As followers of this blog will probably have gathered, we are opening our garden, as part of the National Gardens Scheme (NGS), on the weekend of September 17-18th. I won’t say it has caused more hand-wringing and anxiety than even the grandest of book launches – but it has. Weeds seem to have ganged-up and declared our garden their national chosen target: if there was such a thing as an Olympic sport of weed-pulling, Maisie and I would be joint gold medal winners. Anyhow, part of the preparation involves the production of short information sheets that will be available at various points in the garden, and key to these is what follows: a short history. I’ll probably adjust it a bit over the next few weeks, but here’s my first draft. If you find it whets your appetite, spread the word on Twitter and/or Facebook. The more visitors that come, the more cash we can raise for the NGS Charities: Macmillan Nurses, Marie Curie Cancer Care, Hospice UK, and the Carers Trust. So roll up! Roll up! And when you come for your visit, spend money like water!
A Short History of the Garden
In the summer of 1992 the house and garden were still an expanse of wheat. The field in question, of some 17 acres, was bounded on two sides by large drainage dykes. The NW and NE sides were also edged by dykes, but smaller and accompanied by mature hawthorn hedges. There were no trees. Then Maisie and I bought it. Were we mad?
Our previous house, also a farmhouse, had been in the nearby parish of Parson Drove, just across the county line in Cambridgeshire (previously the Isle of Ely). There we had converted an acre of paddock into a large garden, complete with vegetable patch, a long border, a pond and a small wood of willows and ash trees. While we were creating the Parson Drove garden we were also setting-up Bronze Age Flag Fen (Peterborough), as a tourist attraction. It wasn’t a straightforward process. I’m convinced that working in that garden kept us both sane, while local politicians aggressively interfered with things they didn’t understand. But that experience also came in very handy. In 1989 we constructed a permanent museum and visitor centre at Flag Fen and I went on a self-taught crash-course in project management. With the help of a Lotus 123 spreadsheet, I managed to retain control of the budget (it was about £160,000) and I didn’t end up in the Bankruptcy Court, or jail.
By 1990 we realised that we had done what we wanted to achieve at the old house and were ready, as the cliché has it, for further challenges. We bought the land near Sutton St. James, just across the county line, in south Lincolnshire, and took possession, immediately after the harvest in 1992. The field was large, and very bleak, as the next photo shows.
The next picture shows the same view taken in August, 2016. The trees have got slightly larger in the last year, but the hawthorn hedge, to Maisie’s right in the previous picture, is still there.
The second (2016) picture shows a drive heading away from the gate. This took a fair bit of construction, as the soil in the Fens is soft and of poor load-bearing quality. I managed to find a source of what people in the area call ‘brickbats’, for the foundations. Essentially these were reject bricks that had been used to back-fill disused clay pits in local brickyards. We had to import 17 thirty-ton lorry-loads of them, which we spread and tracked-in, using the Hy-Mac excavator we’d used a few years earlier to clear topsoil from archaeological sites. That machine was an old friend.
Because the fundamental motivation for the new house was ultimately the garden, we began work on it before building began. In fact, we had laid out the main elements (the two borders, the orchard, the wood, the vegetable garden, the meadow and the paddocks), before we had managed to sell the old house. That house had been built in 1907 and was poorly insulated and cold in winter. I had lived in Toronto during the 1970s, and knew how warm modern timber-framed houses could be, even in the coldest of Canadian winters. So we decided our new house should be timber-framed, too. Timber-framed houses are also much lighter, which suits the soft land of the Fens.
In common with most rural developments, our Planning approval had depended on us running the small farm successfully. So by 1994 we had built the two barns and had laid-out the field and paddock around the house. We took our first crop of hay from the meadow in 1995. At this early stage, we had still to acquire the larger fields on either side of the house and garden and were renting additional land for our growing flock of sheep. The smaller paddocks close to the barns were intended to provide sheltered grazing for ewes and their lambs in the very first months.
Maisie and I are keen to preserve and encourage wildlife on the farm and in the garden. All the grasses of meadows, paddocks and lawns, for example, are native to Britain. That is also why we have planted so many native wet-loving trees, including the endangered Black Poplar, host to the Poplar Hawk moth and visiting pairs of Golden Oriels. Our timber barns are home to hedgehogs, swallows, tits and other birds, and barn owls shelter there in winter. Despite a purpose-built nestbox, we have only managed to provide home for one brood of three young Barn Owls, in October 2011.
The garden’s focus on wildlife means we are not obsessive about weeding: even ragwort, which is poisonous to sheep, is sometimes allowed to flower briefly, as it is host to Cinnabar moths; but it is never allowed to seed and is promptly uprooted! In the old garden we managed to to get cowslips established in long grass and we took seed with us to Inley Drove Farm and spread it along the dykesides and in the hay meadow in 1992. Five years later we acquired bulbs of Snakeshead Fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris) from our then neighbour at Guannock House, just a mile to the south, the now famous garden designer, Arne Maynard. Both cowslips and fritillaries love our wet, clay soils and have seeded freely. The cowslips have even migrated across to the orchard, where they have also thrived. Meadow wildflowers are a major feature of the garden in April.
Anyone who has ever grown their own vegetables knows how good they taste. They may not always look as attractive as their supermarket equivalents, but our meals are based on taste, not appearance. So we determined to be almost self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables (and I say ‘almost’ because we will never be able to grow carrots in our heavy soil). The veg garden is fringed by pleached apples and pears and is sub-divided into four plots to allow for regular manuring (with our own sheep muck) and crop circulation. It is highly productive.
We tend to think of gardens in spring, summer and autumn, the warmer months of the year. We also imagine them with our mind’s eye at ground level. But one of the great pleasures of creating a garden in a flat landscape has been viewing its changes and development from above. And it doesn’t have to be from far above, either. My last picture, taken in mid-December, 2012, from the first floor of the house, shows the now fully-formed skeleton of the garden, wonderfully enhanced by a heavy Fenland hoar frost. The top of the pergola, which we added in 2006 at the back of the house, somehow echoes the layout of the rest of the garden.