Rare glimpse of Holkham Estate gardens

Chris Hill The once-majestic walled gardens on the Holkham Estate will reopen to the public next month - even though the first seeds of an ambitious restoration project have only just been sown.

Chris Hill

The once-majestic walled gardens on the Holkham Estate will reopen to the public next month - even though the first seeds of an ambitious restoration project have only just been sown. Chris Hill reports on a rare opportunity to watch a “garden in the making”.

As soon as you walk through the ornate Venetian gates of Holkham Hall's walled gardens, you are struck by a sense of their former grandeur.

But in recent years the borders and greenhouses which fed and delighted generations of the Earl of Leicester's family have declined into overgrown and redundant relics.

Now a renaissance is under way which aims to restore this neglected oasis back to its former glory - while also creating a rare opportunity for visitors to see the transformation taking shape.

The huge 6.5-acre plot on the north Norfolk estate dates back to the 1700s but has been hidden from public view since it closed in 2005.

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A massive renovation project has already begun but, rather than waiting the expected five years for their masterpiece to be completed, the gardening team is preparing to re-open it on April 1.

The idea is that anyone can watch them toiling, landscaping and planting as the garden takes shape over the years and blossoms through the seasons.

Head gardener Tim Marshall said: “It is very much at the beginning of its transformation. We are opening as a garden in the making - visitors won't initially expect a garden overflowing with flowers and foliage. It is a garden in its early stages of renovation and hopefully people will come back as it grows and changes.

“When people come in, they will see us working. We will be laying edging stones and weeding the borders.

“I am pretty sure a lot of estates would be reluctant to open these gardens before they are finished because they would want people to see a finished project. But I think people will appreciate seeing it in the raw and seeing the transformation taking shape.”

As the project unfolds, visitors will be able to meander along paths bordered by colourful foliage, flowers and fruit. Ornamental trees, unusual herbaceous perennials and walls clad with climbers and fruit trees will be joined by banks of yew hedging.

The imposing red-brick walls not only create a micro-climate for the plants, but also subdivide the gardens into eight distinct “rooms”, each with a different purpose.

Visitors will enter the first room - the Working Garden - through an avenue of gnarled pear trees, which still bear fruit even though they were original features planted more than 100 years ago.

Tim hopes to re-establish the productivity of the garden's Victorian heyday when it provided a constant supply of fruit, vegetables and flowers to the estate owners at the nearby hall.

The next room contains the Vineries - towering greenhouses which cost �1,400 to build in 1872, but more than �600,000 to renovate with the help of English Heritage funding. The cable mechanisms and ventilation systems have been replaced in the original style.

Tim plans to use the glasshouses to grow ornamental perennials and propagation plants as well as some of the more exotic products of their past, like peaches, nectarines, figs and grapevines.

There are also earlier 18th century sunken greenhouses, whose rotting timbers and mildewed frames are yet to be renovated. One had a 15ft sycamore tree growing out of it when work began.

A commercial vegetable and cut flower garden is also planned to provide goods for the Stables Caf� on the grounds, or the estate's two hotels - The Victoria at Holkham and The Globe in Wells.

The Nursery room, the commercial section, will grow plants for sale on-site and will be the only area closed to the public, apart from guided tours.

At the far end of the gardens is an open grassed courtyard for weddings and events, with an ancient mulberry tree nestled against a boundary wall.

“It is a lovely old mulberry tree, a couple of hundred years old,” said Tim. “It has fallen over, survived, and carried on growing. And again it still fruits really well. We always catch Lady Leicester in here and we know she's been picking mulberries because her hands are bright red.”

The Events room also doubled as an impromptu campsite for 55 students from Writtle College - an agricultural school in Essex - who stayed for a week and mucked in to help launch the project in September.

“It was great, and it really kick-started the work,” said Tim. “They started on the edging stones and helped clear the frames and borders, which had become completely overgrown and full of brambles.”

Of the remaining rooms, the Grove will house lines of ornamental Katsura trees, which carry the sweet aroma of burnt sugar in the autumn, while the magnificently-titled Arena of Shrubs is the most overgrown area, and one of the last to be cleared of creeping ivy and brambles.

“The sheer size of it is the biggest hurdle,” said Tim. “Some days it seems daunting but when you put it in perspective it is all achievable. It is just about putting the labour effort in, and you soon get on top of it - when the weather conditions are on your side.”

Tim, 33, joined Holkham as head gardener 18 months ago, after working on a smaller walled garden project at an estate in North Yorkshire.

He said: “When I first came here I saw the walled garden and thought: 'I have to have a go at this'. It was part of the reason I took the job.

“I love being able to make all these changes and put my footprint on a special garden like this, seeing it through to the finished product. It is so rare to be involved in such a large-scale project right to the end. Hopefully, because gardening is so much in the spotlight at the moment, the public will really go for it.”

In the first stages of work, the gardens are now alive with industry. Visitors will jostle with muddy wheelbarrows, and watch as survey equipment and pegged lines of string are used to level the earth and redress the precise stone edges, pushed out of their ranks over the decades.

But despite the renovation work to correct the earlier decay, the gardens still carry echoes of their former splendour.

Some visitors have described the site as a magical “secret garden“, conjuring images of Victorian labourers toiling to put food on the table of the lord of the manor.

But Tim disagreed with that romantic view. “I don't see it like that,” he said.

“I see it as a garden which is wanted and needs to be changed so the public can really appreciate it, rather than being left to its own devices. So much effort has been put into it in the past, it seems wrong to leave it as an empty space.”

The walled gardens will open every day from April 1 to October 31, midday to 4pm. For further information, visit www.holkham.co.uk. Volunteer gardeners wishing to help with the restoration project can contact Tim Marshall on t.marshall@holkham.co.uk.

Walled kitchen gardens were once essential for supplying country houses with fruit, vegetables and flowers.

No trace remains today of those built by Thomas Coke, later the first Earl of Leicester, in the 1720s, some years before he started building his palladium hall.

But a description in 1748 shows that many types of fruit were grown near the south end of the estate's lake, including the earl's favourite, “apricocks”.

By the time Coke of Norfolk inherited Holkham thirty years later, it was highly unfashionable to have kitchen gardens, however splendid, so close to the house. He built the present gardens in the early 1780s, while the vinery, designed by the architect Samuel Wyatt, was built in 1786.

Glasshouses, frames and pits - both cold and heated - were an important part of kitchen gardens. The large glasshouses that have been restored on the north wall were built for the second Earl of Leicester in 1872. They included early and late peach houses, a Muscat house, fig house and early and late vineries. Baskets of surplus peaches, nectarines, figs and grapes were sometimes sent by the morning passenger train from Holkham station for sale in the London market.

The gardens were still producing such fruit in the 1930s, as well as large quantities of vegetables delivered daily to the kitchen at the hall.

But soon the costs of heating the glasshouses became prohibitive and in 1939 orders were given to stop producing hothouse grapes, and flowers raised under glass. The death of the long-standing head gardener Donald Paterson in 1949 prompted further attempts to economise. But maintaining large gardens to supply the house was no longer financially viable, so they became dilapidated and overgrown.

They were eventually let in the 1960s and were developed into thriving commercial nursery gardens during the next 30 years. The estate took the gardens back in hand in 2005.