How the hell did my life come to this, where a trip to a garden centre on a Saturday afternoon gives me happy feels? Not for the gardening crap, you understand, I barely have time to clean my house let alone fart around with a herbaceous border. And yet....the lure of the place is strong - the faintly damp smell of terracotta and old ladies, the dish of potpourri in the toilets, perhaps an errant dog...it's like being hugged by the Dalai Lama and being told that hey, the world might be going up the shitter, but you're safe here for an hour. Below are the things that I like very best about the humble garden centre:
No two ways about it, I always seek out the café first, and I make a sweeping judgement about the state of the entire place based on the selection of sweet offerings. The hunkier the chunks, the better. I don't get out for cake that often so I really like to take the opportunity to the max. £2.25 for a 0.5 inch slither of sponge? No. £4.99 for a cream tea where you only get ONE SCONE? See ya. The worst offence of all - the most heinous of café sins, is the pre-wrapped muffin or flapjack. Shudder. Get the car engine started, we're not staying.
Conversely though, a café can go TOO far with trying to score brownie points. I get very anxious if the selection includes a top heavy ratio of NEW cake flavours that both tempt and baffle me in equal measure. Because in my heart of hearts I just want to tuck away 500g of Coffee and Walnut, but if you put in front of me a Basil and Blueberry Duffin then I'ma wanna try that, too. Really, you're best off sticking to the greats. Scones (cherry, cheese, plain), Chocolate Fudge, aforementioned Coffee and Walnut, Vicky Sponge, Lemon Drizzle, Millionaire's Shortbread, Carrot Cake, Brownies, Wildcard. All traybakes must be generously sliced, all sponges must be three-tiered. All cappuccinos must have Froth Art.
2. Free Zoo
Assuming that all is well in the cake world, the next big hitter to elevate a garden centre to the top of the podium is the inclusion of a franchised pet shop or aquarium. Everything is at a lovely low level so the toddler can peer into cages without needing to be hauled up onto shoulders. All animals are behind glass so no touching, accidental or otherwise, can occur.
The notion of commerce hasn't yet entered the world of the children so there's no expectation that one day, we might purchase such animals on display - they're just for looking at. There's nothing bad there, no reptiles or trays of crickets or ominously cobwebby tanks. Just nice, safe, fluffy things, and fish. The almost luminous blue hue of the fish tanks have something of a meditative effect, meaning that the drive home MAY afford us adults a bit of peace and quiet as the children kip in the back. Recently, we visited a garden centre where the adjacent fish emporium was called "Aqua Jardin". We ate cake, we saw fish, we did FRENCH!
3. Utterly Pointless Knick-Knacks
I love an ornamental piece made out of wood. East of India might as well be slightly north of my kitchen, for the amount of it I have. Quote plaques and calendar blocks and photo frames and small animals hanging from brown string....I'm a bugger for all of it. My husband rolls his eyes into next week whenever I receive such glorious treasures as gifts. He calls them "those things" - a bold, sweeping collective of all comers under the shabby chic narrative. "Great, more of those things you like. Which stationary surface are you going to clutter up now?"
Garden centres are second to none for these lines of ultimately pointless decoration - and while they're overpriced, they're overpriced in CONTEXT so after you've trawled the trinket circuit once, you'll think nothing of spending £6.99 on a ceramic egg cup that's shaped like a flower and actually far too small for purpose.
4. Dirt Cheap Books
Never pay £12.99 for a hard-backed spiral-bound slow cooker recipe book, there's simply no need! Likewise, "Diabetic One Pot Desserts for Christmas" and "100 Microwave Sponge Recipes" can easily be yours for the knock-down price of £3.99, tops. Mums, grandmothers, aunts are all catered for. These are great places to scrabble together a literary gift for a child where you need to look as if you've spent at least a tenner.
You probably won't get the greats for cheap spends, sadly - your Julia Donaldson's and your JK's will be standard issue RRP so I'd head straight to Amazon on that score. But if it's a slightly nondescript book of 1000 bedtime stories together with a bumper sticker activity pack, you'll be spoilt for choice. And if you turn your head towards 3 o'clock you'll find some lovely cards and gift wrap, too. The last garden centre we visited had no less than seven types of retirement card. Seven!
5. Christmas Shizz
This makes me a bit twitchy, as I am not the world's biggest lover of Christmas. However, there's something that sparks off the rampant OCD in me when I see bewitching colour coded sections of tat, neatly segregated and orderly, even though we might just have enjoyed the late August Bank Holiday Weekend. That poor-footfall area by the old lady changing room finally has a purpose as it's converted into a lighting grotto, full of gently nodding reindeer and eerie Santas cocking their leg up a rope ladder. And those miniature villages are actually quite captivating, even if you do have to stand in the same spot for ten minutes waiting for the steam engine to trundle around to your vantage point again.
More importantly, everything is now laced with the scent of clove-spiked oranges, which my brain translates into that seasonal beauty: Mulled Wine. Which, if you're lucky, your local garden centre might just be licensed to serve.