Lockdown walks in London (Winter/Spring 2021)

hampstead heathHampstead Heath, 28th Dec 2020

It is January 2023, and I have not updated my blog for about 2 years. Although a lot has happened in the past three years, everything seems like a blur to me now. How did I pass my time during the lockdown days? When did the lockdown end? I don’t recall much now. Luckily, I did take many photos during that surreal period, and now I am looking at them trying to recall my weekly activities. After being stuck in Hong Kong for most of 2020, I returned to the U.K. at the beginning of Dec 2020, just days before the second/ third lockdown was announced by Boris Johnson. In hindsight, I would not have returned if I had known that there would be another lockdown. However, I was lucky to have missed the initial lockdowns in 2020, and only had to endure four months of lockdown in London, which turned out to be not as challenging as I had imagined.

hampstead heathhampstead heathhampstead heathhampstead heath  hampstead heathwinterhampstead heathhampstead heathhampstead heathhampstead heathHampstead Heath from winter to spring

For months, I did not take any public transport and I walked everywhere. I walked to Camden Town, Hampstead Heath, Paddington, Oxford Street, Regent street, Covent Garden, Kings Cross etc. I saw a London that I have never seen before – deserted. Yet it enabled me to appreciate the city’s beautiful architecture, especially around Oxford Street. Perhaps the hardest part for me during the lockdown was not being able to meet up with friends (apart from a couple who live near me), and I had to rely on the weekly farmers’ market for some human interactions (not via zoom or Facetime). And over the few months, I became rather obsessed with cooking – though as much as I enjoyed creating new dishes, I was completely sick of eating my own cooking by the end of the lockdown.

primrose hillprimrose hillprimrose hillprimrose hillPrimrose Hill

Walking around London during the lockdown made me notice the surroundings more – I started to see all the architectural details that I had missed in the past. Usually I would not look up while walking down Oxford Street as I am more concerned with avoiding the crowds around me. Yet without crowds or heaps of tourists, I was able to saunder down the streets and appreciate the historic architecture in the city.

Regent's ParkRegent's Park  Regent's ParkRegent's Parkregent's parkRegent’s Park

Oxford Street and Camden market are places that I would normally avoid as I don’t really like crowded places. However, during the lockdown, it gave me joy to wander through the empty (and rather eerie) Camden market. Meanwhile I also felt sympathetic towards the shops and businesses, and was particularly sad to see my favourite eateries/cafes in the neighbourhood close down due to the pandemic.

chalk farmcamden town  camden towncamden townregent's canalcamden tow camden towncamden townCamden Town and Regent’s canal

At the end of winter, Hampstead Heath and Regent’s park were becoming as packed as Bond Street before the pandemic, and I started to change my walking routes. Instead of going to parks, I did more walks along the Regent’s canal. I headed east towards Kings Cross and west towards Paddington along the canal… these walks lasted only a few hours but they were uplifting especially on a clear and sunny day.

kings crosskings crossKings Cross’s Coal Drops Yard

Two years on, it seems unlikely that we will experience another lockdown soon (fingers crossed), and what I miss most about that period is the sounds of nature ( like birds chirping while walking down the streets) and cleaner air. The pandemic made many of us (city dwellers) evaluate our relationships with nature and our cities. It is hardly surprising that many Londoners decided to move to the countryside during/ after the pandemic. Nature has healing power, which is why so many of us turned to nature during an anxious and unpredictable period.

abbey road  abbey roadcovidLittle veniceLittle venicepaddingtonpaddingtonpaddingtonTop: Abbey Road; Second: Maida Vale; 3rd & 4th: Little Venice; 5th to bottom: Paddington

According to a report commissioned by the City of London Corporation, London is the greenest major city in Europe and the third greenest city of its size in the world. The metropolis contains 35,000 acres of public parks, woodlands and gardens, hence 40% of its surface area is made up of publicly accessible green space. Our public green space is precious, and I hope Londoners will continue to cherish and protect it.

london  bbcregent street carnaby street  carnaby streetoxford streetriba  riba Regent Street, Carnaby Street, Oxford Street; Bottom: RIBA


mosqueimg_5138img_5153img_5162img_5169Top: The London Central Mosque; Regent’s Park’s Outer Circle

covent gardencovent gardenCovent garden

chorley woodchorley woodchorley woodchorley woodchorley woodchorley woodchorley woodA long walk around Chorleywood and Hertfordshire in spring

Munnar: Greenland spice & Ayurvedic garden

greenland garden


Munnar is not only famous for tea, you can also find abundance of spices here, and prices are much cheaper than Kochi. I asked the driver to take me to a spice garden, and he said he knew just the place. Greenland spice and ayurvedic garden is located in Thekkady, and it is one of the few spice gardens that is approved by the government.

Out of all the places I visited on the day, this was my favourite. It was fascinating and educational – I highly recommend it. The entry price includes a guided tour (you will need someone to identify and explain all the spices and herbs here) of the garden, which resembles a mini jungle.


greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden  greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden salvia L

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden Thunbergia mysorensis

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden Musa velutina  greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden torch ginger flower

3rd row: Salvia; 4th row: Thunbergia mysorensis/ Mysore trumpetvine; Bottom left: Pink banana (Musa velutina); Bottom right: torch ginger flower


Many of the spices and herbs in the garden are used in ayurveda, which is considered by many scholars to be the oldest healing science. Ayurveda originated in India more than 5,000 years ago, and in sanskrit, it means ‘The Science of Life’. Plant-based treatments in ayurveda may be derived from roots, leaves, fruits, bark, or seeds. Aside from ayurveda, many spices are commonly used in South Indian cooking e.g. cardamon, cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, ginger, cumin, turmeric and mint etc. Interestingly, many of the ayurvedic plants can also be used as natural dyes, so they are extremely versatile.

South India is world-renown for its ayurveda retreats and centres, and many Westerners would spend weeks or months getting detox and wellness treatments here. After I left Kochi, I spent a few days at a yoga and ayurveda retreat before heading to Munnar. Upon arrival, I had a doctor’s consultation, and was given some plant-based tonic twice a day along side with massage treatments daily to restore body balance. It was an interesting experience, and I particularly enjoyed the healthy and flavourful vegetarian/ayurvedic meals.


greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden  greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden jackfruit

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden peas

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden  greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden black pepper

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden murikooti

2nd row right: Jackfruits; 3rd row: peas; 4th right: black pepper/Piper nigrum; Bottom row: Murikooti – a wound healing plant with leaves that can be turned into a paste


The most exciting part of the tour was seeing cocoa trees and tasting cocoa pulp for the first time. I love eating dark chocolates but I have never seen a cocoa fruit (Theobroma cacao) before. Inside the fruit lies a cluster of cacao beans surrounded by a thin layer of white pulp. The guide opened the fruit and let me tast the white pulp, which was surprisingly juciy and sweet. While some cacao pulp is used in the fermentation process of cocoa beans, most is simply thrown out as waste. It was only recently that cacao pulp is being used as a substitute for refined white sugar. Not long ago, Nestle released a 70% dark chocolate bar in Japan under its KitKat brand that has been sweetened with cacao pulp instead of refined sugar. Yet historically, cacao pulp has always been drank as juice by cacao farmers, and their immediate communities around the world.


greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden

greenland spcie & ayurvedic garden  cocoa


nutmeg seed  cardamon seed

1st to 3rd rows: cocoa fruit, bean and pulp; Bottom left: nutmeg seed; Bottom right: cardamon


Like most tourist sites, there is a shop located by the exit to avoid you leaving empty-handed, Apart from different varieties of spices, there are also ayurvedic medicine and skincare range available. I went for the mixed spice packs as I think you can’t get much fresher spices than the ones being sold by the spice garden.



The splendid Dale Chihuly exhibition at Kew Gardens

sapphire star dale Chilhuly

Sapphire Star, 2010


I am not sure why it took me so long to visit the ‘Chihuly – Reflections on nature‘ exhibition at Kew Gardens, but I finally managed to catch it a few days before it ended. It was not the best day to visit Kew, but the autumn foliage made up for the grey and drizzly weather.

I was glad that I made it because I thought it was was the best U.K. exhibition I saw this year. American artist Dale Chihuly‘s stunning nature-inspired glass sculptures did not look out of place at Kew, in fact, they undoubtedly enhanced the gardens in many ways.





Chihuly at Kew


With a map in hand, I wandered around the gardens in search for his 32 sculptures installed at 12 different locations. Aside from the Rotunda Chandelier at the V & A entrance, I don’t recall seeing a lot of Dale Chilhuly‘s works in the U.K., so this exhibition was a fascinating opportunity to see an artist who has spent the last 50 years perfecting and experimenting on a skill/craft/art that he loves. Even on a grey day, Chihuly‘s glass sculptures still looked magnificent, and it was hard not to be gobsmacked by the intricate craftsmanship and dazzling colours.


Temperate House Persian

Temperate House Persian  Temperate House Persian

Chihuly at Kew

Chihuly at Kew  Chihuly at Kew

Fiori Verdi

Chihuly at Kew


Besides the outdoor sculptures, the indoor ones looked marvelous too. The Temperate House Persians – a new artwork specially designed to be suspended inside the world’s largest and newly restored Victorian glasshouse could be admired from below and above. Meanwhile, some of his other works inside the glasshouse appeared to be camouflage e.g. ‘Fiori Verdi’ among the exotic plants, which was quite a pleasant surprise for the visitors.


‘Summer Sun’, 2010

Opal and Amber Towers, 2018

Lime Crystal Tower, 2006

 Scarlette and Yellow icicle tower

Top: ‘Summer Sun’, 2010; 2nd row: ‘Opal and Amber Towers’, 2018; 3rd row: ‘Lime Crystal Tower’, 2006; bottom row: Scarlette and Yellow icicle tower, 2013


One of the most conspicuous outdoor sculptures at the exhibition was ‘Summer Sun’, a bold piece consisted of 1,483 separate elements. Yet the most complex one is ‘Scarlette and Yellow icicle tower’, which has 1,882 separate elements.

Out of all the installations at the gardens, my personal favourites were the ‘Niijima Floats’ and ‘Ethereal White Persian Pond’ inside the Waterlily House. Named after a volcanic island in Tokyo Bay, the ‘Niijima Floats’ installation at the Japanese rock garden was made up of brightly coloured glass spheres in various sizes, some of which weigh up to 60 pounds (27 kg). A series introduced by Chihuly in 1991, the colourful spheres looked unexpectantly harmonious with its surroundings; I especially liked the Chinese pagoda backdrop. I felt a sense of tranquility and balance looking at this installation, and it was unfathomable by intellect – you could only feel it, which probably made it more powerful.


'Niijima Floats' (1992 - 2008)

'Niijima Floats' (1992 - 2008)

'Niijima Floats' (1992 - 2008)

‘Niijima Floats’, 2019


‘Ethereal white persian pond’ inside the Waterlily house was another breathtaking installation. As soon as I entered the glasshouse, my eyes were captivated by the extraordinary white and translucent striped glass flowers supported and rimmed with steel standing on the surface of the pond. Again, I felt that the glass flowers belonged there, in the pond with the water lilies and lotus leaves. The reflection of the glass sculptures on the water created a dreamlike/surreal effect, which made me believe that these flowers are part of nature and that there is no difference between the sculptures and nature.

Chihuly has said that he wants his work “to appear like it came from nature, so that if someone found it on a beach or in the forest, they might think it belonged there.” And I believe that he has certainly achieved this.


'Ethereal white persian pond', 2018

'Ethereal white persian pond', 2018

'Ethereal white persian pond', 2018

‘Ethereal white persian pond’, 2018


The last location I visited was the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, where visitors could see his sketches, drawings, smaller glass sculptures and a film detailing Chihuly’s creative process. It was interesting to see many artisans working alongside with Chihuly in the production process, hence the collaborative efforts are essential for his final pieces.


Chihuly at Kew

Chihuly at Kew  Chihuly at Kew

Chihuly at Kew

Chihuly at Kew

Chihuly at Kew


Although I have visited Kew Gardens almost annually (usually with a friend who lives locally) for the last few years, I have never been able to cover the entire area. There is always something new to discover here, and on this visit, I spent almost an hour inside the Princess of Wales Conservatory examing the carnivorous plants in a maze-like glasshouse.


kew gardens  kew gardens


kew plants  kew plants


kew gardens


Although Kew is popular with visitors all year round, I personally love coming here in autumn. I enjoy hearing the rustling sounds of autumn leaves being blown in the wind, and the crunching sounds produced when my shoes made contact with the leaves. Perhaps it is due to global warming, but I feel that autumns here have become shorter, and if this is the case, then we need to cherish this season before it vanishes altogether – which will be almost unthinkable but not impossible. Watching the autumn leaves fall onto the ground is a reminder of our fleeting lives, although it comes with a sense of melancholy, there is also much beauty in it. I think nature is our best teacher, and maybe this is the reason why I will always want to return to Kew in autumn.


Chihuly at Kew

autumn foliage Kew  autumn foliage Kew

autumn foliage Kew

autumn foliage Kew

autumn foliage Kew  FOLIAGE KEW


autunn foliage



Colchester: The Beth Chatto Gardens

beth chatto


In the last few years, I became very interested in English gardens, and I tried to visit as many as possible during the summer/autumn months when the weather is more pleasant. Since I don’t have a car anymore, I would have to plan ahead and constantly check the weather forecast. I am no expert in gardens nor gardening, but I do enjoy visiting different gardens which enables me to gain more understanding. Besides, being surrouneded by plants, trees and flowers does make one feel uplifted and it is a good way to de-stress from living in the city.


   Beth Chatto Gardens

The iconic Gravel garden


One of most renowned and respected gardeners of our times is Beth Chatto OBE (1923 – 2018), an award-winning plantswoman, garden designer, author and lecturer.  Her Beth Chatto Gardens near Elmstead Market in Essex is considered as one of most inspiring gardens in the U.K. In 1960, she started to work on an overgrown wasteland of brambles, parched gravel and boggy ditches, and eventually transformed it into an informal but wonderful garden using a large collection of unusual plants that could thrive under different conditions.

From London, I took a train to Colchester, followed by a bus ride to Elmstead, which was fairly easy. It was sunny and not too hot on the day – perfect for strolling around the gardens. Since the garden is family-run, the entrance fee is lower than gardens run by the English Heritage or National Trust. There is also a tearoom and nursey selling a wide range of plants.


 Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens

Lunch at the tearoom


The garden is divided into five main areas: Gravel, Water, Woodland, Reservoir and Scree. The most famous one is the car park-converted Gravel Garden (which is never watered), originally set up by Beth and her team as an experiment. Despite the poor, free-draining soil, it features a spectacular display of drought-tolerant plants. As I was walking around, the garden reminded me much of Derek Jarman‘s garden at Prospect Cottage; interestingly, I later found out that it was Jarman who inspired Chatto to work on this garden after an encounter with him at his Prospect Cottage in 1990.


 Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens

Gravel garden


The lushest gardens of all is the Water garden, which includes a series of ponds and moisture loving plants. I love the lotus ponds and beautiful trees in this garden.


 Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens   Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens   Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens

beth chatto garden  beth chatto garden

 Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens

Water garden


 Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens  beth chatto garden

beth chatto garden

Scree garden showcases a large collection of easy aplines


 Beth Chatto Gardens

Beth chatto garden

 Beth Chatto Gardens

Beth Chatto Gardens

Beth Chatto Gardens

Beth Chatto Gardens

Beth Chatto Gardens

Reservoir garden is an open sunny area, redesigned recently in the Beth Chatto style showcasing many colourful flowers and plants


The most serene one is the Woodland garden, which is full of shade-loving bulbs, perennials and shrubs planted underneath a dense canopy of tall oak trees. I felt like I have enetered a natural woodland as I walked around this garden.


Beth chatto garden

Beth chatto garden   Beth Chatto Gardens

 Beth Chatto Gardens

Beth chatto garden   Beth Chatto Gardens

Woodland garden


It was quite amazing to find five distinct gardens within one garden and they all blend well together. What I love about these gardens is the organic feel; they are not over-designed and showy… this is certainly one of the most authentic and enchanting gardens that I have visited in the U.K. Since it is not far from London, I would want to return again in the future.



William Morris’ Red House in Bexleyheath


bexleyheath  bexleyheath

Architecture in Bexleyheath


Although I live in London, there are still many areas of the city that I am unfamiliar with or have never been to. I have long wanted to visit William Morris‘ former residence Red House in Bexleyheath, but somehow never got round to it. Since August is a quiet period, I decided to venture out to the SE part of Greater London on a sunny day.

To my surprise, the town centre of bexleyheath has some interesting historic buildings like Trinity Baptist Chapel (1868) and Christ Church (1872–7), and it feels more ‘Kent’ than London. After a 15-minute walk from Bexleyheath train station, I reached the National Trust-run heritage building and garden in a quiet residential area. With my National Art pass, I was able to get free entry and arrived in time for the guided tour.


red house

red house william morris  red house william morris


Commissioned in 1859 by William Morris, founder of the Arts & Crafts movement, Red House was designed by his friend and architect Philip Webb which completed in 1860. At the time, Upton was a hamlet on Bexley Heath, a largely picturesque area dotted with cottages, medieval ruins, and Tudor mansion (Hall Place). Intended as a post-wedding house for him and his new wife Jane, Morris financed the project with money inherited from his wealthy family, and dreamed of the house becoming a ‘Palace of Art’, a place where his artist friends could decorate the walls with stories of medieval legends. Influenced by Medievalism and Medieval-inspired Neo-Gothic styles, the building was constructed based on Morris‘ ethos of craftsmanship and artisan skills, which later became known as the Arts and Crafts movement.


red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris


Summer is definitely a good time to visit the house and garden, and since it was during the week and summer holiday period, there were very few visitors during my visit. Before entering the house, I spent some time walking around the north side of the 2-acre garden, and it made me feel at ease immediately.

Red House garden was first laid out over 150 years ago and successive owners have put their own stamp on the garden. The garden was important to Morris, hence he and Philip Webb put a lot of thought into the design of the garden. They wanted it to ‘clothe the house’ to soften the effect of the startling red brick. Little of the original garden design remains, so Red House’s head gardener Robert Smith and his team embarked on an ambitious project to re-introduce some of the spirit of Morris’s ‘lost garden’.


red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris


Inside the house, it was Philip Webb who designed most of the furniture, while Morris, Jane, and his friend/painter Edward Burne-Jones designed all the furnishings including windows, wallpaper and tiles. Their collaborative works paid tribute to medieval craftsmanship, for example the glass in the gallery features flowers painted by Morris painted flowers, birds painted by Webb, overlaid with Burne Jones‘ work depicting Fortuna. On some windows (see the round one below) and tiles, inscriptions of Morris‘ motto: ‘Si je puis” (if I can) can also be seen.

Another notable piece of furniture is a settle-cum-cupboard in the landing designed by Webb, with door panels painted by Morris which depict a scene from Malory entitled ‘Sir Lancelot bringing Sir Tristram and the Belle Iseult to Joyous Gard‘. The picture features Edward Burne-Jones offering cherries to his wife Georgie and Janey Morris and with Morris’ servant, ‘Red Lion Mary’ in the background.


red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris


Orginal architcetural plans and belongings of Morris are exhibited in one of the rooms on the ground floor.


red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

Dining room


red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris


As visitors walk up to the first and second floor, they can admire Morris‘ patterned wallpaper which covers the ceiling suppored by wooden beams. In a small room on the first floor, there is a catalogue of Morris & Co‘s archive wallpapers. In 1862, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co began to design woodblock-printed wallpaper for the house, thus Morris & Co was born, a company still exists today producing wallpaper and textiles based on Morris‘ designs and ethos.


red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris


On the second floor, there is a drawing room which showcases an original built-in settle, and a fireplace painted with Morris’s motto: “Ars Longa, Vita Brevis” (Life is short, art is forever). On the sides of the settle are murals painted by Pre-Raphaelite artist/his friend, Edward Burne-Jones depicting the 15th century marriage feast of of Sir Degrevan.

Although the structure of the house was not altered, many of the original furnishings and wallpaper were either removed or painted over. Hence, the wallpaper in some of the rooms are simply reproductions of Morris‘ original designs. Since there is a sharp contrast between the murals and the surprisingly ‘modern-looking’ yellow polka dot patterned wallpaper on the ceiling, it made me wonder if the latter was added on during the restoration.


red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris  red house william morris


In 2013, the National Trust discovered a mural hidden behind a large built-in wardrobe on Morris‘s bedroom wall. The near-lifesize figures on the wall are believed to be the joint efforts of Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his wife Elizabeth Siddal, Ford Madox Brown and Morris. The figures are from the Bible, which include Rachel, Noah holding a model ark, Adam and Eve, and Jacob with his ladder, and they were painted as if hanging on fabric.


red house william morris

The rediscovered mural by William Morris, Jane and other young pre-Raphaelites


Sadly, after five years living in their dream house, Morris, his wife and his two young daughters had to sell the house due to financial difficulties. Morris never returned to visit the Red House again, but described the five years as being “probably the happiest and not the least fruitful of his life.”

Over the years, the house changed ownerships quite a few times and was threatened to be demolished until it was designated a Grade I listed building by English Heritage in 1950. Since the National Trust took over the house and garden in 2003, research and efforts were made to restore and conserve the house to its original condition.


red house william morris  red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris

red house william morris


Besides the house, I particularly enjoyed spending time in the garden surrounded by flowers and fruit trees and vegetables. After touring the house and garden, I had a coffee at the cafe’s outdoor seating area and left feeling jolly and energised. Maybe good design and nature are two of the elements that we need in our lives to make us happy; though Morris did not get to spend much time here, thanks to him, we are now able to appreciate his vision and legacy as a revoluntionary designer and entrepreneur.


LCW 19: Creative Inspiration Walk – Text in the City

black friar pub


How many of us pay attention to the text and typography around us in the city? When we are rushing around the city, we tend to miss what is right under our noses. During the London Craft week, I joined the “Creative Inspiration Walk: Text in the City” organised by The Goldsmiths’ Centre and City of London. The two-hour walk explored the city’s lettering heritage and craftsmanship focusing on engraving and carving of text.

Our meeting point was Blackfriars station, and right opposite the station is the Grade II listed Art Nouveau The Black Friar pub built in 1875, and remodelled in about 1905 by the architect Herbert Fuller-Clark. Much of the internal decoration was done by the sculptors Frederick T. Callcott and Henry Poole. I have always been fascinated by the facade of this pub, especially by the mosiac y the mosaic type and wonderful metal signage outside. Although this stop was not part of the walk, I thought it is apt to include it here.


The Blackfriar pub

The Blackfriar pub

The Blackfriar pub

The Blackfriar pub

The Black Friar Pub


The first stop of the walk was located in the new concourse of the station. Fifty four stones from the original Victorian station, each engraved with destinations served by the London, Chatham and Dover Railway (LCDR), have been preserved and relocated. The stones list destinations as diverse as Bickley, Marseille, Gravesend and Venice, as the LCDR advertised Blackfriars’ links to towns and cities of the south east, and the business capitals of Europe via cross-channel steamers. These blocks were removed from top to bottom, one-by-one, by chiselling the mortar joints between each stone. The lightest stone weighs 54 kg and the heaviest stone about 120 kg. The lettering on the sandstone was gilded with 24 carat gold leaf before it was rebuilt in the new location.


The 54 inscribed stones inside Blackfriars stationThe 54 inscribed stones inside Blackfriars station

The 54 inscribed stones inside Blackfriars station


From one of the station’s platform exits, we were led to a rather grey and gloomy concrete square outside of the brutalist British Telecom owned office building called the Baynard House. Surprisingly, in the middle of the empty square stands The Seven Ages of Man, a 22-foot cast aluminium sculpture by British typeface designer, stone letter carver and sculptor, Richard Kindersley. The sculpture was commissioned by Post Office Telecommunications and unveiled in April 1980.

Inspired by William Shakespeare‘s pastoral comedy As You Like It, in which a monologue is spoken in Act II Scene VII Line 139. The speech compares the world to a stage and life to a play and catalogues the seven stages of a man’s life, sometimes referred to as the seven ages of man.

The high column features seven sculpted heads, stacked in totem pole fashion, on top of each other. The youngest is at the bottoms and it gets older as you progress up the column; on the pedestal, Shakespeare’s verses are inscribed around it.

This is a fantastic piece of sculpture, but its odd and hidden location is unlikely to draw passerby’s attention (unless they look up from the street level). It is certainly a hidden gem in the City of London.


The Seven Ages of ManThe Seven Ages of Man

The Seven Ages of ManThe Seven Ages of Man

The Seven Ages of Man


We then walked towards the river bank, and under the Millennium bridge stands The Millennium Measure designed by British sundial maker, hand-engraver & sculptor, Joanna Migdal in 2002. The Millennium Measure measures is the gift of the court & livery of the Worshipful Company of Scientific Instrument Makers to the City of London in commemoration of the millennium. It comprises a 3 sided, 2 metre (2M = 2000MM) rule depicting two thousand years of history of the City, the Church and the craft of scientific instrument making. The initials ‘MM’ stand for ‘Millennium Measure’, ‘millimetre’ and ‘two thousand’ in Roman numerals.


london river


Millennium Measure Millennium Measure

Millennium Measure Millennium Measure

Millennium Measure

The Millennium Measure


Although I have walked past St Paul’s Cathedral many times before, I have never paid much attention to the public art outside of it. To my surprise, on the pavement at the western end of the churchyard is a floor-plan of the pre-Fire Cathedral with an outline of the present one superimposed on it. Designed by Richard Kindersley (see above), the 7m long installation is made of various Purbeck marbles and Welsh Slate. The outlines were created through the use of waterjet technology, which enabled the stone to be inset in a manner which would either be impossible or prohibitively expensive if done by hand. The inscription around the border was hand carved into the stone, noting the Great fire of London in 1666 that destroyed much of the medieval City of London.

On the other side of the Cathdral at the west end of the Festival Gardens, there is a bust of the English Poet and Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, John Donne by the sculptor Nigel Boonham. Underneath the bust feature lettering by one of UK’s foremost letter carvers, Andrew Whittle.


st paul's cathedral

Richard Kindersleyst Pauls cathedral Richard Kindersley andrew whittle

andrew whittle

st paul's cathedral  st paul's cathedral


On the northside of the Cathedral, there is another installation by Richard Kindersley called People of London. It is a memorial to the people of London who died in the blitz 1939 — 1945. Carved from a three ton block of Irish limestone, the memorial has large carved letters and gilded around the edge reading: “REMEMBER BEFORE GOD THE PEOPLE OF LONDON 1939 — 1945”. On top is a spiral inscription written by Sir Edward Marsh and used by Churchill as a front piece to his history ‘The Second World War’.


People of London

People of London

People of London memorial 


Not far from St Paul’s, we visited the enchanting Christchurch Greyfriars Church Garden, which is situated on the site of the Franciscan Church of Greyfriars, established in 1225. Destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 it was rebuilt by Christopher Wren, but later destroyed all but the west tower in WWII. It was decided not to rebuild the church and some land was lost to road widening in the 1960s. The present rose garden was laid out on the site in 1989 with rose beds and box hedges outlining the nave of Wren’s church, with wooden towers representing the pillars that held up the roof.

At the garden, a new public art installation (2017) was created to commemorate Christ’s Hospital School’s 350 years presence in the City of London, 1552-1902. The installation is a 2.4m long bronze sculpture by renowned sculptor, Andrew Brown, casted at The Bronze Age Foundry in London. It was selected following an open competition organised by the City of London Corporation, and it is positioned close to where Christ’s Hospital was originally founded in Newgate Street.




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Nearby, there is another well-hidden small garden called The Goldsmiths Garden. It is located on the site of the churchyard and medieval church of St John Zachary, which was damaged in the Great Fire. The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths (also known as the Goldsmiths’ company) had acquired land here in 1339, and built the earliest recorded Livery Hall. After part of the Company’s property was demolished in WWII, the site was first laid out as a garden in 1941, redesigned in later years. A central fountain was installed in 1995 and the ‘Three Printers’ sculpture (1957) by Wilfred Dudeney was relocated from New Street Square in 2009 in the sunken garden.

Commissioned for New Street Square by the Westminster Press Group, the sculpture represents the newspaper process, with a newsboy, a printer and an editor. The printer (the figure on the left) is holding a “stick” which contains the metal type spelling out of the sculptor’s surname. This piece is Britain’s only public monument to newspapers. However, when the area was redeveloped, the sculpture was removed and ended up in a scrapyard in Watford. Luckily, It was rescued by the writer Christopher Wilson, who persuaded the Goldsmiths’ Company to reinstall the sculpture.

Another interesting feature at this garden is that several golden leopards heads can be seen at the entrance. The leopard’s head is actually the company’s symbol. There is also an arch presented to the Goldsmiths by the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths. Designed by Paul Allen, the arch incorporates the London Assay mark for gold in the shape of individually made leopards heads.


The Goldsmiths Garden

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The Goldsmiths Garden

The Goldsmiths Garden

'Three Printers' sculpture formerly in New Street Square, installed in St John Zachary Garden, May 2010.

The Goldsmiths Garden


A large (but easily-missed) metal memorial ‘Aldersgate Flame’ stands outside of the Museum of London was erected in 1981. On the face of the memorial are enlarged facsimile extracts in cast bronze of Anglican clergyman, evangelist, and co-founder of the Methodist movement in the Church of England. John Wesley’s account of the events of Wednesday May 24th 1738, as described in his original printed text of the first edition of John Wesley’s Journal. On the back of the Memorial are the names of the three local tradesmen concerned with Wesley in the production and marketing of the Journal.


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Aldersgate Flame


I am not sure how many Londoners are aware of the competition-winning sculptured stone bench (erected in 2006) at the circular Smithfield Rotunda Garden. Designed by Sam Dawkins and Donna Walker from Edinburgh University, the bench is inscribed with text and quotes relating to the history of the area, and the carving process was managed by apprentice stone masons from Cathedral Works Organisation in Chichester.

However, it is hard to read the inscribed text, and the bench looks out of place here. Most passerby would ignore it and choose to sit on the wooden benches instead, which is a shame.


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Finally, before finishing at the Goldsmiths’ Centre, we stopped at Turnmill Street in  Farringdon, outside of a building to look at the inscribed letters above. Built in 1874, the building was formerly the premises of Ludwig Oertling, whose firm ‘manufacturers of bullion chemical and assay balances and hydrometer makers’ remained there until the 1920s. Although the premise is now occupied by Spanish restaurant, the inscribed lettering remains above it.


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farringdon station



As always, I learned a lot about London’s history during the two-hour walk, which is why I love joining guided walks in different parts of the city. It also encourages us to observe more as we wander around the city. There is so much to explore in London, and all you need is curiosity and awareness.



Kenrokuen – is this the most beautiful landscape garden in Japan?


Kasumiga Pond


Kenrokuen is considered one of Japan’s three most beautiful landscape gardens alongside Mito’s Kairakuen and Okayama‘s Korakuen. Located in central Kanazawa, the once-private garden covers an area of 11 hectares (almost 25 acres) next to Kanazawa Castle. The original garden named Renchitei is said to have been created by the 5th Maeda lord, Tsunonori Maeda around 1676. The garden was burnt down in 1759, but was restored in 1774, and in 1822 the garden was renamed Kenrokuen. This name can be translated to “garden of six elements”, which refers to the six features mentioned in a classical Chinese poem for a perfect garden: spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, flowing water and panoramas. The garden was not opened to the public until 1874, and now it is one of the most popular sightseeing spots in Kanazawa.






There are two main entrances to the vast garden and it costs 310 yen to get in. It is easy to feel disoriented here because of its size, but if you are not in a hurry, you can easily stroll for a few hours while admiring the nature and landscape here.

There are roughly 8,750 trees, and 183 species of plants at this garden. The garden offers something different for every season, but it is particularly popular in spring because of cherry blossom.




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Some of the main features at the garden include the artificial Kasumiga-ike Pond; Yugao-tei tea house on the Hisagoike pond which dates from 1774 and the oldest building in the garden; and a bronze statue of a legendary hero, Yamato Takeru was erected in 1880 to commemorate the deaths of 400 soldiers from Ishikawa Prefecture who died helping to suppress a rebellion in Kyushu. 





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There is also stone with a poem inscribed on it by the haiku poet Matsuo Basho who visited Kanazawa in 1689. The poem reads:

bright red burning
bitter sun…
but autumn in the wind

Since I am no expert in traditional Japanese landscape garden, I can’t say whether this is the most beautiful landscape garden in Japan or not. However, I was very impressed by the ancient pine trees at this garden, and I think they are definitely some of the most beautiful trees I have ever seen. The tallest one is called “Neagarimatsu”, meaning “a pine tree with its roots going up”, is about 15 m in height and it was planted by the 13th lord Nariyasu about 200 years ago. It is an absolutely magnificent and stunning tree (see the third one below).









Although the garden was quite busy during my visit, but due to its size, it was easy to avoid the crowds and enjoy some tranquil spots. The garden also offers a panoramic view of city, so I guess these are all the elements that make this one of the best landscape gardens in Japan.







Gardens, temples, and zazen in Kyoto


A view of Tofukuji’s Tsutenkyo Bridge


It is on every tourist’s itinerary to visit at least one/two karesansui (dry landscape garden) in Kyoto, but during the peak season, it is best to avoid the famous ones and head for the less crowded gardens. A few years ago, I visited Kyoto in February and did an intensive garden tour (with less visitors) in the Northwest Kyoto and Arashiyama, hence I decided to focus more around the central area on this trip.

Before my trip, I started to read books on Japanese zen gardens, but I don’t think learning the symbols or trying to understand the layout and design make much sense until you immerse yourself in that environment. I started studying and practising Zen Buddhism about 4 years ago (after trying out different practices with various organisations for years); its teachings emphasise that Zen is not an intellectual practice, but something that one has to experience to understand. Meanwhile, if you try really hard, you are likely to fail, too. I feel that one has to treat zen/dry landscape gardens as abstract art/ sculptures, and it is up to the viewers to ‘feel’ and find their own emotional connections with these gardens.


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Tofuku-ji Temple and garden


My previous experiences at the extremely touristy and crowded Kiyomizu-dera, Ginkaku-ji temple and Ryoan-ji Temple were anything but tranquil, which is a shame because the essence of these temples and gardens are somewhat ruined by tourists who only more concerned with picking boxes on their packed itineraries.

Luckily, there are thousands of temples and gardens in Kyoto, so you are likely to find some off the beaten track spots that have not been invaded by package tour groups. Located in southeast Kyoto, Tofuku-ji Temple is extremely popular during the fall season for its stunning foliage, but otherwise it is fairly quiet. Founded in 1236, it is the head temple of the Tofukuji School of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, and one of the five great temples in Kyoto. The Sammon Gate from 1425 was designated as one of the Japanese National Treasure Buildings, and the gardens are designated as a National Site of Scenic Beauty.




The Hojo gardens at Tofuku-ji Temple


The main building, Hojo, was was reconstructed in 1890, and has four gardens arranged around the building. These gardens were laid out in 1939 by the famous artist/landscape designer, Mirei Shigemori (who also created the gardens at Koyasan’s Saizen-in featured in my earlier entry), who intended to express the simplicity of Zen in the Kamakura period with the abstract construction of modern arts. The most unique and famous one has to be north garden featuring squared stones and moss arranged in a chequered pattern. It is intriguing and original; I love how moss is being used here, which creates a strong contrast against the solid grey stones.





Chishakuin temple and garden


Chishakuin Temple is another large temple complex that is visited more by Japanese visitors than foreign tourists. It is the headquarters of the Chisan School of the Shingon Sect of Buddhism, originally located in Koyasan.

This temple is best known for its mural paintings (National Treasures) and a beautiful garden that features a pond and artificial hills inspired by the area around Mt. Rozan in China. This temple was quiet and peaceful during my visit, and it was particularly interesting to see the monks playing musical instruments while striding towards the main hall.




Monks gathering and playing musical instruments outside of the Chishakuin temple


Although the Soto Zen school is the largest of three traditional sects in Japan, many of the well-known temples in central Kyoto belong to the Rinzai sect, and some of them also offer zazen sessions to the public. I wanted to attend a session at a temple, and even though I am a Soto Zen practitioner, I wasn’t too bothered about the lineage as long as it served the purpose.

I chose to attend an one-hour afternoon session at Shorin-ji Temple, a sub-temple of Tofuku-ji Temple. And to my surprise, the room was completely full with attendees including Japanese office workers, high school students, foreign visitors, and even young kids. It was especially encouraging to see young children sitting still for two 15-minute sessions. A monk priest conducted the session and gave instructions in Japanese, while foreign visitors were given some basic instructions on paper.





Zazen at Shorin-ji Temple


I have heard a lot about keisaku (awakening stick), which is a flat wooden stick used during periods of zazen to remedy sleepiness or lapses of concentration, but I have never been hit before ( nor did I want to). Here, it is possible to request the monk priest to hit your shoulder by putting the palms together, and then lowering the head and body forward slightly. I am no sadist, but I couldn’t resist my curiosity… when the priest struck me, it somewhat took me by surprise and all I could feel was pain. Then gradually the pain eased away and I felt more relaxed and alert at the same time. During the session, I asked to be hit twice (so did the young girl/kid opposite me) and did not mind it at all, which was quite a revelation to me. If you want to try a zazen session in Kyoto, I would recommend a visit to this temple.





Reikan-ji Temple


Along the Philosopher’s Path, there are some beautiful lesser known temples and gardens that offer serene settings with few visitors. Honenin temple (see my earlier post) is one of them and the other is the charming Reikan-ji temple, which is only open only for 2 weeks in spring and 2 weeks in autumn. This temple is famous for its camellias, and I arrived at the right time for it.

Reikan-ji is a monzeki (abbess-princess) nunnery of the and part of the Nanzen-ji School. It was established in 1654 for the tenth daughter of the retired Emperor Go-mizunoo. The temple houses screen paintings by Kano Eitoku and Kano Motonobu, numerous treasures related to the Imperial family and a collection of traditional Kyoto dolls (Gosho Ningyo). Yet  it was the wonderful garden that captivated me most. Not only visitors could admire camellias in full bloom, but the grounds were also covered in petals from the cherry and camellia trees. The sea of pink petals looked almost like snow in winter – it was a mesmersising sight. This is one of my favourite gardens on this trip.








Reikan-ji Temple


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Eikando Zenrin-ji


At the southern end of the Philosopher’s path lies Eikando Zenrin-ji temple, the head temple of the Seizan branch of Japan’s Jodo-shu Buddhist sect originally founded in 853. The temple has a long and complicated history, and houses many National Treasures including a famous Amida statue and Buddhist paintings since the Kamakura period (1185-1333).

The temple is famous for its autumn foliage, and it is less busy at other times. Nestled in Kyoto’s Eastern Mountain, Higashiyama, parts of the temple offer a nice view over the city. I was too exhausted to climb up to Tahoto, the pagoda that offers the best view at the compound.



Yudofu Hitotori (Boiled Tofu Set) lunch at Okutan in the grounds of Nanzen-ji Temple




Nanzenji Temple


Next to Eikando Zenrin-ji is Nanzenji Temple, the head temple of the Nanzen-ji branch of Rinzai Zen. This large complex contains many temple buildings including multiple sub-temples. Founded in the 13th century, the temple was burnt down and rebuilt many times over the centuries. Its famous Sanmon gate was originally constructed in the 13th century, destroyed in 1369 at the order of the government, and reconstructed in 1628. The hojo garden is considered to be one of the best examples of karesansui gardens, and was created by the notable feudal lord/gardener and tea ceremony master, Kobori Enshu, in the 17th century.

After a long day of visiting various temples and gardens along the Philosopher’s Path, I was feeling exhausted and templed out by the time I reached Nazenji. As much as I wanted to visit its famous garden, I decided to skip it (the crowd was also a bit off-putting) and headed straight to my last temple visit of the day – Konchi-in, a small sub-temple at the Nanzenji temple complex.





Why Konchi-in? While I was planning my trip, the “crane and turtle” garden at Konchi-in was mentioned in my Zen garden book and praised by various articles as one of the best examples of shakkei (borrowed scenery) in Kyoto. Also, the temple’s tea ceremony room is one of the three major tea rooms in Kyoto. And unlike Nanzenji temple, there were only a few visitors when I visited this temple and garden, so it was a refreshing break from the crowds.

Founded in the 15th century, this temple was relocated and made the residence of the Nanzenji’s Abbot, Ishin Suden, in 1626. As a connoisseur of the tea ceremony, he built a new hojo and created a new tea room. He commissioned Kobori Enshu (who was also responsible for the hojo garden at Nanzenji) to design a new garden that payed homage to the Tokugawa dynasty, which resulted in the “crane and turtle” garden.





Kochi-in Temple and its famous “crane and turtle” garden


I sat quietly opposite the garden to look for the crane and turtle but failed. However, it is a beautiful and tranquil garden, so even if you can’t read or understand the symbolic meaning of the garden, you could still appreciate its picturesque and relaxing setting.








Situated near Nanzen-ji temple, Murin-an is not a popular destination for tourists because it is not within a temple compound. It is a Meiji period strolling garden built between 1894 and 1896 by Yamagata Aritomo, a former two-time Prime Minister of Japan. He was a keen gardener, and worked with Japanese master gardener Ogawa Jihee on this plot of land bought from Nanzen-ji. Interestingly, it is in an East-meets-West style that is influenced by English landscape gardens and Western architecture.

The garden uses the eastern hills of Kyoto as a viewpoint, adopting the technique of shuzan – so that it appears as an extension of the mountain scenery. There is also a small stream that is fed by the waters of the nearby Lake Biwa, Japan’s biggest lake. I particularly liked this garden because the scenery is perpetually changing as you walk further away from the building. There is always something unexpected hidden from your view as you walk forward, and it gives you a sense of exploration and anticipation.


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There are two buildings here, and one of them is a Japanese style wooden villa with a tea room where visitors could rest and have tea opposite the scenic garden; the other is a Western brick building where meetings of foreign policy took place before the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-5.

If you are planning a trip to Kyoto, I urge you to look for some lesser-known temples and gardens where you are likely to be pleasantly surprised. And best of all, you could take your time and enjoy the garden quietly with very few visitors.





Japan’s sacred mountain – Koyasan


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Danjo Garan Temple complex


For a long time, I have been wanting to visit Mount Koya or Koyansan, a sacred mountain in the Wakayama region. It is the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism ( a Chinese-influenced esoteric sect), introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi, also known as Kukai. Located in the lush Koya-Ryujin Quasi-National Park, the monastic site has 117 temples and 52 of them offer temple lodgings or Shukubo to the public.

Unfortunately, the scenic cable car was out of service for a few months due to a disruptive typhoon last winter, so I had to take a train from Osaka, followed by two bus rides to reach the mountain. Yet the fine weather upon arrival made it all worthwhile. Sunny blue sky was not what I had expected ( I think I was misled by all the misty and snowy photos online), but I could hardly complain about this!

After much online research, I decided to spend the night at Saizen-in, a small temple with 24 guest rooms and a rock garden created by Mirei Shigemori, a notable modern garden and landscape designer.





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I have stayed at a temple in Kyoto before, but the self-catering accommodation was located in a new building within the grounds, so I didn’t feel like I was staying at a temple at all. At Saizen-in, the Japanese-style tatami rooms have modern amenities like a flatscreen TV (which I was surprised to see), wifi, a safe and an under-table heater for my feet (which i loved). And like most Japanese-style accommodations, the toilets (very clean) and bath are shared among the same sex.

After checking in, I left the temple and headed towards the town centre to grab some lunch, followed by a visit to the Kongobuji temple. The organic vegetarian set lunch at Bon On Shya Cafe and art gallery was delicious and satisfying, and I especially loved the strong coffee and tofu cheesecake.


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Top row: Bon On Shya cafe and gallery


Originally constructed in 1593 and rebuilt in 1861, Kongobuji temple is head temple of Shingon Buddhism, hence the temple is Koyasan’s main tourist attraction. The temple contains many nature-inspired sliding screen doors painted by the famous painted Kano Tanyu (1602-1674) from the Kyoto Kano school. The temple’s Banryutei Rock Garden is the largest rock garden in Japan. Built in 1984, its large rocks from Shikoku, the birthplace of Kobo Daishi, represent a pair of dragons emerging from a sea of clouds.







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Kongobuji temple and its rock garden


Besides Kongobuji temple, the most popular attraction at Koyasan is undoubtedly Okunoin, Japan’s largest and most prestigious cemetery. It is the resting place of the founder of Koyasan, Kobo Daishi, and more than 200,000 Buddhist monks who are said to be waiting for the resurrection of the Future Buddha, Maitreya. There are regular night tours of the cemetery, but I think it would be too creepy, so I wasn’t too keen on this idea.

What struck me most as I walked through the 2km-long cemetery was the ancient cedar trees. I think these tress help to make the place less eerie. Apart from monks, many historically important figures are also buried here, and you can tell by their massive tombstones. The path leads towards Kobo Daishi‘s mausoleum, located behind Torodo Hall, which is filled with 10,000 lanterns. This is a pilgrimage site, so phones/photos are strictly forbidden.


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Okunoin cemetery


Everything was within my expectations until I strolled towards the newer looking part of the cemetery… I first spotted a tombstone for the Panasonic Corp, followed by a coffee cup and saucer-shaped stone for UCC Ueshima Coffee Co. Yet the most bizarre one has to be a rocket for the aerospace firm, Shin Meiwa Kogyo. Is this most sought-after cemetery in Japan? Definitely. If you were a ‘nobody’ in this lifetime, then getting a spot here would probably elevate you to a ‘somebody’. It seems like status still matters in the afterlife!


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After the long hours spent strolling around the cemetery, I took a bus back to Saizen-in before dinner time. The delicate and seasonal vegetarian/vegan dinner was served inside my room, and it was served by a friendly monk/lay person (not entirely sure if he is a monk because he worn non-monk clothing and doesn’t have a shaved head) who could speak quite good English. I asked him about the famous rock garden, and he told me that the room that faces the garden is occupied and so it is not available for viewing. However, he said he could try to arrange for me to see it after breakfast the next morning when the guests have checked out.



Vegetarian dinner at Saizen-in


The following morning, I got up early to attend the morning prayer and sutra chanting. I have been practicing zazen (sitting meditation) and studying mostly Zen Buddhism for the last few years, but I am not familiar with Shingon Buddhism and their rituals, so the session was a new experience for me. I also followed other Japanese guests and queued up to offer incense, which is considered a standard Buddhist tradition that takes place in many parts of Asia.






After breakfast, I went to see the friendly monk/lay person from last night and he told me to follow him. It turned out that a group of Japanese women have booked the garden room, but they gave him permission to let me in and admire the gardens! The three gardens were planted by Mirei Shigemori in the Showa period, and it is designated as a registered monument of the country in 2010. Each garden represents a rich “Koyasan” of water, and the flow of water is tied in three gardens.

After we left the room, he led me upstairs to show me a different view of the garden, then he ook out his phone and enthusiastically shared with me photos that he has taken during different seasons. I felt very moved by his kind gesture.



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The rock gardens designed by Mirei Shigemori


Before leaving the mountain, I went out for a short stroll to enjoy another day of blue sky and warm temperature. It was a serene morning with few visitors and cars – it was a huge contrast from Osaka where I had stayed earlier. I felt great and was a bit sad to leave this behind.



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After checking out, I wanted to ask the receptionist if I could see the monk/lay person before I leave, and luckily, he was just walking down the corridor. I thanked him for everything and we chatted a little before I headed off. I don’t think my stay would have been the same if I didn’t encounter him. I probably would have enjoyed it anyway, but I think it was his hospitality that made the stay even more memorable.




Dungeness, Prospect cottage & Hurricane Ophelia



One early October weekend, I was checking the weather forecast on my iPad and it showed that Monday would be sunny. The symbol of the sun somehow triggered an urge in me to go to the seaside. I thought of visiting The Folkestone Triennial, but the photos of some contemporary art installations randomly (or not) placed around the seaside town did not really appeal to me. Then I thought of Derek Jarman‘s Prospect Cottage in Dungeness – a National Nature Reserve that I have wanted to visit for years – and within the next hour, my day return train tickets to Rye were booked.

I had no idea how to get to Dungeness from Rye, and after some frantic search on the internet, I found out that I had to take 2 buses to get to this remote and desolate part of Kent.


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the pilot

The Pilot Inn


On the day, with the help of a kind bus driver and a lovely elderly passenger, I arrived outside of The Pilot Inn in Dungeness around lunch time. The pub was surprisingly busy on a Monday afternoon, and after having their famous fish and chips, I began to ramble towards the sea. And soon I found myself alone on the beach. Where were all the people from the pub? It turned out that they all drove to the pub for lunch and left afterwards.

I have read a lot about Dungeness before I arrived, but nothing could prepare me for what I saw and felt while I was there. Dubbed “Britain’s only desert” by the Met Office, the landscape here is truly unique. From the surface, the 468-acre nature estate appears to be barren, it is in fact home to 600 species of plants – a third of all plants found in the UK. And in 2015, the estate was sold to EDF Energy (which owns the nuclear power station on site) for more than £1.5m. And they had been paying up to £100,000 per year to use shingle to protect the power station from the sea!

Yes, I had expected to see a vast shingle beach, but I was surprised to see plenty of abandoned rusty machinery, a few old boats and even disused railway tracks scattered across the site. The rusty machinery on the shingle beach fascinated me, because they are like art installations (I was glad that I chose to spend the day in Dungeness rather than Folkestone), and I began to meander across the site following the trails of the machinery.





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During my first hour on the beach, I did not see a single person around. Although I enjoyed the solitude, it did feel slightly strange (perhaps I have lived in London for too long). Eventually I headed towards the sea, and despite the strong wind, the smell of the sea, and the sounds of waves and seagulls made me feel grateful to be so connected to nature.







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It is easy to lose track of time and bearing here. I somehow felt like I was in an episode of The Twilight zone. Beguiled by the surroundings, it suddenly dawned on me that time was slipping away and I needed to head towards Prospect Cottage – the purpose of this trip!

I am not sure why it took me so long to visit Derek Jarman‘s famous garden, especially because I learned about this place when I was still a student. It was my cousin who suggested that we should go and watch his feature-length film, The Garden, at the ICA. I remember the cinema was almost empty and we both nodded off during the film. However, after all these years, some imagery of the cottage and garden still remained in my memory.




prospect's cottage

prospect's cottage


Twenty-three years after his death, the appeal of the multitalented British artist/filmmaker still endures. His garden book became a best-seller; his former cottage and garden became a mecca for gardeners, artists, designers, poets, and film buffs etc. This is not Stonehenge, so you will not see coaches of tourists flocking here. Instead, you are likely to meet individuals making their own pilgrimages to pay their respect to a visionary artist. In our trend-driven world today, Jarman‘s influence still lingers because he never followed trends; he only followed his heart and his garden reflects that.

Although this is a private property (now occupied by Jarman‘s former lover Keith Collins), visitors can walk around the garden and appreciate a distinct garden that truly unqiue. Maintained by Collins and Jarman’s good friend Howard Sooley, a gardener and photographer (of his book), the postmodern style garden blends exceedingly well with the dystopian surroundings.





There is a poem on the black timber wall of his cottage from John Donne‘s ‘The Sun Risingand it reads:

Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run ?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school-boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices ;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
In that the world’s contracted thus ;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere ;
This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere.






Walking around the garden, it reminded me of the Zen gardens that I visited in Kyoto. The rusty installations, the rock circles, and choices of plants seem to capture the essence of wabi sabi. Inspired by dolmens, the garden’s rustic style and laidback attitude reflect the director’s distaste for perfectionism. In his garden book, he criticised The National Trust’s gardens as being too manicured and said: “If a garden isn’t shaggy, forget it.”

While I was there, three cars stopped by (one after another) and coincidentally, three elderly ladies with cameras got out of the car and spend 5 minutes walking around taking photos while their husbands (I assumed) waited for them inside the cars. And as soon as the ladies got into the cars, they were off in no time. I thought this sequence was rather amusing.






Walking away from the cottage, I was surprised (again) to pass by some rundown bungalows with abandoned furniture and suitcases scattered outside. Yet not far away, there are some intriguing contemporary houses like The Shingle House designed by a young Scottish practice, NORD for Living architecture which is available for holiday rental. Another holiday rental house is Pobble house designed by British architect Guy Hollaway. A recent addition is the North Vat by Rodić Davidson Architects, a shed-like structure that replaced the site’s fisherman’s cottage.

There are also two lighthouses here, one is the Grade II listed Old Lighthouse opened in 1904, and a newer one built in 1961. The landscape here is full of contrasts, contradictions, and nothing seems to make much sense, but this is also the reason why it is so unique.


The Shingle House

pobble house



Top row: The Shingle House; 2nd row: Pobble House; 3rd row: North Vat


As I started to head backwards, the sun gradually turned bright orange and so did the sky. I was completely confused as it was only three o’clock and yet it looked as if the sun was setting. Seeing the nuclear power plant and lighthouses against the hazy orangy sky and sun made the landscape look even more surreal and apocalyptic. It was only later I learned that the unusual phenomenon was caused by Hurricane Ophelia pulling up Saharan dust, which was then reflected and refracted in longer wavelengths, giving an orange colour to the sun and sky.








Could I have picked a better day to visit this desolate site? I couldn’t believe my luck. The day felt like an adventure; it was memorable and full of pleasant surprises. I love Dungeness and will surely make another trip back to explore further afield.