Annie GreenArmytage is at Ranworth
Nestling between field and broad, the garden at the Old House in Ranworth has seen many changes over the years. Annie Green-Armytage discovers it today in all its springtime glory
The shrill call of nesting terns and the occasional swoop of a heron are the only sounds to break the silence.
Bordering the water, the garden at the Old House reflects this sense of peace. Dew lays in a thick coating on the grass and mature cherry trees are weighed down with luxuriant blossom. Grass pathways lead through borders into the arboretum, which stretches up the hill, silently unfurling young foliage.
In neighbouring fields new shoots are appearing. Suddenly the sun breaks the horizon and streams across the water and into the garden, watched by a lifelike heron sculpture. It is a magical moment, singularly Norfolk in its landscape of broad, field and garden.
In the stillness of the early morning, a mist floats across the water of Ranworth Broad.
The Cator family has been lucky enough to inhabit this idyllic spot for generations. The current occupier, the Hon Jacquetta Cator, moved here with her husband Francis when they married in 1956, his family living just along the road at Woodbastwick.
Having seen use as a wartime resource of timber and food, and then as a fruit farm and a Christmas tree nursery, the garden had become overgrown and neglected by the time Jacquetta and Francis took possession. “Some of the walls had fallen down, there were chickens on the lawn and brambles all the way through,” remembers Jacquetta. The couple set about restoring the structure that they could see apparent in the out-lines: formal lawns, a pond, a summerhouse, all these separated by the weathered and tumble-down brick walls.
The couple were forced to take things slowly, being resident only part of the time while Francis worked in London. “The garden was important to us from the very first,” she says. “It just took time because we weren’t always here.” Building walls and fences was particularly important as they started their family. “The very first thing was to shut the children away from the Broad,” she says with a laugh. “We taught them never to go in the water – if you walk into it here you could sink without trace in the mud.” They were allowed to mess about in boats however (with life preservers), as alongside the Cators’ love of gardens came a passion for sailing.
Francis and Jacquetta have had an enduring association with the Jubilee Sailing Trust – Jacquetta is currently president – which champions and supports sailing experiences for disabled people alongside able-bodied crew members.
Back in the garden, and the couple learned over the years that the plot was host to an array of soil types. “Up the hill, in the shrubbery, there is a row of rhododendrons going across the garden,” says Jacquetta. “It stops suddenly – they died off just like that. When we investigated, we discovered a seam of clay starting at that point.”
Research showed that alluvial deposits from a glacier moving through the valley, had created a spectrum of soil types: from pure sand, through acidic
loam to alkaline clay. The rhododendrons, of course, loved the acid and hated the clay.
Learning by trial and error, they moved trees and shrubs around the garden until they found spots where each one thrived. Similarly, they set about removing the over-enthusiastic Asian plants introduced by previous generations who were unaware of the implications of their ‘oriental garden’.
This is an ongoing task: bamboo is cut down regularly to keep it in bounds and giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum), and the pernicious Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) are sprayed off. This is done not only to keep them at bay in the garden but also to prevent them from straying into the broad, which was gifted to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust by the family, and is now managed for wildlife.
‘Today, the garden is in perfect harmony with its wild surroundings’
Today, the garden is in perfect harmony with its wild surroundings, with a mix of naturalistic areas at its edges, and designed spaces closer to the house. These include a long box-edged avenue, a herb garden and a potager.
The latter was inspired by a visit to the famous French potager at Villandry, which features different patterns in each quadrant of a square. Jacquetta has used this idea to model different motifs found in the ceiling and floor of Cordoba Cathedral.
“Cordoba is a coming together of influences,” she explains. “Jewish, Christian and Moroccan – it’s absolutely fascinating to see the different styles.”
Sadly Francis died in 2007 and Jacquetta is now in sole control of the garden. She is working towards simplifying some of the borders in readiness for the hand-over to the next generation.
This involves replacing highmaintenance perennials with easier shrubs, and taking out trees which have outgrown their space.
At the age of nearly 89 she relies on her ‘wonderful helpers’ but can still be found regularly in the garden noticing problems and cutting out the dandelion plants. “If I make a mess of those it doesn’t really matter,” she says drily.
Her love of her garden is evident, but what does she enjoy most? “Being in it,” she answers simply. “I can sit on the chair by the vine and just gaze. And I can enjoy memories of sitting in the sun with my mother.” She pauses. “Disastrous for one’s skin, of course,” she says smiling. “But lovely memories.”
The Old House at Ranworth, NR13 6HS, is open for the National Garden Scheme on Sunday April 28, 11am - 4pm.
‘Formal lawns, a pond, a summerhouse, all these are separated by the weathered and tumble-down brick walls’
LEFT: A place for contemplation in the Old House gardens
ABOVE: Detail of the Spider Gate, with fly-catch, made by inmates of Norwich Prison. Looking out of the garden into the wild area and out to the Broad in the early morning sunshine
ABOVE: The pond garden in early sunlight with the summerhouse behind. Hebes and anemones grow in the borders and Clematis montana scrambles over the thatched roof
LEFT: The Herb Garden with its huge terracotta pot as central focus. Including sage, artemisia, rue, cotton lavender, lavender and thrift in the centre. It is surrounded by grassy paths and trees in blossom, including flowering cherry, Prunus 'Shirofugen Sheraton'
ABOVE: Davidia involucrata, the handkerchief tree, in flower
ABOVE (FROM LEFT): Looking across the garden past a phormium to Japanese maples; Grassy pathway leading up to the woodland area and arboretum, flanked by mature bird cherries and cow parsley
LEFT: Looking down on the wild part of the garden edging Ranworth Broad, with the tern rafts in the distance