Six to sixty-plus!

Steffie Shields celebrates the National Gardens Scheme enriching county life for all ages.
Forget iPods and iPads. We are, according to HRH Prince Charles, a nation of gardeners. As President of the National Gardens Scheme, opening his Highgrove garden gates regularly for others to share his beloved private acres, this royal and passionate, organic gardener knows only too well that we are also a nation of inquisitive garden visitors. Season to season, year on year, we love to explore pastures new.

Happy Birthday Yellow Book! The National Gardens Scheme (NGS) celebrates eighty-five years this year. Each year more and more people welcome the publication of its annual directory. They mark their calendars, planning spring, summer and autumn excursions for enlivening vibrant colour, fresh design ideas and ‘new to us’ plants and trees at their best. This daffodil-yellow mine of information lists the broadest spectrum of gardens accessible to the public, county by county, with locations, directions, opening dates and times, access details and brief descriptions of the gardens. The countrywide network has raised over £42 million for charity; remarkably, £25 million in the last ten years alone. So whose idea was it?

In 1926 Miss Elsie Wagg, a member of the Queen’s Nursing Institute, a charity founded in 1887, suggested an innovative way to raise funding by exploiting great assets and everyone’s natural curiosity. ‘We’ve got all these beautiful gardens in this country and hardly anyone except their owners and friends ever sees them – why don’t we ask them to open next year for the Appeal?’ Elsie lived in a romantic sounding house, The Hermitage in East Grinstead. By June 1927, this remarkable lady had persuaded 349 other owners to join her in opening their gardens, including those of Sandringham and Blenheim, for one shilling a head. Such was the response, the scheme continued into September, raising over £8000 from more than 600 gardens! By 1930 Vita Sackville West, of Sissinghurst fame, had joined in these auspicious beginnings, writing approvingly in the New Statesman: ‘These mild gentlemen and women who invade one’s garden after putting their silver token into the bowl … are some of the people I most gladly welcome and salute. Between them and myself a particular form of courtesy survives, a gardener’s courtesy, in a world where courtesy is giving place to rougher things.’

Old world courtesy lives on. Despite Siberian temperatures, David Stimson recently showed me around Witham Hall School where, for over fifty years, he has “loved every minute” caring for the magnificent old gardens and painstakingly clipping regimental ‘plum pudding’ golden yews. Features include a splendid pergola walk and lily pond, added by the famous Edwardian landscape architect Thomas Mawson (1861-1933) with the re-modelling of the house. (Mawson’s daughter lived at Thornton Hall, north of the county, where his designs also survive). Witham Hall, overlooking stately eighteenth-century parkland trees, one of six original Lincolnshire gardens open to the public in 1927, opens again this June. Of the other five, Burghley House, Easton (Walled Gardens), Gunby (National Trust), Hackthorn and Rauceby Halls, all continue to support the NGS; each a unique, historic garden with a ‘sense of place’, where visitors enjoy frissons of the past alongside horticultural excellence.

Since being widowed some sixteen years ago, Mrs Susie Dean says her work for the NGS saved her sanity, by encouraging her to go out and see people.

“I am so lucky to have a voluntary charity job that I enjoy,” she said.

A gleam came into her eye when I mentioned an artist friend who is preparing her contemporary ‘barn garden’ for her son’s wedding reception this summer. With some openers taking time off to resuscitate their gardens, or make serious changes, Susie is always looking for new gardens; she has recruited a team of assistant organisers, or garden spotters, each covering a region of the county. They encourage owners to join the scheme, asking to inspect a garden when at its very best, before an agreement is made to open the following year.

“Common sense tells us that the smaller the garden the more interesting it has to be,” said Susie.

Straightforward guidelines require the garden to be ‘tidy’, not immaculate, with at least forty-five minutes worth of interest. Although NGS provides covering insurance, health and safety issues, such as slippery surfaces, may be a worry. Opening a garden can be daunting work, but generous openers with an eye for detail, commitment and drive (and helpful friends for the all-important teas) find it rewarding. All entrance and donation monies raised go to Marie Curie, Macmillan Nurses, hospices, carers, National Trust bursary schemes and Perennial, the Gardeners’ Benevolent Fund. Regular NGS openers, Joan and Cliff Curtis (21 Chapel Street, Hacconby) told me recently that NGS gives garden owners a huge amount of support, with signs, leaflets and, not least, great publicity. Six gardens will open for the first time this year (see below).

With both her grandmother and mother being keen gardeners, it is little wonder that Susie inherited gardening genes. She affectionately remembers growing up in Scotland, at Fingask Castle, in the highlands of Perthshire, the enormous lawn mown by horse and cart and, among the ornaments, lead statues of ‘Rabbie’ Burns and Pitt.

“As children, it was wonderful to be allowed to help (or hinder) the gardeners tackling the annual topiary clipping with the heavy shears,” said Susie.

Later, she joined her mother, braving heavy clay every afternoon in their Essex rose gardens. When, almost twenty years ago, Susie took over as NGS county organiser there were twelve NGS gardens in the county. For this special eighty-fifth anniversary year, over sixty gardens will open, including one in Cambridgeshire – Walcot Hall – which is one of Susie’s favourite gardens, where the Lincolnshire born host insists on opening for the Lincolnshire NGS Branch! This reflects not only the growing popularity of gardens, but Susie’s tact and diplomacy, thoughtfully hosting an annual lunch for all her owners.

Kipling’s verse holds true: ‘…the Glory of the Garden lies in more than meets the eye’. It’s not just about monies raised. Now almost an Olympic sport, garden visiting benefits the young and old. Perfectionist and artistic enthusiasts delighting in their creations, Lincolnshire’s NGS garden owners are champions who offer pleasure and solace, renew hope, generously advise and inspire us into action to improve our own garden patches. Glory be to God for yellow–bookers!

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