Today I visited another garden, at Mannington Hall in Norfolk. The Systems Administrator and I have been saying for years that in June we should visit a garden with roses, especially as we normally take our holiday in the autumn when the roses are mostly finished. And every year June has gone by in a flurry of busyness, and suddenly it has been the second half of July, too late for the ramblers and the once flowering old roses, and we have shelved the idea for another year. Finally we managed to get organised, I unceremoniously rearranged coffee with a passing relative (sorry, uncle John) and we headed off for north Norfolk.
The only trouble with north Norfolk is that there is no way of avoiding the A140 and Norwich itself. If you take the train as far as Norwich you are still left with the problem of how to get to any of the gardens outside Norwich itself, so it doesn't really help. The A140 is single carriageway for its entire length, blighted by accidents, and limited to 50 mph for great sections without which there would be even more accidents. Today as an added bonus they were repainting the white lines up the middle. It took three hours to get to Mannington, which is one reason why in over thirty years of living in north Essex we had never been there before.
Still, it was very nice when we got there. There is a moated medieval house, jazzed up in Victorian times to look more like a Victorian gentleman's idea of what a moated medieval house should look like so that by now it is uber romantic and medieval. You can cross the moat over a little wooden drawbridge which if I lived there I would pull up every night after shutting the hens in, just for the hell of it. There are bulgy yew hedges, and lots and lots of roses.
It was very interesting to see so many of them in a garden setting, many of them labelled. The Peter Beales and David Austen stands at the Chelsea Flower Show are always wonderful, but not the same as seeing how the roses perform in real life. A notice by the entrance to the walled garden, replanted in the 1980s with a collection of roses dating from the middle ages to the present day, explained that some of the plants were old to the point of being decrepit, but were retained in all their tattiness because they were so rare. Walking around the collection we saw that some were indeed sad little clumps of sticks with one or two flowers, while others were great plants, fully clothed with healthy leaves and lots of blooms. The overall effect, if you stopped thinking about it and just absorbed it, was very pleasant.
The trip confirmed several things I've been beginning to think about roses in recent years. Firstly, roses should make good plants. However lovely the individual flowers are, if they are held on a sickly, gappy, stick of a plant with sparse or diseased leaves they don't add to the garden ambiance and should be given no quarter. If they can't be nursed back to health then scrap them. Secondly, I don't like the visual effect of bare soil under roses. If they aren't bushy enough to cover their own feet or robust enough to coexist with some low growing ground covering plants then I'd rather not grow them. And finally, ramblers are fantastic, up trees or on walls or through trellis or along low wicker fences, they are fabulous. This is the direction of travel I've been taking at home, where all the roses I've bought in the past couple of seasons have been ramblers to go up trees, and without explicitly mentioning it to the Systems Administrator I have dug out another half a dozen hybrid teas that refused to grow properly however much I fed and cossetted them. Their space is going to be given to a herbaceous clematis that's currently sitting in a pot by the greenhouse.
Names I have written down in my notebook are 'Mannington Cascade', a rambler with tiny white flowers that grows to great effect against the walls of the house, 'Pearl Drift', a shrub rose with luminously beautiful semi double white flowers, a good bushy habit and very healthy, large, dark green leaves which I also admired in the garden I saw yesterday, 'Rambling Rector' which we previously eyed up at the Boxford open gardens and which I now know is far older than I thought it was, and 'Dundee Rambler' which was producing delightful pompoms of white flowers up an apple tree. In general the roses in the areas of garden showcasing the oldest varieties, from the middle ages through to the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, were better shrubs than the later varieties. More breeding has so often gone into making more exotic blooms rather than a better plant. Rugosa varieties are honourable exceptions to this rule of thumb.
We looked at the ruined Saxon church as well, and walked around the small and peaceful lakes, and saw the mysterious hollows where underground springs apparently changed their course in the eighteenth century and swallowed several mature trees whole, and the melancholy horses' graves in a dark tunnel of yew and rhododendron, watched over by a sorrowful sculpture of a horse's head. We admired the way the crenellation of the house was echoed in a single gap in one yew hedge, and the foresight that had planted replacement cedars before they were needed. I was reminded what a good rose the repeat rambler 'Phyllis Bide' is and vowed to try and find a space for another since my original is being overrun by the ever so rampant 'Sanders' White' and honeysuckle in the rose bank.
When we got home the Systems Administrator asked whether we could not grow roses up the little oak tree. Result. I've thought about it in the past, but wondered if the tree was too dignified to be messed up with roses, but if the SA thinks it's OK then let's go for it. The SA has specified white roses, but that still leaves lots to choose from.