From Norman ramparts to abstract art, Tudor Lodgings delivers a distinctive twist on the archetypal English country garden
Annie Green-Armytage visits a historic garden
It’s not every garden that contains a an Ancient Monument. Then again, it’s not every garden that sits within a Norman settlement including the ruins of a castle built by a compatriot of William the Conqueror.
At Castle Acre in West Norfolk, the garden of Tudor Lodgings is bordered on two sides by massive earthworks, thought to have been put in place by William
III de Warenne, grandson of the original founder of Castle Acre, when he replanned the settlement in the middle of the 12th century. This was a troubled time, with Matilda and her cousin Stephen fighting for succession to the throne, which may have had a bearing on the increased fortification.
Or maybe William just enjoyed the medieval equivalent of playing with diggers. The Scheduled Ancient Monument status is a mixed blessing, with the appreciation of its place in history tempered by practical constraints. “We consider ourselves caretakers for future generations but the restrictions can be onerous,” says Julia Stafford-Allen, owner and passionate gardener at Tudor Lodgings.
“We are prohibited from digging and burning on the scheduled monument and any tree works require consent from a long list of authorities.” Making a virtue out of necessity, Julia and husband Gus have created areas which make the most of the earthworks’ virtues; in the south, a wide sweep of lawn presents an expansive view across the deep ditch to neighbouring countryside, and in the west, a sheltered wildlife meadow nestles within the high earth ramparts, with a vista up to the medieval turrets of the parish church.
The couple moved here with their young family in 1985, having inherited the house from a distant relative. “She was a great gardener,” says Julia.
“And I knew absolutely nothing about gardening! So I took myself off to horticultural college and did a three year part-time City and Guilds.” She also called on the original designer of the garden, Anthony du Gard Pasley, co-founder of the English Gardening School, for advice.
“He visited very early on, and at that stage there was a yellow plastic sandpit sitting in the middle of the lawn,” remembers Julia laughing. “What he must have thought I don’t know, but he was very helpful.”
He encouraged the couple to leave the young yew hedge which they were considering removing and to focus on cultivating plants which were already thriving in the chalky soil. He also urged her to plant fewer varieties in greater numbers, advice which she has taken to heart.
Today, great swathes of Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ and Lysimachia ciliata ‘Firecracker’
make a glorious shout of colour in the hot border in high summer, complemented by a new block planting of the grass Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’, which will carry on the hot display with its its red-tipped foliage later in the season.
Combining naturalistic planting with blocks of colour are a part of this garden’s signature, creating coherence across the many different planting areas. The ‘Mondrian’ border next to the house is a typical example: one of Julia’s more recent projects, it is her own take on creating a boxedged parterre which isn’t a ‘traditional lollipops in the corner, or a parks and gardens planting scheme.
The border echoes the work of artist Piet Mondrian with his black grids and limited palette of three blocked-in primary colours and features late-flowering Lavender x intermedia, Gaura lindheimeri and Heuchera ‘Berry Smoothie’, with fluffy Stipa tenuissima softening the overall effect.
The parterre’s creation was a journey in itself. “I planned it in November, when there were some building works in the village,” says Julia. “I needed to level the ground, so the builders were overjoyed when I took a whole load of topsoil off their hands. Then in February we are on holiday and my son proposes to his future wife, and she says yes, and then she suddenly turns to me and says, could we have the wedding at Tudor Lodgings? And I say, yes, that would be wonderful, and I’m thinking, it’s looking like the Battle of the Somme! Do I grass it over or do I hope for the best and carry on planting?”
She carried on planting, and needless to say, both the wedding and border were perfect.
Since their four children have grown and left home, Julia has embraced the gardening bug wholeheartedly, completing an RHS diploma, and a Masters in garden history. She wrote her MA dissertation in their recently acquired shepherd’s hut in the wildflower meadow. “It got me away from distractions; it’s so peaceful there,” she says. As it catches the evening sunshine, it’s also the gin-and-tonic venue of choice.
As well as tirelessly cultivating her own two acres, Julia is county organiser for the National Garden Scheme in Norfolk. In 2017, on the 90th anniversary of the NGS, she took it upon herself to visit 90 open gardens within a year. She values the experience as a unique opportunity to have seen a huge diversity of gardens which she wouldn’t normally have visited, including an allotment in North London brimfull of fruit and exotic flowers, an extensive sculpture garden, and a night-time city garden twinkling with candles.
Back at home, Julia has more or less given up growing veggies (‘too stressful!’) but flowers abound at Tudor Lodgings in a profusion of immaculately tended borders and containers. “I love being in the garden,” she smiles. “I’ve always been an outdoor person. I would far rather tidy a border than a cupboard.”
Tudor Lodgings is open for the National Garden Scheme, Sunday, August 11, 11am- 5pm. Tudor Lodgings, Castle Acre, King’s Lynn, Norfolk, PE32 2AN.
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Sunrise over the lower field with horse and adjacent countryside, seen from the Norman rampart, which is part of an Ancient Scheduled Monument making up the edge of the garden
LEFT: View of the house, terrace and ‘Mondrian bed’ from the end of the garden. Plants include Echinops in the foreground and Itea ilicifolia against the house wall
BELOW: View of the 18th century dovecote with the ‘ bun of boxes’ in front of it (Buxus sempervirens), and a mosaic of paving stones leading to it from the house. Growing in the cracks are violas, alpine dianthus, and geraniums. In the background a pot of Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’ and Rosa glauca. In the lawn is a Judas tree (Cercis Siliquastrum) Red lily Lilium ‘Nerone’
ABOVE: View from the house across the terrace with its ‘Mondrian’ knot garden, and the lawn to the barn and the countryside beyond as the sun rises. In the foreground is lily Lilium ‘Nerone’ and foliage of Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ and Caryopteris x clandonensis BELOW: View across the pond to the shepherd’s hut in the wild meadow area of the garden. Foliage of yellow flag iris and shrubby willows in the foreground