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!”


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

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