In garden

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries the family really gardened in Ireland. Firstly at Stillorgan House and then at Glenart Castle, Co. Wicklow. The grounds of Elton Hall were only fully developed and maintained in the early 20th century. The areas close to the house were redesigned just before the outbreak of war in 1914 and these new plantings greatly enhanced the Walled Garden. Together with the earlier gravelled walks to the Oaks, the Lake, the Church and the drive from the next village, which had become a walk through the Repton inspired park to a path by the river Nene, the gardens and parkland were at their most splendid. Glasshouses, fruit, vegetables, herbaceous borders, a topiary maze, a rose garden and the woodlands underplanted with a mass of snowdrops, bluebells and clumps of box, transformed the 22 acres of garden and 200 acres of parkland into a small paradise.

These idyllic walks and gardens were to suffer greatly during the Second World War when the house was used as a Convalescent Home by the Red Cross. In 1947 the Estate was hit by enormous death duties. A garden that had been designed for thirteen gardeners had to be reduced to one that could be looked after by three. Inevitably the areas further away from the house, such as the Walled Garden, suffered the most. My grandfatherin- law died in January 1979 and again, this was a time of high taxation. When we took over the house in 1980, the Walled Garden was a mass of thistles, nettles and brambles, all smothering the remains of glasshouses. The Edwardian rose garden was in a similar state and the ravages of Dutch Elm Disease meant that we had lost 150 old trees in the park and gardens. To our great sadness, the topiary maze and some yew hedging had been cut down to save on equipment and manpower.

To begin with I looked out of the window with dismay. Apart from picking strawberries and raspberries, I had never gardened in my life. We began the massive job of clearing up the dead elm trees and reducing the size of the garden by returning some areas to parkland. Whilst we were doing this I read a book by David Hicks on Garden Design. His underlying theme was the importance of structure. There was very little structure left in the garden and between having babies and opening the house to the public, I laid out lengths of string around the gardens, keeping the shape of paths that had been put in before the First World War. These imaginary ‘walls’ eventually resulted in a mass of hedging using hornbeam, yew and box. Some judicious tree planting and a new lime avenue followed in the early 1990’s.

Initially I thought we could not maintain a rose garden, but in October 1983, I took the plunge and commissioned Peter Beales to design a new garden using predominantly Old Roses. Acquiring plant knowledge was a steep learning curve. Inevitably I made mistakes, such as stubbornly believing I could coax acid loving plants to flourish in artificially created beds surrounded by alkaline clay. I did away with the mass of bedding plants that consumed so much of the gardeners’ time and planted perennials. In 1990/91 we had to contend with a new road which, after much lobbying, was moved away from the garden but still required vast banks that needed to be planted to protect the house and garden from the noise. Its construction ended the link to the small remaining area of park surrounded by Oaks. This area had originally been reached by a tunnel under the older, much smaller road.

In the early 1990’s, the beds round the Lily Pond were enlarged, enclosed with a retaining wall and filled with herbaceous plants and shrubs. A small shrub garden surrounded by the new hornbeam hedging was planted at the same time and in 2000 we celebrated the Millenium by building an Orangery and Mediterranean garden in the area that had once been designed as a Bowling Green. Six tall cypresses, given to my husband as a fiftieth birthday present, completed the picture. The replaced hedging throughout the garden was now creating secret areas and no longer did we have to lie on our tummies so that nobody could see us.

There has always been a limit to what we can do. It was apparent from the beginning that we could not restore the three acre Walled Garden. It was also important to generate some income to help run the house and in 1993 we leased this area to Blooms of Bressingham. This was a very exciting project and for many happy years the partnership thrived, with the public benefiting from their tearoom, shop and plants. They left in 2011 and after two or three short term lets, the Plant Centre is now run by Bosworths. They have rejuvenated the area, created a kitchen garden and installed a wonderful tearoom.

The garden has finally come into its own with mature hedging, topiary, glorious herbaceous borders, a Wilderness garden, (which can be seen on private tours) and a small arboretum between the front and back drives. Inevitably there have been some changes along the way. Peter Beales’ wonderful rose garden was suffering after twenty years. Despite changing the soil and sterilising a large number of areas, it succumbed to rose sickness. In 2008 we dug it up, took away the soil, replaced it with 500 tonnes of new soil and planted large, bold herbaceous beds around a modern fountain. Today the garden is flourishing under the careful leadership of Rob Kett, our Head Gardener and Paul Bonsall, his assistant. It gives me enormous pleasure and I hope it does the same for all our visitors.

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