“I've got this ongoing fantasy of relocating to Noosa in Australia”, floral artist Willow Crossley told The Grace Tales Editor-At-Large Emily Armstrong in episode 51 of The Grace Tales podcast. Given she’s based in the idyllic Cotswolds, it might come as a surprise, but “it’s all I want to do. I’ve spent hours on real estate in Australia, looking at beachfront houses, thinking ‘one day’.”
That day is not today, though. Currently, Willow is busy working on what she calls her ‘boxes of joy’ – seasonal flower kits delivered to creatively minded customers who get to experience a little piece of Willow’s signature wild and colourful aesthetic, as they create their own floral arrangements under her guidance. It’s a local venture for now, but Willow says she’d love to scale the business. “One day”, of course.
Despite her perfectly prophetic name, Willow’s career didn’t start out in flowers. “When I was little, I was always drawing outfits and dreaming up catwalk shows and things, but my drawing was terrible. I think it was more trying to create pretty pictures, more than the actual clothes, because the designs were so awful. My mum had done fashion, she had worked at Vogue for years and she’d written lots of Vogue books, so I think that it felt like that was what my path was going to be. I went to London College of Fashion, did a degree there, and then left and went to Condé Nast and worked in various fashion covers. And it was very competitive and there were thousands of girls the same age as me and would be far more qualified, wanting these jobs. And, I don’t know, it didn’t fill me with warmth. And I don’t think I had the faith in myself that I was going to be able to get these great jobs that I really wanted to do. So, I did it for a while and then I moved into beauty, and I loved that, and I got to write.
I had met Charlie, my then boyfriend, now husband, when I was at London School of Fashion. And he suddenly announced one day that he was going to move to France and run a vineyard. That’s his dream, he’s always been into food and wine, so he kind of up and left. And I stayed behind and carried on what I was trying to do.”
If it sounds like a plot point in a romantic comedy, well, you’ll be pleased with what happened next. “I missed him too much and decided it’d be amazing to move countries, and so I did. And that was the end of my fashion – I can’t really call it a career, because it definitely wasn’t.”
In France, “I had a clean slate”, Willow felt. “And I’m not good at all at sitting around, twiddling my fingers, and so I would go very often to these markets and I’m obsessed with fabrics and baskets and all these gorgeous things that I’d find in the market. And these piles would stack up on my desk and Charlie would just be like, ‘What the hell are you going to do with them all?’
I started making things, little fabric-covered books and baskets, and I took them to all the lovely shops in the town and on the beach and they started buying them off me and selling them for ridiculous amounts of money. And I started writing about that, and then my now literature agent saw my blog, which is called Willow Rose Boutique, and it was… that story about life down in South France. I mean, it was completely idyllic. And then we did that for five years. I wrote my first book, called The Art of Handmade Living, and it was essentially what I’d been doing down there.”
Always a writer, it was the start of Willow finding her voice. “I wrote another book after that, about decorating with nature. I’ve always loved bringing nature inside. When I was in France, it was often shells and wild flowers and grasses. And in that second book, there was a whole section on flowers. At the time, I was doing fashion, I was doing beauty, I was writing, I was doing personal shopping and interior design and had two children, and I was just feeling completely overwhelmed, which is a general theme that runs through my life.
And I made the decision to stop everything that I was doing, and focus on the flowers. Charlie gave me a present of a course at a flower school, which I did, and it gave me that [feeling of] ‘this is what I’ve got to do with my life’. It made me so happy, the creating, and being surrounded by all that beauty.”
And so, focus on the flowers she did. But even so, she did it in her own distinct way. “I call myself a florist, but I’m essentially an event florist, which obviously since lockdown, I’m at this crossroads now.” With events largely on hold, Willow started making her flower box deliveries, complete with instructions for arranging, in January this year. “I’d been thinking about it for years and years and in January I was like, ‘I’m just going to do it. This is it’. And I sat with my excel spreadsheets for weeks and weeks and weeks, and it’s funny, because until that time the idea of figures and maths and the numbers side has always been [awful]. It’s always been a very creative, un-profit making business, which is terrible. And now, I’m completely obsessed with margins and figures. I never in a million years thought I would be, it’s extraordinary! But I did all the numbers and I think it can work.”
Despite her best projections, though, the business of flowers always involves a little gamble. “It’s that risky thing of playing with living things. The flowers, obviously, you’ve got the weather to contend with, you’ve got transporting flowers out of water which is pretty scary. I did an event at Blenheim Palace a couple of years ago and it was the hottest day of the year, and because I do a table and everything as well, the candles were meant to burn in eight hours and they were burning down in 30 minutes. Just things like that, you’ve always got to be ten steps ahead. But I think the more I do it, the more I know, I’m expecting something to go wrong. And you have to just take it in your stride, otherwise the whole thing goes tits up and disaster.”
As for the realities of floristry, well – it’s not quite as glamorous as it may seem. “People think that floristry is a really nice, relaxed job to have, but it’s really physical. And I’m permanently in a boiler suit, lugging massive buckets of water around, getting twigs stuck in my hair and rummaging through bushes. But I love that.”
And Willow loves the ephemerality of flowers. “The flowers that I love aren’t around for more than a month maximum at a time, and it’s kind of devastating when the tulips have gone over, which they are about to do now. But then I’ve got something else coming up. And the rose is about to come out. And there’s always fresh excitement, and I never get bored of it. I never get bored of seeing that first Santa Claus Dahlia popping up or the beautiful stripy rose or something. I get properly excited.”
And through the ups and downs of motherhood, of running a business, of surviving a global pandemic, the flowers and nature are Willow’s constant. “I have been so anxious for my whole life”, she says, or “maybe anxious may be too strong a word. I worry a lot. But I know that I have to manage it. I know that when things are getting too much and I’m trying to juggle too much, like we all do, the children and work and trying to feed everyone and clean the house and school runs at a million miles, I know when the way I start thinking about things starts to err on the negative side.
Some days when you’ve had a great sleep and you’ve eaten well and you’re nailing it, certain things won’t bother you, but there are times when it all gets too much. And knowing that I have to manage it is very different from actually doing anything about it. If I am able to do anything about it, it’s that I take myself for a walk. I put my phone down.
And then I will go outside and I will talk to my seeds, or I will tie up my sweet peas or something like that. It’s always been outside.”
And in the wilderness of new motherhood, when Willow was struggling to find a sense of identity and community as a young mother isolated in France, it was in nature that she found her solace. In her latest book The Wild Journal, she writes ‘Like so many others, I pretended I was fine, slapped on a smile, and when I was alone, I would cry and cry and cry, hyperventilating with the pain and desperation that I felt. The hardest part was knowing that I should be happy. I had a divine baby, a wonderful family and fabulous friends, lived in the south of France in a vineyard with my gorgeous husband and was lucky enough to have no big financial pressure. How dare I feel like this? And when I look back at that time, I realise that it was nature and the outside world that gave me more sustenance than anything else.’
Looking back on that time, she says, “I wish I’d asked for help. So I would encourage anyone to ask for help, from your mum if you have one, your friends, your husband, your anyone, accept and ask for help, because I was incapable of accepting any help whatsoever. And then when I finally got to a doctor, they said to me that a heightened sense of responsibility is one of the key symptoms of postnatal depression. And I’d never even thought about that as a thing. I’d said, ‘No, don’t worry. I will change his nappy. I will feed him. I will walk him around the block five million times to get him to sleep, because it’s my responsibility.’ And I couldn’t share that load, and that is a symptom.”
Thankfully, those foggy baby days are now a distant memory. And as much as the pandemic has challenged us all, Willow is determined to take an important lesson from it when it comes to her priorities. She says it’s reminded her that “as a family, we just have the best time together. And it’s so easy for life to get in the way – someone invites you out for dinner or lunch or something and it kind of splits you all up so much. So I think we’ll really work on spending that quality time together, because we’ve never had that amount of quality, quality time for months and months on end.”
One day, it seems, might actually be today.
Listen to our full interview with Willow here.