Helmingham Hall Gardens, Stowmarket, Suffolk, UK
The lockdown from the Covid-19 pandemic has meant many things to me – not all of them negative. One of the positives is going on lots of journeys of the mind with many happy hours spent trawling through old photos, travel diaries and gardening articles. In my ‘normal’ life, I just don’t seem to find the time?
So, as my garden and I were meditating in the rain I thought – where to today? Why not a beautiful house and garden in Suffolk. Helmingham Hall – close to where my Mum lives, that we visited a couple of years back on a day when the heavens opened, much like today and, as I look out into my garden in the fading light, just takes me to that other time and place.
Those of us in love with the beauty and joy of European gardens will probably already have been to some of the most famous ones in the UK like Sissinghurst, Kew, Wisley, Bodnant, Great Dixter, Hidcote and, while everyone should visit them once in their life, these not so well known ones also have so much to offer – they all have their own beauty and unique histories but are a lot less commercialised and ‘packaged’ than the most famous ones – which means, joy of joys, less crowds!
My mother lives in a beautiful part of the world on the Stour River, bordering Essex and Suffolk, with access to lovely countryside, picturesque villages and valleys that have been havens of rural life for centuries.
It was this landscape that was the birthplace and inspiration to two of England’s most celebrated painters – John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough. Travelling to Helmingham we passed through Sudbury where a statue of Gainsborough (1727-1788) stands in the centre of town and, on the day we were there, he was keeping a watchful eye on the bustling farmers market – something that time hasn’t altered over the three hundred years since he was born – Sudbury always having been an important market town. I bought the most delicious cherries, strawberries and pork pies and headed for Helmingham.
The first thing that strikes you is the utterly romantic setting of this moated, Tudor manor house – almost Lewis Carroll like in it’s imagining – with swathes of wild meadow and grasses dotted with topiaried ‘blob’ bushes sweeping all around the house. Here and there a pathway has been mown through the meadow to help you with your happy wanderings – where I fully expected to see the Mad Hatter dashing along in front of me.
This has been the home of the Tollemache family since 1480 surviving for a continuous 18 generations. They still live here and generally just have the garden open to the public, not the house.
Even if we couldn’t go in the house – it is enchanting just to look at, with it’s ornate and faded Tudor brickwork, twisted chimneys, moat and drawbridges that allow you, or otherwise, to enter the massive front and back doors.
Honeysuckle’d gateway leading into the Potager Garden
Helmingham, however, is best known for its fine garden (Grade 1 listed), which is regularly open to the public.
The current owner is renowned landscape designer, Xa Tollemache, who proudly boasts that a 1,000 years of manure have gone into the garden, and it certainly shows. Like many garden designers she did something ‘before’ and only took up gardening after the birth of her children. Drawing classes led to landscape design and practicing on the gardens at Helmingham, which eventually led to private commissions which, she says, she took on because she was hard up. Max Hastings, the former editor of the Daily Telegraph, visited Helmingham in the 1990’s and was so impressed by the gardens that he contracted Xa Tollemache to design an entry for the Chelsea Flower Show for the paper – it won a Gold Medal. The rest, they say, is history and her fees are now more than 200 pounds per hour.
Helmingham is not just the house and garden – it is also part of a larger estate of over 400 acres, with herds of deer, sheep, cattle, magnificent trees, woodlands, thatched barns and rural farmland – Constable and Reynolds landscapes come to life.
Xa Tollemache says that the plumpness of the red deer on the estate can be attributed to their diet of surplus Brussels sprouts from the Kitchen Garden!
This is England and, if the English weather had been kinder, I would have loved to have taken a walk on the many of the public footpaths that criss-cross the estate and surrounding countryside (how I wish we had these in Australia!).
June can be one of the best times to go garden visiting in the south of England – you have some of the leftover delights of spring and all the early summer flowering. The semi-formal mixed borders were bursting with blossoming colour – peonies, poppies, lupins, alliums, tumbling roses and everything that makes up an English perennial border.
These walled borders have been evolving since the garden was first laid out in the 1800’s and had a major makeover by the Tollemaches’ in the 1990’s adopting the typical English romantic style of the 20th century (Sissinghurst being the most famous) – formal design with informal planting – the long borders have been broken up with buttressed, clipped yew hedges and the walls with espaliered roses.
NOTE: Vita Sackville-West was influenced by other gardeners of the 20th century: Gertrude Jekyll, William Robinson, Edwin Lutyens, Lawrence Johnston and Norah Lindsay whom we will meet later at Blickling Hall in Norfolk, another wonderful garden that I visited on this trip.
Alliums (onion family) in the long border with the buttressed yews – informal planting with structured design.
Talking to the head gardener, he told me that at the beginning of the season the colour scheme in these borders is chosen to blend with the old roses; pinks, blues, mauves, lilac, creams and pale yellow, but as summer intensifies they give way to the stronger coloured bronzes, deep reds and yellows.
Early summer colour scheme with climbing roses along the walls of the Apple Tree Walk
A love of plants permeates a garden like Helmingham, with their personalities allowed to flourish. The abundant planting enhances shading of tender plants and encourages self-seeding – on the day we were there, a young lady member of the gardening staff was carefully moving some of these ‘opportunists’ that had popped up to spots in the sun where, as she said, “they would be happier”.
The Parterre and Knot Gardens are a nod to the past in their Italianate and French designs originally made to impress and say ‘look how clever I am – I can control nature’ in their formal geometric design and proportion they were meant to look like an extension of the house and show off the owners wealth and status. The Parterre at Helmingham has been softened by the planting of swathes of white and blue santolina and lavender – striking a contrast to the clipped hedges of box and yew.
The Knot Garden, typical of gardens from manor houses of this period was, in fact, only created in 1982 to be historically sympathetic to the house with the clipped box hedging depicting the Tollemache initials and heraldry, and interplanted with species introduced into Britain before 1750. As well as being historically sensitive, the family wanted to create a garden that gave a real sense of time and place – a romantic setting that captures the imagination when viewed across the moat from the windows of the house. (The skill, time and money involved in maintaining a garden like this is mind-blowing – see endnote!)
The garden also has an Apple Tree Walk, Rose Garden and walled Kitchen Garden- these beautiful iris formed a stunning border around the veggie beds – their iridescence glowing in the darkening day.The garden is open from May to September – check online for daily opening times.
“The most noteworthy thing about gardeners is that they are always optimistic, always enterprising, and never satisfied. They always look forward to doing something better than they have done before” Vita Sackville-West
What was my favourite part of Helmingham? – the meadows around the house where I sat and ate my pork pie and strawberries.
NOTE: On an earlier visit to the UK I visited the garden of Squerrys at Westerham and realised that not all garden staff have an eye for topiary and hedging – well, not a straight one anyway – either that or they take a hip flask to work with them!
If you would like to come and explore some other English garden I have visited please click on the links below.