There are an incredible 340 gardens open for the National Garden Scheme during August. Sadly I have been unable to visit any so far partly because I am busy with my own garden being one of the 340, added to which my ‘under-gardener’ had an unfortunate accident resulting in him being confined to crutches and so leaving me with much to do.
So forgive me, it has to be a tour of my own garden. Tudor Lodgings is perched on the edge of the historic village of Castle Acre, and was built in the late 15th Century.
Thank heaven we were open combined with Highfield House, as lovely Jackie and David were very supportive and brilliant at putting up the posters and all the important signage.
As you can imagine much preparation goes into opening the garden, and always as the day approaches I never feel that the garden is quite ready and as I would like it to be. Radio Norfolk announced its opening and a very complimentary write up in the Saturday Telegraph the day before did nothing to relieve my anxiety. Was the garden really up to this sort of standard?
Whilst you can work your socks off, you can do absolutely nothing about the weather; the view from my bedroom window on the Sunday looked promising. Swinging into action frighteningly early I began the day by putting the first of the home-made sausage rolls and quiches into the oven, timing each bake between walking dogs and watering.
Mowing the lawn and knocking in the final notices is usually the job of the under-gardener. This year he had to give instructions from his incapacitated position in the sunroom. Our sons rose to the occasion (forgive the pun).
With the final inspection of the lawn being undertaken by our friendly fowl, the under-under-gardener team took up position in the lower paddock.
Here they turned their attention to parking cars, skilfully maximising the open space until for a short moment there was no more room to be had. It was fortunate they had opened the gates earlier than scheduled and the first car or two began to leave just in time to allow others in.
Access to the garden is by walking up the slope through the field gate,
and it is worth just pausing a second here to look at the old medieval wall, in effect a large dry ditch and bank, which surrounds the garden on two sides. An ancient listed monument, it is very steep and therefore tricky to maintain plus the added fact that there are restrictions. We keep the bank directly below the house neatly strimmed,
whilst on the other side we allow the nettles to grow. Both these areas are carpeted with snowdrops in the winter months.
Moving on up towards the garden and situated west of the dovecote is a sculpture by Matthew Frere-Smith (1923-1999). This piece was already here when we arrived and we have become rather fond of it, endlessly moving it around to several different sites within the garden. It has come to rest here which we feel might at last be its proper resting place.
There is no set route around the garden and slipping through the gap in the yew hedge you can go either,
straight up the path bordered on one side with anenomes and hydrangeas and with a block of panicum virgatum on the right,
or you can turn right and head towards the house. Perhaps this is a good starting point. When we moved here in 1985 with toddler and babe in arms, I, and the ‘under-gardener’ knew very little about gardening.
There were certainly the beginnings of a garden here; trees, hedges and topiary had been planted, the paving and steps laid, all sketched out on the back of an envelope by Brenda Colvin, a friend of my predecessor http://www.colmog.co.uk/brenda-colvin/. It is a family garden which has evolved over time and we have simply added to the original design.
The house faces south and visitors are drawn to the shrub growing up in between door and window.
It is Itea illicifolia and the long fragrant catkin-like flowers fill the air with the aroma of honey. The unknown clematis winds itself through and is happy to flower for most of the summer.
Between the house and the lawn is a knot garden. Created in 2013 we did not want a traditional design, but instead were inspired by the artist Mondrian, and within the straight lines of box, the loose planting tries to keep within his palette; blue nepeta, red echinacea, yellow stipa tenuissima mixed with coreopsis, and white cosmos combine with Japanese anenome and gaura. In spring there is a showing of galanthus, muscari and tulips.
From the house there is a slight incline and for years we gardened on the slope until one day we decided to terrace it. So much easier. In the upper section hibiscus, roses, perovskia and phlomis fight for space while below sits a ridiculously large watering can; well what else do you do with an empty green expanse?
The Barn which we let out for self-catering holidays, is kept vacant, and stepping through a border of echinops, kirengeshoma and senecio tangutica it becomes the tea room. Indeed for some this is the most important area of the garden.
It is at this point that I should mention the tea team, led by ‘the nurse’ who has been administering injections twice daily for the past fortnight to the under-gardener whilst at the same time filling my deep freeze with an amazing selection of cakes. There is no doubt that not only are her nursing qualities superb but also she bakes a perfect sponge. The nurse cajoles her family to drive the distance from Gloucestershire to Norfolk to help, and together with over a dozen kind friends from the village they serve and wash up the entire day. It would quite simply be impossible without them.
From the end of the Barn, and the end of the lawn you see gently rolling fields; please don’t think of Norfolk as being flat.
You might think the table and chairs have been moved here to enjoy the view. That is partly true but while showing a group around the garden the day before opening, a gust of wind brought the rather poorly Judas tree in the centre of the lawn crashing down. Just what you need before an opening. With no alternative but to leave it, I moved the table and chairs further away. There is also another reason why it was best to move them; it is the low table that was the cause of the crutches. Let’s say no more and carry on.
Tulip and Jesus (he came at Christmas) are sitting in front of the former dovecote. Built in C16 it is square in plan with the remains of the nesting boxes formed of brick and clunch. There are no doves now but it houses the garden tools instead. The abstract topiary known affectionately as the ‘Bun of box’ is a great place for terriers to play hide and seek.
In the shady corner the hosta fills the copper pot, all summer long its large leaves are never touched by slug or snail.
Squeezing through the keyhole in the yew hedge you re-enter the area where the centre is filled with ornamental grass.
This was originally just long grass with mown paths but we got tired of it becoming unsightly by the end of June and so planted a block of Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’; the seed heads which turn red compliment the hot border to the right,
where more ornamental grasses thread through red-leaved shrubs and bright flowers such as crocosmia, hemerocallis and monarda,
Further round the corner, the campsis radicans this year has been positively trumpeting with flowers climbing over a brick wall by the garage.
Originally I planted this tunnel with roses and apples but as one never saw the rose flowers unless flying overhead, which I seldom did, I removed the roses and now have just apples and pears. The apple is an old variety called Norfolk Beefing, a lovely cooker which never seems to let us down.
The tunnel is a link to the wilder part of the garden but as you move through, on the right there are autumn raspberries and on the left in the fruit cage are various currants. The vegetable area has now been planted up with cutting flowers. I am hopeless at growing vegetables and cannot see the point when I have a perfectly good greengrocer in Swaffham. What I love is being able to pick flowers and this year, cornflower, sweet peas and sunflowers have been a delight.
You come through the tunnel to the wilder part of the garden. The shepherd’s hut, where, as it faces west we can catch the evening sun; the perfect place for a sundowner.
From here we can enjoy the tower of the fine church of St James the Great,
and can also watch the sheep safely graze amongst the wild carrot and oxeye daisies.
The ancient monument rises up behind the shepherd’s hut to the south west corner and many years ago we dragged a railway sleeper up there to use as a bench. From here you get a marvellous view:
Due south towards Swaffham, and if you look carefully you can see the wind turbine,
and to the west are the ruins of the priory.
It is a great look out from up here not just for our visitors,
and looking across our property in the far distance beyond the house and hidden by trees are the ruins of the castle.
Having retraced the uneven way down you can then take the path around the pond. Wild it may be but this part of the garden takes a lot of looking after. One day it is our intention to make this wheelchair friendly.
A peaceful place, with just the sound of the little stream behind, you can glimpse the drakes swimming on the pond, sadly their ladies were taken earlier this year by Mr Fox.
The chickens, bantams, guinea fowl and Richard the rhea are safe at the moment and roam the top field during the day and are locked up at night.
We used to keep horses but they have now given way to horticulture, and the potting shed and greenhouse now occupy the yard where the ponies were stabled. Verbena bonariensis happily seeds itself in a riot of colour as does the Stipa gigantea.
Agapanthus grown in pots find it warm enough to stay out all year round,
but we have to bring in the dahlias for the winter; it is surely worth the trouble
A few steps on brings us to the garden gate, this is in fact the main entrance for visitors walking in from the village, and here on open day you can buy the inexpensive but brilliant plants from the stall set up by West Acre Gardens http://www.westacregardens.co.uk/nursery.html
after making your purchases you can then head for the delicious teas in the Barn.
I am glad to report that approximately 520 visitors came on 11th August and the two gardens raised just under £5,000 for the National Garden Scheme. If you missed it this year we will be open again next August. In the meantime there are still plenty of other gardens to visit: https://ngs.org.uk/ Thank you George Plumptre for including us within your section of Gardens to Visit in the Daily Telegraph, and for the prompt to write this blog.