Bringing new life to an old walled garden
Norfolk gardener Ruth Darrah is bringing new life to a special space – and teaching others about the joy of gardening at the same time
Slowly but surely, a once beautiful Victorian garden which has been unloved for 60 years is coming back to life in the heart of Norfolk. The walled garden at Ketteringham Hall, once famous as the headquarters of Lotus founder Colin Chapman, has been brought under the wing of gardener Ruth Darrah and a cohort of (usually) willing volunteers and students of her Norfolk School of Gardening.
“Nobody had been living in the hall since before the Second World War,” says Ruth. “Then it was used by American airmen and was a prep school and Lotus were designing and making cars here and now it has become offices.
“Jane Payton, the daughter of the late Colin Chapman, had been rescuing the gardens over the last couple of years,” says Ruth and so Jane eventually found herself the proud owner of an empty Victorian garden that she didn’t know what to do with.
“She spoke to a mutual friend and said ‘I would love to find somebody to do something in it.’”
And so the result of a casual conversation with the mutual friend was that Ruth, who had just finished a Royal Horticultural Society gardening diploma at Easton & Otley College, took the garden on and launched her new gardening school.
“I came to have a look and I was just gobsmacked,” she says. “Walled gardens have a certain magic – people love them. There is something about the enclosure, about the history and this garden is no exception. It is just amazing.”
And it is a remarkable space. We visit on one of those late February days which were more like May, with the sun warming the red brick walls of the garden under an azure sky. On one wall are original plant signs, handwritten in 1871, probably by the head gardener.
The site is overlooked by the hall, the church and also boasts an unusual two-storey potting shed in the corner. The plan is not to attempt to recreate a Victorian walled garden per se, but rather to create small areas in different styles to try and reflect the huge
diversity of gardening and to give the students manageable projects.
“We do not have the aspiration to restore it to its Victorian grandeur; that would be beautiful but we’re here to teach people how to do things.
“One of the things we want to do is to make it relateable. We want people to come in and go ‘Wow, how magical!’ but we don’t want people to come in and go ‘well I haven’t got a walled garden...’ We want people to come in and see what we’re doing here and that it is transferable to home.”
For instance they are building raised beds for vegetable growing and there will be cutting gardens for fresh flowers, a stock bed, a greenhouse, and polytunnel, says Ruth. But half will be left to grass, allowing the school to host events like plant sales and craft fairs.
“We don’t want to bite off more than we can chew... and of course it all has to be weeded! It will be a series of gardens, if you like. There will be a herbaceous border but it won’t be three metres deep and 20 metres long! It will be something that you can imagine would work at home.
“One of the huge benefits of having a blank canvas in the walled garden is that we can take the journey with people who have got a new-build with a turfed garden or maybe an allotment or they’ve bought a house where nothing’s happened for years,” she says.
“They want to do stuff in their garden that’s new and we’re doing the same thing.”
The project represents a significant shift for Norfolk-born Ruth, who grew up in south Norfolk and spent her career in marketing in London, for the BBC, and working abroad in the paper industry in Paris and Brussels. She and her family returned to the county nine years ago.
“Window boxes were the first experience of gardening that I had, moving on to a small patio garden. Then I had a long thin garden, then a biggish – for London – garden and now we have a village garden. I think I’m quite typical in that I’ve come to gardening as I’ve got older. But I can’t persuade my teenage children to get excited about my garden unless I pay them to mow the lawn!”
“WALLED GARDENS HAVE A CERTAIN MAGIC – PEOPLE LOVE THEM. THERE IS SOMETHING ABOUT THE ENCLOSURE, ABOUT THE HISTORY AND THIS GARDEN IS NO EXCEPTION”
A panoramic view of the walled garden at Ketteringham Hall
Ruth Darrah takes a well-earned breather in the Bishop’s Chair, part of the walled garden at Ketteringham Hall