British Summer Time

British Summer Time came into effect last night, so this morning we conducted the biannual ritual of tracking down all our clocks and advancing them by an hour. These days the average home is so full of electronic gadgets that adjusting for BST is in itself a time-consuming task. A couple of our machines are clever enough to reset themselves (the PCs, the video tape recorder), but most require manual intervention. Here’s a list (largely for my own future reference) of all our devices that require resetting:

Clock at London Underground's Acton Town station

Time was standardised in 1840 to provide reliable railway timetables

  • three wristwatches
  • bedside radio
  • three mobile phones
  • electronic barometer/thermometer
  • television
  • Polar heart rate watch
  • three personal organisers
  • digital camera
  • microwave oven
  • coffee maker
  • hot water/central heating timer
  • five “old-fashioned” analogue clocks

If I’ve forgotten any, I’ll add them to this list when they next surface.

Horticultural history in full bloom

Last week the long-list for this year’s Samuel Johnson Prize (Britain’s “most important” prize for non-fiction) was announced, and I just happen to be reading one of the nominees at the moment — A Thing in Disguise: The Visionary Life of Joseph Paxton by Kate Colquhoun.

Sir Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) was the 6th Duke of Devonshire’s gardener, and he became famous as the architect of the Crystal Palace, home to Britain’s first international exhibition of industrial accomplishment, The Great Exhibition of 1851.

South façade of Chiswick House
The south façade of Chiswick House.

Initially Paxton worked for the Duke of Devonshire at Chiswick House, which is approximately a mile from where we live in west London. According to English Heritage, which now manages the property, “Chiswick House is the first and finest 18th century Palladian villa in the country”. It was built in 1728, and was essentially the Duke’s country house closest to London.

Not much appears to be known about Paxton’s early career at Chiswick, but having read about its garden and greenhouse in his biography, Sudsy Dame and I walked over on Sunday to have a look. According to Colquhoun:

Conservatory at Chiswick House in west London.
Conservatory at Chiswick House in west London.

When the 5th Duke of Devonshire inherited the house, he commissioned Wyatt to add two substantial wings to the building and, in 1813, the 6th Duke, wealthy enough to indulge his passion for building and for horticulture, gilded the velvet-hung staterooms and commissioned Lewis Kennedy to create a formal Italian garden. Samuel Ware — later the architect of the Burlington Arcade — built a 300-foot long conservatory in the formal garden, backed by a brick wall, with a central glass and wood dome. In time, it would be filled with the recently introduced camellias which, along with the exotic animals, captured the very height of Regency fashion.

Rows of ancient camellias at Chiswick House.
Rows of ancient camellias at Chiswick House.

In a subsequent footnote, Colquhoun writes:

The Italian garden, the conservatory and many of the original camellia plants still exist at Chiswick House Gardens, London, W4. The first book on the subject of the camellia appeared in 1819, Monograph on the genus Camellia by Samuel Curtis, and listed 29 varieties being grown in England.

Camellia at Chiswick House.
Camellia japonica Parksii at Chiswick House.

Well as you can see, the camellias are still blooming. It is amazing to think that these shrubs have grown here for almost two hundred years, but we saw one label stating 1823 and another citing 1795. Despite the genteel decay that now pervades Chiswick House and its garden, the flowers remain magnificent. It’s yet another example of how history is positively tangible in this crowded, over-developed part of the world.

Lastminute Martha

The UK’s best-known Martha is Miss Martha Lane Fox, the co-founder of, an internet travel agency that has prospered despite the IT crash. Earlier this week the 30 year-old doyenne of Britain’s dot com boom made the news yet again for selling two million of her shares, worth 4.6 million pounds. Apparently, she suggested it might be time to buy a new home (amongst other things).

To-Let signs on a residential street in London

London is flooded with rental properties

The experts increasingly think otherwise. Almost a year ago the Economist was predicting a property crash, and since then more and more pundits have agreed that the time for a correction must be near. On Monday even Stephen Nickell, a member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee (which sets the country’s prime interest rate) warned of the increasing risk of a dramatic fall in property prices.

I couldn’t help wondering about this latest boom last night as I watched the usual Wednesday night litany of property-buying and house-decorating programmes on television. What will the TV producers do once the market turns? Switch from how-to-buy to how-to-sell I suppose, but that’s not likely to be as much fun.

The Financial Times thinks the property programmes are similar to hemlines:

The anecdotal evidence for a bubble is also striking; TV channels are swamped with house-related programmes and there is a good business in seminars offering punters swift riches via the housing market.

But any sell-off needs a catalyst. Higher rates are an obvious trigger but, as Mr [Stephen] Nickell’s remarks show, the Bank is well aware of the dangers and is treading cautiously. Higher unemployment is another potential pitfall, but looks unlikely to be a problem this year. But the catalyst will eventually appear and when it does, the sell-off could be swift; as those buy-to-let investors, desperate to plug a cashflow shortfall, unload their surplus properties on a falling market.

So Martha may have timed her dot com business perfectly, but if she buys a new home soon it may turn out to be rather “last minute”.