Sir Humphry Repton’s Sheringham Park
A GENTLE stroll through a glorious wild garden bursting with the sensational forms and colours of rhododendrons and azaleas while enjoying a glass or two of Champagne sounds like a fantastic way to while away a sunny afternoon.
Indeed, the spectacular array must have offered a delightful taste of the exotic for the 1950s guests of Thomas Upcher, the last private owner of Sheringham Park in North Norfolk.
The park was designed by the famous landscape gardener Sir Humphry Repton in 1812. His plan included the building of a folly and house and was said to be his personal favourite creation.
Repton was inspired by the beauty of the 1,000-acre site which owes its unique landscape to the actions of the last ice age and reaching as far as the coastal path, boasts rolling grassland and an extensive wooded area bordered by heathland.
A breath-taking view of farmland and sea looking out towards the nearby village of Weybourne can be taken in from a gazebo which is rather a steep climb, but certainly well worth it!
The first planting of rhododendrons began around 1850, but their numbers really expanded using seeds obtained from the plant collector Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson in 1914. The development of the garden continued until the death of Thomas Upcher in 1985, a year before The National Trust bought the property.
It is the great variety of these and the complimenting azaleas for which the park is renowned and after a century and a half of dedicated work, they make a truly mesmerising sight when in bloom. Some of the older plants have grown to such proportions that it is possible to actually walk through tunnels under their tangled stems.
New specimens are regularly planted to maintain the health of the garden, except for the commonly seen rhododendron ponticum which has to be carefully controlled. The main ethos behind the management of the park follows Repton’s original instructions to enhance and maintain what nature had provided by making minimal alterations to the site, apart from the planting of trees to thicken and add variety and colour to the beautiful existing woodland.
Over 200 years later the feel of the place is that of a garden almost with a mind of its own, which marries with the natural features of the land, rather than dominating it.
Soon after arriving at the park it is easy to find the ornamental pond in the Bower near the main entrance, which is the perfect place for children to learn about aquatic life. From this area, which includes a tea room and information centre, a wide, undulating carriageway (suitable for wheelchairs) winds its way down through the garden, blending seamlessly with the stunning mature woodland.
From this main drive a multitude of pathways spread out and criss-cross through deciduous and pine plantings that seem untamed, but are in fact subtly managed; every fallen bough you see has been deliberately left in place to provide a haven for insects and fungi.
In the open grassland that makes up the bottom part of the park, visitors can find the original folly standing proud atop a small hill and the house tucked neatly into the trees. The building can also be observed from a part of the carriageway known as ‘The Turn;’ Repton’s only major manmade intervention which involved cutting into a steep ridge.
When commissioned by Abbott Upcher, Repton went to great lengths to construct the house in the best possible location for his master stroke, which determined that guests traversing the newly darkened woodland would be shielded from the dramatic sight of the rest of the parkland and ‘turn’ the corner to behold a ‘fairy-tale’ view.
Maintaining the balance between the decorative and the natural is an ongoing challenge. Not only must the wild garden be sympathetically tended to provide the amazing display of rhododendrons and azaleas which flower from April to July each year (with some hardier varieties adding an unexpected delight in late autumn), but the work of the gardeners and many volunteers includes the vital conservation role of protecting and improving the park environment, upon which a great range of plant, bird, animal and amphibious life depends.
Ferns find shelter beneath ancient trees - some estimated to be over 700 years old; dragonflies, moorhen, little grebe and yellow iris take advantage of the hidden natural ponds and cowslips flourish in the grazed meadowland, while bluebells carpet the woods. Rare species such as firecrests, great crested newts and nightjars are supported by the remarkable range of interconnected habitats.
The ‘rides,’ (or woodland paths) have recently been opened up to encourage honeysuckle to grow and in turn attract white admiral butterflies and bat boxes have been installed by Jane Harris, a licensed bat worker, to assist the Norfolk Barbastelle Study Group in monitoring their success.
To sum up, it is both the legacy of the great Humphry Repton and the landscape which truly inspired him, along with the respectful and extensive work of The National Trust which come together to form the uniquely charming place that is Sheringham Park.
Left Top: Honeysuckle berries; Beefsteak fungus; The Folly Left: Carriageway and seating shelter Above: Along the carriageway Right: Firecrest