GARDENING / Walsham le Willows reveals 25 plots: A village Agatha Christie would have loved shows its gardens (and maybe more) to visitors this weekend. Michael Leapman reports

Click to follow
IF THERE is a greater horticultural pleasure than poking around other people's gardens, it is having other people poke around yours. That is why 25 gardeners in Walsham le Willows, a sprawling Suffolk village east of Bury St Edmunds, have been poring over the weather maps for days, willing them to produce a favourable forecast for today and tomorrow.

For the past 12 years, keen villagers have opened their gardens on the Sunday and Monday afternoons of the August bank holiday weekend to raise money for the maintenance and repair of the large medieval church of St Mary. Last year they had around 2,500 visitors and raised about pounds 6,000. This year they hope to do even better, for the admission fee has gone up to pounds 3: still great value for visits to all 25 gardens, with a free minibus between them. Extra profits come from teas in the village hall.

For many villagers, the event has become the focal point of the gardening and social year. Some even choose plants specifically because they look good in late August. Holidays are put off until September, so that preparation may be uninterrupted. For visitors, the weekend is a chance not only to look at 25 gardens of immense variety, but also to peep behind the curtain at the subtle drama of traditional English village life, little altered for decades. Agatha Christie would have felt right at home here.

Garden visiting is one of the nation's most popular pastimes. Last year 7.6 million people were admitted to gardens owned by the National Trust. More than a million a year visit gardens open for the occasional day under the charitable National Gardens Scheme. (The Walsham weekend is not part of that scheme, but some of the village gardens are open on its behalf on other days.)

Alec Russell, the local doctor, and his wife Hilary were among the instigators of the garden weekend 12 years ago, and their home, The Beeches, where they have lived for 40 years, remains a highlight of the circuit. 'We love showing it off,' he says. 'Hilary does the work: my function is to talk to the people' - adapting his bedside manner to flower beds.

The location of The Beeches is its initial virtue. The 15th-century house is tucked in behind the church and commands a wonderful view of its tower, topped by a flint and stone parapet with pinnacles surmounted by lions. The three-acre grounds are divided into five distinct gardens. The principal one is to the right of the house as you approach from the driveway, dominated by the tremendous yew hedge, about 15 feet high and perhaps 200 years old, making a marvellous dark background for the mixed border Mrs Russell has created in front of it.

Directly opposite, across the formal lawn, is a bed devoted to silver-leafed plants and white flowers, mainly those that come into bloom in late summer - always popular with the visitors. And at the end of the lawn furthest from the house is another mixed island bed; beyond it another large lawn, formerly two tennis courts, leading down to the edge of the town stream. Here, and in the wild garden beyond, the Russells have planted some unusual trees: sumacs, a robinia (locust tree), paulownia, catalpas, medlar and a judas tree, along with the willows that give the village its name. The decorative small potager, a kitchen garden with segmented beds bordered by low box hedges, and a new paved area complete the visit.

Robin and Jill Newell, who live in the pink-washed 18th-century Clive House, across from the Post Office, are almost the precise opposite of Alec and Hilary Russell. This year will mark their first encounter with the holiday visitors - and their garden is tiny, just a courtyard behind the house, covered with gravel and surrounded by flower beds. The attraction of these multi-garden visits is that you can learn as much from such a pocket-handkerchief plot as from grand gardens like The Beeches.

'We're very much beginners,' Mr Newell explains modestly. The house had belonged to his parents, and he moved his family here from Derbyshire when his father died last year. Since then they have created a new flower bed around a cypress tree at the back of the gravelled area. It contains a traditional cottage mix of shrubs - the buddleia doing its job of attracting the butterflies - and colourful annuals. 'There's probably far too much in it,' says Mrs Newell. 'Things tend to get the benefit of the doubt.'

One drawback of the late August opening is that wisteria, a spectacular, wall-hugging feature of so many gardens around here, has long finished flowering. But a number of clematis are still going strong, and the Newells have the variety jouiniana praecox happily embracing the cypress tree, showing off its delicate pale lilac flowers with unusual pendulous petals.

The gravelled central area is ideal for pots and containers holding brighter flowers. 'I like pale colours myself,' Mrs Newell says, 'but we must have a bit of colour for visitors. Your own preferences become secondary.'

Just past the church, along the Causeway, William Davidson focuses his entire gardening year on the weekend. An 85-year-old widower and a former market gardener, he has lived in his cottage for 47 years. His passion is begonias, 400 of them in beds and containers, spreading in a rash of bright colour.

What makes this garden highly individual is the decorative stonework, which Mr Davidson made himself - rough stone and concrete containers, troughs and ornaments reminiscent in some respects of the Barcelona architect Antonio Gaudi. 'I made most of them when I retired at 72,' he says proudly, 'and when I was 80 I made that' - pointing to the central feature of the second part of the garden, a fanciful structure with the flowers planted in sections modelled on the spokes of a cartwheel.

'I don't put any chemicals down - the birds take care of the slugs and insects for me. I feed them all the year round to keep them here.'

In the winter he takes all his begonias indoors and puts them on and around his landing. 'Now I can please myself, do what I like,' he confides. He works all year round to create a dazzling show in August. 'Hundreds of people come, like droves of sheep.'

Another octogenarian, Chris Johnston, also looks forward to the weekend, but makes fewer concessions to it in her gardening routine. She is the widow of a farmer, who brought her to Sunnyside, about a mile from the village centre, in 1936. The farmhouse, parts dating from the 15th century, then stood amid fields with scarcely any garden at all. Her husband created a magnificent broad lawn, now surrounded by tall trees, with a pond enlarged from the former muddy duck pond.

'The people come in their mini-buses, wander around and go where they like,' she says. 'I don't do anything specially for them, but they do love to chat.'

Mrs Johnston can tell them how she has watched the garden grow from nothing. 'Do you see that prunus?' she says, pointing to a tall tree with small, crimson leaves. 'I remember buying that at Woolworth's before the war for sixpence. In those days nothing at Woolworth's cost more than sixpence.'

One of the more unusual gardens on show, a mile from the village in a different direction, has been created by Peter Mortlock, head gardener at a nearby nursery. He has two passions, conifers and fuchsias. The main garden at Hartshall is, in effect, a small conifer plantation, landscaped around a sinuous grassy path.

The skill with planting conifers is to get a balance of shades, allowing the dark green, silver and golden-leaved varieties to set each other off. Mr Mortlock has achieved this and, both here and in his more conventional garden alongside, uses conifers cleverly to bring out the colour of his 250 fuchsias.

An unusual feature is the 3ft hedge in front of the garden. Its small leaf and compact growth leads everyone to believe it is a box hedge, but it is in fact lonicera nitida. Lonicera is the generic name for honeysuckle, but nitida resembles box, except that it grows so fast it has to be trimmed twice a week in summer.

The bravest of all the gardeners I met is Ann James, whose 16th-century cottage, The Thumbit - once part of an inn on the fringe of the village - stands on the edge of 400 acres of fields, where the wind blows incessantly. 'It's not unusually strong but it's persistent,' she explains. 'It's devastating, it doesn't give you a break.' She has learnt that the plants to choose are those with open foliage, so that the wind can blow through them without causing damage.

Mrs James is a serious plant collector and a perfectionist with it. Since she and her family moved to the house 15 years ago, she has created and maintained an exquisite garden of delicate shapes, colours and fragrances. 'For the first few years I threw out 60 per cent of what I put in, because it was too big or grew too strongly or couldn't cope with the wind.' She is fond of old roses (43 varieties) and clematis (38). 'We don't want it to look like a nursery display. We want everything to look as relaxed as possible.'

There is much for visitors to admire, from the topiary snail and fantail pigeon to the bed of variegated shrubs by the pond, dominated by a vigorous yellow potentilla Elizabeth - the oldest plant in the garden. 'I love the visits,' she says. 'Some people come year after year and they may bring me something from their garden and I'll dig up something for them.'

It is this spirit of comradeship among gardeners, of common membership of a far from exclusive club, that makes such visits so irresistible. All 25 of the Walsham le Willows gardens are different in that all reflect to some extent the personalities of their owners. Visiting a formal public garden has its own pleasures, but it is one-dimensional compared with seeing and talking to the faces behind the trowels.

To reach Walsham le Willows from Bury St Edmunds, take the A143 towards Diss and turn right just beyond Ixworth. The gardens are open today and tomorrow from 2-6.30pm.

(Photographs omitted)