Today I have been mostly visiting Norfolk. It was my garden club's coach trip, this year to Corpusty Mill Garden and Blickling Hall. I had read about the garden at Corpusty Mill and it sounded splendid, so was delighted at the prospect of a visit, doubly so when I saw on their website that it opens by arrangement to groups only. Blickling Hall is owned by the National Trust so in theory the Systems Administrator and I could pitch up any time we fancied, but it's a long drive to the far side of Norwich and we still haven't been, so I was happy enough to go there as well.
Corpusty Mill is very, very old, or at least there has been a mill on that site for hundreds of years. The current owner's parents bought it in 1947, at which point there were no gardens, just water meadows. The current owner and his brother began to make a garden around it from the early 1960s onwards, a process of gradual accretion as they did not live there. The brother died in 1990 aged only fifty. The owner continues to develop the garden at a pace that shows no concession to advancing years.
The garden is every bit as good as the magazine articles say it is, and well worth a visit if you can find any group to attach yourself to (though you can have a group of one or two, you will still pay for the minimum group size of twenty. The garden is perhaps not quite that good). The planting is superb and miraculously lush for East Anglia. It is amazing how fast trees can grow when shortage of water is never, ever an issue. Though the garden does not flood, according to the owner, the lawn gets very squidgy in wet weather.
Maintenance is equally superb, striking exactly the right balance between looking relaxed, intermingled, charming and slightly jungly, while having an extraordinary absence of weeds, edges clipped to be neat but not tiresomely over manicured, things pruned when and as they should be, and a general air of being in good nick. Incredibly, the owner does virtually all of it himself with a paid gardener for three hours a week. OK, there were no vegetables or fruit and I didn't see a greenhouse, but the gardens run to five acres. There are lawns needing to be mowed and edged, topiary and formal hedging needing to be kept trimmed, numerous water features needing to be kept in working order, many beds to be weeded, leaves to be swept, gravel. I honestly have no idea how he does it. He said he spent most of his time on it, and that must be the literal truth.
Then there are the follies and sculptures. It is the built structures that give the garden the edge, a small but perfectly formed grotto down enough steps to feel underground, snaking along by candlelight, a viewing tower mounted by a tiny spiral stair and covered in climbers, fragments of freestanding wall with gothic arches, classical heads, urns, pools, and a really splendid flint clad wall and hump back bridge built as a memorial to the dead brother. A large Mediterranean courtyard garden complete with Roman inspired temple at one end turns out to inhabit the base of a demolished barn. The built bits are really, really good and very well integrated with the planting.
The only category in which I'd give it no more than average marks was the layout. The trees and follies and planting and lushness between them pull the whole thing together, but its origins as a project conceived and executed piecemeal over decades does show. As an exercise in laying out space it is no Gibberd Garden. The formal lawn nearest the house is an awkward shape while the pools and paved areas have a slightly plonked down air. Who am I to criticise, since my own front garden is considerably worse? There again, I have criticised my own front garden. In typography the spaces between the letters is as important as the letters, so with gardens.
Blickling was great fun too, though in a less secret and privileged to see it way, but since it is now late and it is forecast to rain in the morning I might save that for tomorrow.