From the virtual world, back to the real one

19 April 2020
Ben Pentreath

I titled my last post: Life, suspended. As the days and weeks drift by curiously quickly, yet simultaneously slowly, I think we may all know what I mean.  And now, if you don’t mind, I’ve been beginning to think about the return to normality – or as best a semblance of normality as possible.

Bridie and I are now preparing the shop for the day – as yet, unknown, but hopefully in the not too distant future – when we are able to open the doors again and welcome our customers in. It’s going to be a beautiful day, not just for us – but for all our wonderful neighbours on Rugby Street and Lambs Conduit Street, even if you are only allowed in one at a time and we have an industrial shower-vat of sanitiser at the door.  But we’re also now working out how and when we can re-open our website, even more immediately, now that suppliers are beginning to be able to provide us with new stock and our shippers (and us) have now got full process in place to collect and deliver without contact.  It’s like stretching out limbs that haven’t been used in a while and it’s a great feeling.

In the meantime, we are so grateful to customers who have continued to place orders on the website while we’ve been in complete lockdown, not even knowing when we’d be able to get back in and deliver. That has been amazingly positive for both of us. There’s been a run on Alphabet brush pots!!

So – watch this space, and we’ll keep everyone posted.

I’ve been thinking too about the office. When we closed our doors, on March 16th, which really does seem like another world away now, we left a building that was in a state little short of total chaos even at the best of times. We were a week away from completing the huge renovation of the new office space next door – as I’d found myself saying wistfully to a few people, what a strange time to have completed that particular hugely costly exercise!

But the builders are now back at work – finishing up the extension, working safely and carefully with reduced labour, at safe distance from one another, and that will be complete in a week or two.  We’re then going to be renovating the whole of the big office, which I cannot but tell you feels like the most emotionally satisfying way to finally come back to work – to a new, completely refreshed, clean, repainted and reorganised space – with a whole load of little niggles and problems and necessary repairs completed and fixed.

I think we’ll be coming back to a changed world, though, in which our relationship to the office has shifted.  So, over the next coming days, I’m going to be speaking to all my colleagues in the design studio and finding out questions like – who would rather work in the office full time? And who would rather work at home full time, just coming in for meetings or reviews?  Do some people want a mix? Here’s a question: do some people want to work less – so that they can split their time with other things and other strands of life? It’s all possible in the new world we are finding ourselves in – I think there are no rules, and that’s exciting, in a way.

Of course, we’re lucky. For better or for worse, we’ve managed to keep working pretty well for the last four and half weeks, and for the forseeable future, although I am sick of zoom meetings and I’m longing to be able to sit at a table with colleagues and clients and just draw things out together.

No, we’re lucky – my heart’s concerned for my close friends in the world of restaurants or bars or events or hospitality or hotels and travel or a myriad of other businesses, large and small, and industry – who will find their lives continuing to be turned upside down for long months to come. It’s going to be a long, long time before normality really is normal. And that’s worrying. I think it’s good to be worried – after all, that’s how we will consider problems and solve them, step by step. It’s definitely not going to go on for ever – the important thing is to make sure that we play a long game – give ourselves, as it were, mentally, physically, emotionally, financially (if possible) enough ‘runway’ to make a safe landing when we can.

As I’ve already written, the way I stay calm these days is not to freak out about things out of my direct control, and not to watch the news (there isn’t any), and – of course – to enjoy the simplicity of seeing things here in Dorset change slowly day by day; to think about the benefits that this ‘pressing the re-boot button’ of business as normal might mean. What is normal, after all, and do we want every aspect of it back again?

Having said all that;

If I was in charge – which I’m not – I think I would now be telling people in Great Britain – (accepting that each place and each country has its own nuances of timing) that it will soon – not just yet – but very soon, be okay for family groups to start visiting each other again… IF everyone is being responsible, which I think the last four weeks have shown, we can trust them to be.

I can’t bear to think of how my Mum and my Dad would have been by now, trapped in their flat (even with its sunny balcony): their main, perhaps their only real pleasure in life in the last two years, was spending time with family – grandchildren in particular. To have been isolated from them, or the cups of tea when we popped in to see them in their flat, or Sunday lunches here at the Parsonage, that we had together, for a month… well, that would have been an unimaginable pain – but to have to do the same for another two months would have meant a life no longer worth living for my parents.  I think they’d be saying that they’d rather have a short life spent with their friends and family rather than a long life without them.

I hope that the wonderful NHS is now up to capacity to cope – or shortly will be –  it feels like it. I’m not trying to be irresponsible but I have been thanking my lucky stars almost every day that my dear Mum and Dad didn’t have to live in that confinement.


But, most importantly of all, I’d stand up on the podium at 10 Downing Street tomorrow and declare open all garden centres again – with immediate effect.  Britain is a nation of shopkeepers and gardeners.  Okay – us shopkeepers can wait a little longer, we don’t mind. But spring is springing, and the gardens can’t wait. Time to let people buy plants.

Now, as you’ll imagine, I’ve got many more thoughts about everything but I think now’s not the time or the place for those; now’s the time and place to concentrate on the things and people we’re able to look after – friends, neighbours, colleagues, strangers.

– – –

Charlie and I have had our usual round of walks each morning, this week. Spring has been bursting in the valley; it’s been an almost surreally beautiful time. Some photos follow this blog, which is just the order I felt like writing in today…

But to almost conclude, a little note to this readership that today I’ve published a guest blog for my great friend Ruth over on the Bible of British Taste – reflecting on 12 years at the Parsonage, and the last four weeks, and with some photos of the house taken last weekend. Head over there if you’d like to have a look. Many scenes will be familiar to loyal readers of the blog, but some may be new. Double billing this week!

Sharp eyed viewers of the following photographs will notice two things.

First, the amazing changes that occur in just a few days (between the start of the pictures, and the end) with the leaf and blossom right now.

Second – and, if I’m honest, this is as distressing to me as the entire situation we’re all in now – this does seem to be the year that all the beautiful, wonderful veteran ash trees running down the valley are not going to make it. Ash die back has taken its toll.  And this was the week we noticed.  The landscape is going to shift for ever now.  The tree right ahead, at the junction of the lane – behind the 80s phone box (I never was quite sure why it’s not an old fashioned red box, here of all places) – is just one of many, for instance, that I think are now not looking right this spring.  I’ll be watching carefully, and will report on faltering progress…

But it’s time to plant more trees.

On that note – have a good week, stay safe, stay loving, and calm.

26 comments on this post


Ben,I think you’re a wonderful architect & interior designer and more importantly,a good guy. But you’re terribly tone deaf sometimes. Not paying attention to the news or the grisly business of politics is a luxury; one you can afford but many others can’t, though it doesn’t stop them. Now more than ever we need well informed and engaged citizens to hold others to account. Your sunny optimism is much appreciated but it needs to be tempered with wisdom & sobriety. You don’t need to freak out but the world does need all the responsible and level headed citizens it can muster.


Dear Ben, no newsletter today or last Monday, I hope everything is okay?


The worst thing for me is seeing my lovely son go to work on a large city covid ward each day. We Are Not all in this together.
Those who dash off to the relative safety of their country homes are hardly in this at all, but ‘‘twas ever thus !


My 11-year-old son and I fled NYC in mid-March for my parents’ house in Massachusetts, and in cheery evenings here at bedtime my dad has been reading The Wind in the Willows aloud to him. I’m missing a little the old issues of World of Interiors I keep stockpiled under my bed in the city, but combing through back numbers of your blog gives me much the same pleasure. There are so many loving descriptions of interiors by Kenneth Grahame, and I thought especially of the Old Parsonage when Mole and Rat, after being lost in the Wild Wood, are finally rescued by coming upon Badger’s house:

“Rows of spotless plates winked from the shelves of the dresser at the far end of the room, and from the rafters overhead hung hams, bundles of dried herbs, nets of onions, and baskets of eggs. It seemed a place where heroes could fitly feast after victory, where weary harvesters could line up in scores along the table and keep their Harvest Home with mirth and song, or where two or three friends of simple tastes could sit about as they pleased and eat and smoke and talk in comfort and contentment. The ruddy brick floor smiled up at the smoky ceiling; the oaken settles, shiny with long wear, exchanged cheerful glances with each other; plates on the dresser grinned at pots on the shelf, and the merry firelight flickered and played over everything without distinction.”

Thanks for giving us all a virtual Badger’s house to escape to . . .

Carol Brynersays:

It’s the hardest thing to be near my children and grandchildren and not see them, except at a strange and off-putting distance. I agree about garden centers, and I also wonder why art galleries, where people never touch anything, and where browsers usually come in individually, can’t also be open. Why in the world would you open a tattoo parlor and not an art gallery or nursery? Strange happenings these days, for sure. But your words and photos are always a calm spot in my week. Thanks.


Dear Ben,
I have been reading and loving your blog for years now. What a balm and a tonic it is. The photos alone both soothe and lift the soul. I hear you when it comes to the Garden Centres being closed, and I notice all the comments agree with you, but can I offer up one dissenting voice? It seems not quite right to me, while healthcare workers are still dying, to push for garden centres to reopen. Can you imagine how many people will flock there if they do? Surely we can all hang on for a little longer until the danger recedes. My own garden is in need of a lift but I’m just grateful to have my little patch and not be confined to some pokey apartment with no green space at all. I’ve noticed in my neck of the woods that some people with flourishing gardens have begun leaving offerings outside their gates – cuttings, seedlings, bulbs, repotted shrubs. This seems to me to be a small act of generosity and community and perhaps something we should all consider doing?
Wishing you well and thank you so much for all your many and continued acts of generosity by giving readers like me a glimpse into your beautiful garden and home.

Rosemary Givenssays:

Thankyou for your thoughtful blog and beautiful pictures . As always it is a treat to read your sensible words and puts life into perspective.


We also have an elderly ash tree in the garden on which we keep an eye every spring. It seeds itself around but I’m not sure if that means any propensity to disease would be passed on into the offspring (does anyone know?). I swear the rolling hills on your doorstep shift around when you’re not looking! Light and shade alter their appearance to such an extent. So beautiful. With best wishes, Nicola

Darlene Chandlersays:

Thank you for your positive words; and I am so happy that you will have a wonderful new office space to come back to and the shop is getting ready for first customers. Yes, I believe also that my parents that passed 4 years ago would not have gotten through this isolation, but did get through the war, so maybe stronger then we think. I too have been wondering about the garden centres; and hope our government lets them open, as our big planting weekend is 3rd week of May in Canada, when we all gather; buy and plant that weekend and celebrate all over the city. Yet, again Toronto is getting snow flurries again tomorrow and cold weather, but it will probably melt as quickly as it falls. This is the second time in a week of snow flurries. Being retired from work, the thought of working at home and the flexibility seems a very positive move to the future. Looking forward to a new beginning and peace from these past weeks of turmoil. Take care.

Clay McCleerysays:

Your puppies always make me smile!


Dear Ben, thank you for your words of wisdom and uplifting thoughts on transitioning to a normal life. I also believe that here in LA we are just a short ways away from being able to gather with friends and family. My urban garden is my sanity these days, as we are lucky to have garden centers and nurseries open here. I have also taken great advantage of online purchasing for even trellises. Thankful for the blessing of spring and new life. Best to you and Charlie, xoxo D

Deborah Wagnersays:

Ben, you are a bright spark in the best of ways. I don’t trust politicians when they talk about reopening, but when you talk about it, it doesn’t seem so frightening. Of course, your government is less, shall I say, random, than where I live.

Here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, we had snow over the weekend. Mercifully short-lived, but it was still a shock. Happily, all my plants are under plastic so there were no casualties.

At the beginning of March, I made my way to Ricky’s, a garden center in Union Square, Somerville, an oasis in one of the most densely populated cities in the US. It is privately owned, a labyrinth of leaves with wartime swing tunes and ‘60s soft pop floating through them (WJIB, listener funded with a range of about one square mile, no internet streaming).

Ricky had only just opened for the season, and the place was deserted. I bought as much compost as I needed (or so I thought) and then went back the next day and got two more big bags (and five more cacti, as if I don’t have enough). I shopped fast, terrified he would be closed down by the city as “non-essential” at any moment. Miraculously, he was not.

I find it totally inexplicable that the UK garden centers are shut. Loads of people are suddenly interested in gardening, which is marvelous on so many levels, but they are stymied, as are seasoned gardeners like my cousin, who is rubbing old soil through mesh with his hands and hoping for the best. I know there has been a collective howl about opening them, so I hope the government will bow to the pressure.

I just turned on WJIB for a lark. The Mamas and the Papas. Oh, now it’s Benny Goodman. And now Spanky and Our Gang. And now Mr. Bojangles.

I’m feeling better already.

Air hugs from a definitely safe distance of 3,000 miles, give or take.



Thank you for your lovely calming pictures. My ash tree died this year also, so I completely share your mourning. Alas, garden centers are not open yet in my state in the U.S. (we are in the surge), but Mother Nature is still performing her magic, and Spring is bursting out, pandemic or not. So looking forward to better days~~


Thank you for your blog medicine, I will repeat 3 times a day until things get better!

Lesley jenkinssays:

Thank you Ben for your kind words and generosity of spirit. Your beautiful photographs remind me of my farming background as a child in Wales.
Our garden is indeed in jeopardy as we were meant to open at Easter, we will not have earned for a year if we cannot open this September. Life’s work and joy will be nothing.
My philosophy is like yours I think. Mother Nature and a garden can heal and give respite in times of anguish
I hope that soon the garden can be singing and dancing again to ease the troubled mind.
Very best wishes to you and Charlie ( I think he should be on Gardeners World)

Keep well and keep up the good work


Dear Ben, We were just looking at the ash trees yesterday and were discussing …….
If the ash is out before the oak we will surely have a soak,
If the oak is out before the ash we will surely have a splash.


I can’t stand to think about the ash trees dying all around us now. Love Bible of British Taste!


I had no ideas that Britain, that beautiful island of gardeners, has closed garden centers. I live in Maine where most everything, except pharmacies, grocery stores, AND NURSERIES, are open. All that I’m aware of are delivering more than usual, have developed websites, and are open for socially distant in person shopping. It’s early season here, too chilly to plant safely, but beds can be prepared, soil amended, plans made. I’m grateful for that and hope you get your wish for the same-safe, responsible but necessary gardening.

Sarah Barnessays:

Dear Ben, Thank you so much for your stunning photographs and wise words, particularly in relation to family. It is really, really tough on elderly people, particularly those on their own. Some, in our village, do not even have access to (or know how to use) the internet. Our young people with exams cancelled and leaving school rituals binned are also really suffering. I pray that this lockdown is working and will be eased soon. Take care.

Isla Simpsonsays:

Yes to the garden centres becoming essential shops! Here in East London we are surrounded by neighbours who have BBQs and parties in their gardens and don’t take social distancing seriously, we are too scared to use our shabby shared garden. I’m longing to get back to replanting oak trees with my Father, who also has lots of Ash die back, we gather up all the saplings that squirrels have forgotten and replant where we think we’ll lose trees. I miss that so much right now.

Lots of love to you and Charlie xxx


Totally agree about garden centers and nurseries. We have a wonderful local, independent family run nursery in Hampshire who are accepting emails then taking telephone payments then a drive in and collect system – it helps but it’s just not the same!


Dear Ben,
thank you so much for your blog and all your words. It is such a joy to see every photo, how very beautiful is everything. Your guest blog on Ruth’s blog is wonderful too, it is always lovely to see The Old Parsonage with all its treasures in it, every room is a big joy …… your home is full of love and life and that’s wonderful ! It is a own lovely world in it … The world outside seems to be changing now, nobody knows what will be after the next weeks but we all are optimistic and have positive thoughts. Yes, let us plant more trees, staying safe, loving and calm ….. have a good week too dear friend, Yours Birgit from Germany.

Sharon Marchsays:

Hear hear re Garden centres, they really are essential. Luckily our Waitrose does some lovely plants, bulbs etc to tide me over but hate to think of all those plants going to waste and sent to landfill. Please get yourself on that doorstep !!

Nicola Lawrencesays:

Dear Ben – I loved your blog on Ruth’s blog – and seeing all of your beautiful and interesting things again and new. The museum furniture is wonderful. (I love that sludgy green of guest bedroom which looked somehow different in these images). xx

Leslie Huntersays:

I’m with you on garden centers, Ben. Luckily, here in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, nurseries have been designated “essential businesses”. Well, yes. Of course. Several are open and bursting with spring flowers and plantings–what is surprising (and rather hilarious in its own way) is that veggie and herb sections are picked clean almost every day–the manager at my local shop told me they can’t keep up–“apparently, EVERYONE’S a gardener now.” Just like the baking shelves in markets: just try finding yeast or bread flour. Maybe that’s not such a bad trend….

Debra Mooresays:

Dear Ben thank you thank you thank you for a wonderfully uplifting blog needed so much at the moment. Your optimism and views truly lift the spirit. Your photos of the valley are the best ever pure joy keep safe and well. I will look forward to your new book.

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