GARDENS OF TIME
By Ann Evans
Photos courtesy of Rob Tysall, Tysall’s Photography.
The historic town of Warwick has many famous and fascinating landmarks, but there is one particular hidden gem tucked away that reveals gardening and growing secrets from Victorian times, but it was very nearly lost forever.
Today, visitors to Hill Close Victorian Leisure Gardens will discover the most tranquil and well cared for plots of flowers, trees and vegetables, the varieties of which date back to the nineteenth century and beyond. However, step back just 30 years and you would have found a virtually impenetrable mass of head-high brambles and crumbling summer houses. Had it not been for a handful of passionate local gardeners who realised that an important part of England’s gardening heritage was about to disappear, things might have been very different.
Going back to the 1800s and the bustling English towns and cities, the back yards of shops and traders’premises were generally used as workshops, washhouses and stables. Any hope of growing fruit or vegetables, or even having a pleasant little garden to relax and enjoy the fresh air, was not to be found in the crowded town centres. Any town-centre dweller wanting to ‘grow their own’ would have had to seek out a piece of pasture-land on the outskirts of the town. Which is precisely what many traders and the business people who could afford it, did, creating little plots where they could grow or relax to their heart’s content. As this trend became more popular, these Victorian pleasure gardens sprang up all around the country.
Hill Close was an area of pasture-land that adjoins the racecourse. Back in 1845 its landlord divided it into 32 plots and businessmen such as Thacker and Christmas who ran a grocers shop in the town, along with countless other families bought and enjoyed their very own little leisure garden. Summer houses were built, hedges and pathways laid and fruit trees planted.
For the next 100 years these quiet little plots which could be found all over the country were tended and nurtured. However, as time marched on and populations expanded, this land was gradually bought up for housing developments. Not surprisingly, Hill Close Gardens looked all set to be swallowed up for building purposes too. Interest in them had dwindled and by the 1980s only one plot remained cultivated, the rest of the land had become overgrown by brambles, ivy and self-seeded trees – a haven for birds and wildlife but otherwise nothing but an overgrown blot on the landscape with just a glimpse of summer house rooftops peeping out from the decades of overgrowth.
Warwick District Council weremaking plans to send in the bulldozers so that houses could be built and a vehicle had alreadyventured in to take soil samples. It was then that a handful of local people realised that they were on the brink of losing a special part of their town’s history.
Local historian Christine Hodgetts and horticulturist Noreen Jardine were just twoof the key figures who became concerned that something of great historic value was buried beneath all this bramble and weed – and it was worthy of preservation. They set about making this fact known. A group known as the Lammas and District Residents Association was formed and volunteers were enlisted.
One of those volunteers was Michael Sheldon, now retired from working in horticultural education. He kindly took me on a tour of these gardens, now beautifully restored to their former glory and recalled the story behind this transformation. He said: “The Council was very interested in what was happening. I remember the Chief Executive clambering around this site and saying: I think they have something here’. Fortunately the Council decided to hold fire on the housing development until they’d had a report back from English Heritage.”
Reports back did indeed show that the gardens were of national historic importance. So, on the second Saturday of January 1995 a team of about 10–15 volunteers turned up to make a start. Michael continued: “Being January it was good because a lot of the foliage had died off and you got a chance to see what you were up against – andit was a jungle.Bramble was 12–15 feet high and self-seeded ash trees stood more than25ft tall. You had to fight your way through the brambles. I remember emerging from one mass of brambles and finding a little bit of lawn where a fox lay having a nap. It looked up so surprised to see me, as if to say, what are you doing here? And then it was off.”
As Michael and I strolled between the hedge lined pathways with their gates and archways that take you through to one secret garden after another, Michael recalled the time when there were no pathways at all.
“The hedges had grown out and up all along here,” he said. “It was like a dark tunnel. You had to bend double to go through it but then there was a delightful summer house at the end. I remember pushing the door open and I could almost have imagined Bilbo Baggins sitting there with his feet up at the fire. You never knew what you were going to find next, it was full of intrigue.”
As work started and the volunteers opened up the site a little, another problem arose. Every time they brought in a skip they would return to find it already full of three piece suites and rubbish that people were just dumping. So work came to a standstill again. Fortunately the Council paid for a metal security fence which put a stop to the dumping and vandalism, and the volunteers began clearing with gusto.
The work was strenuous. One obstacle was a huge depression in the land which had to be filled in with barrow loads of rubble. Nine Victorian summer houses were discovered, all badly needing renovation, some of which were beyond repair, and others which were precarious and needed rebuilding.
“There was an old glass house called a Dutch Light Structure, built in the 1940s which we couldn’t save, sohad to dispose of it,” explained Michael. “There was also an Anderson Shelter dug into the ground. It was very severely rusted and regrettably we couldn’t save that either. We found an old well with the winding gear and rope still on top of the hole in the ground. That had to be made safe so no-one fell into it. Someone had kept pigs and there were galvanised sheets in the ground. Just getting these rusted sheets of old metal out was such a job, you had to wear goggles and gloves. It took months to break through all thegrowth but it was absolutely wonderful to see the structures gradually being revealed.”
As the clearance continued, the workers uncovered all manner of artefacts from Victorian times – pottery, tools, clay pipes, glass bottles some with the local trader’s name engraved into the glass. All of these artefacts are now on view around the site and the dream is to see them on permanent display.
It wasn’t just structures and artefacts being uncovered, however. The plants, shrubs, fruit trees and the shapes of gardens all began to reveal themselves. At the time Noreen Jardine set about identifying the plants and in particular the many varieties of apple trees. Michael added, “You had these old trees but until you uncovered them you didn’t know what they would be like – whether they would collapse and break. Noreen would assess each tree – and there were more than 50 different types. She would bring in apple experts and take apples to horticultural events to identify them. She had also obtained rootstocks and would graft them with scions from the threatened trees in order to preserve and successfully reintroduce the fruit trees back into the gardens. “
Plot 17 was the first plot to be cleared. This was and still is looked after by the Warwickshire Plant Heritage Group which did a lot of work in bringing it back to its former glory. Michael added, “I remember the privet hedge was huge – 15 feet high blowing about in the wind. I’d never seen a hedge like it.”
Out of all 32 plots created back in the Victorian times, only one plot – Plot 24 – remained tended throughout that time. The current tenant is George Mills who continued to grow his vegetables, fruit and flowers through all the upheaval, and although now in his 80s, still tends his plot today.
It was a delight for the volunteers to discover that old plans of the original gardens were still around, and a glance back to the records for Plot 24, for example, intriguingly shows that in 1870 this plot had hawthorn hedges, a summer house, paths with edging tiles, a cucumber frame, four plum trees, three standard apple trees, one espalier apple tree, one cherry tree, 29 gooseberry bushes, 32 currants, strawberry, asparagus and sea kale beds, one filbert and two standard rose trees.
The years of hard graft by the volunteers have paid off and Hill Close Victorian Pleasure Gardens are now a beautiful oasis of nature and history nestling on the edge of Warwick Racecourse. Back in 2005 the Gardens received £1.2 million in grants which enabled major restorations to be carried out. This meant that expert historical building restorers could be called in to repair the listed summer houses plus a stylish Centre with a cafe, patio and function room could be built. A more recent donation has allowed a complete rebuild of one of the summer houses which was too badly decayed to be listed. Here, Michael along with three other enthusiastic helpers took it down and rebuilt it in its original Victorian style.
“It was a case of knock it down before it fell down,” said Michael. “We knocked it down brick by brick and found there were no footings and no foundations, so we put in a concrete base. We did the research to discover what sort of mortar would have been used and rebuilt it using the correct materials.You sometimes forget the amount of hard work that went into restoring the gardens. Now it’s mainly maintenance. There’s a Management Committee which oversees the running of the gardens and a Gardens Sub-Committee that oversees everything that is planted and grown here.”
Wistfully, Michael added, “It’s correct to say that one felt privileged to be there, uncovering the past, it was like looking into a time capsule and when I look back I recall in the autumn the beautiful smell of fallen fruit and seeing the migrant birds feasting in the winter time. Those memories are unforgettable.”
Hill Close Victorian Pleasure gardens are open to visitors all year round. Check their website for opening times and days. They also hold a variety of special events throughout the year. You can even get involved as a volunteer. All the information is on their website: http://www.hillclosegardens.com/