Suffolk and N Essex Garden Tour – Day 1

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Our first day started with torrential rain causing delays on the motorway  causing us to be late for our first garden of the four day garden visiting extravaganza that we were embarking on.  Due to the awful weather, the owners of The Moat House generously invited us into their home for morning tea and cake.  I think it rakes a real generosity of spirit to invite 38 soggy strangers into your home with their damp shoes and dripping umbrellas and coats particularly given the pale green carpet.

Moat House, Little Saxham
Moat House, Little Saxham

Being hardy gardeners, having refueled, we were keen to explore the first garden.  The Moat House is a partially moated garden of two acres which has been developed over 2 years. The garden is very much your traditional country garden with herbaceous borders full of roses, generally in pastels shades, alliums, geraniums, delphiniums, and peonies.  IMG_5343

As you would expect with any English country garden there was plenty of box edging and topiary around the garden.  Personally, I’m not that keen on box edging but I can see that it provides a nice edge and has the benefit of hiding the legs of plants and the bare soil but you need to have the discipline to keep them looking sharp in order to achieve the best effect.

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And we had the first of many parterres filled with herbs and plants for cutting.

Fullers Mill Garden, West Stow
Fullers Mill Garden, West Stow

With the rain abated and the sun shining we moved on to our next garden – Fullers Mill Garden, West Stow.  The garden was created by Bernard Tickner who has gardened here for some 50 years and has now placed the 7 acre garden in trust for the charity Perennial. Bernard is a plantsman and his approach is to create a garden which is very loosely designed, giving a natural feel, and providing interest all year round.  The garden is almost on an island created by the diverted mill stream which powered the Fullers Mill.  The Fulling Mill has existed on the site since 1458, fulling is a process through which you make cloth thicker by passing it through a series of wooden mallets, the fabric is then stretched out on the drying ground.

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I quite liked the looser planting style to the previous garden and it was the favourite garden for many that day.   generously  borders with gentle curves are planted up with shrubs and perennials merging together in soft mounds.

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However, the real feature of Fullers Mill Garden is the stream and mill-pond.  The inclusion of water in the garden was a real theme of the gardens we visited this week which was interesting as we constantly heard that we were in the driest part of the country.  Presumably this is because when the houses were built there was no water on tap so the properties were located close to streams in order to have easy access to the little water that was available.

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I think Fullers Mill Garden is one that would have benefited us having a little more time to explore but we spent the day trying to catch up the time lost in the morning on the motorway.

Bellflower Nursery, The Walled Garden, Langham Hill
Bellflower Nursery, The Walled Garden, Langham Hill

We ended the day with our first real plant buying opportunity at Bellflower Nursery.  The nursery specialising in Campanula, hence its name, and hold a national collection.  I have to admit that I’m not that keen on Campanula as they never grow very well for me but I really enjoyed visiting this garden purely due to its location within a walled garden.

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The owner of the nursery, Sue Wooster, not only has her nursery to run but also the ornamental side of the walled garden to maintain and she shared with us that she has also just taken on the tenancy of the edible part of the walled garden. She was doing a sterling job is maintaining the borders which I think also act as stock beds for the nursery but what I enjoyed was the slightly dishevelled aspect of parts of the garden which Sue admitted had a habit of getting the better of her.  There is something particularly romantic about a walled garden especially one that has the ghosts of its past still evident.

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So day 1 having started a bit wet under foot ended well with us in high spirits and our coach driver rapidly becoming aware that he was going to have to develop skills in packing plants.

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Sezincote – A Mogul Wonder

2013_08160028logoI have wanted to visit Sezincote for some time now, I think I was drawn in by the Mogul influences of the house.  I have always had a fascination with the Raj having watched The Raj Quartet (written in the 1960s and 1970s) many years ago and read in-depth A Passage to India (1924) when studying for a degree in literature.  I used to be intrigued by the idea of the Raj living in India thinking it must have been magical but in more recent years, having studied  post-colonial literature, I find myself questioning my assumptions.  Edmund Said in his book ‘Orientalism’ (1978) challenges the Western perception of the East which had conveniently been  rounded up under the heading of ‘Orientalism’ or ‘Oriental Studies’ ignoring the range and diversity of eastern society and culture.  He questions whether the West really understands the culture of Islam and cultures that had been labelled ‘Oriental’.   In thinking about Sezincote since my visit last week I have found myself reminded of some of the conflicting ideas and thoughts that the above books gave me. Anyway, that aside I was interested to see how this strange Indian style building fitted into the very English Cotswold landscape.

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The house is located on the side of one of the Cotswold hills with stunning views out across the landscape.  Interestingly its Mogul exterior did not jar as much as I thought it would nor did it look Disneyish. The Orangery was one of the longest I have seen sweeping round from the house and giving a sense of enclosure to the formal garden adjacent to the house.  This sense of enclosure is increased as the land rises steeply at the end of the water garden and the planting here is mainly trees and shrubs. The Indian feel was increased in 1965 when Lady Kenilworth, with the help of Graham Thomas added the South Garden which is based on the traditional “Paradise Garden” which was popular with Babur, the first Mogul Emperor.

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The majority of the garden is set in The Thornery which runs down the valley.  If you have ever visited Heligan, Trebah, Cothele in Cornwall you will immediately recognise a similar style albeit it on a much smaller scale.  I wondered if the water, which started in a pool at the top of the valley and trickled down through various waterways and smaller pools, came from a natural source as there was no sign, that I could see, of a river or stream nearby.  I suppose it is an obvious approach to take with a valley garden although  I have to admit to being a little uninspired by this approach as I have seen it done so many times in Cornwall.  However, Sezincote’s Indian influences ran into the valley garden and this lifted it from ordinary to something a little different.

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2013_08160090logoThe water garden starts in a pool with a temple to Surya, the Hindu sun god.  From here a stream trickles down the hill-side amongst lush planting of hostas, Macleaya macrocarpa, hydrangea, rodgersia and other stream side planting.  The path twists and turns, crossing the stream over little slab bridges.  The highlight, for me, was when the stream goes under the Indian Bridge.  The bridge is named thus as it is adorned with Brahmin Bulls.  To follow the stream you have to traverse it under the bridge by way of stepping stone, some of which were a little wobbly.  There is also a stone seat here with wonderful views out and down the garden.  But what makes the view especially good is that you are looking into the snake pond.  The pond 2013_08160097logohas a small island in the middle on which there is a column topped off with a number of snakes heads which are almost at eye level as you come under the bridge – not great if you don’t like snakes but very eye-catching.  When I visited the island was a mass of Primula florindae and looked stunning, for me the best view of the garden.

The path takes you further down the valley, again kriss crossing the stream and with a similar style planting.  Unlike the Cornish gardens I have mentioned before there isn’t that sense of largeness of scale, the area around you is very open and you become aware that you aren’t really in a valley but walking down the side of a hill.  More pools increasing in side great you as you reach the bottom of the slope and the planting continues with lots of seasonal interest, including specimen trees and shrubs.

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I think that I have been pre-conditioned to associate the Mogul tradition particularly of this era connected with the Raj to mystery.  I have watched many a Sherlock Holmes film or even the Secret Garden where the middle east is treated as something dark, dangerous, mysterious, exciting and I think sub-consciously I wanted to feel something like that in this garden.  Having said that I think this is unfair of me after all it isn’t a theme park.  The guide book explains how the architecture of the house and orangery is a “mixture of Hindu and Muslim details which makes Sezincote a unique example of the architecture of Akbar”.  Akbar was one of the best known Mogul Emperors in the late 16th century who mixed Islamic and Hindu elements in his architecture to try to integrate his culturally diverse country.  An interesting approach that is still relevant now some five centuries later.

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The gardens were very pleasant, beautifully maintained with some interesting features.  I don’t think the house and gardens are a pastiche of India. In fact I think they are very sympathetic to the culture and architecture particularly of the Moguls.  It would be very easy to include everything slightly Indian in nature and create something not far off a theme park but this isn’t the case.  The only objects that I felt were a little over the top and I suspect a more recent addition were the fibre glass baby elephants at the far end of the South Garden.  However, the property is owned and lived in by a family with children as was evident from the various outside games, swings and see-saw doted around so why  not have two baby elephants.

Water plays a key part in the structure and atmosphere of this garden and this again refers to its Eastern inspiration.  Water was very important to the Moguls which is hardly surprising when you consider how important water is to day-to-day life in central Asia and India and it reminds you how much we take it for granted.  If you were to see a water garden such as the one in the South Garden in a garden in the East it would symbolise wealth and opulence.2013_08160129logo

I found this garden initially not that interesting as it reminded me so much of Cornish gardens I have visited.  However, reading the guide-book and understand the connections, history and influences on its creation and how unusual it was when it was created in the early 19th century I find myself becoming more and more a fan.  From a purely horticultural point of view we visited in mid August on a warm day in a very dry and hot season and the garden was looking wonderful unlike many other gardens.

2013_08160107logOh and if the house looks vaguely familiar it is because it reminds you of Brighton Pavillion.  The Prince Regent visited Sezincote in 1807 and was so impressed he decided to proceed with his own plans to have an Indian exterior to the Pavillion he was building.

A Watery Gem of a Garden

In the midst of the Herefordshire farmland there is a small but perfectly formed oasis – Westonbury Mill Water Gardens.  The 3 acre garden is made up of a complex system of streams surrounded by lush planting with the odd quirky building to distract you.

This is not a garden of thought provoking design nor is it full of rare and unusual plants.  This is a garden of stillness, tranquility, water and abundance.  The paths meander through the planting just as the streams meander through the garden.  There is a lot of repetition in the planting which adds to the gentle flowing rhythm of the garden.  At this time of year, late July, various forms of ligularia, purple loosestrife, monardas and meadow sweet dominate.  As well as Lysimachia ciliata ‘Firecracker’ a plant I have a deep loathing of in my garden where it is a thug but in this setting it looked amazing.  As they say ‘right plant, right place’.

Lysimachia ciliata 'Firecracker looking quite nice
Lysimachia ciliata 'Firecracker looking quite nice

As I have said this is a garden not only known for its streams and moisture loving planting but for its quirky structures.  As you arrive there is the water tower, well that’s what I call it, which is a castellated tower with gargoyles around the top.  There is a water tank in the top of the tower which is fed via a sort of water wheel, when the tank is full the water spurts out of the gargoyles.

Since the last time I visited some four years ago an igloo type building made of bottles has been completed.  I love this building and the way the light filters through into the ferny grotto inside.

Both these structures feature in Follies of Europe – Architectural Extravaganzas.

However, my one quibble with the bottle dome is that I’m not convinced it sits very well in its surroundings.

As well as these two eccentricities there is a thatched garden house and an Oak Tower is currently under construction which will provide a viewing platform across the garden along with a water driven clock which will have a bird singing on the hour – I can’t wait!  The garden is bigger than at the time of my last visit and now extends out into the surrounding meadow-land.  Here there is a neat juxtaposition of water gardening and meadows with a canal which is obviously intended to be full of water cress in the future.

And unsurprisingly out in the meadow there is another structure – this time made some earth.  A wonderful earth spiral which children were running up and down whilst the crickets chirped and the swallows whizzed overhead.

I enjoy the sense of fun in this garden and it was certainly well received by the younger visitors.  I do think sometimes that gardens open to the public can be a little stuffy and stiff with their neat edges, pristine weed free borders and perennials staked to attention.  Westonbury Mill is not like this; there are weeds, there is some flopping of plants and there are no neat edges.  It feels relaxed and as you wander along the meandering paths your mind also wanders off and you forget the passage of time.  I haven’t been to Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta but I suspect that the creator of Westonbury Mill has a similar approach to gardening.

But this garden isn’t all quirky buildings it has strong bones.  There are numerous pollarded willows which stand sentinel over the garden.  From the size of some of the trunks I am assuming they have been there some time.  I can imagine that when the garden is cut back hard by winter snow and frost the willows form a wonderful scene.

The funny thing about this garden visit was that it was a spur of the moment thing.  I wanted to go somewhere and for some unknown reason Westonbury Mill popped into my mind, amazing since I haven’t been there for years.  I am currently very irritated with my pond, in fact if I am honest it hasn’t worked properly since it was put in, and I had decided that this autumn I would sort it out once and for all.  So maybe it was a sub-conscious decision but I am really glad I did go.  It got my mind working, running through all sorts of ideas and possibilities.  I drove home head spinning but having wandered round my considerably smaller garden I now have a plan for the Autumn.  So today was the ideal garden visit – a lovely afternoon out, beautiful surroundings, great cake and a head full of inspiration.