Gardening, Notebook

Designing on a grand scale

In 1992 I took up a job as art director at Summerhouse Publishing whose clients at the time included Saab, Renault and Little Chef. The company had been based on Charing Cross Road in London but relocated to Norfolk. Helen and myself moved from our flat in Crouch End and bought an old Victorian walled kitchen garden that was once part of Garboldisham manor. The house that we moved into at the walled garden was a clever conversion from the old potting sheds, gardeners’ bothy and vine house – and it straddled either side of the 15 foot high wall that enclosed the one acre kitchen garden. The house was crowned by an ‘observation turret’ that carried the twin flues of the fireplaces.

The garden had a small patch of lawn adjacent to the house but otherwise it was a tangle of weeds and there was little evidence that it had once been a thriving and productive kitchen garden apart from a few broken and rusty wires on some of the walls upon which fruit trees would once have been trained – as fans, cordons and espaliers.

One hundred years ago at the walled garden at Garboldisham Manor

We had a growing interest in gardening and garden design and the walled garden was a perfect blank canvas upon which to make our mark. The plan was, not to restore it to a labour intensive kitchen garden, but into more easier to maintain sections with a veg’ patch here, a formal bit there, a wild bit in the corner and a lawned area for us all to run around on. We could then tackle one section at a time at our own pace in between working and raising a young family.

I was a graphic designer normally used to laying out the pages of a magazine but now I relished the opportunity to suddenly be able to design on a much bigger and grander scale and to make a mark upon our patch of land that was completely enclosed by the beautiful red brick walls. The garden that we planned was loosely inspired by the wonderful National Trust gardens at Hidcote and Sissinghurst which are split up into a series of rooms – each room divided off by formal hedging or a change in level. 

The centre of the garden was defined by the old Victorian well, 30 feet deep and with a small puddle of water shining back up at us from its dark depths. Adjacent to the well was a peculiar quarter-circle shaped pond surrounded by a low iron rail, and we surmised that this had been a storage pond to hold the water that would have been pumped from the well, before being used to water the garden. The well and pond would dictate our future garden design. It seemed natural to have a small circular garden within the middle of the walled garden that would follow the lines of the pond with other areas radiating out from this centre.

My father was a land surveyor and one day he came armed with his theodolite and we mapped out the garden. (We’d assumed that it was a perfect square but were surprised to discover that none of the walls were at right angles to the other). Once I had a paper plan in my hands I quickly started sketching out a whole series of elaborate designs that divided the garden into rooms. If you’ve ever visited Hidcote garden in the Cotswolds you’ll know that some of the rooms have long vistas that frame and lead the eye towards the house or to a garden building. We wanted to do the same and so we mapped out avenues and vistas that were aligned with the pond in the centre, the turret on the house, the arched and double gated entrance and with an old water tower that peeked its head just above the wall on the other side. These natural lines or vistas became a fundamental part of the garden design. Some of my early and crazily enthusiastic sketches for the garden are shown below. The garden that we have at the moment is a little simpler but is based on the underlying original structure of a centre circle with avenues radiating out in north-south and east-west directions. 

An early design with a secret garden accessible through a hidden mirrored door

Here the main lawn has been twisted to 45°. The house and turret (shown with x) are in the bottom right quarter. An axis/line of sight runs north-south in a line with the turret.

A design with the well and pond enclosed by an octagonal hedge

The secret garden and lodge were abandoned in favour of a large informal pond (see below)

The garden pretty much as it is now. The enclosing wall is 12-16 feet high and runs all around. The entrance to the walled garden is via double doors which are bottom right and marked by a blob of tippex

Hornbeam, yew, beech and laurel hedges were planted along with an avenue of weeping pear trees – all to define the structure. New lawns were sown and a new pond dug. Numerous scented flowering shrubs including Magnolia Grandiflora, Myrtle, Viburnums, Trachelospermum Jasminoides, Pittosporum Tobira and the delicious clove-scented Ribes Odoratum were planted to provide year-round perfume and easy maintenance. Apple, pear, plum, cherry, peach, fig, quince and mulberry trees have all been established with many trained against the walls and making use of the original wire strainers which have survived on many parts of the structure and are testament to the craftsmanship of those canny Victorians.

One unexpected bonus of living in a walled garden is that the high walls and surrounding trees have provided a microclimate that has allowed plants to thrive in the sheltered and warmer conditions and this has supplied us with an abundance of peach, grape, quince and mulberry fruit each year – as well as keeping us nice and cosy. Some days there can be over a five degree difference in temperature from within the garden to outside the walls.

Our work is done. The children have grown up and moved on and their cricket and football room within the walls is now ripe for turning into something new – maybe a tennis court or even back into a vegetable patch. We too, are now moving on. Our friends and family think that we are crazy leaving our little bit of paradise behind – and maybe they are right. On a spring day, when we are sitting outside with the sun on our faces, the birds singing and the sweet perfume of the flowering shrubs drifting in the air, they certainly do have a point.

The Walled Garden and house are for sale with The Modern House. You can view the details here.

A balmy summer’s evening at The Walled Garden