Report: Cornwall Garden Society holiday to the Gardens of Norfolk and Suffolk: August 2019

This is a précis of the Cornwall Garden Society holiday to the Gardens of Norfolk and Suffolk in August 2019 by Billa & Nick Jeans with photos by Pamela Tompsett, Alison Davy & Nick Jeans.

This is more of a travelogue than a plantsman’s guide to East Anglia. In summary, this was a tour of Halls and walled gardens. In the five days we were away from Cornwall, we visited ten gardens plus Norwich Cathedral. A garden tour can seem like a continuous succession of herbaceous beds that merge into one another in memory – this particular tour, was anything but – some of the best walled gardens in the country and never a chance to be bored.

Our starting point was Beth Chatto’s famous garden, begun in 1960 by the late Beth and Andrew Chatto, it is now run by their daughter. It started as a series of boggy hollows and what was described as waste ground. The boggy hollows have been transformed into a series of interlinked ponds designed to reflect the clouds, showing how to utilise wet marginal land to advantage. The waste ground became the rest of the garden and a very good nursery.

Our first full day began at Corpusty Mill, situated in north Norfolk on the flood plain of the River Bure, the garden was designed, built and planted by John and Roger Last between 1963-1990 and further enlarged and developed from 1990 on by Roger. One of its chief elements is the series of buildings and follies which form focal points and design features. There is an abundant use of water and the varied planting throughout is lush and informed.

Next, to Blickling Hall for a late lunch and something totally different, with a thousand year history, Blickling’s breath-taking redbrick mansion and ancient yew hedges sit at the heart of a magnificent garden. Whilst the Jacobean Hall was partially wreathed in scaffolding, this did not detract from enjoyment of the gardens. There was stunning herbaceous planting, both in the parterre and the amazing 1930s double borders.

Our second day comprised three visits: 

Bressingham, near Diss, which combines the two passions of the Bloom family, steam trains and gardens. The founder of the former Bloom’s Nurseries, Alan Bloom, began developing a garden in front of Bressingham Hall in 1953, devoted to a new concept of using perennials, the nursery’s speciality, in island beds. Six acres and nearly 5,000 different species and cultivars were taken in and planted by 1962, when the gardens were first opened on a regular basis to the public. Adrian Bloom and his father Alan have since created a total of 17 acres of garden with 8,000 species of plant, and Adrian emphasises that this garden is all about plants. We found the overall effect quite stunning, particularly in the way they have used the natural contours so the gardens just flow. Our tickets included a complimentary ride on one of the four steam railways, all different gauges.

Secondly, we visited Helmingham Hall the home of the Tollemache family. The Hall, of mellow patterned red brick, completed in 1510, and surrounded by its moat and gardens, had an atmosphere of tranquillity with the canals around the walled garden providing a spectacular background. We had little enough time to explore the various parts; the classic parterre flanked by hybrid musk roses led to yet another, and different, walled kitchen garden with exquisite herbaceous borders and beds of vegetables interspersed by tunnels of sweet peas, runner beans and gourds. On the other side lay a herb and knot garden behind which is a rose garden full of old roses

And then on to Wyken Hall and Vineyard (which we didn’t have time to visit). The copper red lime wash on the Hall is what was referred to in Elizabethan times as Suffolk Pink, traditionally coloured with bull’s blood, but now a more modern alternative. Describing itself as a plant lovers’ paradise, with a quincunx, (five interlocking equal circles), inspired by Gertrude Jekyll, a rose garden with old varieties, kitchen garden, herb garden, a fritillary meadow, tapestry beech maze, the Dell with its silver birch and wildflower meadows. The garden was brought to life with wandering peacocks and chickens. We rather wished we’d had time to enjoy a glass of Wyken wine.

Our third day also comprised three visits:

Plantation Garden in Norwich, a Victorian Italianate garden close to the centre of Norwich, originally created by Henry Trevor, a Norwich upholsterer, who built his house, The Plantation, next door, and set about his life’s work of transforming a three-acre chalkpit into this wonderful facility for the people of the city.

Felbrigg Hall near Cromer was next, this extensive National Trust property would take a full day to see properly. As we only had two hours or so, after a quick lunch in the courtyard, we made our way to what we will remember as one of the great walled gardens. The mixed borders of shrubs, herbaceous plants and tender perennials give a decorative and colourful effect. Added interest for us was the orchard, with the free-ranging bantam flock keeping down the slugs, the Trust’s beehives, and the working dovecot, which must be one of the largest in the country, with pigeon holes for a thousand birds.

Our last port of call was East Ruston Old Vicarage, which seemed to have something of everything a visitor might wish to see, and was billed as possibly the highlight of our visit to Norfolk. Started in 1973, by Alan Gray and Graham Robeson, described as “unstoppable” gardeners, this garden has grown from a near derelict two-acre wreck to a 32-acre gem, by reason of hard work and some wise land acquisitions. Two hours of walking barely got us round the garden, but as usual we first of all set off round what was roughly speaking the perimeter of the garden, finding some very cleverly laid out vistas including a number of “borrowed views”.

On our final day we set out for RHS Hyde Hall, south of Chelmsford. It is both an extensive garden, which appears to be still in development, and an educational experience, particularly the vegetables of the world display around their hilltop Global Growth Vegetable Garden. It is an inspirational garden with far reaching, sweeping panoramic views (which one somehow didn’t expect in Essex), and big open skies, with the  matured ponds and the original Robinson Garden, with its walls, walks and dell that we found most interesting.

How do we sum up this garden tour? It will be remembered for a number of things. Yes, it was a long way on a coach, but it was thoroughly worthwhile for the variety and interest in the gardens we visited. And we can’t close without paying tribute to Alison Davy, whose last tour this was as Organiser; unflappable and organised, sympathetic to members’ needs and problems, she’s going to be a hard act to follow.

If you would like to learn more about garden holidays with the Cornwall Garden Society, please visit the events section of our website.

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