Last month Norfolk NGS was privileged to be invited by the Marquess of Cholmondeley to launch the 2018 booklet in the Stable Cafe at Houghton Hall. Nationally the NGS is the single biggest donor to Marie Curie and over delicious plates of sausage rolls and cake we listened to eloquent speakers from the charity who endorsed the very great need for us all to continue to open our gardens for the scheme.
There had been a light dusting of snow that morning and the stable block appeared to have been built from gingerbread rather than the local carstone. Set in an arcadian parkland the naturally white deer roam freely.
Houghton has been supporting the NGS since 2004, closed during the winter it was a great opportunity to gain an ‘out of season glimpse’ at what goes on in the old kitchen garden behind the closed garden gate.
It is seemingly the dormant period and head gardener Ollie was away on holiday but there was much industry behind the high walls.
At the entrance the wall flowers are biding their time, embedding the wheels of the cart into the gravel; it is a gentle reminder to us all that access for wheelchair users is not as easy as it might be. However here at Houghton they provide electric buggies.
I usually begin my visit at Houghton by turning left but today I headed right drawn by the clumps of large snowdrops, their flowers dropping like pearl earrings, elegantly white against the rich dark soil in the border.
Within these walls Lord Cholmondeley, helped in the early years by his then head gardener Paul Underwood and later by the designers Julian and Isabel Bannerman, has created a living memorial to his grandmother, Lady Sybil Cholmondeley.
The five acre garden is situated just south west of the stables; the bold and beautiful architecture has a solid presence throughout the garden.
Divided into different gardens, hedges of beautifully kept beech and yew act as the inner walls. Peering through into the formal rose parterre the central statue is shrouded as protection from the Norfolk winter. Imagine the work in pruning those one hundred and fifty glorious roses.
The olive trees collectively stand by, waiting to be positioned for the summer visitors, their clean terracotta pots soak up the weak winter sun and some warmth from the greenhouse.
Inside there is much being propagated. Overlooked by the outrageous Strelitzia reginia, is it a wonder that this is called a Bird of Paradise, you might be forgiven for thinking it really is an exotic bird.
The double sided herbaceous border looks spectacular in the summer; this morning the clean lines, smooth chunky buttresses, razor neat edges, and the well-mucked brown earth are testament to the bold design and high standard of horticulture. The lawn is rolled out like a spotless carpet before me, little wonder I have been requested to keep off.
Ragged yew balls atop the clipped pillars,
the box is unclipped too, the idea to help prevent the dreaded blight.
Less susceptible to pathogens and pests is the Holm oak Quercus ilex, clipped into shapes reflecting the fine finials on the stable roof.
The long oak pergola covered with wisteria is being pruned today ready for that dramatic display in April and May. To the side are peony borders mixed with regale lilies, an idea the Bannermans reproduced from a visit to the grand chateau Vaux le Vicomte.
Pruning is cold work but it is coffee time and I am honoured to be invited to join the team in the sheds, secretly hidden behind the greenhouse. No boys shovelling coal here now, just a myriad of lagged pipes.
Even the area behind the sheds is a delight and although the Cholmondeley family have a private garden north of the house, it is through this gate that his Lordship enters the garden.
Another hidden area beyond the walls; is this what makes the garden a horticultural triumph? The tops of the fruit cage are showing above.
Rustic and strong, the netted structures house a selection of fruit bushes,
and a clematis softly clambers over the aged wood the wispy seed heads look lovely against the blue sky.
Green corridors separate the garden spaces. The long vista provides another view of the shrouded statue in the rose garden, and to the left
is the croquet lawn where the Houghton Cross has come to rest; made of slate it is a creation by Richard Long.
Stepping back into another space I find each compartment has different styles of planting, contrasting textures and a change of atmosphere.
I am surprised to find rabbit guards in here but gates can be left open, and we know it does not take long for our furry friends to find their way in. This is the productive area; on the ground are step-over apples,
trained against frames are apple tunnels,
and in the orchard are the old apple trees.
The thin layer of ice formed on the water surrounding the meteorite fountain shows it is a cold but clear morning,
and in the corners of this area, swirls of box encircle the outstretched arms of the lime.
This is the most southern path along which is placed the rustic summerhouse,
which has fine views back down the herbaceous border towards the greenhouse. How can that grass look so good in February?
Just when you think you have seen it all, through the horizontal branches the vertical trunks signify there is yet a further space;
with pleached limes and obelisk, I can feel that formal french influence again.
A muddle of ghost-white stems of rubus cockburnianus is the only disorder in such a perfectly ordered garden. In spite of it being winter there has been much to enjoy; the pleaching, the pruning, the twining and twisting, the structures and textures. The peace.
Returning to the entrance the inanimate ancient stone lying heavily on the ground appears today to have almost human features.
This of course is only one part of this beautiful estate. I leave slowly via the back drive and admire the natural drift of snowdrops, early signs of Spring and only a matter of time before the gate is open in time for Easter and we can explore the rest of the gardens and the park. Houghton Hall.