Guest contributor Arthur Parkinson on his love of letters, chickens and dumpy hydrangeas
Arthur Parkinson, 25, grew up in Nottinghamshire, England, taking school summer holidays in the neighbouring Peak District where his passion for chickens and the countryside was born. He discovered a book by Sarah Raven called ‘The Bold and Brilliant Garden’ which began his interest in gardening and lead him to study it when he left school, going onto train at Kew Gardens for a year. Arthur then worked for Sarah Raven at her farm in East Sussex for a summer before going onto work for Emma Bridgewater at her pottery factory in Stoke-on-Trent. Here he took on a walled garden on a slab of cement behind the factory's gift shop, turning it into a lush, colourful potager and cut flower garden, complete with his flock of adored, rare breed hens that Parkinson often refers to as Prozac.
Taking after his idol Sarah Raven, Arthur adores bold colours in the flowers he chooses, opting for bright clarets, oranges, and pinks, and steering clear of the white and pastel shades that remind him of hospital walls .
A great number of his recommended flowers are bee and butterfly attractive. He is against using pesticides, instead he recommends using degradable wet wipes to get aphids off the buds of roses. His eccentric view on life is best viewed by visiting his Instagram account @arthurparkinson_, where you'll see flower, garden and hen photography peppered with photos of Joanna Lumley, Sarah Raven and of the late Deborah Devonshire with whom he was a pen-pal on the subject of chickens.
Arthur takes his own photographs and over 200 photos are in his first book ‘The Pottery Gardener’. He works at the Emma Bridgewater Factory full time, freelances for Sarah Raven and visits Chatsworth Farmyard as often as time allows. He also gardens at his mother's cottage Mill Yard which will be the focus of his next book.
I hope you enjoy Arthur's richly detailed words below as much as I did.
Dear Arthur, is letter writing still relevant?
Arthur: I have made friends and got jobs through writing letters, but I didn’t learn to read or write until I was 7. By then I'd been put in the class group of duds by my teacher. Understandably, really, as I was incredibly slow to grasp it.
Luckily the town's library was just across the road from home, so I eventually learnt thanks to just constantly trying to read books to myself. One day it just clicked and my teacher couldn’t believe that I was actually reading.
Despite this, from a young age I had a love of visual non-fiction books, especially those on chickens. I was given some very old, hugely informative poultry keeping books. They were almost falling to bits but I devoured them, looking through their sandy tea-stained old pages every day. They are now kept together by being wedged between younger hardback books on my book case.
I hope children are still taught hand writing at school because people I think notice it hugely, it’s about personal identity. My letters usually include drawings of hens, flowers and flamingos especially on the envelopes. Often the drawings I’m most pleased with are done on envelopes and then I have to send them never to be seen again!
I prefer writing to people that really mean something to me than emailing. I think the latter is for work, letters are for friends or to say proper thanks to someone or to try and communicate to someone sensitively for whatever reason. I’ve just sent a letter off to the owner of a house in a London that I used to walk by every day a few years ago. The front garden is so beautiful that I want to photograph it for a book I’m working on so a letter I hope will be a good way of asking the owner!
A letter shows you have taken proper time to sit, compose yourself and write thinking of that person. Emails are flashes in the pan, they have no real meaning so you mostly should send them to people who have no real meaning to you, as a rule. They are disposable, impersonal they can be read poorly because they are sent out so quickly ping away, gone.
I visit certain places to buy cards to write or put my letters in. The stable shops at Chatsworth stock blank, good sized cards with paintings of plump swans, pheasants and song birds by my favourite artist Catriona Hall, so I bulk buy from here if I can when I visit. I’ll also bulk buy postcards from London Zoo, otherwise it’s Paperchase or Waterstones.
Describe your dream hen-friendly garden?
Arthur: Well I don’t know when I’ll own a garden myself but in my head it’s all planned. It will be totally hen-friendly so I can have them out a lot and not worry about them ruining the plants.
If the garden is of a decent size then I’d have a good old fashioned hen run for a dozen layers that would take up a decent chunk. And there'd be a light, old summer house for the huge, feather legged Cochins and a few fancy bantams. I’d have a big greenhouse for growing ornamental squashes over the summer. In the winter it would house the layers and keep therm warm. There'd be large raised beds in the greenhouse and the layers' droppings would enrich the soil.
Chickens really hate the wind and rain and the modern hybrids, especially those that are bred for the battery cages, are so loosely feathered that they aren’t suited to it at all. The laying girls will be hardy blue egg laying Cream Legbars and some chunkier Copper Black Marans for deep brown eggs because, while I do love the fancier breeds, I miss not having good, proper sized eggs that you can collect each day. You can cross Maran hens with a Cream Legbar cock and the resulting hens will then lay an olive coloured egg!
The broodiness of my current girls is a bit of a bore. They sit for weeks and become very stroppy and then out of condition and anorexic as they refuse to eat. Their brains during this time are focused only on incubating eggs, they run themselves into the ground and it’s hard to get the weight back on them. To try and replenish their bodies you have to feed them lots of sunflower hearts and cold scrambled egg all mixed into a mash with expensive cod liver oil. Most of the breeds I do like go broody and despite this, I love letting them hatch and rear their own chicks. I don’t like incubators very much. A hen does the best job of hatching eggs compared to the stress and worry of a humming machine.
I miss having silkies which are like teddy bear chickens and renowned mothers. They will sit on any egg given to them and have been even known to try and brood windfallen apples! Speckled Sussex are beautiful with deep mahogany feathers flecked with black, emerald green and white and should be kept far more!
The best places to go and see what breeds of hens you yourself might like are the National and Federation Shows held within weeks of one another each December in Stafford. Here the pure breeds of bantam and large fowl of every feather colour imaginable are gathered together by their dedicated fanciers to be judged best in show.
And your dream house?
Arthur: The house in my garden will be a barren shell because all the money will go into the hens and the garden, it would just be full of good vases for arrangements. I’d like a very sunny garden room, in which I’d have large, ornate cages of singing red factor canaries. I believe Martha Stewart keeps these in her dining room. I have a fantasy of filling the cages with pink cherry blossom!
What plants will you choose?
Arthur: Back to the garden, there’ll be tons of roses grown for cut flowers with their tough, thick stems and high blooming taffeta richly coloured and strongly scented flowers of varieties like ‘Duchess of Cornwall’ ‘Hot Chocolate’ ‘Claret’ and ‘Falstaff’ There will be long evergreen hedges of rosemary ‘Mrs Jessops upright’ that’s the best rosemary tall and free flowering, excellent for bees.
Then, continuing with foliage, generous clumps of euphorbias including the orange flowering griffithii, but these would not be for picking as I am highly allergic. The sap tastes awful to hens though so they will thrive and look good! I think bronze fennel might cope. I hope so. I love fennel I’d let it self seed to its hearts content! Sage I think is fabulous as a big billowing clump they should manage too along with lavenders and nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ I hope that this garden would have free draining soil! I have a big love of buddleias, the butterfly bushes that so many people are fearful of which is silly as they are such hassle free shrubs that flower so willingly all they need is a tough prune back each spring. ‘Black Knight’ is of deep mulberry purple and the newly bred magenta red ‘Hot Raspberry’ and ‘Sugar Plum’ are compact and flower over several months.
I’d have lots of them set into a meadow planted with tons of my favourite grass Stipa Gigantea. This grass is beautiful en masse, forming great clumps and sending its high, golden seed rods into the sky for the whole of summer and autumn.
Another thug I like is rosebay willowherb, which I think would resist the hens. I’d want this romping away eitherside of a path! I like bearded irises too and they have strappy upright tough leaves that usually resist beaks. I order in a few beauties now and then from the iris breeder Cayeux in France they are the David Austin’s of the iris world. My favourite is one called ‘Melly Cardivier’ of deep maroon and tofffee petals. I saw it at Chelsea last year and the rhizomes I ordered are now all in fat bud in a dolly tub in my mum's garden.
I’ll have lots of crab apples for their blossom to attract in bullfinches (my favourite British bird) and for their decorative fruits to pick as bowers in the autumn for arranging too.
I'll have hydrangeas -the dumpy, out of fashion macrophyllas - because they grow the biggest mop head flowers that you pick in October once they turn a sorbet red. I can’t stomach them before this time so they would have to be growing out of sight somewhere! You then dry the heads for winter arranging and wreathes. I saw some for sale in quite a well-to-do garden center in the Cotswolds last year and they were charging £12 a head!
All my beloved tulips,wallflowers, Bishop dahlias and cosmos would have be grown in dolly tubs so they had an off-the-ground chance of beak and claw survival. I have a thing about mint at the moment so I’ll be growing that in old cattle troughs too.
Will you have a vegetable patch?
Arthur: I don’t cook much at all and I wouldn’t want a vegetable garden. All those lines and rows awaiting pests but I like to see vegetables mixed into the flowers. In particular I like Kale ‘Redbor’ with tulips and wallflowers. This kale never seems to get cabbage white catapillars either.
Do you have any tips for hen keepers, particularly in small gardens?
Arthur: It’s challenging but doable to have hens in a small garden, but you cannot have them out all the time. I do think it’s necesary for their safety as well as for the sake of the plants. Foxes are so bold and you hear of horror stories about loose dogs too, so a secure hen run to have them in while you're not in the garden pottering about yourself is essential. You must wire the bottoms of hedges and make sure your garden is escape proof otherwise you’ll have to be embrassingly knocking on neighbours doors asking to retrieve them as hens can get through the thinnest gaps!
The Domestic Fowl Trust do a very beautiful garden hen house in the shape of a hexagon with a neat pointed roof (a roofed run is actually essential really due to periods of government bird flu bio security requirements which now happen almost every winter). I dream of owning several of these hen house hexagons that I’d place actually within the flower beds, with little sandy gravel paths leading to them through the plants.
You need lots of roomy rabbit hutches too for broody hens and young chicks! And you have to buy the metal galvanised feeders and drinkers they look quite beautiful far more robust and easy on the eye than the plastic sort!
Being clean and organised is absolutely essential, having chickening housing off the earth by a good foot or having it placed totally on concreted areas, plus ensuring feed is stored and fed to the birds without wastage will ensure you don’t attract vermin. As long as hens can keep themselves clean and aren’t stressed by being kept poorly they’ll do well. They love to sun bathe and dustbath in dry earth so you need to leave areas of the garden unplanted for this that are in the sun and naturally dry.
The biggest help to the hen keeper for keeping mites and lice at bay is an organic powder diatomaceous earth. You want to sprinkle this all over the hen house each month under perches and nesting boxes especially it kills mites and lice that will really affect your hens if left unguarded against.
Use chopped straw, lawn moss and sprigs of lavender in the nesting boxes as this composts better than wood shavings. For someone like me who doesn’t do much cooking you can either give your eggs away or sell them maybe at the end of the drive but don’t class them as free range as that of course is illegal and your kitchen I doubt has been approved as a packing room either, so maybe it would be best to class them as garden laid eggs from hens free to peck and scratch among roses!
I think what hens give a lot of people is that perfect picture of contentment, they are genuinely seemingly happy animals to be around. They are wicked to each other at times but are real characters, they’ll cluck away to you, some are happy to follow you about all day while others don’t want anything much to do with you. They certainly know who their owners are, no wonder they are now being kept in schools and care homes. In the garden they bring movement and I think they probably keep a lot of people sane. They certainly do me!
Are the any poultry books in particular that you would recommend?
Arthur: Poultry books that I look at most days are ‘Poultry for Anyone’ by Victoria Roberts and ‘The Big Book of Garden Hens’ by Francine Raymond, while for laughter you cannot beat Deborah Devonshire’s ‘Counting my Chickens and other Home Thoughts’.
You can find Arthur on instagram @arthurparkinson_ and in the pages of his wonderful book, The Pottery Gardener here.