A labour of love

PUBLISHED: 11:54 31 March 2015 | UPDATED: 11:54 31 March 2015

The colourful border at the rear of Leaven Hall, Leavenheath

The colourful border at the rear of Leaven Hall, Leavenheath


Mark and Shirley Ellis have spent nine years restoring their ancient garden at Leavenheath without losing any of its original charm. Words by Jane Crowe, pictures Clare Dawson

Sunny apricots at Leaven Hall, LeavenheathSunny apricots at Leaven Hall, Leavenheath

It is well said that one never really owns an ancient property, but merely has the privilege of holding it ‘in trust’ for future generations

Installing modern comforts in a 16th century house and developing the garden without losing the original charms takes flare, patience and resource. At Leaven Hall, Leavenheath, Shirley and Mark Ellis are achieving just that.

The venerable old house has been sympathetically modernised. It is warm, comfortable, and now includes a beautifully sunlit family room that overlooks a huge walled garden. The original planting is very well established, having featured in the RHS Magazine, The Garden way back in 1970, when the house was owned by the Dawson family.

In the nine years since she has been living here, Shirley has worked tirelessly, maintaining elderly treasures where possible and re-establishing the formal layout.

Lupins make a focal point in the borders at Leaven Hall, LeavenheathLupins make a focal point in the borders at Leaven Hall, Leavenheath

The garden is now enchanting, a true reward for all her hard work. In the early summer a magnificent horse chestnut, aesculus carnea ‘boretti’ dominates the eastern wall with its spectacular display of scarlet candles. It makes a stunning background for the planting beneath it.

Away from the walled garden there is a wonderful wild area where foxgloves have found their natural habitat. From a few original digitalis plants they have self seeded in joyful abundance. It is an enchanting sight.

As if this was not enough, a cutting garden has been created elsewhere to produce masses of flowers for the house – dahlias, cosmos and roses can be gathered at will. It must be a beautiful home to live in.

On the southern side of the house, the Ellises have renovated a derelict pond, dredging and replanting with great sensitivity, creating a small lake that is a haven for aquatic wildlife.

The charming 16th century Leaven Hall at LeavenheathThe charming 16th century Leaven Hall at Leavenheath

In the past they have used the skills of a local craftsman Kevin King to forge the ironwork needed for the garden, and this summer he is due to install a wrought iron veranda to give shade and character to a corner of the western aspect of the house.

Shirley has always maintained strict adherence to the principles of organic gardening, as her kitchen garden bears witness. Raised beds burgeon with vegetables, the green house with tomatoes and cucumbers, and there is soft fruit in abundance. Trained along the sheltered walls of the swimming pool, peaches, apricots and nectarines grow in profusion. Along with eggs from the hens, bacon and sausages from the home raised pigs, the Ellis family is virtually self sufficient.

But families grow up and leave home, so the old house is now destined to take on another role in its long and interesting history – welcoming guests for bed and breakfast. With self contained accommodation and views of the lake, home produced organic breakfasts and the intrinsic charm of a Suffolk country farmhouse, this project has all the hallmarks of certain success.

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