Secrets behind some of Norfolk's best-loved gardens revealed
- Credit: Roger Last
Which pleasure gardens were known as Norfolk’s Switzerland? Where in Norwich was My Lord’s Garden? Which politician’s garden was inspired by a small chateau in Versailles? Why did people travel to see a Thorpe Market tree? How did a Norwich business change the appearance of gardens across the country? Who amassed a unique collection of more than 4,000 orchids? And what is Norfolk’s snowdrop acre, where more named varieties of snowdrop have been bred than anywhere else in Britain?
The answers to all these questions, and so many more, can be found in Enticing Paths – A Treasury of Norfolk Gardens and Gardening, the latest book from the Norfolk Gardens Trust.
It is a fascinating, and beautiful, stroll through the garden history of Norfolk, in the company of charismatic experts. Garden historians, designers, restorers and plantsmen and women lead readers through 23 lavishly illustrated chapters from Norfolk's great estates to the city centre, via lost gardens, restored gardens, internationally important gardens and secret gardens.
The first garden path we walk down is in Brundall, near Norwich, where the patch of waterside paradise created in the 1880s by botanist and doctor Michael Beverley, became a huge tourist attraction under the ownership of cinema pioneer Frederick Cooper. He coined the description “Norfolk’s Switzerland” for the gardens which flowed as a series of lakes and planting down the (less than Alpine) hillside. He persuaded the railway developers to put a halt outside the entrance, which exists to this day as Brundall Gardens, and tens of thousands of day trippers came from Norwich by rail and Yarmouth by steam boat to marvel at the cascades, rose walk, Roman museum, lily lake and wooded glades.
The chapter, by Roger Last, a film producer, writer and garden designer whose work include his own garden with a tower, grotto and canal beside the Bure, tells the fascinating story of the creation and modern restoration of the pleasure gardens.
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He also writes about the pleasure gardens of Norwich, including the first outside London, My Lord’s Garden, on the slope down from King Street to the river. It was built for the Duke of Norfolk but open to the public by the early 18th century. There were walks, flowers and a bowling green. By the time Norwich’s fourth pleasure garden opened in 1766 between St Stephen’s Road and Brazengate, the beautiful paths and plants were enhanced by nightly illuminations and fireworks, and each competing pleasure garden upped its entertainment game until My Lord’s Garden had a cascading waterfall with watermill, swans and a “sea fight with five ships and also the method of storming a castle and beautiful transparent painting representing a sea god drawn in a triumphal car.” Peak pleasure garden popularity, publicity, excitement and crowds came with manned balloon flights – plus a re-enactment of the storming of the Bastille just a year after the actual event.
A much more private garden was created at Northrepps, near Cromer, in the 1930s. Home Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare, who was born at nearby Sidestrand Hall, wanted a house like the mini chateau at Versailles ‘far away from the noises of the modern world.’ He began his gardens even before the house was built and was particularly keen to include grand intersecting avenues which survive to this day.
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Trees were at the heart of another impressive Norfolk garden described by author Brian Ellis as “the greatest botanical collection ever assembled in Norfolk.” In west Norfolk Maurice Mason created gardens with 18 glasshouses to house his impressive collections, including more than 4,000 orchids, at Fincham, and a vast arboretum of trees from across the world in nearby Beachamwell.
The trees of 1840s Norfolk, including a magnificent oak at Thorpe Market (“We never saw a finer tree,”) star in chapter devoted to a remarkable illustrated register of trees across the county. Other chapters explore the wonders within the largest and oldest garden in Norwich – the Bishop’s Garden – and focus on the parterre of Blickling Hall, and extravagant idylls lost and grand schemes restored.
On a smaller scale, a patch of snowdrops in Witton, near Brundall, is celebrated. Author and snowdrop expert Richard Hobbs writes: “Though it is one of the smallest, yet in its own way, Snowdrop Acre is one of the most influential of Norfolk’s gardens.”
It was created by Heyrick Antony Greatorex as part of a bigger garden, from the 1920s to 50s. “And it was here that Tony Greatorex produced more famous snowdrops than have come from any other garden in Britain,” said Richard, who takes readers on a fascinating tour of snowdrop science and appreciation. Today the remnants of the garden are a nature reserve and still sparkle with snowdrops early each year.
Enticing Paths contains photographs, drawings, paintings and prints - and reproductions of some fascinating advertisements from the great Norwich company Boulton and Paul. Famous for its aeroplanes, it began as an ironmonger in 1797 and went on to manufacture conservatories, greenhouses, ferneries, vineries, peach houses, melon frames, fountains, fencing, watering machines, pavilions, a flower court and an aviary for Sandringham, and even iron churches and hospitals, at its Rose Lane works.
“Queen Victoria was a customer. And, taking their cue from her, so it seemed was everyone else,” says Roger Last. “This small quarter of the city was responsible in part for changing the appearance of Victorian and Edwardian gardens and how they were gardened, on a national, and to some extent, international scale.” Just the wall of the great Victorian factory remains, along Mountergate in Norwich.
The book, grown from the seeds of articles commissioned by the Norfolk Gardens Trust, finishes with the art of Norfolk gardens – paintings of rural halls and rectories and their impressive gardens, sometimes the only record of the flower borders, topiary, vegetable plots, shrubberies and boating lakes once tended by legions of gardeners. A joyous 21st century painting of Stiffkey Old Hall and gardens by Anthony Green shows a carefully tended landscape in many shades of green, reaching out beyond the confines of a conventional rectangular frame. It is a fitting end to a tour of the county which digs deep into the history and landscape of Norfolk to create a glorious portrait of its gardens and gardeners.
Enticing Paths, A Treasury of Norfolk Gardens and Gardening, edited by Roger Last and published by the Norfolk Gardens Trust, was launched at Raynham Hall on September 30 and is available for £30 from bookshops and email@example.com