Kirtling Tower, near Newmarket, is all that remains of the grand house built around 1530 by Baron North, the son of a London merchant. Cleverly, he managed to stay on the right side of both Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. He was the moneybags, managing the lucrative aftermath of the dissolution of the monasteries. The tower is a lovely building, red brick patterned in blue diamonds with a pretty oriel window squeezed between the two outer turrets.
I first went there to look at tulips. Richard Ayres, the head gardener, had written to say that large spreads of Tulipa sylvestris were growing wild in the grass at Kirtling Tower. Only two species of tulip naturalise with any pleasure in the UK, and this is one of them. Even so, it's rare. We are right at the edge of the tulip's preferred habitat and it's not surprising that the places where it is found tend to be in the eastern counties – Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Nottinghamshire (where there are wonderful spreads at Holme Pierrepont Hall).
At Kirtling, the tulip has spread itself in great swathes under trees and also grows alongside the old moat that once surrounded the tower. When I was there, Mr Ayres explained that for a long time, the property had been tenanted. All that time, the grass had been regularly mown. When the owners, Lord and Lady Fairhaven, took over the place, the mowing regime changed and the tulips, discouraged for so long from showing themselves, at last had the opportunity to flower. I could scarcely believe that they would hang on so long – hoping for this day of salvation, liberation.
When I saw them, the tulips were in wonderful shape, the buds of emerging flowers characteristically borne at right-angles to the stem. It must have been this habit, combined with the clear butter-yellow colour of the flowers, that persuaded early botanists to call them daffodils. It's an unmistakeable flower, the three outer petals of the flowers curling back on themselves, and leaving the three inner petals to make a closed curved dome inside.
T. sylvestris doesn't show the wide variation typical of many other tulips, though in naturalised populations you can sometimes find flowers with five or seven petals, rather than the usual six. I found both at Kirtling. But the colour of the flowers doesn't change at all, the yellow outer petals netted with green, with a touch of maroon at each tip. All the petals are long, narrow and pointed. The scent is delicious, soft and light, like a primrose.
Mr Ayres has noticed that the tulips flower much better after a hot summer. This is what you'd expect; summer baking is what tulips in England most miss. The heat initiates the buds for the following year, and without it, tulips often produce only their long, narrow leaves. Like this, T. sylvestris can be easily overlooked.
The setting at Kirtling Tower is particularly lovely and Lady Fairhaven explained that the colonies of T. sylvestris there grew very close to the site of the formal Star Garden which was laid out in the early 17th century. The garden was set below the original house, which sat on a mound inside its moat. This all made sense too. Although the tulip will naturalise where it is happy, it's not a British native. So someone must once have brought it here to plant. It was certainly known by 1576, when in Britain it would have been a staggeringly expensive rarity, planted with careful attention and guarded anxiously.
Knowing about the tulips, I wasn't entirely surprised when Sally Kington, who knows everything about narcissus, told me that equally old daffodils had subsequently been discovered at Kirtlington. They bobbed up when a large bramble patch was cleared from the banks of the moat. 'Telamonius Plenus', the oldest of the double daffodils, was there as well as a more unusual double called 'Thomas' Virescent Daffodil' because of the greenish wash on its petals.
Of course, it's a rare pleasure to see these old flowers, brought back from oblivion, but there's plenty else to see at Kirtling. This weekend, the spring garden should be at its peak, with 70,000 bulbs planted in memory of the Fairhaven's son, Rupert Broughton, who died 10 years ago in Africa. More recently, the path leading to the church has been planted with 30,000 bulbs of grape hyacinth and pale chionodoxa. In time, those will naturalise too, in the light sandy soil typical of this area.
It's always intriguing to find plants naturalised in unexpected places. How, for instance, did Allium paradoxum arrive in the churchyard of All Saints at Westbury in Wiltshire? It's not a British native, but flowers robustly here every March. A letter from Wendy Wood of Westbury gave me the answer. The allium was originally brought in to Britain from northern Iraq by the fine plantsman, Paul Furse. In the 1960s, he had invited Wood's friend Felicity Baxter and her husband to join him on his Iraq expedition. The allium turned out to be a very good "doer", happy in shade, happy in heavy soils. It was Mrs Baxter who planted it in the churchyard, which Wendy Wood now looks after.
The five-acre garden at Kirtling Tower, Newmarket Road, Kirtling, near Newmarket, Cambs CB8 9PA, is open tomorrow and Sunday 28 March (11am-4pm), admission £4. The garden at Holme Pierrepont Hall, Holme Pierrepont, Nottingham NG12 LD, is open Mon-Wed (2-5pm) during March and also on Sunday 11 April (2-5pm) when T. sylvestris should be in flower. Admission £3.Reuse content