Through all these cheerless covid months and ghastly weather, the snowdrops have been silently pushing up through the cold, sodden ground. Their delicate flowers, surely could not be more welcome. Restrictions have forced the abandonment of the National Garden Scheme Snowdrop Festival however, some gates of a smattering of gardens will be open across the country this February, for those visitors lucky enough to be local to them. However in the eastern region, deep snow has forced many closures. More details can be found at https://ngs.org.uk/february-openings-2021/.
Back in 2017 when travelling was unrestricted and I was able to visit some 90 gardens throughout the year in celebration of the 90th anniversary of The National Garden Scheme, the snowdrop gardens were memorable; and I would identify three different types of snowdrop landscape: The snowdrop walk such as at Welford Park in Berkshire where the sight of millions of these tiny flowers carpeting the woodland floor was a sheer delight.
The second type of landscape is the simple but lovely Snowdrop garden where you find clumps of snowdrop scattered beneath winter shrubs, and bringing life to dormant borders, such as here at Gable House near Beccles, where Galanthus ‘Atkinsii’ is prolific.
Here amongst the plant sales I could not resist Galanthuselwesii ‘Brian Matthews’ who is now doing well in my own border.
The third type of landscape is quite different and fascinating; that of the The snowdrop specialist, such as at Spring Platt in Kent https://kentsnowdrops.com/#home. A snowdrop spectacle, where they are arranged in a display, individually potted, seemingly different and labelled, each with a beguiling name. You could say, and although I am not fond of the word, it was here that I experienced the first stirrings of becoming a ‘galanthophile’.
It was ‘Fly Fishing’ that was my purchase here, a must for any fisherman and so it grows just outside my husband’s office, a bending rod gently moving in the breeze.
Then things began to get expensive; at £40.00 per tiny bulb (and that is nothing in this world I can assure you ), I could not resist ‘Tilly’. She is spreading nicely so I am not feeling quite so bad about that reckless expenditure.
Then my first granddaughter was born, so in celebration I planted Galanthus plicatus ‘Florence Baker’ (please could someone please breed an Alfie), and my small collection began to expand, and all around the garden I have the names of friends and family growing gracefully, all different and doing their own thing. Last year I painstakingly labelled each one, only to be stumped by my dogs who thought this was a great idea and spent the summer months finding and helpfully retrieving them.
The names always intrigue me and I like to know their origin, so I bought, begged and borrowed books on the subject, the snowdrop ‘bible’ being the most elusive Snowdrops A Monograph of Cultivated Galanthus by Matt Bishop, Aaron Davis and John Grimshaw, which I was fortunate to be lent and I notice that although currently unavailable on Amazon it is a mere £550 on ebay.
Snowdrops do come in other guises; I loved this giant wicker snowdrop standing at fifteen feet high at Trentham Gardens in Staffordshire,
and these metal ones either side standing guard at a gate in Welford Park.
My garden is deep in snow with not a single snowdrop in sight, just a metal sculpture, a reminder of what will be there when the thaw comes.
I have already made this year’s purchases, Galanthus plicatus ‘Three ships’ which should flower before next Christmas from friend, plantswoman and instagrammer Jane Anne Walton, and the other in aid of St John Ambulance Galanthus plicatus ‘Diggory’, a Norfolk boy, he is a beauty.
Luckily for me I have a Snowdrop Walk local to me and which will be open next Sunday 21st February in aid of the National Garden Scheme https://ngs.org.uk/view-garden/4388. If that path isn’t just the perfect place for a little exercise, then I don’t know what is.
There has never been a greater time than now for us to support the nursing and care sector and so if you are unable to take your exercise in a local snowdrop garden why not consider making a donation by visiting the just giving page https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/norfolk-ngs
On the edge of Castle Acre village in West Norfolk stands a rusty old water tower. Apparently a Braithwaite type (the name refers to the manufacturer), it was originally constructed for nearby RAF Massingham during WWII, and afterwards recycled and moved to Castle Acre where it was decommissioned in the early 90s. Left to stand and rust, it became a familiar landmark to us locals and in some people’s eyes it was considered a bit of a blot on the lovely landscape, well that is until recently.
Bought in an auction by a professional photographer from London it has, in the last couple of years been given it a complete face lift. Driving by we have watched the transformation with curiosity.
So what joy it was back in September when the new owners kindly held an open day and invited us all in, and free of charge. We went in droves, proving that we all love a good snoop when the opportunity arises. The garden gates were open wide and with a glorious blue sky and a quirky house sign we were welcomed in.
The recently laid drive has on one side a mature mixed hedgerow and on the other newly planted Corsican pines.
At first sight the impressive structure appears almost menacing and I wondered for a brief moment if I might spy a German soldier peering from the slit windows.
An awesome beast, it is a touch industrial but at the same elegant.The understated front door is pinned open…….
and you enter into a garden room.
The spiral stairs beckons you upwards
each step crafted into neat wooden sandwiches.
I am keen to get straight to the top just allowing my heavily pregnant daughter-in-law to stop a second to admire the windows,
and then the stairs morph into a metal ladder
and we clamber up out on to the roof. We thought it a still day but the wind blows up here.
My friend seems to be a very long way down,
But the views are stunning; stubble fields stretch northwards,
while to the east, the small village of Newton by Castle Acre is hidden by trees.
To the south is the village of Castle Acre, with Southacre beyond,
and to the west, the road winds towards Westacre. Much of these acres are owned by the Holkham estate situated some 18 miles away, the home of the Coke family. The story goes that when Coke was increasing his lands back in the 17th Century, King James 1 was not happy with the acquisition. Coke’s comment was that it was just three more acres he wanted to purchase and so proceeded to acquire Castle Acre, West Acre and South Acre.
It is time to descend, the way down through the hatch somehow does not seem as inviting as it did on the way up.
We go down into the floor below which is in fact the old water tank and now the kitchen,
with the large ballcocks cunningly recycled into ceiling lights,
and the windows cut out of the metal sides to reveal the landscape. It is pure art.
Below the kitchen, on different levels are the two bedrooms, a ladder reaches to the raised bed area. No curtains adorn the ceiling to floor windows but why would you want to block out that view.
The owner Denis and his wife haven’t quite moved in and have been residing in a double converted container situated by the tower. There is no garden as yet, and indeed surrounded by such landscape there is no need. Outside the container the patio area is decoratively paved with recycled manhole covers,
and from here you can look up and check the time. And for us we realise it is time to go.
Owner Denis is an acclaimed still-life photographer and his profile describes his ability ‘to create spectacular, dynamic imagery from all manner of raw material’, I think it could be said that he displays his talent in this extraordinary building.
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.
It is a glorious time of year for garden visiting, however I fear many of us this afternoon will be staying at home to watch the Wimbledon finals. So I am going to take you around Batteleys Cottage Garden which I very much enjoyed last Sunday when it was open for the National Garden Scheme.
Situated in the village of Wortham on the Norfolk/Suffolk border I parked on the sandy heathland and walked up the drive admiring first the charming little corner on the right,
and then decorative bicycle propped against the wall on the left.
Like so many of the gardens open for the scheme, this is privately owned, created by the owners and has a delightful element of surprise when you enter. Stepping onto the lawn to the right of the cottage you are drawn in by this intriguing centrepiece.
The neatly mown lawn (no worn Wimbledon patches here), is surrounded by borders packed with plants; a perfect place to pause awhile and take in the beautiful surroundings.
Across the way bursting out of the perennials, is an explosion of soft blue delphiniums.
It is not just the colour of these borders that is so attractive, but the texture, the rhythm and the movement. It is hard to believe that not that long ago the area was a mass of blackthorn and bramble and not a single herbaceous plant to be seen.
When Andy and Linda began to work on the garden some seven years ago they had to clear 30 huge Leylandii from the boundary. Now a gravel path winds around the perimeter allowing views across the neighbouring fields and letting in light onto the roses cascading around the arches.
The garden is seamlessly divided into different spaces; from the more formal area closer to the house,
through to a wilder area further away, creating a different atmosphere and making the whole one acre garden feel much larger.
This simple map explains the outline but does not show the tremendous impact of the rich planting.
In the centre of the garden is the summer house looking out on to a delightful pond,
an area not only perfect for wildlife but also a place where winged sculptures gracefully fly.
Andy and Linda have no help in the garden each working on average two full days a week. They do however find time to enjoy the results of their labour positioning the many seats around the garden to their best advantage. This elegant seat is set in the long grass in the orchard.
Clematis come into play in every part of the garden, either scrambling with roses against trees,
or climbing up well positioned obelisks,
this is the handsome, velvety ‘Romantika’ who will flower through to the Autumn.
The mix of light and shade has a soothing quality,
as does the gentle sound of the water flowing in the stream.
Around every corner there is something different,
sunny, characterful and almost quirky.
There are two areas for vegetables and it is a delight to see this potager sited conveniently right outside the back door.
Linda has a family link with India and it was on a trip there that she was able to purchase this stone plinth.
Returning to the lawn in front of the house I find this bewitching couple emerging gently from the mixed planting.
Inevitably I succumb to the delicious tea and apricot cake, and it is from the colourful patio outside the sun room that I can really take in the splendour of this beautiful garden.
I am not sure whether Norwich is in the category of a ‘typical city’ but it is here that I visited the Grapes Hill Community Garden and reaching it by walking up Valentine Street, my first glimpse was to look down over the fence.
Once a disused and unsightly area laid with tarmac, this now flourishing garden, all of 50m by 12m, was created by a group of people who came together in 2009. Consulting the local community on the design, and collectively raising funds, the following year they were granted National Lottery money which enabled removing the tarmac and laying the hard landscaping.
In 2011 the planting began and the garden was opened to the public in July of that year. You can read more about the development from the website from where I have borrowed the above and below photographs: http://grapeshillcommunitygarden.org/pages/
With such a warm invitation at the gates it is hard not to pop in.
A bold wooden pergola greets you as you enter. The uprights appear a little naked right now but a wisteria is taking a hold, recklessly winding its way up,
and on another post is a more controlled vine; appropriately planted considering this is Grapes Hill, it will soon burst into leaf and it is one of the many plants sponsored by local people and businesses.
At the base of the pillars, tulips and primroses soften the brickwork and bring a touch of spring colour.
These beautifully raised beds are available to rent.
The garden is also used as a teaching area – a free AQA Level 1 Gardening course running for 10 weeks is being offered. In this bed the different types of bulbs are being displayed, the red tulips are determined to be the biggest.
This is not just a place to learn and work; there is a seating area with a verdant lawn beyond to pick daisies.
In fact Jo the Head Gardener encourages visitors to pick and enjoy the leaves of herbs such as the lemon balm,
and as she chats to me she rubs the evergreen leaves of the architectural honey bush Melianthus major and it exudes a waft of peanut butter.
There are several fruit trees growing in the garden either planted on the trellis surrounding parts of the garden,
or free standing like this magical Quince Cydonia oblonga. Donated by local nurseries their blossom somehow brings a ray of hope.
In such a small space there is a lot going on; a joyful mosaic rises up against the wall,
and a trellis of seed heads collected and created by a group of children.
This tree trunk has been transformed into a fountain, not switched on today, but powered by solar energy.
At this point I have to mention the loo. It is a public garden so a real necessity; imaginatively planted as it is, there is no denying that it is an unsightly “tardis” but it is shortly to be replaced by a WooWooWaterlessComposting Toilet; intriguing, just take a look – //www.waterlesstoilets.co.uk/
Back to less flushing matters, and across is the busy greenhouse packed with all sorts of emerging goodies it stands next to the growing area, and this in part is the reason for my visit.
I was there to present a tiny plaque to Head Gardener Jo and volunteers on behalf of the National Garden Scheme.
They had applied for funding from the Elspeth Thompson Bursary which, in partnership with the RHS, is an annual bursary that supports gardening projects.
Elspeth Thompson was a garden writer who died in 2010. She was an enthusiastic supporter of the National Garden Scheme and wrote a much-loved Urban Gardener column in The Sunday Telegraph. She was passionate about community gardens and so, in her memory, The Elspeth Thompson Bursary was created to support gardening projects aimed at bringing the community together by the sharing and acquiring horticultural knowledge and skills, and by inspiring a love of gardening across all age groups.
I have no doubt she would have been delighted with this amazing community garden.
Inspired by the eloquent voice of George Plumptre CEO of the National Garden Scheme announcing the start of the Snowdrop Festival I decided to visit East Ruston Old Vicarage Garden http://www.e-ruston-oldvicaragegardens.co.uk who were hosting their own Snowdrop Specialist Growers Day.
The owners Graham and Alan warmly welcomed us in the car park directing us to park under the crab apple trees which despite the cold, were still looking so good against today’s blue sky.
The entry fee was modest and it was good to see the knowledgeable Ian handing out the newly printed NGS Norfolk “Gardens open for charity” booklet. Nearby a Chusan palm trachycarpus fortunei, bathed in morning sunlight seemed to wave us on,
and around the corner the air was filled with the delicious scent of Daphne Bhoula ‘Jacqueline Postill’.
East Ruston has its own nursery, guarded by friendly dogs,
but it is for the snowdrops that we have really come, not carpeted on the ground but displayed in neat rows on tables by the keen and knowledgeable nursery people who breed them.
Known as ‘Galanthophiles’, it seems such a chunky word for these delightful collectors of such a tiny flowers. With so very many varieties how do you choose?
I am still very much in the learning stage, but with what might seem rather oversized labels it is easy to read their charming names. I am looking for Galanthus plicatus ‘Three ships’, an early flowering snowdrop often out before Christmas and discovered in a garden in Suffolk; I discover it is not on display so order if from Joe Sharman from Monksilver Nursery.
I spy a tray on the ground; characters in the waiting so to speak, and looking just how they do peeping through the snow.
Under this hat is John. It was in his garden a couple of years ago that I began to have my first stirrings of galanthomania and bought the beautiful ‘Tilly’. John and his wife Brenda will be opening their garden Gable House just south of Beccles for the National Garden Scheme on Sunday 17th February. Today I buy three more beauties to add to my modest collection, Trumps, Chequers and my first yellow Spindlestone Surprise.
With such fine purchases made, my friend and I celebrate with a sausage roll and a cheese scone in the tea room before walking round the garden. I have only ever been here in the summer so it is interesting to see the bare bones of the garden.
In the winter you notice the structures so much more, the archways, hedges and the elegant metal obelisks with their neatly trained roses.
It will be awhile before the plants emerge from this (frozen) water-filled magnificent container, but along with its great size it is the weathering of the copper to an attractive verdigris which we can admire today.
Planted in the beds are a variety of snowdrops; this good sized clump is ‘Colossus’ which sports rather handsome foliage.
With 30 acres of gardens to explore, it is easy to immerse oneself and forget that there is a world outside, just occasionally there is a little reminder; in the far distance Happisburgh lighthouse can be seen,
and on the other side of the garden the parish church is framed in the view.
It amazes me how some flowers can survive undamaged following a severely frosty night and this joyful Camellia is seemingly untouched.
It is during these winter months that we can appreciate and enjoy the rich tapestry of greens from stems and leaves,
and you cannot help but enjoy this great combination of Silver Birch, Cornus and Skimmia.
At first I am not sure whether it is my eyesight but this Pussy Willow growing gracefully in a pot is definitely pink; originally from Japan it is Salix gracilistyla ‘Mount Aso’.
It is at this time of year that you appreciate those clipped shapes whether it is in Box, Beech or Yew.
This tree on a corner is firmly rooted into the swirl of low Box hedging that seamlessly runs into the wooden bench.
The garden is divided into so many different areas, many of which will come into play in those warm summer months ahead; you might be forgiven for thinking the Desert Garden might be one of those, however today you would never know it is winter.
Walking back to the house we admire this striking seat framed by the hedge,
and the collection of neatly clipped topiary.
Then just by the house in the perfect place is an explosion of colour and scent, a Golden Mimosa Acacia baileyana is underplanted with Coronilla glauca ‘Citrina’.
Alan Gray can be heard most weeks on Radio Norfolk’s ‘Garden Party’ programme. He is an Ambassador for the National Garden Scheme and he will be opening his amazing gardens at East Ruston, Norfolk twice this year on Saturday 9th March and Saturday 12th October https://www.ngs.org.uk/find-a-garden/garden/12923
The area between Downham Market and Wisbech on the edge of Norfolk is not particularly known for its gardens. Last Sunday driving through the lanes and over the dykes between the flat fertile fields of the Fens, I discovered Bank House. The familiar yellow NGS signs were helpfully posted at all the crossroads which relieved my doubts of getting lost for ever.
On entering the drive to left of the house, I was greeted not only by a sumptuous smell of bacon rising from the kitchen but also an explosion of irises growing along a low wall.
Stepping down past the joyful lupins onto the turf path you are immediately aware that the owners are keen gardeners, for this is a garden where no space is left unattended.
Packed with plants, they are even grown under the shaded canopy of the mature trees right up to the trunks.
This part of the garden is also set aside for production. Young vegetables in neat rows and greenhouses for propagation.
It is always such a pleasure to be able to buy plants grown in the garden but I was mortified to miss out on a purchase of this gorgeous red weigelia.
I don’t imagine the garden owners have much time to sit but all around the garden is a variety of seats delightfully placed.
Quiet areas to soak up the morning sunshine and listen to the bird song.
Or under the shade to enjoy that too tempting bacon butty.
The two acres are divided into many areas. Sometimes decisions have to be made:
I took the brick path towards the orchard where I found some very happy hens,
pecking around an old cart filled with the cut willow.
These wooden deer add a playful note to this wilder side of the garden.
Slipping back into the main part of the garden this clematis seems to be clamouring for attention,
and I am not surprised because the irises are stunning. Iris was the personification of the rainbow in Greek Mythology and here there is such a variety of colour; a splash of gold,
or blending in with the soft summer palette.
You cannot help but admire this flamboyant flower.
However it is not all about vibrant colour, and within this one garden there is such a diverse range of growing conditions.
This lady catches the sun hiding modestly amongst a collection of greenery.
There is a selection of fun topiary in the making too,
and nearby in the long border an impressive patch of ornamental grass gently spilling over the neat edge of the well-kept lawn.
At the end the garden you are drawn towards some primulas growing in a secluded space. Here a visitor confides that he has so enjoyed his visit that he is now inspired to go home and get working on his own garden.
And that is what so often happens when visiting an NGS garden; not only are your spirits lifted and you gain that little bit of inspiration, but you have also contributed to raising much needed funds for all those marvellous caring charities that the Scheme supports.
Over two hundred people visited Bank House last Sunday, and combined with plant sales and refreshments an amazing £1,459 was raised. There is another opportunity to visit this charming garden this year as it will be open again on Sunday 26th August, or you can arrange a private group visit.
Your visit to an NGS garden really does help to change lives.
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.