Thursday, 31 July 2014

Sweet peas and sweeter memories

I heard about a wonderful tradition of wedding guests making their own buttonholes from sweet peas in the garden and kitchen foil. After further discussion, I’ve been told the story that goes with it. It’s a touching, personal tale from Claudia Jordan, whose flower memories are very much associated with her Welsh grandmother. You may have seen Claudia’s work – she is the events director for Best Brides (which organises wedding fairs all over Kent) and she often writes for wedding magazines.

Oh, and you may need a tissue – this brought a tear to my eye when I first heard it!

Claudia’s grandmother, Nana Betty Holloway, moved down from South Wales to Eltham (in South London) during the war, in order to marry Claudia’s grandfather, Kenneth Holloway.

Many of us who weren’t around during the war have heard of the Dig for Victory campaign, which encouraged people to grow their own food during those times of hardship and rationing. This short film was part of the campaign. It's from the Imperial War Museum archives, and was produced by the Ministry of Information and then the Ministry of Agriculture. I love the step-by-step guidelines to creating your own vegetable plot, and the calm voice of the narrator as he says, “The exciting time comes when the first seeds must be sown.”

Claudia’s grandparents fully embraced the idea of growing their own. As Claudia says, there was the added factor of their being teenagers and newly-weds – so they made best use of what was available and naturally seasonal. By the time Claudia was born, her grandparents had a beautiful, 150 foot garden at their home in Welling, not far from Eltham. This is a photo of Nana Betty in the garden.

Claudia thinks this photo may have been taken soon after Kenneth died, as the garden still looked beautiful, but the stripes weren’t so prominent.

Here, Claudia shares her memories of her grandparents and the flowers that connected her to the nana she cherished.

“By the time I was born, my grandparents had a home with a 150 foot garden in Welling. The garden, maintained by my fastidious grandfather, was immaculate. There was a stripy lawn, well-trimmed and stocked flower beds, along with a vegetable patch behind the shed and a greenhouse which held the most wonderful aroma of tomatoes during the summer months (and led to the inevitable abundance of green tomato chutney in the autumn and winter). I still don’t buy tomatoes unless it has the heady sweet scent I recall from the greenhouse.

“Every year my nana and I would paint white the two little stone statues of a rabbit and kitten that were nestled next to the purple and pink snapdragons that she would let me pick and use to “bite” her fingers. She came from a large family and was a member of Eltham Bowls Club, so it seemed she was regularly attending weddings in the summer months. I’m not sure if it was traditional for her generation, but she would always choose her outfit and then go into the garden with her scissors and cut a few stems of sweet peas, pinks, or a rose. She would then soak a little tissue and play with the stems, cutting them to different lengths and then wrap them in silver foil before getting a pin to attach them to her dress.

“Colour and scent were key to my nana. Yellows and golds were her favourite. Being Welsh, she always had an abundance of yellow daffodils chosen over tulips in the months after Christmas. Each Mother’s Day I would walk to the Bridge Florist shop in Welling and buy a small bunch of yellow freesias, which she adored. The florist there was always very kind and despite the fact I only paid 50p would always put a bit of ribbon round them to make them pretty. When I gave the freesias to my nana she always inhaled them deeply and commented on what a lovely smell they had before placing them in a vase in the hall.

“She died 12 years ago, and as we were very close I miss her a lot. To this day the scent of sweet peas and freesias absolutely take me back to my childhood memories in my nana’s garden.”

Claudia has kindly shared photos of her grandparents, along with her and her brother when they were children. You can see the buttonholes that her grandmother made.

There’s so much about this story that I love – the vivid memories of loved ones who have died, the power of scent to transport you back to another time and place, the attachment between grandparents and grandchildren. Of course, the snapdragons in Welling made me smile too – by a strange coincidence, that’s where I grew up as a child and where my own snapdragon memories lie. I lived in South Wales for a few years during the turn of the millennium, so the daffodils made me smile too. Claudia makes Welsh cakes with her own children now, using the same bakestone that her grandmother used with her.

Does anyone else recall this tradition of making your own buttonholes for weddings? It sounds like a lovely tradition to bring back. Get snipping in the garden and you can create something beautiful for you and your family to wear to the next wedding in your diary!

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