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Words: Steffie Shields
Photography: Steffie Shields
Featured in the February 2014 issue

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Steffie Shields suggests seeking sensational swathes of snowdrops at Easton Walled Gardens.

You are sure to find a warm welcome at Easton Walled Gardens – whatever the temperature – with rustic orange pantiles crowning stone walls along the horse chestnut avenue approach, hot soup lunches, and the extra essential for garden visits these days, exceedingly good cakes. A brisk, invigorating walk, with all else in wintry, monotone and skeletal garb, save for the ground beneath your feet, will lift spirits. Emerging bulbs, dotted white and green, have the power to charm the hardest heart.

A major restoration that began at the millennium, the stock of plants and trees is growing from strength to strength, just as fast as these special gardens’ reputation. Lady Ursula Cholmeley and her three gardeners deserve medals for what has been achieved in a relatively short space of time. Inspired by 400 years of family gardening, and the picturesque landscape setting, she remains dedicated, undaunted and busy, adding a contemporary layer to the story of Easton.

I noticed in the courtyard a splendid Viburnum shrub that, come February, will have a garland of miniature Cyclamen coum at its feet. A pale, creamy yellow shrub rose, David Austin’s ‘Rosa Pilgrim’ also caught my eye. Visiting gardens is much like a pilgrimage. Exploring exceptional places such as this, if not hallowed ground, I am nevertheless moved when sensing an air of ancient gardens conserved, loved and carefully tended.

After a refreshing cup of tea, Lady Ursula invited me to explore outside, with Spot – her faithful, frisky spaniel – at her heels. As we walked the ground, we talked. She continues to make new discoveries to add to Easton’s history. One famous visitor was the celebrated Gothic architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852), whose mother belonged to the local Welby family at Denton, and who doubtless cast an appreciative eye over Salvin’s architecture.

The circuit walk Lady Ursula has created is a perfect length. First stop, the new ‘White Garden’ featuring a smart reflecting pool where once a Victorian fountain played. It’s worth the trouble to ascend a few steps up the slope to a bench, the best spot from which to survey the amazing gardens, landscape park and river valley.

We discussed recent changes, and ideas still buzzing in her head, as we ventured on, snaking through the spring gardens, before stepping down into the ha-ha, with its newly rebuilt wall. Lady Ursula spent long, hard days here clearing undergrowth, and shared her still painful memory of being attacked by a colony of wasps. We followed the old course of the River Witham, negotiated open lawns to the canal – where the Environment Agency has been working to prevent build-up of silt and flooding – and crossed over the Victorian bridge to the walled gardens that are divided by a darkly dramatic, old yew tunnel.

The old stone walls, possibly originally built centuries ago to form a deer enclosure, require a great deal of time and money-consuming restoration. We stopped to talk to Robin Haynes, who has worked at Easton for forty years, and is now mending the northern wall, a painstaking labour of love.

I admired the rose garden and the new orchard of heritage fruit trees, both criss-crossed by mown grass paths. Lincolnshire Gardens Trust donated the quince trees in recognition of the educational value that the gardens offer the local community. Lady Ursula recently made Ratafia dessert wine with the first harvest – six quinces – to toast the new orchard at the spring opening. The grand house has long since been demolished, but there are superb prospects of mature parkland trees, the glinting river, and across to the seven great grass terraces. We crossed back, paused by a special screened survey area for avid birdwatchers, and ascended the hillside, before finishing in the ‘Pickery’ garden (near the tea shop). Good exercise, without overdoing it; the easy path covers varied terrain, neither too long nor too steep.

Having resurrected Lincolnshire’s own ‘lost garden’, the county’s very own ‘Sarah Raven’ does not allow the grass to grow under her feet. She revealed her expertise at growing sweet peas, annual and perennial, heritage varieties and new hybrids, on the TV gardening programme Gardener’s World, firmly establishing the nationwide reputation of Easton Walled Gardens as being a first-class destination for sweet pea lovers. Lately, she has set her sights on everyone’s favourite flower, the humble snowdrop.

Easton Park’s slopes have, for many years, been covered with acres of nodding white heads each spring. Now the living carpets are rapidly naturalising, helped by volunteers digging up and re-planting clumps of bulbs ‘in the green’ just after they have flowered. Lady Ursula has introduced special galanthus varieties into the gardens, and mixed colour in amongst Crocus Tommasinianus, and early Iris reticulata, ‘Iris Gordon’ being her firm favourite.

Snowdrop expert, Jackie Murray will give special workshops, and sell signed copies of her book Snowdrops during Easton’s Snowdrop Week explaining what to look for in the gardens and how to cultivate snowdrops in your own backyard. Easton is now a ‘must visit’ in February for all snowdrop fans, called ‘galanthophiles’. The path the length of the ha-ha is an unusual, good idea to enable visitors to look into the faces of the snowdrops instead of stooping. Look closely – perhaps you might find a rare kind that you have never seen before.

A plants woman through and through, Lady Ursula researches the latest trends, and is planning special lilacs for the rose garden. As she chatted, she could not resist stooping to put her hand into a newly mulched flowerbed to crumble the dark, rich, healthy earth between her fingers, full of promise for next year’s floral display. She also recommended Naomi Slade’s new publication The Plant Lover’s Guide to Snowdrops, which highlights sixty hybrids, species, and cultivars of the snowdrop family. The book makes each type of flower more accessible with pointers for ease of recognition, and includes tips on how to cultivate and breed snowdrops, how to design with them, and where to find them in gardens open to the public. Yes, Easton Walled Gardens features.

Before I left, I glanced through comments left by last February’s snowdrop visitors, who came from as far afield as the USA, Denmark and Newcastle: ‘one of the best gardens’, ‘wonderful afternoon’, ‘very impressive garden restoration’, ‘stunning’, ‘gorgeous’, ‘will come again’.

Visit www.eastonwalledgardens.co.uk for pictures of what to expect. Easton Walled Gardens will be open daily 11am–4pm from Saturday 15th – Sunday 23rd February. Little Ponton Hall gardens nearby will be open on Saturday 15th and Sunday 16th February. I dare say the sensational sight of zillions of brilliant white snowdrops will be every bit as emotional and dazzling as the fizzing firework displays accompanying the chimes that welcomed this New Year. Go and see both sparkling treasure troves of new life, you will leave with a warm glow.

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