allies, the command of the League’s forces was given to Don John of Austria, the illegitimate son of Charles V, and thus Philip II’s half-brother, but the bulk of the fleet was Venetian, under the leadership of the Capitano da Mar, Sebastiano Venier.

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Plant of the Month: September 2020

Given that the Equinox has just happening, and that it has just come to my attention (belatedly, I concede) that we ought to be calling a large number of asters Symphyotrichum instead, I thought I’d have a look at the Michaelmas daisy. I don’t grow them, with the exception of a rather pretty, delicate one which persists in the front garden, and which I don’t remember planting. In my distant youth, it was (along with buddleia and ragwort) one of the first plants I learned to distinguish, since it grew prolifically all over the bomb-site (I told you my youth was distant) which was the wonderful adventure playground for all us local children. Continue reading

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Samuel Egerton

We were having a nice mooch round the (startlingly quiet) Ca’ Rezzonico Museum in Venice a few days ago, when I noticed, among the various local grandees immortalised in oil or pastels, a portrait of Samuel Egerton (1711–80). There was no further information available, but having gone back to the (temporary) Palazzo Hedgehog to look him up, I discovered that he had many intriguing links, familial, political, artistic and social, all over England. Continue reading

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Plant of the Month: August 2020

The name ‘acanthus’ was taken by Linnaeus from the Greek ἄκανθος, used by Aristotle among others to mean a prickly Mediterranean plant (today A. mollis), imitated in the Corinthian columns of Greek architecture; the related ἄκανθα means ‘thistle’. The family of Acanthaceae was first assembled by Antoine Laurent de Jussieu, and refined in 1847 by Christian Gottfried Daniel Nees von Esenbeck (1776–1858), the German botanist who described almost as many species as Linnaeus himself, and who after a distinguished academic career, lost his posts and honours after the 1848–9 revolutions, and died almost penniless. Continue reading

Posted in Botany, Cambridge, Gardens, History, Italy, London, Museums and Galleries, Natural history, Printing and Publishing | 5 Comments