The timeless joys of Norwich, the ‘city of gardens’

Norwich has long been celebrated for its gardens - like the delightful Bishop's Garden in Cathedral

Norwich has long been celebrated for its gardens - like the delightful Bishop's Garden in Cathedral Close. Picture: Antony Kelly - Credit: copyright ARCHANT 2017

Norwich is a city which has long been celebrated for its beautiful gardens, as Jane Hales explores in this 1960 essay from our archives.

Norwich is once again now bright with flowers. More than a century ago the city presented a sweet, if less spectacular display. 'Approach Norwich from whatever road you may, you will see roses and dahlias, a jasamine, a clematis, a vine, climbing over the door. In the most crowded parts you will see a sweet william or a bunch of heartsease, or a marigold, peeping from within the poor widow's garret window.'

The citizens of Norwich were enthusiastic gardeners. 'The laborious artisan, all day long pent up in his dusty workshop, or seated at his loom, and tired with listening to the monotony of his shuttle, works in his cabbage-ground with delight, as evening draws forward, and is never half so happy as when he is destroying the caterpillars that threaten his crop, or weeding between the rows of his young peas.'

The well-to-do were equally interested. There was 'Mr Middleton, of the Crescent, whose skill in producing flowers is only equalled by his liberality in parting from them.'

The Norfolk and Norwich Horticultural Society came into being in 1830. Its shows were crowded for some years, 'including a large number of clergy, whose leisure is filled and amused, with peculiar propriety, by the culture of rare and delicate vegetable productions.'

Norwich nurserymen were famous. One of them supplied William IV's table with pines, grapes and strawberries, and had 'flowers rich and brilliant beyond compare.' But Mr Rose of Lakenham, rivalled him with a display of pears, grapes and nectarines growing in pots.

Mackay's was at one time the largest nursery garden, and Mr Mackay went to Weston Longville in July, 1781, to advise Parson Woodforde on how to preserve his fruit trees from white ants. Woodforde records he was to 'wash them well with soap sudds after our general wash.'

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A Norwich alderman, hardly in the same category as the aforementioned horticulturists, announced his intention of building a south wall all round his garden, as he had been told that fruit grew so well upon one!

The modern fruit farm has a certain charm, but it cannot compare with that of the old garden orchard, where there are many varieties of ancient trees, now forgotten or neglected. There was the Norwich White Pippin, Norfolk Downham and Hethersett Pippins, the Fouldon Pearmain, the Horsham Russet, the Norfolk Coalman, so called from its dark colour, and 'the old true Beefans so peculiar to the County of Norfolk,' which were specially baked and prepared for a winter sweetmeat, and can occasionally be bought in the traditional condition even now.

The old apple tree bears a little poor fruit, which nobody bothers to pick or pick up. It is neglected and forlorn, but once it was carefully pruned and called Somebody's Wonder. It has outlived its generation, yet, next April, it will still open some blossoms in an alien world. There is a bullace tree, at the tip of the cottage garden. The garden is enclosed with a ragged hedge; it is a 'heater-piece' snipped off a big field. The bullace is twisted and gnarled, as the traditional old man. Its small, bitter fruit is symbolic of hard times, of people with simple joys, and stoic contentment. A bullie tart is now a rarity - the fruit has so many superior relations of the plum family.

Ruskin said 'Give me flowers and save me the stomache-ache,' but children would hardly agree with him. In the early years of this century, eating fruit in the garden was a daily summer occupation, and, if memory serves, not accompanied by any disastrous results. Having worked one's way along the rather acid row of raspberries, there was the reward of the few white and sweeter ones at the far end. The gooseberry bushes were a pleasant feeding ground. Having sampled the small reddish berries, there were the big green ones, which broke succulently between the teeth. Beauty of Bath apples lay, suntanned on the dry mould; they looked better than they tasted. Later in the year, the Sticky Apple was fit. It was green, but delicious, and the real name was unknown.

Mulberries lay on the grass- nobody but children bothered about them. Early in life they learnt the deceptive charm of red currants, Morello cherries, and raw quinces, and tasted, with doubtful relish, the fruit of the fig tree, by the potting shed. The mellow west wall provided a few greengages and plums, and perhaps a peach or nectarine on old trees. On the north side of the wall grew the Iron Pear, which was appropriately named, and could only be eaten stewed.

Perhaps a gardener generally loves his own flowers best. No perfect blooms at the Show can rival this affection; no peas are quite so good as his; no long-awaited pear so luscious. The garden itself reflects the personality of the gardener. Some are weedless, some have patches of grasses and wild flowers in undug corners - live and let live!

So many pleasures have changed since the time of the Norwich weavers, but our joy in the garden is the same as theirs.