I took a day off from our garden today to go garden visiting. We went to two gardens east of Norwich, and I will have to try and keep them distinct in my head, since both were in private family ownership, attached to large houses with some formal bits and some shrubby and landscapey bits, and it would be very easy to start swapping elements between them or merge them into a composite whole.
We began at Raveningham in Norfolk. It has been the home of the Bacon family since 1735, and I see on Wikipedia (though it is not mentioned on their own website) that the current incumbent Sir Nicholas Bacon is the Premier Baronet of England. He is also president of the Royal Horticultural Society and the Norfolk Beekeepers Association. You can tell that the present owners are interested in gardening. There is an air of active management, new planting and new features. Gardens that are merely being coped with develop a giveaway air of sadness.
There were only four cars in the car park when we arrived, and one of those was a pickup truck that might have belonged to the estate rather than a visitor. Nobody was spending their morning sitting in the little entry booth, and we paid by stuffing a fiver for the Systems Administrator in an honesty box and writing my RHS membership number on a sheet. We wandered through Victorian greenhouses with pots of pelargoniums and a heady scent of jasmine, contemplated the walled kitchen garden which was in the process of being comprehensively dug over and with the first tentative signs of this year's rows of vegetables coming through, and I examined how they train their wall grown figs. You have to chop an awful lot of growth off, is the answer, and need a taller wall than mine.
There was a big rolling lawn studded with daisies in front of the house, stopping at a proper ha-ha with a view over the park beyond, and up an avenue of trees incorporating a splendid ancient grown-out oak pollard that must have been there long before the rest of the avenue. The borders were large and informal, and in the process of being generously mulched with muck, and swathes of bluebells and cow parsley led to the village church. The church had that East Anglian speciality, a round tower, and recent gravestones showed the churchyard was in active use as recently as last year.
Behind the house was a lake, created by Sir Nicholas for the millennium, and surrounded by meadows with the greatest number of cowslips I think I have ever seen, anywhere. There were a lot of other wildflowers to come later, though in the long term I don't think the area was destined to remain as open grassland, because there were a lot of little trees planted, wrapped for now in defensive rings of wire netting and I see on the website that they had Roy Lancaster in to advise. My hunch is that Sir Nicholas is at heart more of a woody plants enthusiast than a herbaceous man. Gardeners tend to incline one way or the other.
Tucked into the edge of the shelter belt was a recently planted large stumpery with some already impressive tree ferns, which will be really good once it has settled down. It needed more smaller ferns between the stumps to get the full Victorian fernery effect, and I wondered about the strong young shoots of something I couldn't identify, but which might have been whatever was there before the stumpery in which case it wasn't properly dead yet. There were sprinklers playing on the tree ferns, which is what you have to do if you want to grow them in East Anglia after the driest winter for twenty years.
The cafe was nice and remarkably cheap. I think we saw one other couple walking about the garden, and when we left there were still only five other cars in the car park. A real grass tennis court had been incorporated rather neatly into one corner of the garden in front of the house. Altogether we liked Raveningham (pronounced Ran-ing'm) very much. My only criticism would be that they could think of a better way of storing the various bright yellow, commercial grade hoses than leaving them coiled in full view about the garden.
Ten miles down the road and just over the border in Suffolk is Somerleyton, where you can see a high Victorian house and garden on the site of a genuine Jacobean manor house and garden. We only viewed the house from the outside, though we could have been on a guided tour. The outside was quite extraordinary enough. It was built (encasing the original manor house) for the Victorian railway engineering and construction magnate Sir Samuel Morton Peto, who seems to have been aiming as near to Waddesdon Manor as he could get without having the full financial resources of the Rothschilds. Sadly he came to grief in his business dealings with the failure of the London and Chatham railway and Norfolk bankers Overend Gurney, and had to sell the house to the Crossleys of Halifax, who had grown rich in the manufacture of carpets. I liked the way that ownership of this extraordinary Italianate pile reflected the aspirations and shifting fortunes of the Victorian manufacturing class.
The gardens have been simplified since their Victorian heyday, so the former large covered winter garden is no more, but there is a pleasant white themed (for weddings) sunken garden occupying part of its former footprint, and a mad stretch of crumbling red brick Italianate wall from what was the Palm House. The parterres designed by eminent Victorian garden designer William Nesfield were simplified after the second World War, then revamped by contemporary East Anglian garden designer George Carter. I was impressed by how the suit had been cut to fit the cloth, with balls of Santolina filling the box edges (once a year clip) instead of bedding, and Sempervivum in the urns on the terrace (water them once or twice a week if you feel like it and they will live for years unless vine weevil get them). There were some nice young standard trees, and the whole formal area had a quiet, competent air of being cared for within a budget that was a lot less than is spent on the formal terrace at Waddesdon.
In the less formal parts of the garden were some really good, large conifers from the early days of tree collecting in North America, a splendid cedar of Lebanon, and some fine monkey puzzles. There were some interesting glasshouses by Paxton himself (or at least attribute to Paxton), with ridge and furrow roofs to maximise the amount of light getting in. Sadly they didn't seem to be in full productive use and the only one we were allowed into housed the cafe. There was a Lynn Chadwick sculpture, on loan from an aunt who I think must have been Lynn Chadwick's daughter, of two sturdy women with triangular heads, looking vaguely as if it had escaped from Harlow New Town, and a classical Atlanta, distracted by Aphrodite's apples in the middle of an expanse of lawn. We were a little early for the long iron pergola, planted with a cheerful mixture of things instead of making a design statement with seventy yards of all the same thing, but enjoyed the way several ancient wisteria had engulfed sections of it, bending the ironwork wildly out of true. It will be very jolly when it flowers. We were too early for the formal rose garden, and didn't go into the yew maze not being fans of mazes, but listened to the other people getting lost. We liked Sir Samuel's chutzpah in buying a clock that was made for a House of Commons competition, and building a tower to put it on.
All in all we liked Somerleyton. Victorian formal gardens are not my favourite sort, and it isn't such a plantsman's garden as Raveningham, but it is done well. The two make a good pairing for a day out, and we did them in the right order. At the end we even said we'd like to go back later in the year when there was more flowering.