Desmond’s Memories of The Garden

Though there has been a house on this site since 1280, no record exists of what it or its surroundings looked like in its early days. A new house was built in 1652 by a merchant’s son from Gloucester: a Mr Gifford who came east to participate in the trade with Holland and the east coast of England when Cley and Blakeney were thriving ports.

Flint walls were built to provide protection from the salt-laden winds, but there is little evidence of planting until much later. In a painting done by Cotman at the end of the 18th Century, a rather bleak place is shown, with only a few wind-blasted trees to the north of the house. Even for the growing of basic vegetables in the kitchen garden, shelter would have been essential, and the high walls that provide this date from the 18th Century.

The house passed to the Buck family (also farmers and owners of coastal trading boats) who were related to the Giffords. They continued to own the property until the end of the 19th Century, and it was they that carried out the first significant planting.

A painting in my possession, from circa 1880 shows a hedge planted above a low ha-ha at the edge of the lawn on the east side of the house, built to combat the bitter north-easterly wind. The painting was given to me by a friend, who chanced upon it in the window of a junk shop in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. In 1903/4 the estate was bought by Colonel and Mrs Watson-Kennedy. In the heyday of the Edwardians, from 1906 onwards, much change took place at Wiveton. The planting to the east of the house, and the sunken garden, date from this period. The estate employed no less than seven gardeners at this time. Sir Guy Dawber was the architect responsible for the west wing, built in 1908, but no research has yet been done to discover who designed the layout or planting of the gardens. It was a period of huge confidence and prosperity, largely thanks to our empire and consequent trade.

Mrs Watson Kennedy was in possession of a fortune amassed from shipping, enabling her to invest in the property without restraint. In addition to apple-orchards and fields of blackcurrants, she planted many trees designed to provide shelter for the garden, for the farm, and for game.An award winning herd of jersey cows grazed the marshes in summer, and were milked in the then state-of-the-art cowsheds. Cheese and butter were made in the dairy.

Under the expert eye of the head gardener, a Mr Jarvis, the kitchen garden provided fruit and vegetables for the house, and for the numerous people who worked there. The decrepit espalier ‘Doyen du Cornice’ pears that flank the main path in the kitchen garden date from this time. Mr Jarvis was sent annually to Wisley, the headquarters of the Royal Horticultural Society, near Guildford, to learn the latest horticultural techniques.

A bowling green was laid, sheltered by Mirabella plum hedges. Water pipes were installed throughout the garden. The cast-iron stand pipe covers are still visible, fed from a water tank built up on pillars whose height provides the water pressure; this was known as the thatched tank. The thatched summerhouse provided a focal point at the end of the herb and rose garden, on the eastern side of the drive. Yew hedges were planted to provide shelter.

As a child I used to visit Mr Jarvis and his wife, who lived in the village. My father would ask Mr Jarvis’ advice on the finer aspects of beekeeping. I clearly remember his watercolour paintings of the thatched tank and the trellis of roses lining its approach; I sometimes wonder where those pictures have ended up.

The large trees, such as the weeping beech and the cut-leaved beech, together with the Monterey pines by the pond, date from this period, so by now are all around 100 years old. The Monterey pine originates from the Californian coast, and is resistant to the salt-laden winds blowing from the sea, as are the Corsican pine and Holm oak.  There is a Stone or Umbrella pine which produces huge cones. The grey squirrels, not found here until the late 1970s, have discovered the delights of their seeds, the kernels of which are those used to make pesto, the Ligurian sauce.

There used to be some large eucalyptus trees growing at the bottom of the garden, which were killed by the salt water in the flood that devastated the coast in 1953. I was told that for a couple of years after the flood they were frequented by a pair of golden orioles whose sight and sound must have added an exotic touch to the garden.

During the interwar years Mr Jarvis ran the gardens with a slightly reduced staff, but even so 25 people were employed on the estate. Their descendants call from time to time; some had grown up here, others interested to come and see for themselves the place their parents or grandparents had told them about.

During the Second World War, unlike many large houses in the area the hall was not requisitioned, as it was considered too close to the coast, and even too inconvenient for the army. The kitchen garden continued to be maintained, and the bowling green was ploughed up to grow potatoes.

Colonel Watson Kennedy had died in 1938, Mrs Watson-Kennedy died in 1942, and the whole property was sold in 1944. My mother came to view the place on February 14th with her parents, Captain Richard Buxton and his wife, who had always lived in West Norfolk, and loved the coast. She, perhaps, due to her Greek seafaring ancestry, and he for the duck-shooting and the marshes where he would graze his precious herd of pedigree Friesians. My mother remembers early daffodils flowering in sheltered parts of the garden. My grandparents, curiously, did not seem to consider the size of this rambling home a disadvantage for just two people.

Mr Jarvis and his wife continued to be employed, now without four of the other gardeners; just Mann and Liffin to help him. Mr Mann wore round black wire glasses and he went so fast that he seemed to run behind the lawn-mower. Mr Liffin had a gold earring; perhaps he had been at sea. It must have been strange, even sad, for Mr Jarvis to see the changes in the garden. They kept up the kitchen garden, the fruit cages and apple-orchards outside. Great care was taken with the peaches and nectarines growing on all the south walls.

Redcurrants were a great favourite of my grandfather; he would dip them in a glass of water and roll them in castor sugar before eating them.

The white peaches were sweet and gloriously juicy. If it was cold when the blossom was out, he would go round with a horse’s tail on the end of a stick to aid the pollination.

Every year the mulberry tree produced masses of fruit, and then there were the figs. Maybe it was the rambling fig trees that thrive in the hard stony ground in the shelter of the walls that made my Greek grandmother love the place so much. We ate figs with my father in the early morning, chilled by the dew, and the best and sweetest were so ripe they were bursting.

It was my grandmother’s annual ritual in mid-August to cover the ripening fruit with plastic bags and bits of her old stockings in a race against the many blackbirds, thrushes and starlings that attempted to beat us to the ripening fruit. Kestrels were common in my childhood, and marsh harriers a great excitement, but sparrow-hawks were even rarer. In the last 15 years the sparrow-hawks have returned with such a vengeance that we do not have to cover any of the figs; one less job to do, you may think, but now there are hardly any song birds. Sadly the flycatchers which nested year after year in the wisteria outside my grandfather’s study have disappeared; almost certainly victims of the sparrow-hawks.

My grandparents loved the garden, but sensibly they had made no attempt to keep it as it had been before the war, partly on account of the cost, but partly also as a reaction against the highly ordered Victorian/Edwardian world of their youth. My grandfather was a great naturalist; he saw nothing wrong with seeing large parts of the garden overgrown with nettles, brambles, and self-sown saplings. Gradually the saplings grew into trees and elm suckers formed thickets on the old bowling green – perfect cover for the numerous woodcock that loved the abandoned woods and garden.

The Old Sweet Dove of Wiveton

Poem by Stevie Smith

‘Twas the voice of the sweet dove

I heard him move

I heard him cry:

Love love.

High in the chestnut tree

Is the nest of the old dove

And there he sits solitary

Crying, love, love.

The gray of this heavy day

Makes the green of the tree’s leaves and the grass brighter

And the flowers of the chestnut tree whiter

And whiter the flowers of the high cow-parsley.

So still is the air,

So heavy the sky,

You can hear the splash

Of the water falling from the green grass

As red and honey push by,

The old dogs,

Gone away, gone hunting by the marsh bogs.

Happy the retriever dogs in their pursuit,

Happy in the bog-mud the busy foot.

Now all is silent, it is silent again,

In the sombre day and the beginning soft rain

It is a silence mad more actual

By the moan from the high tree that is occasional.

Where in his nest above

Still sits the old dove,

Murmuring solitary,

Crying for pain

Crying most melancholy

Again and again”

After the flood my father replanted trees which have maintained the shelter to the north. Sadly, the Scots pines have not thrived; they do not like the salt air, unlike the Corsican pines. The blue smoke and clattering of the blades from the Allen Scythe mower that my father manoeuvred round the garden to keep the paths open are a vivid memory of summer evenings. It was a temperamental machine, with its fearsome tines and reciprocating blades, that was started only after countless energetic pulls on a rope on the fly-wheel. It was not a relaxing event, especially when my father mowed dangerously close to some treasured plant whose whereabouts was known only to my mother.

My Grandparents Primrose and Dick Buxton, and my father, Michael MacCarthy, all died within two years of each other in the early 1970s.

It would have been easier for my mother, Chloe, to sell the house that seemed, on the face of it, imposingly big, cold and inconvenient, but she was undaunted. It was a wonderful place for my sister and me to grow up, and my mother worked hard to keep it on with the garden and small farm intact. She loved the garden, and is very knowledgeable about the plants growing in it.

With the help of Reggie Holman from Glandford my mother kept the kitchen garden productive; pruning and taking cuttings have always been her greatest skills. At 99, she is still keeping roses, buddleia and camellias all flowering well, pruning as she picks flowers for the house or the café. Secateurs, clippers and loppers are never far away. She has kept the more tender plants such as myrtle carpentaria and jasmine (taken as a cutting from the Ritiro Park in Madrid) healthy for over 60 years. Some of them were planted by the Watson Kennedys.

She brought back cuttings in her sponge bag from abroad as mementos of her holidays – a small white cistus from the sand dunes at Arcachon in France, box from a damp picnic in Spain, an unusual oval-leafed box from a monastery in China and a prickly Cunninghamia tree (a bit like a monkey-puzzle), also from China.

The craze for agapanthus started after my father’s visit to South Africa. Nobody could have guessed how well they would do. My father showed me how you could eat the flower and leaves of a nasturtium as he helped my sister and me in our little patches of the kitchen garden which we tended with a child’s short-lived interest. Blue morning glories were his favourite, as they reminded him of his youth working in the Chilean Andes.

Marking seed and plant catalogues are still a large part of my mother’s life, tracking down and ordering different flavoured tomatoes and beans. I still recall the fuss and crises that occurred when they got mislabelled or incorrectly planted.

For a long time the farm and garden were kept going by Reggie and his father-in-law Baden Watson fitting in what they could do when they could. It has been a great achievement keeping this romantic place going; I remember the endless daffodil and snowdrop bulbs my mother has dug up, split and replanted; the new planting of camellia twenty years ago, magnolias, tulips. The garden is a great tribute to her skills, her determination and dedication.

Reggie Holman, who worked here for 50 years, died suddenly in November 2007. His presence, charm, and skills are greatly missed. His ‘make do and mend’ ways were ahead of his time, whether keeping the engine of the combine going with a gasket made from an old gumboot, or mending the dog kennel by wiring an old bicycle wheel over the hole and calling it recycling. Despite working on the farm and garden with such dedication, and keeping the place going and nature at bay, he had a wonderful irreverence about the house, partly to wind me up. Taking time off from raking leaves to light another untipped Players cigarette, leaning on his rake, he said “look at that great old monastery of a place full of all your lumber. Needs a bloody bomb under it. I’d have taters up to the door”.

Reggie would do things for almost anybody, and whenever I go into the garden I can remember helping him with projects: dredging the pond of mud and vegetation; cutting down endless dead elms and replanting; clearing thick banks of bramble with our flail mower on the back of the tractor; bonfires that we sometimes kept going for weeks in the winter; and clearing the multitude of self-sown trees that had grown everywhere. With increased light a swath of martagan lilies sprang up, peonies flowered for the first time in ages, and the clumps of bamboo revived.

We have always had to keep the paths open, as in spring and early summer the wild woodland garden and pond at the front of the house is beautiful, and deserves to be seen. Even the dreaded Japanese knot-weed that has taken over one end of the pond has its place. An exciting jungle for children to explore, and with its huge floppy leaves makes the pond look like the painting by Henri Rousseau: the pan and a sinister serpent digesting on a branch.

And then, in July, everything is cut down and cleared away so as to not enrich the soil.

I get a lot of pleasure from hearing how others see the garden. About twenty years ago I found a boy of 12 or 13 who I recognised from Cley, wandering by the pond: “I love it down here”, he said in broad Norfolk, “That remind me of Japan with the Azaleas in the background and the Cherry blossom on the water, what that needs is a little bridge and it would be just like a willow pattern”. I was amazed by this observation; he went on to tell me he had a Japanese pen friend.

The pond needs dredging again, the bamboo needs thinning, and more light could be let in. We are going to enhance the jungle effect with more exciting bamboos, tree ferns and Gunnera, all plants I love, without affecting the swathes of bluebells that cheer us up in early May.

My new enthusiasm for the garden has been triggered by the success of the café, our need to grow more vegetables and herbs and the arrival of Amanda Bennett, whose expertise is already reflected in how wonderful the kitchen garden and the borders now look after less than a year.

Desmond MacCarthy