Secrets behind walled gardens

By Richard Wright

Friday, April 4, 2014


Secrets behind walled gardens

The wall at Farringford, where it was shaped to allow views from the kitchen garden.


A GARDEN love affair was re-kindled back in 1987 by my wife.

She bought me the book, The Victorian Kitchen Garden, which sprang from that brilliant BBC programme featuring retired head gardener Harry Dodson and the part his knowledge played in bringing the walled garden at Chilton in Berkshire back to life.

His memories of the ancient gardening arts and of Chilton being a vibrant and productive place abuzz with activity were woven into a programme which charted the garden’s return to some semblance of what it once was using techniques of a bygone age.

It dripped atmosphere and nostalgia, and I determined I would create such a garden, a special enclosed place to which I could retreat — where I could potter away my autumn years.

But, it never happened.

Life works in mysterious ways and it is one of my regrets — and I have a few — the opportunity came but at the wrong time — it’s already pretty late in the summer season if not positively autumnal.

However, the positive from not having a walled garden of our own was that, over the years, I was encouraged to visit countless examples of those created by other folk — from the mere shadows of what they once were to those seemingly preserved in aspic.

Hence, when I learned the IW Gardens Trust (IWGT) had secured Heritage Lottery funding to make a detailed study of walled kitchen gardens on the Island, it struck a real chord.

It is part of the silver jubilee celebrations of the Island trust, which aims to be an 'impartial friend’ of our historic parks and gardens to further their conservation.

There will be research, recording and analysis of the findings by the band of volunteers, events and it will end with a publication to better inform the Island about this particular aspect of our heritage.

It has already turned up some surprising results. Helen Thomas, who chairs the IWGT’s, conservation committee, explained: "Walled kitchen gardens can be magical places, full of scent and with bees buzzing on a hot summer’s afternoon.

"They are also now recognised as an important part of both garden and social history.

"Many still provide physical evidence of what life used to be like and give us a glimpse into the past, but until now nobody has made a comprehensive study of them on the IW.

"This year, the trust, aided by a Sharing Heritage grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, is remedying this with its Walled Kitchen Gardens Project.

"We are also lucky to have the help of author Susan Campbell, a leading authority on walled kitchen gardens, who will be visiting the Island this month to give two free talks, which are open to the public.

"Any mention of walled kitchen gardens and everyone immediately thinks of the splendidly restored example at Osborne and those at other large country houses.

"Many of these date from the 18th century but even more were built between 1800 and 1900 when the Island was growing in popularity, not only as a good place to live, but also to retire to or have a summer holiday home.

"The walled kitchen garden was not only practical for providing fresh produce, it also became a 'must have’ status symbol for anyone with enough money to build one, fit it out with glasshouses and pay the gardeners.

"To provide fruit, vegetables and flowers for a family and their staff all year round was labour intensive.

"The walled kitchen garden was not only an orderly and decorative place for its owners to stroll with their friends, it was also where many people went to work every day.

"The IWGT Walled Kitchen Garden Project has started by trying to find out just how many of these gardens were built on the Island and when they were constructed.

"Before work started, the best guess was about 30 but by looking at hundreds of old Ordnance Survey maps at least 90 have been identified; 60 per cent built between 1800 and 1875.

"The IWGT has also put together a lot of information on things such as size, shape and orientation, which will make it possible to compare our walled gardens with the rest of England. Was the IW different from the rest of the country? Well, possibly.

"National research carried out by English Heritage has shown the usual size of a walled kitchen garden was about three quarters of an acre and that anything larger is uncommon.

"On the IW, more than 40 per cent were bigger than three quarters of an acre. The reason why the Island seems to have been different from the mainland is one of many things the IWGT will be looking into during the project.

"The trust would also like to find the oldest surviving walled kitchen garden on the Island but this might prove a bit tricky.

"The earliest detailed maps for the whole Island are the unpublished Ordnance Survey plans dating from 1793 and for more information the IWGT will need to find earlier estate maps or other documentary evidence.

"The IW Record Office has a lot of documents, which will help the search, but if anyone has other information on the age of a particular walled kitchen garden built before 1793, the IWGT would love to hear from you.

"One thing the Island may have in common with the mainland is many of our walled kitchen gardens have been totally destroyed — or have they?

"The kitchen garden at Steephill Castle in Ventnor was certainly an early casualty when a railway station was built on top of it in about 1900, but it was replaced with a new walled garden in another part of the castle grounds.

"Like a lot of other walled gardens, this second garden has now been developed for housing but clues may still remain.

"Over the spring and summer, volunteers will be out around the Island looking for evidence of former walled gardens and contacting owners to ask if they can visit those that survive.

"The aim of the project is to create an inventory of all the walled kitchen gardens built on the Island and to tell their stories.

"We already know one became a home for tropical birds and was subsequently restored by Steve and Phillippa Lambert. Another was turned into a scrapyard.

"Everyone on the Island is welcome to get involved by joining the band of volunteers.

"In addition to the talks by Susan Campbell, the project includes garden visits and workshops.

"In the autumn, exhibitions are planned around the Island so the history of our walled kitchen gardens can be shared with as many people as possible."

Next Friday, April 11, Susan Campbell will be giving a talk on The History of Walled Kitchen Gardens at 6pm at Ventnor Botanic Garden. The next day, there will be a further talk at 10.30am in the Anthony Minghella Theatre at Quay Arts, Newport, where her topic will be Walled Kitchen Garden Detective Work.

These events are free of charge but places are limited and must be booked in advance. To book, or for any other information about the IWGT Walled Kitchen Garden Project, e-mail or phone 616027.

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