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Somerleyton's Victorian splendour

PUBLISHED: 12:25 14 July 2015 | UPDATED: 12:27 14 July 2015

The gardens at Somerleyton House

The gardens at Somerleyton House

Archant

The impressive gardens at Somerleyton Hall are undergoing a transformation that will take them back to their glory days. Tessa Allingham met the woman in charge, Anna Outlaw

The gardens at Somerleyton HouseThe gardens at Somerleyton House

Anna Outlaw strikes through the word with gusto. ‘Prune fig’ it says on an old-school chalkboard in the outbuilding that passes for her office. “Done, finished it this morning at last!” she says, triumphant, smiling. “Big job. I did bits of it here and there, but kept getting sidetracked. We’ve been so busy during winter.”

Other jobs already have a satisfying line through them, but there’s still plenty on her to-do list. With 12 acres of garden to manage, much of it open to public scrutiny, it’s perhaps not surprising, but vegetable beds still need composting, the herbaceous border needs mulching, and there are what sound like ominously open-ended tasks such as ‘sort out planting herbaceous border’ and ‘move some plants white garden’.

Anna is in charge of a team of five (not to mention a posse of invaluable volunteers) who will, no doubt, get these jobs done so that the gardens of Somerleyton Hall near Lowestoft look their best for visitors. When we meet the place is visitor-free peaceful, and Anna reflects on a busy morning.

“I’ve been spinning plates today,” she admits, perhaps glad to stop for an hour and enjoy the sunshine. She rattles off a morning’s workload that has had her at the Fritton Lodges advising on some planting, checking the seed-sowing schedule is on target, weeding the memorial garden and stripping off some turf at the front of the hall. “I definitely need that blackboard! One of the problems has been that I don’t really have past records, but I’m keeping a diary of works so next year will be a lot easier.”

The gardens at Somerleyton HouseThe gardens at Somerleyton House

Anna has been Somerleyton Hall’s head gardener for the past year, promoted after two years working in the garden. Since taking over she has embraced the challenge of bringing the gardens back to their former Victorian splendour with the guidance of renowned Norfolk garden designer and historian, George Carter. The feature pond and spectacular fountain in the middle of the formal parterre is his design. A simple stone surround is in place, complementing the formality of the rest of the west front garden.

“George interpreted the original William Nesfield garden to suit a more modern style but one that still fits Somerleyton,” Anna explains. “His style is very ordered and structured and suits modern gardening. We don’t have the manpower to keep enormous rosebeds looking perfect.”

So out have gone billowing roses and lavender edges to be replaced with tidy box around central planting of clipped santolina (it’s not allowed to show its yellow flowers for fear of ruining the impact). Clipped yew cones are underplanted with dense hebe, while newly-cut geometric rectangles of lawn, mirroring each other on either side of the parterre, will be filled with softer Hidcote lavender and weeping pear.

Another local designer, Verity Hanson Smith, is behind the look of the white garden, sunk in front of the Orangery.

The gardens at Somerleyton HouseThe gardens at Somerleyton House

“She’s given it a very romantic feel. Wedding parties use this garden for pictures. It’s very pretty, but has to be absolutely perfect on very specific days, which makes it quite a discipline to look after,” Anna says. Pleached Portuguese laurels delineate the space around a fish-filled pond, which in turn is surrounded by paving and beds filled with white tulips (double, late-flowering ‘Mount Tacoma’ and pristine ‘Triumphator’), blowsy white peonies, tall white alliums and graceful lilies. Brides, especially those marrying in early summer, also love the pergola walk where a 150-year old wisteria twists and tangles with romantic roses, clematis and vines.

There has been great progress on the memory garden, a mounded space planted with specimens from war zones around the world.

“Instead of commemorating just the First World War, we decided to remember all conflict in recent history,” says Anna. “There’s a Lebanon oak, a Turkish hazel that’s found through the Balkans to northern Iran, and a Montpelier maple that grows in Syria and Israel. We’re also putting up plaques with the names of people from the Estate who lost their lives in the world wars.” The trees will be underplanted with spring-flowering muscari, bluebells and spring bulbs to be followed by sea of blue-toned wild flowers for summer colour. “It will look beautiful,” says Anna. “But it takes a long time to get a wildflower garden up and running. This is a five-year project!”

It’s in the more relaxed vegetable and cutting garden that Anna seems most at home, however. This garden, its red-brick walls covered with tidily espaliered apples and pears, is an extravaganza of edible, scented, useful, plants in season, swathes of scabious, zinnia, larkspur, calendula and dahlias.

The gardens at Somerleyton HouseThe gardens at Somerleyton House

Seed-sowing is indeed in full swing when I visit, and the plethora of glasshouses, some ornately designed by Joseph Paxton, the architect behind Crystal Palace, and home to citrus, peach, and the now-pruned fig, are a hive of activity. Trays of sweet pea seedlings (creamy-white Mrs Collier, pink-tinged ‘Anniversary’ and large-flowered mauve ‘Heathcliff’) are bizarrely wedged in the apex well out of the way of mice which have been partial to the tender leaves. On the bench are seed pots and lengths of old drainpipe sown with herbs and edible flowers – the estate’s executive chef, Stuart Pegg is partial – such as nasturtium, borage and viola.

Anna and her team work closely with Stuart and the chefs at the estate’s two pubs, the Fritton Arms and the Dukes Head.

“We send boxes of veg every week from March on, plenty of salad leaves, heritage tomatoes, courgettes and squash, herbs in season,” she says. “We’re also hoping to contribute to veg boxes for guests at the Fritton Lodges and we would love to be able to supply the hall year round.” That’s another job to add to the list, along with, I suspect, buying a second blackboard.

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