Of all the romance associated with English gardens, surely those with walls around them are especially appealing. Walled gardens have been a vital cog in the gardening wheels of this country from their Victorian heyday through years of post-war neglect to their rise to prominence again today.
However, it is only in recent times that walled gardens have been looked upon again as more than as a source of produce or an expensive maintenance headache. This reversal in fortune can be traced back to 1987 when BBC2 screened ‘The Victorian Kitchen Garden’ over 13 episodes. That iconic programme, which showed Harry Dodson delicately tending the walled garden at Chilton Foliat in Wiltshire, with a memorable voiceover from Peter Thoday (and an award-winning clarinet soundtrack) gave people food for thought. In no time, gardens such as The Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall and Knightshayes Court in Devon had realised that restoration could be a very valuable enterprise.
Of the walled gardens were still thriving at this time, most were in the hands of those who could afford it. The last throes of a dying tradition were beautifully captured by Susan Campbell and Hugh Palmer in the story of Lady Macdonald-Buchanan’s garden at Cottesbrooke in Northamptonshire. Published in 1987, this vivid portrait of human and plant life within the walls captured all the magic and the phenomenal skill required to produce crops to the highest standards of 1910. Campbell went on to found the Walled Kitchen Gardens Network with Adam Hunt, the late and much-missed Fiona Grant, and myself.
Nonetheless, many walled garden owners, lacking the funds required to pay an army of gardeners, had allowed these wonderful places to fall into disrepair – or had put them to other uses. Christmas trees, swimming pools, tennis courts, poultry or just grass were favoured options. At one point early in my horticultural career I was growing organic vegetables in a magnificent 18th century walled garden in Dorset. It was one of four joined together in a cruciform design. The other three were filled with pheasant laying pens for the estate’s shoot.
By the late 1980s the first murmurings of a real revival were under way. The attraction to gardener, television viewer and visitor alike was that growing fruit, vegetables and flowers was something that we understood. It had always been a favoured pastime of the British and now it was back. In all the years that I worked at Heligan, there was never any question that the productive gardens were the most popular with visitors. They would compliment us as we slaved away – it was only the odd one who would mutter that the leeks on their allotment were far superior to the ones they had paid a fiver to come and see.