Out of this world
PUBLISHED: 09:40 19 January 2016 | UPDATED: 09:45 19 January 2016
Lindsay Want takes a winter wander through town and country to discover Suffolk's rich pant heritage and some far-fetched flora and fauna
Suffolk is always so full of surprises. There you are, all snaked up in your woolly scarf on a post-lunch crunch through the frosty fringes of Ixworth and just by the river, opposite Pakenham’s watermill, appear a couple of cunningly acclimatised crocodiles and a handful of hippos. Rarely could a few green hedge plants be so humorous or so heart-warming.
But over at Sudbourne in ancient Captain’s Wood or up near the vast vintage oaks of Staveton Thicks at Wantisden, there are more out of place finds, as the glossy leaves of Himalayan rhododendrons snuggle up to berry-bright holly bushes.
Take a brisk winter walk around the castle and greens of Haughley, then thaw out in the church and you might look up at the snow-crystal shapes of the floral roof-bosses fashioned in the Middle Ages. Beautiful though they be, you’ll probably wonder why parts resemble English roses rather than tulips or daffodils.
Slowly going native
What a pity so many non-native species are taken for granted these days, their origins and difficult journeys from distant shores long forgotten. On a footpath foray from Framlingham, it’s hard to appreciate that Suffolk’s medieval maker of the weird wooden giraffe in Dennington church would never have seen such a beast. If he popped back home today, he’d only need to nip up the road towards Lowestoft to meet one for real.
Out of all the mighty trees in Christchurch Park, the beds of bulbs in Bury’s Abbey Gardens and the exotic plants in any town centre tub, so many are species originating from far across the globe and alas, now relegated to the ranks of run-of-the-mill and little more than just part of the scenery. But get on the trail around Halesworth and you’ll soon discover that many foreign plants have a bigger role to play in our local Suffolk colour than you’d think.
Although Walberswick was possibly the birthplace of John Tradescant, the famous 16th century horticulturist whose clan introduced England to all sorts including horse chestnuts and daffodils, there’s no doubt that the great Victorian botanist explorer, Joseph Hooker, hailed from Halesworth. The historic market town definitely thinks it’s something to celebrate. Starting at Hooker House, by the roundabout just down from The Cut Arts Centre, there’s a delightful little voyage of discovery. Joseph’s father, William (1785-1865), was a Halesworth maltster with a keen interest in botany, inspired during his Norwich school days by Dr James Smith, founder of the Linnaean Society encouraging interest in natural history.
Hooker House (formerly Brewery House) has two memorial plaques, but a single orchid in the first floor window is the most vivid reminder of a man, passionate about exotic species, who went from brewer to professor of botany and on to build the mighty hot houses and herbarium as director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.
Williams’ only expedition was to Iceland, but his son, born in this very house in 1817, soon fulfilled his father’s ambitions, circumnavigating the North Pole, collecting plants from Australia and New Zealand, America and India, the highest Himalayas and Morocco’s Atlas Mountains. The Suffolk lad brought us magnolias – the Hookers briefly owned Magnolia House on Station Road – the first rhododendrons and so much more.
Joseph would have no doubt influenced his close friend, Charles Darwin as he wrote On the Origin of Species and he finally succeeded his father as the director of Kew.
The sweet smell of success
Be sure to spot the Sarcococca hookerianaor sweet scented winter box in the planters, before crossing the road to the gardens of the United Reformed Church where green-topped plant labels point to Hooker heritage specimens. Heading on towards the shops past the offices and art gallery of the World Land Trust, you can’t help thinking how William and Joseph would have welcomed this charity, which seeks to safeguard the most biologically important and threatened habitats of the world today.
The little community herb beds by the library have a certain sense of place too, with a lovely stop-and-share attitude and informative culinary tips. Halesworth in Bloom has certainly gone to town and keeps a pretty colourful flag flying along the Throughfare all year round. Up above the card shop, time-honoured furls of foliage and terracotta roses decorate the façade of a long-forgotten bank.
Timeless floral tributes
Halesworth has its own mini-arboretum, part of the memorial garden by St Mary’s, first established in 1903 on the site where Crescent House was destroyed by fire. Stop a while by the war memorial, where the inside of the shelters are painted bright with poppies or take a look at the borders to discover more Hooker finds like the blue bamboo, Magnolia grandiflora or perhaps the more home-grown David Austin roses named after Joseph’s great granddaughter, Josephine.
The Hooker memorial tablet inside St Mary’s is carved with art deco flowers, although both father and son are buried in the churchyard at Kew. But nothing beats Halesworth’s lasting tribute, by painting the town forever beautiful with shrubs and flowers.