Winter Solstice has just passed, Christmas is almost upon us, and I’ve finally pulled together a photo-tour of the walled kitchen gardens I’ve been visiting and photographing.
Living in the Chilterns, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, (and with a handy National Trust membership) I’ve had many opportunities to visit walled gardens and their beautiful surrounding countryside with Red Kites soaring above. While I worked at Plant & Harvest in the historic West Wycombe Walled Garden, my fascination for the lifestyle represented by walled kitchen gardens grew and I had hoped that one day that place would become an example of such. Though I have now moved on to pastures and ventures anew (more on this to come!), these images still provide inspiration.
Greys Court near Henley-on-Thames has a series of 19th century-built gardens enclosed by the original walls of the old manor. This place exemplifies that certain ‘secret garden’ feeling as you amble down the pathways, through doors, gates and vine-covered corridors, and in and out of its various enclosures. When you come upon the 120-year-old wysteria pergola with its amazingly gnarled and knotted branches, it is quite magical.
Walled kitchen gardens, though aesthetically pleasing and charming to experience, were first and foremost places of productivity. They provided food, flowers, even healing herbs, to their owners, staff and guests. The Walled Kitchen Garden Network calls them ‘the early version of supermarkets’. The gardening staff often lived on-site, and through careful crop selection and growing techniques, these gardens could provide food all year round. In recent years there have been numerous examples of historic walled gardens being rebuilt or refurbished: some in a practical sense to create community gardens and spread word about the Good Life, some in a historic/cultural sense to restore a garden to its former glory, and others to provide working laboratories in sustainability, biodiversity and permaculture.
A bit further in the Thames Valley, the walled garden at the University of Oxford’s Botanic Garden may well have been an apothecary, classroom and living library all in one. The oldest botanic garden in Britain (founded as a physic garden in 1621 for medicinal research), its walled gardens now serve as a walking education in botany. Pick up one of their trail maps for medicinal, healing or aromatic plants and you can follow the plant borders to learn how they’ve supplied us with food, fibres and medicines.
Back closer to home, the walled garden at West Wycombe dates back as far as 1754, built for the purpose of supplying the Dashwood family (who own the West Wycombe estate to this day) with their fruit & veg. Though the site is now a commercial garden centre, you will still find some elements of walled garden lifestyle including chickens (whose eggs are used in the cafe), ducks, bumble bees and cut flower beds.
And finally (also close to home), Hughenden Manor in Wycombe provides a very hands-on, interpretive example of a walled kitchen garden. They have involved local school groups, adult education programs, garden historians and ‘master composters’ to help bridge that gap between the food on our table and how it’s grown. While the garden showcases some Victorian artefacts dating back to the 1700s such as an original water pump and sundial, it also encourages visitors to poke around and ask questions about the fruit & veg that they grow to use in their restaurant. The best time to visit is during Apple Days in the autumn when many of their homegrown heritage apple varieties are available to taste and take home.
Walled gardens do offer something for all seasons – they were, after all, not meant to be tourist attractions but rather symbolised a lifestyle that many are now trying to return to. Even in the cold days of winter, there’s something to see and experience, or tend to. Last year at this time I was off to feed the chickens on Christmas Day and everything was covered in snow.
And this year, you’ll likely find me at Hughenden Manor for a festive Boxing Day stroll in the park. I hear they have mulled cider and mince pies on offer, but that’s coincidental, isn’t it? Happy Christmas, everyone!