How do you summarise an epic? Lessons from a rockstar classicist

How can you condense one of the greatest books in Western literature into an half hour radio show?  Humorously and in a single take if you’re Natalie Haynes. 

I was lucky enough to be at the recording of the BBC’s latest series of Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics, and in an absolute tour de force Natalie romped through each of the 24 books that make up Homer’s The Odyssey, with barely a break to draw breath.

She revisited the well-known story of Odysseus poking out the Cyclops Polyphemus’ one eye, somewhat stretching the boundaries of what is acceptable behaviour for a guest.  Although it’s worth remembering that hospitality was very important in ancient Greek culture, so trapping guests in your cave and eating them (I’m looking at you, Polyphemus) was pretty terrible hosting.

Natalie also highlighted what it means to be a good wife.  When Odysseus was presumed dead, his devoted wife Penelope insisted she could not take another husband until she had woven a burial shroud for her father-in-law.  Then every night she unpicked what she had done during the day to stave off her unwanted suitors.  In contrast, Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra started a love affair with Aegisthus, then colluded with him to murder her husband when he eventually returned from Troy.  Although – to give Clytemnestra a run for her money – Agamemnon had literally sacrificed their daughter and then brought a concubine home, so there are also questions about what it means to be a good husband.

On which note, Natalie pointed out that of the ten years Odysseus spent journeying back to Ithaca, he spent seven of them living with the nymph Calypso and a year with the enchantress Circe, which makes you wonder how much of a rush he was really in to get home.

And, whilst we’re doubting some of Odysseus’ choices, I’m not convinced that any of his men would have sailed with him if they’d known firstly that it would take ten years, and secondly that Odysseus would be the only one of them to actually survive the journey.

He is certainly not a straightforward hero, and The Odyssey is full of depth and complexity.  It raises questions only to offer conflicting answers.  To capture so much of it in half an hour is in itself an epic feat – kudos to Natalie Haynes for such a brilliant summary. 

But don’t take my word for it, you can hear her yourself when the new series of Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics starts on 14th August.

If you can’t wait until then, I would seriously recommend catching any or all of Natalie’s previous series.  And if you’d like to do a bit of reading, why not whet your appetite with Natalie’s article The greatest tale ever told? written after The Odyssey topped a BBC poll in 2018 of the 100 stories that shaped the world.

PS If you’re questioning the title of this article, and whether there is even such a thing as a ‘rockstar classicist’, let me tell you that people were queuing from before 4.15 for a recording that didn’t start until 7.30.  I got literally THE LAST SEAT IN THE THEATRE and the people sitting next to me described themselves as ‘Super-Fans’.  So, yes, Natalie is a rockstar.

RideLondon: what I learned from 6 hours cycling

After a two-year hiatus due to Covid, RideLondon was back at the end of May with an all-new route from London into the lovely Essex countryside and back.  Although there were three possible distances (30, 60 and 100 miles) my ever-ambitious husband signed us up for the rather daunting full 100 miles.  And, just to spice up the challenge, almost immediately we got our places, I was injured for 4 months, only getting back on the bicycle at the start of May.

So it was with some trepidation that I arrived in Parliament Square at 7am on 29th May with my number pinned on my back and my bike chipped and ready to go.  Here’s what I learnt during 6 hours of cycling (or 5 hours, 59 minutes, and 1 second, if we’re going to be precise):

What to wear

I have an abject fear of being cold, and the forecast said it was going to be between 9 and 12 degrees during the ride, so I was wearing a long-sleeve cycling jersey. Conversely, my husband hates being too hot, so he was wearing a short sleeve top. It’s definitely worth knowing what kit suits you at different temperatures, because being too hot or too cold for six hours can be pretty miserable.

The course

I’ve only ever seen Essex on the TV advert for ‘The Only Way is Essex’, but it turns out it’s rather lovely – all green rolling hills interspersed with pretty villages.  As the entire course followed a series of A roads and dual carriageways, rather than tiny, snaking country lanes, the route was generally smooth, wide, and pretty straight, with any sharp corners signposted and flagged as you approached them. This was good for me as I am terrible at taking corners at anything above snail-pace. Also, rather than steep climbs and descents, it was gently undulating, so although there was about 1,000m of climbing, it was actually barely noticeable. The last section of the ride back into London was straight and fast, although not very pretty, but finishing at Tower Bridge made for some nice photos.  If you are not confident, or fairly new to cycling, I would say it is a great route to complete your first major challenge on.

Image credit: RideLondon

Taking ‘comfort’ breaks

As well as regular portaloos along the route, there were a series of ‘Welfare Stops’ where you could refill your water bottles and grab some free snacks to keep you going – energy supplements courtesy of event partner High5, bananas and flapjacks.  As I’ve learnt from previous rides, only an idiot (me) doesn’t refuel regularly.  Although I had packed my own snacks, I still jammed my face with all the lovely freebies whenever I stopped.  There were also mechanics at the Welfare Stops, although luckily I didn’t need them.

Other observations

I did expect some camaraderie between the cyclists, maybe even to get into a group and chat with people, but everyone was cycling pretty much in silence.

In contrast to the silent cycling fraternity, I was surprised by how many people were out cheering riders on; some people had even brought deck chairs and flasks of tea.  I was particularly surprised since we were passing them at speed and mainly without looking up.  I made a point of waving and shouting ‘thank you’ as often as I could.

This year the finishers’ medal was made of wood. I know RideLondon are looking at how they can be as eco as possible, and I love that!

I felt fine the next day.  I put this down to eating a takeaway curry when I got home, followed almost immediately by a burger and chips.  I’m not sure a sports nutritionist would recommend it, but, like I said, I’m a big believer in refuelling.

Would I recommend it?  Definitely!  Apparently 25,000 cyclists did it this year.  I reckon, like the London Marathon, it is only going to get more popular.

Can you do it?  After so many months injured – at my lowest point I couldn’t even sit on the bicycle in my own sitting room without being in pain – I was not confident of completing the course, but I think the design of the route means that providing you ride regularly and have a reasonable level of fitness you should be able to finish. (Before injury I used to cycle about 85 miles a week.) I’m not saying you’ll be quick, or that it will be easy, but it’s definitely worth a go.

Made it to the end!

Enjoying the debauchery and death of Vitellius with Mary Beard

Is there a better way to enjoy a warm summer evening than listening to the world’s most famous classicist talk about the debauchery and death of a Roman Emperor?  Having convinced my friend Simon that there is absolutely not, we headed out to the annual Goldsmiths’ Lecture to hear Professor Mary Beard explore how images of Vitellius have been used in art from the Renaissance to the present day and how it can change our interpretation of what we see.

Although well-known to past generations for his gluttony, cruelty and unhealthy sexual predilections, Vitellius seems not to have been awful enough for modern audiences to pay him much attention.   Although, to be fair, he was only emperor for 8 months in 69AD (the year of the four emperors), so didn’t really have time to build up a track record of bad behaviour in the way some of his predecessors, such as Nero and Caligula did.

‘Ah, Nero.  Remember that time he tried to drown his mother by rigging the boat she was on to collapse?’ I hear you say.  ‘Ah, Caligula.  Didn’t he commit incest with his sisters and plan to make his horse a consul?’  Good times.

But back to Vitellius, who, although largely overlooked now, was very popular in Renaissance art.  The so-called ‘Grimani Vitellius’ was discovered in the 1520s and, based on the similarity to coinage showing the emperor, was believed (wrongly) to be a representation of Vitellius.

This likeness, Mary argued, was then widely adopted by artists including Titian and Rubens to add different layers of meaning to their paintings.  Although the question of whether the audience is intended to recognise Vitellius in the paintings remains open, Mary’s challenge was how featuring Vitellius (with his reputation for all the worst kind of excesses) might change or enhance any interpretation of the picture.

It is surely no coincidence that Thomas Couture features him in his painting ‘The Romans of the Decadence’ (now in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris), nor that it was painted the year before the French Revolution of 1848.  It is a sweeping picture that chimes with what Mary described as ‘the casual debauchery of the French bourgeoisie.’  (You can spot Vitellius to the left of the main couple.)

Nor can it be coincidence that the Paris Salon (the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris) set the death of Vitellius as its theme the year before King Louis Philippe was deposed by the revolution, leading to these pieces by Gustave Housez and Jules-Eugene Lenepveu respectively.  Depicting the death of a debauched ruler must have felt pretty edgy in those febrile times.

Sadly Professor Beard retires from academia this year, although she will continue to make a difference through a gift she has made to fund two Classics students from under-represented backgrounds to study at Cambridge.  I also hope that she will continue to write, appear on television and lecture in person.  Thanks for a great evening, Professor Beard!         

Stepping out: shoes that slay

If The Wizard of Oz has taught us one thing, it’s that you can achieve anything in the right pair of shoes. You can go on wild adventures; you can defeat witches; and you can outwit winged monkeys. I’m not saying you need fancy shoes to do any of these things, but it’s good to have the option.

For many years I mostly wore flat shoes or trainers, because I habitually leave slightly less travel time than I actually need to get to my destination. This means that almost all my journeys involve a spot of light jogging to arrive on time. But in more recent years I have succumbed to the joy of shoes with heels (the higher the better) and now I’m addicted.

Obviously, you can’t rush anywhere in five inch stilettos, so I may not arrive on time. But what I lose in speed, the shoes more than make up for in magnificence. These are some of the shoes I put on when I am out to conquer and I don’t plan on taking any prisoners…

5 things every driver should know about cycling

If the way bicycle parts and kit keep selling out is anything to go by, the pandemic has turned everyone into a cyclist. Never one to miss a trend, this time last year I jumped onto my bike to give it a whirl and am now regularly cycling over 100k a week for fun. As a result, there are some observations I would really like to make about the relationship between motorised vehicles and people steaming along by pedal power…

1 Not all motorists. Not all cyclists.

Not all motorists drive like they’re actively trying to kill you. In fact, most of them drive really considerately, giving cyclists a wide berth and overtaking slowly. Sometimes people even shout encouragement when I’m cycling uphill. If this is you, I thank you. I always try to acknowledge when people have slowed down or made room for me – it’s just safer and more pleasant for everyone. It is also true that not all cyclists cycle sensibly, so please don’t judge us all by the exploits of the minority.

2 The edge of the road is where all the cr*p collects

I know that motorists are often annoyed when I don’t pull in closer to the kerb to enable them to overtake. It’s not because I’m deliberately being awkward, it’s because the edge of the road is the most hazardous part for a cyclist. It’s where the tarmac often disintegrates a bit, the drains are inset, and broken glass and other detritus accumulates. Basically everything likely to puncture a tyre or jettison me off the bike and under a car resides at the edge of the road. Also, on country lanes, the hedge that motorists blithely expect me to cycle up against is full of stinging nettles.

3 Being rude doesn’t enable me to go any faster

Shouting abuse out of the window as you overtake me because I have delayed your journey by 30 or 40 seconds does not magically return that time to you, nor does it enable me to cycle any faster. You’re just showing yourself up. To be fair, hardly anyone does this, but when they do, it really makes me wobbly.

4 Slow your speed or keep your distance

There’s a golden ratio between speed and distance, which means the faster you want to overtake, the wider the berth you need to give me. To the yellow van that accelerated past me this morning: you may very well think that 5 centimetres is a safe distance, but that’s because you are travelling in a metal box that has been specifically designed to protect you in the event of a high velocity impact. I am travelling in my cycling kit, which basically gives me the same degree of protection as my birthday suit, that is to say none at all.

5 Cyclists are not a slalom course

There is a certain kind of motorist (noone reading this blog, obviously) who treats cyclists like slaloms on a downhill ski run – they accelerate wildly to swerve round you then cut in front as aggressively as they can. The worst is when they do it 10 metres before braking hard to make a left turn, so you have to brake violently to avoid hitting them side-on. For some reason the slalom-swerve is also a favourite manoeuvre for people towing trailers, who seem entirely oblivious to the way the trailer is veering uncontrollably from side to side behind them, like an errant bowling ball randomly taking out any pins (cyclists) in its vicinity.

Despite these gripes, I have also had some lovely encounters – the man who stopped on a narrow lane to let me pass and said he was just happy to see someone out enjoying the sunshine; the lorry driver who overtook me three times because I kept catching him up in the traffic and tooted and waved when our routes finally diverged; and the many many people who have slowed down, made room or generally been considerate.

So my message to motorists is: there is room for all of us on the road and driving considerately will probably only take an extra 30 or 40 seconds (less time than it takes to park when you get wherever you’re going.) I wish you a safe and comfortable journey, please make the small adjustments that will allow me to have one too.

How I’m winning at parenting – no GCSE maths required

At least once a month I panic that I am failing my children in some new but devastating way.  That they will be condemned to live out their lives in misery and despair because they haven’t had piano lessons.  This month I have been hyper-ventilating that I am insufficiently enriching their spare time with stimulating extra-curricular activities.  Which is why in the last few weeks my children have been surprised to find themselves on a day trip to the Science Museum, dancing to the Bollywood Brass Band, and attending a talk on Homer’s Iliad.

I have written about the Science Museum before and it remains excellent, but Bollywood at Blackheath Halls in south east London was a whole new experience.  Band leader Kay Charlton opened the evening by inviting the audience to dance in the space in front of the stage, which I thought was just an easy way to identify who had been drinking before they arrived.  And for the first couple of songs two confident individuals ploughed a lonely furrow waving their arms and jiggling awkwardly from foot to foot.  But, as the evening went on, more and more people began to join them.

culture chaiiya chaiya

This is Chaiyya Chaiyya – a song and dance number filmed on top of a moving train.  Gotta love Bollywood!

I’m not sure if there are any down-tempo songs in Bollywood, but every single one the Band played was an absolute barn-stormer.  In the background a huge screen projected carefully chosen dance scenes from Bollywood movies, and for every other song, a dancer in traditional dress gyrated mesmerizingly to the music.

By the time we reached the finale, pretty much every member of the audience was on their feet.  My family were all up giving it more welly than a Barbour and Hunter shop in a sale.  We went home as happy as we were sweaty, which must count as a triumph by any objective measure.

Natalie Haynes

Natalie Haynes

Next up on my children’s cultural odyssey was Dulwich Literary Festival and tickets to see classicist and broadcaster Natalie Haynes talk about her new book, A Thousand Ships, a re-telling of the Trojan war from different female perspectives.  I’m going to level with you here, this is not something my children were busting to go to.  This was a little treat for mummy disguised as an educational benefit to my children.

After anxiously bombing round darkest Dulwich on a rainy Friday looking for, but failing to find, the entrance to Dulwich College, the evening went surprisingly well.  Natalie took the audience on a whistle-stop tour of The Iliad with a fierce feminist take on the well-known tale.  As she rightly pointed out, it is just as much about the women caught up in the war as it is about the men.  After all, Helen is the only character so integral to the story that we have added the words ‘of Troy’ to her name.

At the end of the evening we left with a signed copy of the book, two children with a nascent interest in ancient Greek literature, and a very happy mummy, who is now a little bit in love with Natalie Haynes.  I’m chalking that one up as another win.

Mr B reckons that we are reaching the end of my children’s cultural education, as either my enthusiasm or my money will soon run out.  But he hasn’t realised that the Troy exhibition is now on at the British Museum and that tickets are FREE for children under 16.  I feel a little giddy just thinking about it…

Want to expose your children to the same maelstrom of culture as mine have just endured?

Why everyone should enter the ballot for Wimbledon

Wimbledon is everything England should be when it’s at its absolute best.  It’s about summer and sport; champagne and strawberries; the green of carefully manicured lawns and the white of tennis players dressed for glory.  Even the line-judges look as if they are about to stroll off court to join a garden party.

This year my lovely friend Sonia and I were lucky enough to have tickets for centre court in the second week.  And my level of happiness was set to ‘historic’.

IMG_0119As soon as I stepped out of my front door, I was enveloped in a cloud of contentment.  By the time my train had reached its first stop I was already texting friends and posting photos of my journey on Twitter.  There was a point where I worried I may not actually make it to Wimbledon, but would burst with joy somewhere on the Southwestern Rail trainline.

I arrived about 4 minutes after the gates opened and the entire place was already thronging with people just as excited as I was.  Everyone was chatting , taking selfies, and drinking it all in.  In fact, the incredible friendliness of everyone, from the spectators to every single member of staff, suffused the entire event with good cheer.

Just to be able to sit on Centre Court was amazing (cue posing for multiple selfies, all of which I look terrible in), but to watch Serena Williams play, for me, that is a once in a lifetime experience.  She’s so powerful that it’s easy to overlook how nimble she is around the court and how diverse her game is.  She may not have won the tournament this year, but she won the match we saw, and she was awesome.



And it wasn’t just the tennis.  We max’d out on the whole Wimbledon experience.  We ate cucumber sandwiches and strawberries and cream, we drank champagne, and we had a cream tea.  And then, when it seemed like the day might be almost over, we blew the doors off it in the Wimbledon shop.  Everyone I know now has Wimbledon sweatbands, Wimbledon socks, a Wimbledon water bottle, a Wimbledon t-shirt, a Wimbledon pin-badge, a Wimbledon pencil-sharpener or some combination of all of the above.


Then we walked back to the train station in the warm evening air, chatting to a young woman who was working as a player escort (getting players to and from their matches).  True to every other member of staff we met, she was an absolute delight.  Not only did she tell us all the ins and outs behind the scenes and blow our minds with the sheer logistics of it, but she waited patiently as I stopped after every third step to take a photo.

Maybe some people who live in Wimbeldon are sick of it, but not the home-owner below, or shoe shop, or bar, or Farrow & Ball…


It was the Best. Day. Ever.

So thank you Sonia.  Thank you for organising the tickets and thank you for being there.  I am so lucky to have spent a day I will remember for the rest of my life with one of my best friends.  Big hugs to you.

PS  Writing this blog has reminded me of the brilliant joyful poem about tennis, love and Miss Joan Hunter Dunn by John Betjeman – if you’ve never read it, I recommend it!


Colour and joy in south east London

What better to do on a warm summer’s evening than roam around a Colour Palace?  Or The Colour Palace at Dulwich Picture Gallery in south east London, to be more precise.  Last week I was at the official opening of the new summer pavilion designed by Peckham-based architects Pricegore and artist Yinka Ilori, whose vibrant design fusing European and African influences won an open competition.

Bright and welcoming, the pavilion is a ten metre tall cube made of hand-painted lengths of wood.  Built on four huge red cylinders it seems to float above the ground, and its layers of colourful timber shimmer in the sun, perfectly complementing the more traditional architecture of this lovely gallery designed by Sir John Soane.

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The Colour Palace by architects Pricegore and artist Yinka Ilori

The gallery itself is small enough to feel intimate, big enough to host some really interesting exhibitions.  I was not expecting to enjoy Cutting Edge, the Gallery’s exhibition of linocut art, even though in her speech the Director, Jennifer Scott, had bigged it up as a movement to make the artistic process accessible to all, not just those who’d been to art school.  As it turned out, I loved it so much that by the end was wondering if any of the pieces might be small enough to slip under my jumper and sneak home with me.  (Just to note: obviously I would NEVER do this and nor should you!)

Dulwich 6

The Cricket Match by Edith Lawrence c.1929

The exhibition is divided into themes, which include transport, speed and movement, industry, labour and sport and leisure.  Simple and beautiful, and each using only a limited colour-palette the prints seem to be able to capture both movement and stillness equally perfectly.  Like a slow game of cricket on a hot summer’s day, each piece sings with the spirit of the 1930s, and the exhibition reminds me of the optimism and exuberance of the old London Transport posters exhorting passengers to visit Kew Gardens by tram or take the tube to London Zoo.

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Sumi the crocodile, by Nahoko Kojima

The entrance to the gallery is dominated by a giant paper-cut crocodile, created specially for the exhibition by Japanese artist Nahoko Kojima.  This is not, as I imagined, some limp white thing sitting on a plinth, but a black and gold beast suspended from the ceiling that demands attention and was drawing quite a crowd when I was there.

If you have time after your visit, there’s a lovely café at the Gallery, or it is right in the middle of Dulwich village which is awash with good eateries.

This gallery is good to visit all year round, but the pavilion and printmaking exhibition are really worth a trip.  Also, the Gallery is running Pavilion Lates – totally free music, talks and more after hours.  Catch the pavilion and exhibition while you can – Cutting Edge: Modernist British Printmaking is on until 8th September and the pavilion is open until 22nd September.

If you are the least bit persuaded, this is a helpful link to get there by public transport.

Dead good: loitering with intent in Kensal Green

I am sure there are many lovely things about Kensal Green, but my good friend Dev and I went with only one thing in mind: dead people.  We wanted to see as many of them as possible.

Not in a zombie horror movie sort of way, more in a ‘will you look at the elephant on that tombstone’ sort of way.  I know it’s not for everyone, but for the discerning tombstone tourist* Kensal Green Cemetery is pretty much the most fun you can have visiting dead people without it becoming illegal.

Built in the 1800s it was the first of the Magnificent Seven garden cemeteries built in a ring around London to alleviate overcrowding in parish burial grounds.  And its 72 acres are beautifully manicured and jam-packed with variety.  It claims to be not only one of England’s oldest and most beautiful public burial grounds, but also its most prestigious.

It doesn’t have the large architectural flourishes of Highgate, but there are just so many interesting monuments in such a variety of styles that I think it is actually my favourite of the magnificent seven.  But don’t take my word for it, look at the pics, or – even better – visit it yourself…


‘Nothing fancy for me, thanks.  Just something simple…’


TO HER: something fittingly modest…  The back reads:  To the memory of Madame Soyer
Died September 1st 1812
Aged 32 years
England gave her birth
Genius immortality



Simple and stunning – the grave of Thea Canonero Altieri


This is my absolute favourite – may we all hope to receive such a send off:  Major General the Hon. Sir William Casement KCB of the Bengal Council and member of the Supereme Council of India who after 47 years and six months of distinguished service partly in the field, partly as secretary government in the military department and finally as member of the Supreme Council, when about to returnm to his native country, crowned with well merited honors and distinctions, was swayed by a sense of duty to accede to the ??? instance of the Governor General in Council to defer his departure.  A step which exposed him to the attack of the fatal malady which terminated his valuable life at Cossipore on the 16th day of April 1844 in the 64th year of his ???.  In him the Government of India has to regret the loss of an able and upright adviser, the army of a steady friend, and the community at large of one of its most valued members.  His affliected widow records this tribute to his public merits.  Her own loss can only be ??? however imperfectly by those who knew his private worth.

If Kensal Green has lit your funeral pyre, don’t miss my blogs on Brompton Cemetery and Highgate and Nunhead.

* Thanks to Kelly Anne Mackay for giving me this phrase 😊 – you can read her own blog here.

Patio cleaning for a man who loves the smell of napalm in the morning

My poor husband works so hard and at the weekend all he wants to do is sit in the garden surrounded by lush greenery, listening to the tinkle of next-door’s fountain.  Sadly this is not his experience.  The gentle sounds of next door’s water feature are drowned out by the raucous shrieks of our unruly children.  The lawn looks like a stretch of unloved scrubland.  And the patio has been reclaimed by nature and is now coated in a thick layer of green slime.  It’s a cruel, cruel world where a man works hard all week only to come home to a slimy patio.

So last weekend I decided to address the whole rogue patio issue.  In his usual supportive way, my husband stood at the back door shouting helpful advice.  First piece of advice: coat the patio in bleach before hosing it down.  Of course he recommended bleach.  He loves the stuff.  Nothing makes him feel like a toilet has been properly cleaned like its pungent aroma burning his nasal passage every time he goes in the bathroom.

But, as we all know, bleach may well be excellent for patios, but it is terrible for clothes.  So I did what any right-thinking woman would: I took my trousers off and power-hosed the patio in my knickers.  This is despite watering it down so extensively I’m not even sure there was any bleach on the patio.  My daughter was baffled.  I mean, if a substance is so harmful you don’t want to get it on your clothes, surely messing about with the stuff in your underwear is the height of folly?  To be fair, I think a bigger concern was what the neighbours might think; but they’ve met me before, so power-hosing in my undies probably falls well within their expectations.

And now the patio is lovely.  It is an oasis of calm and joy.  My husband is happy and I am fully dressed again.  The only cloud in the sky (apart from the constant one that hangs over every British summer) is that now the patio is impeccable, my husband has noticed that the lawn isn’t meeting requirements.  Oh well, at least that’s a job I can do with my trousers on…

P.S. I would love to tell you that the lovely patio in the picture is mine, but sadly not.  It  is the patio my husband would like to have when we win the lottery.  It was designed by Belberdos Landscapes, who seem to do a lot of rather chic gardens.