I went garden visiting this afternoon with the garden club. They had arranged a trip to Parsonage House at Wiggens Green near Helions Bumpstead. Helions Bumpstead is a marvelous name for a place, only I had no idea where it was, and when I discovered that it was near Haverhill I grumbled about it and was minded not to go. The committee member who organizes speakers and trips said that it was a very nice garden, and in a fit of enthusiasm I signed up for it, then as the day approached and I looked at the state of my own garden and the number of other things in my diary wondered why I was going. There is a school of thought that says you should never sign up to do anything long in advance that you would not agree to it it were happening next week. If I followed that maxim the number of things I do would be drastically reduced, and I am not sure it is good advice.
The countryside around Haverhill is rolling, agricultural and pretty. You dip briefly into Suffolk on the road to Helions Bumpstead, and out again back into Essex. As well as Helions Bumpstead there is a Steeple Bumpstead, which is a really fabulous name, somewhere either invented by PG Woodhouse or where there is shortly going to be a horrid murder that will be solved by a dotty little old lady after totally baffling the local police. Parsonage House and its garden are really, insanely pretty. The fifteenth century house does not open to the public so we could only appreciate its prettiness from the outside, but the owner gave us a full tour of the garden and it was terrific.
It shows what can be achieved in three decades, if you apply yourself and set about things in a sensible order. Created from farmland, the owners planted shelter belts and specimen trees early on, laid out yew hedges fairly early in the project so that by now they are fully ten feet tall, and sowed a former cornfield with fine grasses to create a permanent meadow that has now been colonised by orchids and cowslips. It does have to be admitted that having a goodly wodge of money to throw at the project does help too. If it had been my garden I would not have bothered with the swimming pool or the tennis court, since I hate tennis and pool chemicals disagree with my chest, but the services of a professional gardener would make it easier to have clipped edges and not so many weeds as I always have in my garden. And none of the topiary was whiskery, and things that needed staking were ingeniously and unobtrusively staked, and the gravel was weed free, and the lawns tidily mowed. It was all very well done and apparently relaxed with none of the over-manicured aggressive tidiness that makes some gardens feel unwelcoming, but a lot had been done. And I spotted large Room-in-the-Garden obelisks in the borders and Whichford Pottery pots by the potager.
The owner was a keen plantswoman as well as a designer, and there were some interesting species grown from seed and some quite unusual shrubs. Although everything flowed together into a slightly muted, pink, mauve, white and silver palette, when you looked closely it was much more to it than the paint-by-numbers, box balls and lavender against ancient architecture formula that will get you a feature in the gardening press. I was impressed and charmed in equal measure, and impressive gardens are not always charming. Money was no object, though, or very little object. So it was not just that pleached Malus 'Evereste' were being used to screen the tennis court, which I don't think came in as little knee high whips, but that the boundary between the gravel where they were planted and the surrounding grass was cut into a keyhole design, giving three times as much edge to keep trimmed.
The soil was a free draining and almost neutral sandy loam over chalk. I know, because I asked. They spread mulch made from recycled green waste on the borders. I knew they must use something to get that much growth. The owner said they were very dry, though I don't think Haverhill is drier than the Clacton coastal strip.
It opens sometimes under the National Gardens Scheme and is well worth a visit.