Seeds and serendipity
Steffie Shields explores the beauty of Bardney Manor Walled Garden with owner Samantha Wright.
Two profound words that somehow complement each other, seeds and serendipity, have played together in my mind ever since meeting Samantha Wright at a June open day at Bardney Manor Walled Garden.
A couple of years ago she founded a small family-run, mutual company in Lincolnshire, Seedsology Ltd, growing and breeding open pollinated flower and vegetable seeds ecologically. “We sell seeds that have been grown in your area and within your climate and similar soil conditions.”
Samantha explained how she has been beguiled by seeds since childhood. This fascinating focus led to an absorbing study of Mother Nature’s inestimable gifts.
She describes herself as a “seedsologist”, writes a blog on the subject, and teaches traditional seed-saving methods in growing annual and perennial plants.
Samantha is also a member of Organic Seeds Alliance which offers ethical seed solutions to meet food and farming needs in a changing world.
A couple of years ago, quite by chance in searching for a new home, Samantha discovered Bardney Manor for sale, an astonishing “made to measure” opportunity. Both the house and, more especially, its walled garden, have an extraordinary story; one that, since buying the property, has taken over her life.
Bardney is located on the east bank of the River Witham, nine miles east of Lincoln in the West Lindsey district. The chosen site of an early monastic settlement, Bardney Abbey was later developed in the medieval era by Benedictine monks.
According to the Domesday Book record, a manor and farm dwellings have existed here since at least 1086 and survived centuries of reincarnations and alterations.
In the mid-16th century a Member of Parliament, Lord William Willoughby, who later sat in the House of Lords, leased the land from the church and made similar improvements to the house frontage as that of the 1st Earl of Ripon at Nocton Hall.
Today, a long Georgian stone elevation remains on the east, with the rest rebuilt in Victorian brick and style.
A surviving pair of Victorian, brick and stone gate piers are an indication of the original approach drive from the west, although their brick ball finials, referenced by Nikolaus Pevsner, are now missing.
Here is open farmland, where once a walnut tree-lined avenue stretched down from the garden to the River Witham.
Meanwhile, the railway station, built from 1848 in Great Northern Italianate style, reflected the growing agricultural wealth of this fenland region and was extended in the 1870s, only to be closed in 1970 and later removed brick by brick to Peterborough Railworld.
Seed connoisseur Samantha was amazed to discover that, more than a family home, her property was once a thriving offshoot of the famous Sharpe’s Seeds business, run by John Sutton Sharpe. His nurseryman/seedsman father, also John Sharpe, had founded the company c1830 at The Pines in Sleaford. After falling out with his brother Charles Sharpe, John Jr and his wife Marian (1830-1923, née Sutton) moved mid-century to Bardney Manor, situated south of the 15th-century St Lawrence Church.
How fortuitous that a century later an engaging and passionate gardener such as Samantha should come across this forgotten gem and valuable heritage asset, a walled garden with real agricultural and horticultural significance. She has assiduously delved into the archives to uncover valuable evidence about the history of the Sharpe’s Seeds empire, which became an international and world renowned seed company.
Bardney Manor Walled Garden is HE Grade II listed, with the surviving north wall adjoining the churchyard. A gateway and wooden door, attended by a pair of ornamental winged stone lions, leads to the church walk where John Sutton Sharpe (1823-1918) and his wife now lie in peace to the south of the church, a stone’s throw from their house.
Empire of glasshouses
After settling at Bardney, Sharpe expanded the manor’s original 18th-century walled garden and furnished the walls with an extraordinary, unrivalled “empire” of glasshouses, hothouses, as recorded on the 1895 Ordnance Survey.
These enabled his staff to experiment with growing all manner of less hardy vegetables and fruits under glass. Vast vine houses, some three-quarters of a mile long, were recorded – probably the most extensive in the county. They developed vines with record grape trusses weighing up to 12 pounds each!
Just one interesting segment of renovated iron-frame glasshouse remains, still with stone fireplace and chimney. Sharpe even wrapped a lean-to conservatory glasshouse around the chimney breast of the north wall of his manor house to utilise enough warmth from his reception room fireplace to nurture his pineapples.
Trial grounds set up at the Manor and in the fields surrounding Bardney soon supplied the seed factory that he created, Bardney Sharpe Seeds, ideally situated for transport on Station Road (now a canning factory owned by Morells).
Such was his celebrated expertise that HM Queen Victoria, who famously enjoyed a passion for exotic fruits, decided to take her royal train to Boston and on to Bardney to visit and inspect Sharpe’s gardens for herself!
Significant mature trees remain a feature, dating from the Sharpes’ era of residence, surrounded by carpets of snowdrops come January. They help create a unique sense of place. They include a towering monkey puzzle, Araucaria araucana, a few giant Wellingtonia, fine yews and hollies.
In improving the setting and ornamental beds around the house, some still edged with Victorian floral edging tiles, Samantha has unearthed some intriguing finds including what seems to be an old font.
Several fragments of 12th-century moulded stone responds from Bardney Abbey survive in the garden of nearby Birch Tree farm, a 15th-century thatched farmhouse, HE Grade II*, with 20th-century improvements. It is conceivable that old abbey fragments also found their way into Bardney Manor House and garden.
Educational community garden
Samantha’s dream is to create a thriving and rewarding educational community garden to spread both joy and gardening skills. She will initially set up a charity to help tackle the overgrown walled garden.
The soil must be incredibly rich judging from the spectacular size and height of the weeds. A celebrated Chelsea gold medallist garden designer, Professor David Stevens FSGD FCI Hort has already been inspired by Sharpe’s legacy to produce an amazing design.
One close friend, Jayne Hickling, Horncastle-based founder of Allotment Cooks (www.allotmentcooks.co.uk) for inspirational ideas and recipe-sharing for own grown produce, is enthusiastically involved and guides visitors around the site on open days.
Do explore this unique Victorian setting. John Sutton Sharpe’s gardens are already beginning to flourish anew.
Samantha’s drive and vision deserve to be matched by local support, to ensure this project can grow and evolve into the future in the shadow of St Lawrence Church. Will it be the case, as in the oft-told New Testament Parable of the Sower, of that seed that fell on good soil, where it produced a crop – a 100, 60 or 30 times what was sown?
Seeds can produce valuable items – and it might be said that, thanks to serendipity, at least half the result are worth the harvest – fingers firmly crossed.