Within these walls: Anna Pavord is entranced by a walled kitchen garden in Suffolk
From the outside, a walled kitchen garden can seem forbidding, excluding – its boundaries are too tall to climb over, there are no windows to give you a glimpse of what goes on inside. It's as protective of its space as a castle's curtain wall.
But if you manage to get in, a walled garden embraces you, takes you under its wing. It becomes a cocoon, a retreat, a world made orderly and productive by the ebb and flow of sowing, growing, harvesting, digging, then sowing again.
The kitchen garden at Glemham House in Suffolk was laid out when the house was built in the 1820s. It's a curious shape, an uneven polygon with a dipping pool at its centre, completely surrounded by tall red-brick walls. Coming in from the direction of the house, a wide path leads through shaggy borders still blooming with Michaelmas daisies, golden rod and shrub roses to a long range of glasshouses on the south facing wall. A cross path divides the space – nearly two acres – into four roughly equal plots. Both these and the path that circles round inside the walls are edged in the traditional way with box.
Like all old kitchen gardens, it is a place littered with clues about the people that have worked there, the crops that have been grown, the calendar of jobs that need to be done, the tools that have been used to do them. An Artist in the Garden (Full Circle Editions, £25) celebrates the stories held between the walls of this Suffolk garden with paintings by the artist, Tessa Newcomb, and text by Jason Gathorne-Hardy, who grew up at Glemham House and now runs The Alde Valley Spring Festival, a yearly celebration of food, farming, landscape and the arts.
The book provides an evocative journey through the growing seasons, following thef calendar from January to December, with seasonal recipes for each month. Though each chapter begins with notes taken down over the years by Glemham's gardeners ("October: Harvest last of tomatoes and courgettes. Remove tomato plants that have finished fruiting. Bundle up stakes. Sow lettuce seeds. Clean mowers…"), this was never intended to be a practical gardening book.
What it offers is a strong sense of place. In that, it is like Ronald Blythe's Akenfield or George Ewart Evans' Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay. The focus is tighter, but Gathorne-Hardy, who trained as a zoologist, has a knack of combining a forensic eye with the ability to stand back and take wider stock of what he's seeing. You get occasional flashes of him as a child in the kitchen garden, speeding round the velodrome of the circular path on his first bicycle. But this is much more complex than a memoir. It's a many-layered portrait of a place, still spilling with tomatoes and lettuces, peas and beans, potatoes and pumpkins.
The pumpkin patch fills almost an entire quarter of the garden, with round 'Red Kuri' squashes glowing like lanterns and Gourds of Napoli as big as piglets, lying under blankets of leaves. Quite a few of the vegetables that star in the book have names you won't find in seed catalogues. The Gourds of Napoli came back from Italy with Jason's mother, Caroline Cranbrook, a famous campaigner for the countryside, food and farming, who years ago was intrigued by the vast vegetable being sold by the slice in a Naples market. She's kept the seeds going ever since.
Beans are another Glemham speciality and 18 different kinds are grown. The biggest are the white Gigantes, which came originally from the Piazza delle Erbe, the food market held around Padua's medieval town hall. When I was at Glemham, many of the bean plants had been pulled up and were hanging in bunches under the sheltering roof of the cart shed, while the beans – Italian 'Lingua di Fuoco', North American 'Trail of Tears', an unnamed bean from Hungary – dried off in their pods.
Autumn is a terrific time in all old walled gardens. At Glemham, it was like being part of a gigantic harvest festival, with rows of tomato plants under a sunny wall, artichoke plants still producing elegant purple buds, a massive patch of sweetcorn, monumental German cabbages and the stems of Rosa glauca pulled over into great arches by the weight of the hips borne along their length.
The main crops move in rotation round the four squares of the walled garden, brassicas in one, potatoes in another, squash covering a third, sweetcorn and an asparagus bed in the fourth. There's a huge fruit cage, with espalier apples and pears along one side. In season, an equally large structure is put up to protect the peas. Timber and scaffolding pipes are wired together and a roll of chicken wire unravelled around the temporary structure. Gathorne-Hardy describes how "the final piece of the jigsaw is a small door hung from ancient hinges nailed into a rickety frame of old boards".
It's this eye for detail that makes this book such a pleasure to read. I could imagine the garden, its crops and outbuildings, even if I had never been to the place. Especially the outbuildings, resonant with more than 200 years of gardening activities. The apple store still looks as it must always have done, a long thin building built on the north wall, with shuttered, slatted windows and tiers of wooden shelves. This is where apples and pears are carefully laid out, facing the onions in wooden boxes on the other side of the store.
Alongside is the potting shed, with all the tools that were once used in the kitchen garden hung against the wall: enough hoes for every week of the year, swan-necked turfing irons, heavy iron dibbers. And a board on which gardener Christopher Ellis records the dozens of different crops he sows and plants out each season in this remarkable place.
You can see Tessa Newcomb's pictures of the place at a selling exhibition in the restaurant at Wyken Hall, Stanton, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk IP31 2DW, which is open every day (10am-5pm). And you can buy the book. Christmas presents? Sorted.
As Voltaire once said, “Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal”
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