East Anglia’s counties – Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex – have their individual charms, yet all are often dismissed as flat and therefore dull. But, the wide skies, the light, the sea, the farmlands and gently undulating countryside combine to provide a rich background for some of the loveliest gardens. I have visited so many of them over the 30 years I have lived in Suffolk and I felt they needed to have a wider audience. I have collected their stories and a wonderful garden photographer, the late Marcus Harpur, brought their beauty onto the pages of a book, Secret Gardens of East Anglia (Frances Lincoln), which is published this month.
There are 22 gardens in the book: they are all privately owned and some are open regularly, but others are less well known. Here are five to whet your appetite. I have no favourites: they are all wonderful!
Columbine Hall, Stowupland Suffolk (www.columbinehall.co.uk) has a moated garden divided into several stylish green rooms by high hornbeam hedges. Beyond the moat there are a number of garden areas including a Bog Garden, a Mediterranean Garden and a Flowery Meadow, but herb and veg enthusiasts will be diverted even before they reach the garden entrance, by the colourful arrangement of vegetables and flowers, in the ornamental Kitchen Garden. Open for NGS www.ngs.org.uk and invitationtoview.co.uk
Wood Farm, Gipping, Suffolk is nearby. Water is a feature here too: the ochre walls of the house jetty out over a pond and behind the house is a 3.2 hectare/8 acre meadow that has taken 12 years to get ‘just right’. It is usually open in June, when the meadow is at its best and before it is cut for hay. Equally breath taking is the romantic cottage garden at the front of the house. As summer progresses the front garden builds to a crescendo, with spires of Scotch thistle, richly coloured irises and sugar-pink lupins. Open for NGS one day a year, www.ngs.org.uk
Hunworth Hall Norfolk offers a master class in hedging and topiary work. Hedges of great length and shaped holly, box and yew are the backdrop for twin formal canals that run across the garden. It takes three weeks to cut all the hedges and shape the parasols, balls, and cones, which have morphed into medicinal flask shapes. In hard winters snow, hoarfrost and ice transform the topiary and water into a spectacular almost ghostly setting, changing its green look to white. Rarely open, but sometimes for local Church, check with owner Henry Crawley
38 Norfolk Terrace, Cambridge is the smallest garden I visited: it is just 8 x 4 metres/ 26 x 13 ft. In the heart of Cambridge, its high walls keep secret a garden packed with colour and atmosphere. Spanish-style arches, ingeniously created from drainpipes and weather-resistant marine ply, draped with climbers, and small pools, flanking a tiled courtyard, are its main structural features. When the living room doors are open the garden feels as if it has come indoors, or the house gone outdoors! Usually open one day for NGS www.ngs.org.uk
Ulting Wick, Ulting, Essex is a high maintenance garden where spring and summer plantings are swept in and out on a tide of energy, combined with plant artistry. In spring tulips are the main show in stylish and well thought out colour combinations. Mass planted in their thousands they are replaced after flowering by annuals, tender and exotic perennials including ornamental bananas, grasses and dahlias in colour schemes that buzz and zing. Climbing roses trained against the walls of the black weatherboard barns provide colour at a higher level, and established trees, a plant-lined riverbank and a tranquil wildflower meadow are a counterpoint to the high-octane seasonal plantings. Usually open for NGS www.ngs.org.uk and sometimes by appointment.
Barbara Segall’s book The Secret Gardens of East Anglia, published by Frances Lincoln is available to buy on Amazon.