Saturday, 16 June 2012

Visiting Beth Chatto's garden

Some people won't go back to a place they loved as a child.  What if the cavernous green darkness with a warren of tunnels in which you built a den and spent all day hidden from view is just a gap in a rather scrubby  patch of rhododendron?  What if the apple tree you climbed and watched the world from has been taken down and the field turned into a carpark?  I felt a bit the same about going to Beth Chatto's garden.  Might it  be better not to risk disappointment?

I seem to have been reading Beth Chatto's books all my serious gardening life, from the time when the children were old enough for swings and footballs to be banned from the garden and the children sent to the park.  What an innocent time that seems now.  I suppose they must have been about nine years old, the same sort of age they were when they started going to school and the local shops by themselves.  Would that happen now or would they be kept close to home with trampolines in the garden and computer games in the bedroom?  I digress.

It is hard to remember now that Beth Chatto's philosophy of matching the plants to the conditions in which they want to grow was once revolutionary, so orthodox has that thinking now become.  I read about her dry garden, her woodland garden and her green tapestry as I moved from an occasional visitor to garden centres to a more serious gardener and I return to these books again and again, finding inspiration and meaning in one year in a section which I whizzed through unthinkingly the year before.

We were coming to the end of our Devon garden visit week last year when someone, I can't now remember who, mooted the idea of a trip to see Beth Chatto's garden as our next venture.  Linda had been before, more than once, but Karen and I had not seen it.  What a brilliant idea!  It is so far away from my home in Wales that I would never chance upon it.  It needed a special trip.  We could combine it with Hyde Hall and perhaps some others.  It was agreed.

But as the time grew closer I began to feel almost nervous.  I knew I would love the company and that losing myself in a week of garden obsessing would be a treat, but what if Beth Chatto's garden itself was a disappointment?  What if the gentle, incisive intelligence of the books had become, on the ground, a cliche, a series of over familiar images without the power to move or surprise?

We drove down in pouring rain, leaving a dry and sunny Wales and heading eastwards, to the driest part of the country, through gusts of rain under thudding skies.  We stayed at  Zig Zag cottage, in Great Oakley.  If you ever go down that way I can't recommend it enough.  I got used to its gentle cosseting remarkably quickly and was quite surprised this morning when my breakfast did not come on a starched white cloth, with tea in a silver teapot.

Wednesday we decided would be the day for Beth Chatto.  It was sunny and warm and the wind had dropped.  We arrived only minutes after the garden had opened.


And I was blown away.


The planting is sophisticated, thoughtful, multi-layered, as interested in form and shape as in colour.  Wherever I looked in the gravel garden there were combinations that made me want to weep, whether at their beauty or my own inadequacy I am not sure.  The sense of a single controlling mind was strong.  There was a coherence about it, both in the pinks, greys and purples of the colours, occasionally shot through with a jolt of orange or yellow, and the curving paths and rhythms of pools and spires.  Here and there areas were being replanted and then you could see in part how this was done, how many plants of one kind you need to create these satisfying billows of colour.  It was grown up.  It was intelligent.  It was both sweeping and yet done with, and repaying, close attention, like a painting yielding new delights to close scrutiny.

This is why I don't generally do garden visiting.  It made my vision for my own garden, normally quite strong, blur and wobble and start to run down the page like a picture in the rain.  All the straight lines of hedgerows and allotment style beds with which we are trying to produce something where the shapes on the land are functional, almost utilitarian, trying to honour the history of our field as part of a small scale working, almost subsistence farm - why was I not using curves and sweeps and softness of shape?  Was I just totally, fundamentally getting it wrong?


Down in the damp garden it was better.  I don't do this kind of planting.  I have no water and the luscious plants of the damp garden wouldn't last a minute up on my hillside.  Here I could just walk and wander and admire again the subtleties of form and the wonderful use of trees.


Here are Karen and Linda absorbed in another great sweep of planting.  When I go through my photographs there are no pictures which do not throw up a combination like this hosta with the persicaria behind it, casually, as if naturally, offering the ebb and flow of form.


The woodland garden too was a magical place, painting the ground with foliage and flower and throwing great spires of climbing hydrangea up into the canopy of trees.


It was very, very beautiful.  I tried to do an Anne Wareham on it.  Anne runs a website dedicated to exploring gardening as an art form (great site, do go and look at it) and is keen to encourage the use of the critical as well as the admiring eye.  Are there things I would criticise?  Well the scree garden doesn't do anything for me.  It is an area predominantly for alpines and small scale plants which would get lost in the sweep of planting elsewhere.  It is the sweep that excites  me so I am not the right audience for it.  But essentially I loved it.  It has a good cafe and a fabulous nursery too.

That night I lay in my huge bed on my linen sheets and couldn't sleep.  I could do this, I could do that.  I could completely replant the side garden.  I could use this or that plant and throw hydrangea petiolaris up an ash tree.  My mind whirled and I tossed and thrashed and images swam about in the night.  The next day things had steadied a bit but I was still assailed by someone else's pictures and overwhelmed by the occasional urge to give up the whole enterprise and buy a flat with a balcony.

Now that I am home my vision is clearing.  I see that the plants I brought back with me were chosen with an idea in mind, even if I haven't worked it out to the last detail yet, and weren't just a response to being faced with crowd of unfamiliar beauties.  I still feel a bit unsettled by the experience (and to a lesser extent by Hyde Hall which is another blog altogether) but a bit of being unsettled is not a bad thing.  Do her plants die though I keep asking myself?  I look back at my garden diary and see how many of the plants I have brought in over the last couple of years have turned up their toes despite my assiduous research and care.  I wish I were in my thirties and not in my fifties.  Life is definitely not going to be long enough.

It's a good job I only go garden visiting once a year, any more and I would give up completely.  I am off outside now to contemplate my docks.

63 comments:

  1. I visited her garden as a teenager. I wasn't much interested in gardening then but even I could sense that there was something unusual & special about the garden. Maybe I should visit it again...

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    1. Definitely! It is a grown up place needing a grown up response!

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  2. Another beautifully written post. I always look forward to your posts. They are always so well crafted and thought out. Lovely.

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  3. PS Thank you for the link to the Thinkin Gardens site, despite its silly name it's EXCELLENT! Many hours are going to be spent there I know.

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    1. I am so glad you enjoy Thinkingardens. It does contain a debate which doesn't really have a forum anyway else.

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  4. This could be exactly what I feel when I visit other gardens but I would never be able to write it down in such appropriate manner. My friend who came last week with that group also is ever so keen to visit others private gardens and pushes me to do the same. But all what I can "deal" with is visiting public open gardens in the UK or in France - it gives me enough distance to not to compare with things at home and this after-feeling which you can describe so well. I always come to the same conclusion: when I was a child I was called a wild child and now I am still reflecting my nature - I am living in a wild garden. Thanks for your nice pictures, we have plenty of Beth Chatto's books and hopefully will be able to visit her garden once.

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    1. I think you would love the garden bayou. I am certainly very glad I went but you clearly understand the odd mixture of inspiration and perturbation!

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  5. NO NOT a flat with a balcony. I so enjoy watching your garden fill with your ideas!

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    1. To be honest I am not sure I could cope with a flat with a balcony. Well maybe I could if it had a balcony or roof terrace. No growing space at all would send me quite nuts!

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  6. Garden ramblings at their best, I think we all do the same when we visit gardens, can I do that? , should I try that? love your photos, thank you
    Thea x

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    1. Thanks Thea. I would admit to being a bit rocked, which is rare!

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  7. Beautiful, but the work of a single person? But I am most impressed. I can see why you were so taken.

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    1. I think the guiding mind is a single person. She has always had others to help make it happen and especially so now, no doubt, but there is still the sense of one person's vision.

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  8. At your eloquent best Elizabeth.

    I know exactly that feeling of visiting a garden and being inspired and demoralised in equal measure. As to wishing I was where I am now but 20 years younger - it's a daily preoccupation that I have to push firmly away. I can only aim to be still actively gardening in my nineties....

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    1. Thank you Sue. That is it exactly, the balance of inspiration and despair!

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  9. Beth Chatto's garden was not "a series of over familiar images without the power to move or surprise? but rather it took me by the shoulders and gave me a good shaking - from which I am still recovering! It was a wonderful visit and I am so glad that I shared the experience with you and Linda.
    Elizabeth, you have in your inimitable way put into words many of the thoughts and feelings that I had. A beautifully written post.
    K
    xx

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    1. "Taking me by the shoulders and giving me a good shaking" is very much how it felt! I do agree about sharing the experience with you and Linda. Having such informed company to bat things around with really helped me to process what I was seeing!

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  10. What a wonderful post ... you have brought Beth Chatto's garden alive for me but you have also fascinated me with your talk of your own garden's Welsh hill's appropriate straight lines. The best gardens I always think are those that look as if they simply grew from the land they occupy.

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    1. You have put your finger exactly on what I am trying to do here about the occupation of the land. It has to belong, both to the house and to the wider landscape. You are not far from me, come and look! It would be great to meet you.

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  11. Thanks for pointing me to this, Elizabeth (though I often do visit anyway) and for the mention of thinkingardens. Where if I remember rightly there is a piece about Beth Chattos' - or Tim Richardson mentions it (here it is = http://thinkingardens.co.uk/articles/should-we-trust-anyone%E2%80%99s-opinion-on-a-garden-except-our-own/)

    Her plant for a place wasn't actually revolutionary at that time, which, embarrassingly, I remember too.It always struck me as very odd that so much was made of that notion since intelligent gardeners have always matched their plants to the site where the plants are likely to thrive. And were saying so. Funny. See Graham Stuart Thomas's wonderful reference books...

    And her garden - though I saw it 25 year ago so can't comment on it now, was instrumental to the Veddw - it informed what I realised I didn't want to do, as I relate in the Bad Tempered Gardener. Which I mention just in the hope that it might make you come and visit me before you tear your present garden up!

    XXXXX Anne

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  12. PS I think what I'd like to be saying is stay true to your own vision. But I also think you have to take time, absorb what you learnt and admired at Beth Chatto's and integrate it (or not) into your own vision. That takes time... So stay your hand for now! XXXXXA

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    1. My vision has steadied now I have returned home and, while I am taking things from the visits I hope, or what's the point, there is no danger of my tearing my garden up! It was odd that the thing that was most unsettling was the way the whole of Beth Chatto's garden is designed around curves. I don't think that you notice the straight lines here because the garden is not at all formal, formal would look ridiculous. It is more of a subliminal thing. What I have tried to do is to do with functionality. In a place of this age, farmed in quite harsh conditions for hundreds of years, you go the shortest way, wherever you are going. I am trying to produce something which is not a cottage garden, not a jardin ornee. Now that I see it again I can see that my straight lines are right for my place. I haven't finished processing other things but I am not wobbling!
      Thanks for link to article. I shall look.

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  13. We visited several years ago, but in autumn when things were going over, but a magical place for an Australian gardener, not much grows like that where I live but the ideas were there. Now in my 70's my gardening is not as it was, I met Beth and Christopher when they came to do lectures in Oz, heavens for my 50th birthday!
    Such lovely photos of the garden, thank you.

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    1. I am interested by what gardening is in your seventies Penny? I can't imagine stopping but I can imagine just wanting a smaller scale to work with!

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  14. Your header is so very beautiful, - I have the most dismal luck with foxgloves and at 87 and a small but magical micro garden I have given up the illusions of long sweeps and beautiful drifts. However, I am content!

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  15. Well, Elizabeth, sounds like you experienced a very common feeling when faced with someone else's vision; not envy, exactly, though there were overtones of that, not quite dissatisfaction with your own lot - although perhaps some tiny threads of that in there too; a sudden pang of doubt about one's confidence in one's own vision. How often do we feel all of these things to greater or lesser degrees. I feel like that when visiting other cottage homes, or looking at some great quilts that I 'could have ' made myself.
    I think your readers would say you'vemore than got things right in your own garden, and when I first visited your blog I can't say straight lines was what I noticed! You may have been faithful to the underlying structure of the place but the result has been natural and organic (in shape I mean) and utterly delightful to look at - and obviously utterly practical also. I might add that I certainly feel envy and dissatisfaction with my owngarden when looking at yours, but then as I'm not the gardener I can't complain, can I?

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    1. Thank you Lynne. I don't think you do notice the straight lines except in the veg garden. I am glad you think it looks organic in shape although of course the camera is very flattering! You are right. This doubting yourself is a response to seeing something done superbly well, and a sensible one too I suppose. I think the sense of being challenged is also a useful one. I just need to work out what to do with it!

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  16. Ah, that familiar feeling of awe, inspiration and yet quiet despair at one's own apparently feeble efforts, that you express so brilliantly! The idea of an apartment has crossed my mind too at these times, especially when feeling tired or running out of time. A very uncomfortable feeling indeed, most unsettling. But it's all relative; I feel like this when reading blogs like yours.
    Now that you are back on that lovely Welsh hill, breathe in the soft air and enjoy - it's all good!

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    1. I truly hope that reading my blog does not induce quiet despair! I am shortly to blog about nettles, docks and bindweed so come back for that one. But yes, you understand that temptation to give it all up and take to watching daytime tv, or opera going, or whatever. It does feel better up here now!

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  17. What a celebration of the gardener's soul this post is, Elizabeth. Glorious, honest, informative writing. I applaud you and I hope that Beth Chatto's inspiration continues to fire you in all the right ways. Thank you so much for this beauty and despair; it's true life in the best possible way.

    Stephanie

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    1. Ah what a great comment Stephanie! You are right. The mixture of the two is what makes things real. I am still musing on the garden and my response.

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  18. Just lovely...what a treasure house of memories...so glad that you weren't let down. I have received a Sunshine Award and One Lovely Blog Award and have passed them on to you. Joan

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    1. Thank you Joan. I am honoured that you thought of me for an award. I don't generally participate, I hope you don't mind, but am grateful for the thought!

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  19. Whew! Gorgeous! And I love your new header photo, as well!

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    1. The header photo is Beth Chatto's garden too. Beautiful isn't it?

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  20. I've never visited Beth Chatto's garden but have always wanted to. Now I want to even more, so thanks for sharing that. I could never do what you're doing though and I admire all that you've done. I find it hard enough keeping someone else's vision going.

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    1. I could never do what I am doing either. But do go and see Beth Chatto if you can and tell me what you think. I would love to know.

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  21. I visited Karen this afternoon and she was saying similar things. Don't forget that both of your gardens are still very young and have still to mature into themselves.
    If every ones garden looked the same, gardening would be very boring & uninspiring. Unlike your post.

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    1. You are right about the young gardens and the balance between holding your nerve and being inspired is tricky. Come and see soon. I have a whole bed full of your plants!

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  22. I've never tried gardening on any kind of large scale, but I do understand the feeling of being overwhelmed. I get that when I look at home design magazines or visit 'idea houses' - start thinking wildly about chucking everything and starting over from scratch. I'm still learning (very slowly) how to take bits of what I like and blend it with what I already have. I do think that's much harder to do, but anyone can copy someone else's work. I suppose it takes sleepless nights and lots of thought and effort to create something new and personal. I did love the photos, though! The ones in the shaded wood were especially magical.

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    1. What is hard is working out what you are trying to do and it is so easy to see someone else's accomplished vision and decide to give up altogether and eat cake.

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  23. My first visit to you from Joan, Pembrokeshire Lass. Visiting from the states, Michigan. It will be more than a one time visit for me. I was immediately drawn to the flower header. After reading your words on the visit to the Chattto garden I was charmed by your words/writing even more so than the gardens. Such a gift you have with word, a garden itself. As I write this we are suddenly receiving a storm. I will close and be back soon. I can't wait to return . . .

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  24. What a fascinating post) and as usual, beautifully written).

    It - and your photographs - made me think about my antipathy to BC and all her works. I really shouldn't let one evil-tempered encounter at Chelsea put me off her as a gardener, but it's quite difficult when someone has knocked themselves off the pedestal you put them on quite as comprehensively as she managed to do. No, it's silly. Her gardens are lovely and her books are intelligent. They are what should stand, not a ridiculous outbreak of Digging Diva Syndrome!

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    1. I suppose we might all have days when a chance encounter would encounter our evil side!

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  25. Thank you for sharing your visit with us. It's a garden I must visit too one day, but similarly distant. How did I not visit when I lived in Cambridge? Ah. Hard when ideas whirl around and keep you from sleep, but only to be expected after such a stimulating experience - it reflects no fault on your own planting, just the skill of BC's garden to draw you in and spin you around so. And her garden has been evolving for many long years...

    Sara

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    1. The length of time is a strong point. Gardening takes so long and my garden is still in its infancy. Mind you, one can, as you have, achieve a lot in a small space of time too!

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  26. This looks spectacular, I would kill to have time off to relax in a meadow like that one. Multi layered, colorful, scent full. It sounds like paradise for the nature walker, such as my self. Got any more pics?!

    -Tony Salmeron

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    1. It was spectacular, particularly before other people came!

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  27. I'm so glad you all enjoyed Beth Chatto's garden; and I can imagine the pleasure of being in Linda and Karen's company. If you have plans for next year, count me in (although not in June!). The inspiration for my garden is a mixture of Beth Chatto and Piet Ordolf. In my climate it really HAS to be right plant, right place or they will die. Christina

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    1. Would love to meet you! Right plant right place is hard though isn't it? I have researched and compared and bought with such care and things have turned up their toes as determinedly as the stuff which came through the door as a gift and belonged somewhere else entirely!

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  28. I am glad to hear that Beth Chatto's garden is as magical as it's always been. I went first years ago, when we still lived in the South East.
    I know what you mean about feeling dissatisfied with your own garden after such a visit, but Beth has, and always has had, an army of help and the money (from visitors and books) to plant and replant and grow and tend. All things you maybe can't do.

    Still, we all come away with ideas and that's why I rarely go garden visiting nowadays; I am trying to reduce the work, not increase it.

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    1. I take your point about the army of help! There is no army up here.

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  29. This was such a joy to read. Not only for the little visit to Beth's garden, but 'listening' to you as you think out your own garden. I love the seriousness you bring to thinking about how you want it to be. Thank you for letting us know these thoughts.
    Does BC do any gardening now? How is her health?

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    1. I am not sure how much Beth Chatto does now Nan. The last thing I read was a few years ago when she clearly kept a good hold on how things were done!

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  30. I did enjoy this too. Looking at her hostas, though, makes me assume that dry gardens don't have many slugs. My garden is not a dry one. We hold the national collection of slugs and snails.

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    1. I practically gave up hostas in my last garden for that very reason. Here things are a bit better and the hostas benefit from growing in raised beds. They still get munched a bit, as did some of Beth Chatto's!

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  31. Have stolen your thinking and incorporated ref to it in my last post. Thought you ought to know. Beautifully expressed, lovely to hear real feelings/thoughts about this strange gardening compulsion.

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    1. Thanks for letting me know Jane. Off to read it!

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  32. I've never been to Beth Chatto's but it is on my wish list, even more so after reading your post. Holidays seem to unsettle me in the way garden visits unsettle you and having just returned from a week away I understand a little of how you feel. Still sometimes being unsettled is good. I think we all tend to drift into a 'comfort zone' from time to time and it's good to have that challenged whether that's to do with the garden, where you're living or what you're doing for a job. looking forward to reading about Hyde Hall.

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  33. Elizabeth, do you happen to know the name of the hosta next to the persicaria?

    Thanks, Leslie

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I really love to know what you think and to have the chance to start a conversation. I always try to respond (although sometimes it might take me a day or two to get to you) either here or by visiting you.