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Grand designs – two of the county’s greatest gardens

PUBLISHED: 11:13 10 June 2014 | UPDATED: 11:13 10 June 2014

Lady Tollemache and head gardener Roy Balaam in the gardens of Helmingham Hall

Lady Tollemache and head gardener Roy Balaam in the gardens of Helmingham Hall

For most of us, a smallish plot is more than enough work. But what if your garden runs to several acres, involves moats, lakes, a ha-ha and an orchard or two? Jayne Lindill visits two of the county’s great gardens

Euston Hall and pleasure groundsEuston Hall and pleasure grounds

Helmingham Hall, Helmingham near Ipswich

Each year, between May and September, Helmingham Hall opens its gates to around 8,000 visitors who come to admire its beautiful parkland and gardens.

For enthusiastic gardeners, and those who simply enjoy gardens, Helmingham has it all – classic parterre, rose garden, herbaceous and annual borders, herb and knot garden, walled kitchen garden, orchards and the apple tree walk.

It’s hard to imagine anything more classically English or a more perfect setting for the mellow, red brick medieval house, the ancestral home of Lord and Lady Tollemache.

Lady Tollemache and head gardener Roy Balaam in the gardens of Helmingham HallLady Tollemache and head gardener Roy Balaam in the gardens of Helmingham Hall

The gardens are impressively maintained by head gardener Roy Balaam, who’s worked at Helmingham since 1952.

Roy’s employment is the result of a chance encounter. One afternoon he and his brother were pushing a hand cart along a narrow lane in Framsden where they lived, on their way to get water from the pump, when they met Lord Tollemache in his car. The boys politely hauled their cart up on to the roadside to let him pass.

Not long after, Lord Tollemache sought out Roy’s parents to ask them if their son would like a job. To this day Roy doesn’t know why he was chosen, but clearly he made an impression.

With no formal training or college education Roy acquired his knowledge on the job, working with the two much more senior gardeners at Helmingham.

The Duke of Grafton, Harry Grafton, is pictured at Euston Estate.The Duke of Grafton, Harry Grafton, is pictured at Euston Estate.

After 62 years there’s not much he doesn’t know about how to keep Helmingham’s 12 acres of gardens looking their best, although in truth there’s a partnership at work. Lady Xa Tollemache is an accomplished garden designer with a clutch of medals from RHS Chelsea. She’s very hands-on in the garden, but admits that when she first went to live at Helmingham Hall she knew next to nothing about gardening.

As her children grew up, she decided she wanted to know more about the gardens that surrounded her historic home.

“I went out with my spade one day and asked Roy to teach me how to dig. He said, ‘Would you like to tie up the sweet peas?’ and I said ‘no’. And that was the start of it.”

Lady Tollemache’s influence in the garden is clearly visible. Most recently she’s been experimenting with the planting of a collection of exotic trees, creating a more contemporary mood, and ‘designed’ vegetable beds which aim to reduce the workload in the kitchen garden.

“The vegetable garden was designed from 1510 to feed a lot of people,” says Lady Tollemache. Not that anything goes to waste. Fresh produce is sold in The Stables Shop and used in dishes served in the Courtyard Tearooms.

Helmingham Hall gardens are open 12pm-5pm every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday until September 21.


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Euston Hall, Euston, near Thetford

For an example of gardening on a grand scale look no further than Euston Hall, at Euston, near Thetford, where the Duke of Grafton (Harry) is overseeing the restoration of the estate’s extensive waterscapes according to original 18th century designs.

Euston’s pleasure grounds were laid out by the diarist John Evelyn, a noted landscape gardener and expert on trees, while the whole park and river layout was designed by William Kent and is considered one of his great works. The project was completed by Capability Brown – the celebrity gardener of his time – and will be an important feature during next year’s tercentenary celebrations of Brown.

The work has been carried out by Rob Orford and his company Miles Water Engineering Ltd, specialists in this type of project who have worked on some of the most important properties in Britain.

It’s been a massive task that has involved shifting 50,000 cubic metres of silt from the river that runs through the grounds to get it flowing once more, renovating two weirs using estate grown oak and repairing ancient walls. The work was painstaking, involving large scale equipment and skilled operators. But for Rob it’s been enjoyable and rewarding.

“Euston is one of the special ones and they have been a delightful customer to work with,” he said. “We’re very proud to renovate such an important part of the landscape.”

The effect is spectacular as the broad sweep of the river is revealed, as well as the lake created by the former Duke of Grafton. According to Harry – keen to carry on the conservation work started by his father and grandfather – there is already evidence that otters, geese and other waterfowl are returning. He has a ten-year programme to restore the pleasure grounds to their former glory and wants to open them for the public to enjoy. He has already embarked on a series of events, including the Red Rooster Blues Festival held in June, and continuing the traditional Rural Pastimes festival, which has raised £0.5 million for charity for The Suffolk Community Foundation as well as local hospices.

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