These days we call in at the grocers or supermarket to stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables. Few of us are self-sufficient in producing food, unless you’ve a generous garden or access to an allotment. How did those big country houses of old cope with feeding dozens of people when they’d nowhere to shop? What they needed was acreage and shelter from wind and frost to help combat Britain’s temperamental temperate climate – walled gardens.
In the 18th Century Batty Langley proposed a ‘compleat kitchen garden‘ design – thirty-two beds of edible plants arranged east to west and enclosed. While ‘Capability’ Brown’s landscapes provided grazing land for livestock, the walled garden provided self-sufficiency. (Langley (1696-1751) was something of an eccentric who was both architect and garden designer. He liked irregular, informal gardens including mazes and ‘wildernesses’ and published the ‘New Principles of Gardening‘ in 1728. He also named his kids Hiram, Euclid, Vitruvius and Archimedes. Bless them, they probably hated going to school.)
Walled gardens don’t just provide shelter, they also protect the garden from animals and human intruders. Enclosed in stone or brick these days, originally they were probably protected by fencing or hedges. The south facing walls are favoured for growing fruit. The brick absorbs the heat of the sun then releases it slowly, thus allowing peaches, nectarines and grapes to be grown in the southerly parts of Britain and Ireland. To give an extra boost, some walls were hollow and heated by fires from stoves, as can been seen at Croxteth Hall in Liverpool where the walls have chimneys.
Traditional walled gardens are split into quarters with a pool at the centre. It takes one acre to feed about a dozen people. So the Royal gardens of Windsor Castle started with twenty-two acres and grew to thirty-one to cater for the huge household. It’s labour intensive gardening and come the 20th Century the walled garden fell out of use and mass farming took over food produce. These days, walled gardens are revived as decorative gardens with a portion given over to vegetables and fruit. It’s not uncommon to see wildflowers, roses and rare flowers cultivated in the protective cocoon of the walls.
At Norton Priory, a monastic site with a ruined abbey over which a mansion was built, then pulled down there is a walled garden which survived. It is set in woodland surrounded by wildflower meadows. Covering 3.5 acres it was built between 1751-1770 by the Brooke family as a kitchen garden for the now absent house to provide food and flowers. The garden was restored in 1980s and contains a national collection of tree quinces (similar to pears) – some twenty varieties.
Abbotsford house’s garden was designed by Sir Walter Scott and since it’s not influenced by ‘Capability’ Brown it remains an unspoilt Regency garden. The walled garden grew fruit and vegetables with heated stoves to help ripen the fruit.
Errdig in Wales has a 13.5 acre walled garden with 180 varieties of apple trained to grow along its walls. The work to restore gardens began in 1977 and continue today.
Walled gardens are such a common feature of large country estates it’s not surprising to find them still maintained and appreciated, even when the house has become a hotel or in private hands. The vegetable patch might be smaller, the herb collection downgraded, but the warmth of the walled garden is pervasive and enjoyable. Just like the walled garden in The Secret Garden, they remain a delight to discover.
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