Newsletter No. 22, Winter 2011/12

A Tale of Two Walled Gardens - Fiona Grant; The gentry houses of Market Drayton and their landscapes in 1851 - Kunigunda Gough

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Letter from the Chairman

The garden fatalities from last winter’s severe weather were, for many, a reminder that much loved trees and shrubs will not last forever. This provides a good starting point for pondering the future of the Pitchford Tree House, one of the best known and loved garden buildings in Shropshire. For some years Pitchford Hall has had an ownership which has not been sympathetic to public access. Out of sight has not been out of mind and SPGT members and others have expressed concern about the maintenance and future of the famous tree house once visited by Queen Victoria. The short term news seems good. After English Heritage had included it on its Heritage At Risk Register in 2010 work was undertaken by the owner. Conservation staff from Shropshire Council subsequently visited, and report that repairs have been carried out, including to the access steps, resulting in the removal of the building from the At Risk Register. For most buildings that would be fine, but the Tree House has most unusual and vulnerable foundations – the branches of what is now a very ancient lime tree. The most rigorous maintenance of this charming small building cannot prevent the ultimate death of the tree, despite the skills of tree surgeons and specialists over the years. So what of its future? The fatalist option is to accept that the tree will continue to decay and although propping and a supporting may prolong the building as a ‘tree’ house the point will come where safety considerations will require the removal of the tree. Any notion of planting and nurturing a new tree seems in the realms of fiction and a steel-framed GRP-clad fake tree would look like something from the playground of a Happy Eater! After all, tree houses are, like our own lesser ‘dens’ of childhood, essentially ephemeral. Their joy is in their creation and active use and anyone who has visited Alnwick with its tree house restaurant will agree that the spirit of tree houses is alive and well. So will the legacy of Pitchford Tree House ultimately be a laser scanned, 3D, all singing and dancing digital archive? But there is another perspective. The Pitchford Tree House is a grade 1 listed building whose significance will favour its retention in some form. Small buildings in parks and gardens have frequently been moved and re-sited by their owners without any hue and cry. The Tree House is of a size which would surely readily allow it to be cradled, lifted by a crane and transported to pastures new, even if not supported by a tree. Today most would argue that context is an important factor so a Pitchford location would be desirable; but it is not so long ago that removal to somewhere like Avoncroft Museum of Buildings would have seemed like salvation. There are a variety of options, all of which cost money. The important thing is surely to consider and evaluate and ensure that a common policy is agreed between the owner, English Heritage and Shropshire Council. In the present economic climate no one will be rushing to act. The future of Pitchford Tree House could easily be determined by inertia. This only strengthens the Trust’s role as an arm’s length godparent, gently campaigning for the future of this remarkable historic garden building.

Tony Herbert

A Tale of Two Walled Gardens

It is not every day that one hears of a walled kitchen garden being renovated in the county, so to have two being restored within a few hundred yards of each other is as exciting as it is unusual.

The gardens belong to two historic properties: Attingham Park and Longner Hall. The estates lie adjacent to each other close by Atcham village, and it is a happy coincidence that the two gardens are being brought back to life at much the same time. Both date from the Georgian period and both are situated in grounds landscaped by Humphry Repton, yet here the similarities end. Attingham Park is a National Trust property, whilst Longer Hall is privately owned (the family seat of the Burton family since the 14th century), which necessitates two very different approaches to the renovations of each.

For private owners a walled garden can be as much a curse as a blessing: maintenance of the structures can be extremely costly, and the huge quantities of fruit and veg that were once grown in such gardens far exceed the more modest requirements of families today. Without the labour to maintain the garden they can soon become overgrown and derelict.

Longner Hall lies to the west of the park at Attingham, divided from it by the Atcham/Uffington road. The hall was built by John Nash in 1803 (who was working at Attingham at much the same time) on the site of the previous manor house. Proposals for landscaping the grounds are described in Repton’s Red Book, dated 1804. As shown in the 1st edition OS map of 1881, the walled garden lies close to the house and is an acre in size, roughly rectangular, enclosed by high brick walls. There is a smaller frame yard attached, where there were once glasshouses and coldframes; these have since been demolished, however the name ‘Messenger & Co’, a well known glasshouse builder of the 19th century, can be seen on the surviving winding mechanism. The garden is believed to be roughly contemporary with the house, although so far no proper historical research has been carried out.

The present owners, Robert and Gill Burton, are determined to keep their walled garden productive; but without the means to maintain it, the weeds had taken over and the shrubs and hedges planted by a previous tenant had become overgrown. In 2009 it was decided to place an advertisement in the local paper, in the hope that someone would come forward to take on the garden. The Burtons were extremely lucky to be able to persuade one of the applicants - Tom Donnelly, a professional gardener with a full time job and three allotments - to tackle the garden.

There is no formal tenancy, rather an agreement for joint use of the garden, with the Burtons providing the seeds and plants. Two lots of everything are grown, the produce to be divided equally between them; decisions on what is to be grown are taken jointly, but the Burtons will always bow to Tom’s greater experience and expertise. In 2010, with the help of a digger, the clearing began. Initially one half was cleared, and although Tom was not due to start until March last year, he set about digging out the tree roots and preparing the plot for cultivation.

When I first visited in the middle of February, the garden was a revelation, for a start one could actually see the far walls! A large rectangular plot ran the length of the garden. It had been well manured and was planted up with soft fruit – raspberries and blackcurrants. A wide border next to the south wall had crops of healthy looking cabbages and already broad beans were showing above the soil. By the time of my next visit two months later, the spring cabbages were ready for cutting and the broad beans at least a foot high. Tom was planting out sweet peas in the main plot around three tepees, and rows of beetroot, parsnips and lettuces were coming on well. Between the beds are newly sown grass paths, creating a professional and neat effect. In short, what had been achieved in little over a year was remarkable, especially when you consider that the only help that Tom has is from his young apprentice Gary Ashworth.

The layout of the garden reflects the original layout as shown in the 1st ed OS map. The garden is divided in two by a central path bordered by established fruit trees. The other half has now been cleared, and there are plans to create a small working orchard at one end, and to grow Malus sylvestris (crab apples) near the entrance at the opposite end, to create an attractive feature. Work clearing the Frame Yard was already underway at the time of my first visit, and by April the new metal-frame glasshouse was in the process of being erected on the footprint of the old lean-to. The whole area will be used as a nursery, an ideal place to propagate and grow on plants for the main garden. The potting shed is once again in use and the foundations of the old coldframes will be used as propagation beds.

In the future the Burtons hope to be able to show special interest groups around the garden, but not until renovations are completed and access improved. 

The National Trust’s approach to the renovation of their walled garden differs in a number of ways. As a national charity dedicated to the preservation of our heritage at the same time allowing public access, the Trust must juggle with a number of issues relating to historical accuracy, whilst maintaining the garden as a visitor attraction. Furthermore it can sometimes attract support, be it outside funding or the help of volunteers, that may not be available to a private owner. 

The walled garden at Attingham is believed to have been built around 1786; there are builder's accounts for building garden walls in that year, and later for building a 'hothuse' and a vinery. This was a few years after Noel Hill, later 1st Lord Berwick, inherited the estate and started construction of the present mansion to a design by George Steuart. The garden lies approximately 600m to the north-west of the Hall, and is made up of two walled areas, the larger rectangular area being just under two acres, and the smaller Frame Yard about .650 of an acre. The walled garden is shown on the plan in the Repton Red book dated 1798, the 2nd Lord Berwick having engaged Humphry Repton to improve the grounds the previous year. Repton was not involved in the design of the walled garden, but he is thought to have laid out the walk from the house to the central door in the south wall, which has recently been restored and is now known as the Repton Path.

The walled garden at Attingham has had a chequered history: during the 20th century it has been a market garden, a football pitch and a Christmas tree nursery. Although the area was 'put to bed' and grassed over  in the nineties, the Trust (which acquired the property in 1947) continuted to maintain the structures. Modest cultivation began in one of the quarters in 2008, but it was in 2009 that the full restoration programme began, with the appointment of Catherine Nicholl as 'Walled Gardener', whose energetic approach has given real impetus to the restoration project.

Under her direction are two seasonal gardeners plus a trainee from the Women’s Farm and Garden Association who comes in two days a week. In addition there is a small army of around fifty volunteers, which roughly works out between 6-8 a day, five days a week. 

The main aims of the restoration project are:

  • To bring a Georgian garden back to life after a lengthy period of disuse
  • To produce fruit, flowers and vegetables for the tea room and shop
  • To provide a beautiful and engaging space for visitors to enjoy

Clearly public access, enjoyment and education are key factors in the Trust’s approach to the restoration, as well as providing produce to the shop and the tearoom. 

One entrance to the gardens is through the bothy, a small single story building built into the east wall. Traditionally the apprentice gardeners would have slept here – in the attic under the eaves, and the head gardener may have had his office downstairs. Here the Trust has created a welcoming space, in the winter months a fire crackles in the grate, and carefully chosen pieces of furniture create a period atmosphere. The adjoining room is the interpretation area, where the public can learn about the history of the garden and read of the latest developments. From here a door leads into the smaller garden known as the frame yard: this was always the propagation area, and is still used for this purpose today. There are three glasshouses – a two bay lean-to vinery, a lean-to tomato house and a freestanding full span melon house. Originally supplied by the firm Duncan Tucker & Sons in the 1920s, they were restored by the Trust in 2007, and are now all in use. Melons and cucumbers are grown in the melon house, and tomatoes in the tomato house, which is also used for growing salads in the winter. It is hoped that vines will be grown once more in the vinery, but meanwhile it is used for growing summer crops such as tomatoes, aubergines and French beans. After much discussion, a local grey gravel was used for the paths and surfaces; historically cinders or coke ash from the boilers would have been used in this area, but it is virtually impossible to obtain the same quality today. However this solution works well, it looks good and is hardwearing – essential when dealing with large visitor numbers.

In the larger walled garden, a perimeter path newly laid with ‘hoggin’ (a self-binding gravel traditionally used in these gardens) encloses the four quarters of the garden. In one of the eastern quarters cultivation is well underway, a wide range of vegetable crops are grown and this has proved to be of great interest to visitors. The Trust recognises that visitors like to see the garden being cultivated, and if possible chat to a gardener. In addition there are regularly updated interpretation boards explaining what is being grown, and of course there is also the opportunity to buy plants in the shop. In 2010 sales of produce raised around £5,000. 

The other eastern quarter was cleared by three Gloucester Old Spot pigs last summer, much to the delight of the visitors. Cultivation will begin here this year; perennial crops such as asparagus and soft fruit are planned, whilst the rest of the area will have a rotation of annual crops. The two remaining quarters remain grassed over, and it is planned to cultivate one quarter each subsequent year.

The walls have been wired for the fruit trees, the traditional training method in the 19th century. However the two curved corners at each end of the south wall will be ‘nailed and tagged’ in order to demonstrate the 18th century method of attaching trees to the wall with cloth and nails. In February last year the fruit trees were planted against the walls: plum trees on the east facing wall, Morello cherries on the north facing, sweet cherries on the west facing and peaches and apricots on the south facing. Iron espalier railings have been constructed along one side of the central path where pear espaliers have been planted, and when the other quarters have been cultivated, will continue all the way along on both sides.

In 2010 an exciting archaeological find, by Jeremy Milln the Trust’s archaeologist, confirmed that there was originally a Peach House against the south side of the northernmost wall, dating back to the 18th century. The foundations will be on display with the appropriate interpretation, as will the furnaces behind the wall, which were used to heat the flued or ‘hot’ walls. There were once three such hot walls at Attingham, an early, if crude method for protecting the fruit blossom from frost, thereby ensuring an early crop. However this practice fell out of use with the introduction of hot water boilers around the middle of the 19th century. The huge boiler at Attingham is still intact and can be seen in one of the ‘back sheds’ situated behind the north wall. This monster would have provided the heat for all the glasshouses in the frame yard, and offers a good example of a later heating system. The back sheds were very much the working part of the garden, and provided spaces for tool sheds, fruit and root vegetable storage, etc. There is also an interesting example of a mushroom house where, for the first time in decades, a successful crop of mushrooms was grown in 2010. More crops are planned in the future.

Outside the northern wall is the old orchard, where the mature trees are undergoing a much needed pruning. This is a popular area with visitors who can picnic on tables placed below the fruit trees An old gamekeeper’s hut houses the chickens which wander about freely, scratching in the long grass, doing their bit to keep pests under control. A colony of bees has been housed in the ornate Regency Bee House since spring 2010. Livestock is seen by the Trust as an important way to animate the landscape, at the same time emphasising the connection with food. The 7 garden is going through organic conversion, due to complete next February. 

It is indeed heartening to see these gardens being brought back to life and being used for what they were originally intended – growing food. It will be fascinating to watch the progress of both restoration projects over the coming years, and who knows, perhaps the results might inspire other owners and institutions to follow their example. 

Fiona Grant

The gentry houses of Market Drayton and their landscapes in 1851 

A small market town it may have been, in 1851, but Drayton families followed fashion with great enthusiasm. For a rural parish of modest extent, it contained a surprisingly large number of grand country houses — often by fashionable architects — set in landscaped parkland which was professionally designed. The rural parish was more extensive in 1851 than is our modern administrative district and included country estates which are now in Staffordshire, such as Oakley, Hales and Almington. The number of parklands, large and small, approached thirty. 

A look at the maps of that time will show that many villages still retained their manor houses, or the granges which were originally run by religious orders. In most cases, however, the lordship of the manor was no longer directly connected with the family which was living at the old manor house. A number of the influential titled families had moved on. By 1851 the manor house occupiers were typically local farming families of lesser status, although they were still influential in local affairs. 

Where families had become wealthy, perhaps through ‘good marriages’, they had often invested in the 18th century building boom of grand new country houses. This created the ostentatious display which was still a key feature in the local landscape in 1851. Some of these families had strong local roots, such as the Clives at Styche, the Kilmoreys of Shavington (formerly Needhams) and the Corbets of Adderley, who had all acquired titled status over the years. The Adderley estate had two great houses in quick succession: a house in Classical style was soon demolished and rebuilt in Victorian Gothic style, revealing the Corbets to be avid followers of fashion.

Other prosperous landowners, untitled but with enough resources to build a country mansion on the grand scale, included the Mackworths and later the Tayleurs at Buntingsdale Hall. They had gradually bought and consolidated extensive land holdings. 

A third category of owner was the wealthy industrialist who used his fortune to create a rural estate idyll in the traditional English landscape style. Typical of these was Purney Sillitoe, who in the early 19th century had created the Pell Wall estate through land acquisitions and then employed the eminent architect and savant Sir John Soane to build him a house in the fashionable classical style. Some of these industrialists were immigrants to the county, such as John Pemberton Heywood, a Liverpool banker whose fortune derived from the slave trade but who came to rural Shropshire to build Cloverley Hall in neo-Tudor style. This grand mansion was originally greater in extent than it is today. 

On a smaller scale were the fine town houses such as The Grove, built in the 1770s by Thomas D’Avenant. The owners in 1851 were the Wilsons who had come to the area when John Wilson acted as contractor for our section of Telford’s Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal (later becoming part of the Shropshire Union Canal). Another was The Towers, a brand new town villa completed in  8 1851 for Joseph Loxdale Warren, a local solicitor. Their owners followed national fashions both in interior design (the original house at the Grove School still has its fine Adam-style reception rooms) and in garden design. 

Whether owners had a major country house or a town villa, they aspired to a fine landscape setting to complement it in style. In the Drayton area this landscape legacy includes several ornamental parklands of national significance, as recognised by their inclusion in English Heritage’s ‘Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England’. These are Adderley, Shavington, Buntingsdale, Pell Wall, Hodnet (a 20th century garden), Tunstall and Oakley. A Grade 1 Registered Park is considered to be of international importance: Hawkstone Park has this highest status. 

Deer Parks

Although there had been extensive deer parks in North Shropshire from the 12th century onwards, such as the large hunting forest between Drayton and Cheswardine, they had largely been lost to farming cultivation by 1851. The tradition did remain on a very reduced scale: typically the small deer herds at Oakley, Hawkstone and Hodnet which were often kept for their ornamental value in the parkland. They sometimes formed part of the country house tradition of providing country pursuits for the family and their guests, with hunting being a continuing favourite. 

Early Gardens

Throughout the scattered rural townships the heritage of the Middle Ages was still just evident, notably through the surviving half-timbered manor houses. In many cases these retained their original moats, with or without water, even though now they were kept for decorative rather than defensive purposes.

An example of a moated garden was Moreton Say, where remnants of the moat had been incorporated into the new Vicarage Garden. Just as their Elizabethan predecessors had done, the Victorians enjoyed a promenade around the boundary of their ornamental gardens. Such walks often included raised viewing points from which the layout and the plantings could be admired.

Newsletter No. 22, Winter 2011/12

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