The British love a walled garden: solid, enclosed and often romantic, they are private spaces where a lucky few get to garden and where visitors can appreciate their labours.
In the 21st Century those that remain are mainly cultivated as decorative fruit, vegetable and cut flower gardens. Those attached to hotels and National Trust properties are once again being relied on to provide food for the big house. The fortunate ones, where money has been found for restoration, have regained features such as glasshouses, dipping ponds and pineapple pits. Heligan in Cornwall and Knightshayes in Devon are both wonderful examples of working kitchen gardens and are worth a visit if are down in the West Country. Other walled gardens, where productivity is no longer the main objective, provide the canvas for growing tender plant collections, such as Trengwainton in Cornwall, or for the new generation of planting designers, as at Scampston in North Yorkshire.
The origins of the walled garden are entirely practical – a means of keeping beasties out and the heat in. Us Brits live in perpetual denial of our climate, seeking every opportunity to cultivate plants which really shouldn’t survive our chill weather. At the very least we’ve sought to extend the growing season of many fruits and vegetables. Brick or stone walls not only give shelter, but also absorb and retain the sun’s heat, thereby creating a microclimate much more favourable than open ground. Despite our affection for these ‘open air greenhouses’ not a great deal is written specifically about them, which is a pity. (Could they be the subject of The Frustrated Gardener’s first book I wonder?)
Goodnestone provides is an interesting example of the evolution of the walled garden. In fact Goodnestone possesses not one, but a series of three walled enclosures, built at a reasonable distance from the house, although not as far as those at Wallington, which we visited earlier this year. The first and second are now predominantly flower gardens, renovated in the 1960’s and 1970’s, so are, in a sense, modern. However the last is a mixed fruit, vegetable and cutting garden. Sitting directly below the village church, with its walls garlanded by ancient wisteria, this high walled enclosure was used to farm Christmas trees before being restored in the 1970s. Other less fortunate walled gardens are still employed in this way, some simply put to grass and grazed by sheep.
Now, espalier apples and pears once again languish against Goodnestone’s warm brick walls. The borders of the vegetable plots are planted with a mixture of annuals and perennials for cutting. At their peak in late September the Michaelmas daisies, hardy members of the Aster family, were jewel-like and splendid. Their multitude of pinks, reds and purples mingled with the golden yellow of rudbeckia – not a colour combination that many gardeners would be comfortable with at other times of year, but in autumn it just works.
As 2013 begins to bow-out gracefully, it will be time for the gardeners at Goodnestone to start planning for the new year. Over winter, the red brick walls will provide the same warmth, shelter and protection from four-legged wildlife that they have done for centuries. The garden may no longer provide for a grand household, but it preserves a very distinctive, very British way of cultivation for all to admire.
Goodnestone Park is open today, the 20th of October 2013, and again on Sunday October 27th from 12-4pm, re-opening again in February 2014.