Hidden Norfolk garden transformed from wilderness to wonderland
- Credit: Danielle Booden
It takes your breath away, stepping across the threshold and finding a fully-formed garden, packed with the purples and pinks, greens and blues, of an early-summer idyll.
The backdrop is of mellow brick walls – and the inspiration and perspiration of a team of gifted volunteers.
For years the Walled Garden at Little Plumstead, just north east of Norwich, was a wilderness of head-high brambles and nettles. Two years ago it was stripped completely bare, save three protected trees. Today it is quite simply glorious – vibrant with delphiniums, geraniums, lilies, roses, oriental poppies, Canterbury bells, ornamental carrot, globe artichoke and a hundred more burgeoning and blooming beauties.
Paths separate out sections of the garden and wind through beds. There is a stumpery and fernery corner, a small orchard and wildflower meadow, espaliered fruit trees around the walls, a new Victorian-style glasshouse, fragrant herbs edging taller plants, and everywhere a peaceful sense of purpose and chorus of colour.
Every season will be lovely with the planting designed to thrill throughout the year. Soon sweet peas will climb the waiting bamboo frames. Today volunteers are planting snowdrop bulbs, to bring midwinter sparkle to the garden.
A new Victorian-style greenhouse has just been installed, replacing the glasshouse where a team of gardeners once raised exotic plants for the owners of the hall.
Funded by a charitable trust, individual donors, crowdfunding and money from plants stalls and events, it will become a retreat from bad weather for the volunteers, a home for magnificent plants including a tropical bougainvillea and giant dahlia from Peru, a place grow unusual plants for the garden and to sell and hold community events and workshops.
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On one side of the garden sun-shaded chairs and tables spill out on to a terrace area and lawn from the pretty café. Beyond there is a community shop plant stall.
Together the garden, the café and shop are designed to be self-funding – the garden bringing clients to the café and growing ingredients for café and stock for shop; the shop and café bringing customers for each other and volunteers to the garden; and all the proceeds ploughed back into the Walled Garden Community Shop and Café.
“We run this as a business but any money we make goes back into the business,” said Andy Carty, chairman of the community benefit society which runs the project. “None of them on their own would make money but together they will.”
The garden has been created by volunteers in just two years. But there is nothing new about the site.
Botanist Richard Hobbs lives nearby and, just like in like in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s famous novel The Secret Garden, used to peer into the walled garden through a little wooden door – and dream of what it could become.
A gifted gardener with a particular interest in bulbs, the former director of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust looks after the national collection of grape hyacinths and is an expert on the snowdrops collected by Heyrick Antony Greatorex, of nearby Witton. The snowdrops being planted in the walled garden are Greatorex snowdrops, donated by a grower from Wymondham.
Richard first saw the garden almost 30 years ago, when it was a much-loved part of the hospital grounds. He was also one of the people living nearby who knew that the abandoned garden could be returned to its former glory.
It dates back to at least 1855, when it was included in the sales information for grand Plumstead Hall, described as an “exceedingly prolific walled-in garden, well planted, and the lofty walls clothed with choice fruit trees. They are extensive and laid out with taste and encircled by fine oak, beech and other forest trees.”
The walled garden became part of the grounds of a grand new hall, built in 1889. Forty years later the hall became a hospital for people with learning disabilities and the garden was used by patients and their visitors, and for charity fund-raising events.
After the hospital moved out of the hall in the 1990s much of the estate was sold for housing. The mansion was destroyed by fire in 2016 but the walled garden remained, its once-tended beds and lawns becoming erased by thickets of bramble.
Thanks to the vision and commitment of a team of enthusiasts the garden is now owned by the parish council and looked after by a community benefit society.
Volunteers planned the new walled garden, researching its history and visiting similar gardens for inspiration, seeking grants to fund the initial work and then, week-by-week, month-by-month, creating the garden.
“Our aim here was to get a Victorian feel to the garden, a formal structure with informal planting. We took the decision to make it a flower and cutting garden rather than a vegetable garden,” said Richard. “It’s also been planted for bees and butterflies and is absolutely alive with them at the moment.”
In the orchard cowslips, narcissus, dog daisies and orchids grown from seed will cluster beneath trees studded with old-fashioned fruit like medlar and quince and local apples such as the Norfolk beauty and Norfolk russett.
Almost everything has been planted in the past two years but three trees survive from the hospital years, a Victorian rose was rescued, and patches of jimsonweed keep appearing. “It was used by the Victorians as a sedative and is also hallucinogenic. My guess is that it was used by the hospital,” said Andy, who chairs the management committee.
There are more benign herbs too – marjoram, borage, angelica and sweet cicely grow around taller vegetables, shrubs and flowers. The rhubarb is used in the café and sold in the shop but the stately flowering carrots are purely decorative.
The other side of the little door which Richard once peeped through, into the abandoned garden, is the old hospital cemetery. People were buried in unmarked graves here up until the 1970s and Richard and Andy would like to look after this area too, perhaps turning it in a memorial garden.
The volunteers meet twice a week. They range from complete beginners to expert gardeners and from children, coming with their parents, to people in their 70s and 80s.
The shop and café have some paid staff alongside their own teams of volunteers but everyone working in the garden is doing it for free – rewarded by the joy of being part of creating something so beautiful.
“I love being here early in the morning or late in the evening, cutting the grass, it’s really magical and the light is so different at different times of the day,” said Andy.
The response to the garden, and café and shop, has been hugely positive and Richard said: “I really thought we had taken on too much but we got there. I think it’s exceeded all expectations.”
Norfolk’s own Secret Garden, created by visionary volunteers, weaves its magic whether people are visiting for the first time ever, or volunteering for the second time in a week.
The garden and café are open seven days a week with the café open 9am-4pm Monday to Saturday and 10am-3pm on Sundays and garden volunteers meeting every Wednesday and Saturday. New volunteers are always needed. thewalledgardenshop.co.uk