Stowmarket's secret gem
PUBLISHED: 13:03 11 November 2014 | UPDATED: 13:14 11 November 2014
Lucy Redman discovers a magical Victorian garden behind the walls at Abbots Hall
When I visited Abbots Hall Walled Garden a few years ago it was in a very sorry state – tumbledown glass-house, overgrown box hedge and the surrounding brick walls in need of repair.
The exciting thing was that the bones were there, it just needed a driving force to bring it back to life and some money to fund the renovation work.
Abbots Hall Walled Garden is part of the Museum of East Anglian Life, and a social enterprise scheme encouraging visitors, volunteers and local people to take part, get involved and share ideas. The estate covers 80 acres – roughly 80 football pitches – and is located in the heart of Stowmarket (just behind Asda).
The museum aims to tell the story of East Anglian lives through historic buildings, collections and landscape. One of my favourite areas is the display of different gyspy caravans ranging from beautiful wooden-painted horse drawn wagons to a classic chrome caravan complete with kitsch etched glass cabinets.
Abbots Hall is an elegant Grade II Queen Anne Hall, given to the museum in 2005 by Vera and Ena Longe. Following a successful bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund, work began on restoration of the hall and gardens in 2011. The house and gardens opened to the public in 2012 and have free entry – a rare thing these days!
Lucy Skellorn was appointed the museum’s first heritage garden trainee in 2013, funded by The Heritage Lottery Fund. She works part-time as well as attending Otley College, where she is doing a level 3 in horticulture, and also has a work placement at Helmingham Hall Gardens. The scheme, Skills for the Future, provides opportunities for people from all backgrounds to learn and gain experience in traditional skills or crafts relevant to a career in the heritage sector, via a series of paid traineeships. Brought up in Suffolk, Lucy had spent the last eight years in London working as an assistant art director on films and television such as Prime Suspect and Downton Abbey. But she yearned to return to her roots and a career based on her love of gardening. Once at Abbots Hall Walled Garden she set about planning, designing and planting the garden, which is now a real heritage treat.
Prior to its repair, it is thought that the roughly half-acre walled garden was used as a pleasure garden by occupants of the house. The few old photographs that the museum holds depict a garden brimming with lupins, hollyhocks, roses and poppies, as well as a glimpse of a round thatched summer house which once stood in the far south-east corner, but has now sadly gone.
Lucy is interested in trying to rebuild this with the help of thatchers and greenwood craftsmen who are attending courses at the museum. The existing garden walls date from the mid 1800s and the box pathways follow the layout of an 1885 Ordnance Survey map. Lucy decided that given its date, structure and setting, a working Victorian kitchen garden would translate well into the space. The ‘quarters’ provide a basis on which to rotate the organic crops, whilst the surroundings walls have been repointed and repaired.
Instead of wires attached to the wall as supports for fruit trees, a post and wire system has been installed one foot out from the wall. This not only preserves the wall, but also means more air circulates around the fruit and it is less likely to become diseased. Lucy has been advised on fruit varieties by Audley End’s fruit expert, Duncan Gates, and Adam Paul, a fellow walled garden owner, authority on heritage fruit and member of The Suffolk Gardens Trust.
The apples. pears, nectarines and peach trees are thriving and a new ballerina walkway has been planted this year of Adams Pearmain apple – named after Robert Adam of Norfolk – a deliciously sweet Victorian fruit, under-planted with white Alpine strawberries and with Allium christophii.
The garden is maintained by a keen group of people. Many have a learning difficulty, disability or mental issue. They work alongside some long-term unemployed or retired volunteers, as well as those who are just keen gardening enthusiasts.
The garden picks up on exhibitions at the hall. Recently they were asked to grow plants to echo the ‘70s – orange tagetes, sunflowers and so forth. I spent ages wandering around the permanent Abbots Hall exhibition and loved the clever idea of a fictitious supper party, the table laid for guests connected either to the museum or East Anglia, which rather sweetly invites you to write in the notebook provided a guest of your choice to the dinner party. I would like to have suggested myself or my husband, Dominic Watts, a former organic farmer, but thought Prince Charles would enjoy a stimulating evening discussing rare animal breeds with Captain Longe, organic farming with the pioneer Lady Eve Balfour or local food campaigning with Lady Cranbrook.
A pretty stand of plants for sale sits at the entrance of the garden and outside the Museum Café, on Wednesdays and Fridays, a decorative wagon full of produce from Turks Turbans to Swan Neck gourds raises money to buy seeds and sundries and helps with the upkeep and development of the garden.
As Lucy leaves for the imminent arrival of her baby, Francis Everson becomes the second heritage garden trainee. Like so many projects free to the public, the garden and its management are reliant on funding and after April 2015 the future is uncertain.
I urge you to go and see this exceptional display of lush vegetables and fruit, meet the volunteers and support the garden as it is too good to lose again.