Sweet pea bonanza

Featured in:
July 2021

Every time I pay a refreshing summer visit to Easton Walled Gardens, I marvel at the ever-expanding sweet pea collection, both with delight and a frisson of nostalgia. Many moons ago now, I remember being entranced by a beautiful picture book, revealing a world of dainty fairies posing amidst equally gorgeous flowers. I pored over it for hours, turning every page and getting to know the different characters, each posing in a perfect outfit to suit their special flower.

Spring, summer and autumn fairy chronicles were first published in the 1920s by Cicely Mary Barker (1895-1973), the daughter of Walter Barker, a partner in a Surrey seed supply company and an amateur artist. They were illustrated with charming, skilful watercolours in pastel shades with a real freedom of spirit, accompanied by equally engaging, easy-to-read verses. A winter chronicle was later put together after Cicely’s death. Enjoyed since by youngsters from every generation, I introduced them to my daughter, and more recently my granddaughter. New, updated editions are still available for today’s four and five-year-olds, awakening their imaginations to the rich and varied world of nature.

How many readers have conjured up fairies living amongst the flowers at the bottom of their garden? They are easy to imagine living amongst swathes of buttercups and cowslips in the meadows, especially when dandelion clocks and tiny seeds swirl up and float along the breeze. Do you remember summer’s Sweet Pea Fairies? Cicely painted a ‘big sister’ fairy in pre-Raphaelite style with a kind face and long, auburn curls, dressed in a green calyx jerkin and frilly pink sweet pea skirt, trying on a pretty sweet pea flower as the perfect, peach bonnet for her little fairy sister. The baby fairy, sitting on a leaf amongst sweet pea flowers and tendrils, is held safe by a single, fine tendril wound around her tiny waist.

How many fragrant sweet peas have been grown in Easton’s historic gardens and orchards since Tudor times, when Sir Henry Cholmeley, in 1592, first purchased the estate, centred in a romantic valley south of Grantham, watered by the meandering River Witham. The Cholmeley family’s coat of arms – a sheaf of wheat (or garb in heraldic terms) – signifies agriculture, also appropriate to 15th century Cistercian monks of Vaudey Abbey, who had originally founded a priory at Easton. The gardens were still in their late Victorian heyday when Cicely Mary Barker was born. If you are curious to know what they looked like then, the Country Life Archive online features superb photographs in an article dated 25th January 1902. Sadly, this great Lincolnshire house has been lost, pulled down not long after World War Two. The smart, terraced gardens went into a deep slumber for half a century – like Sleeping Beauty, the fairy tale Princess Aurora – until the new millennium.

The younger generation of the Cholmeley family, Sir Fred and Lady Ursula Cholmeley, hoped this would be the right time to diversify their farming estate. Lady Ursula, a passionate gardener with great imagination, encouraged her husband to begin clearing 14 acres of overgrown wilderness. She recognised that the remnant ‘old bones’ of the gardens were of historic interest and worth saving: striking veteran trees, including a yew avenue contrasting winter’s swathes of snowdrops and heritage spring bulbs appearing as fast as they made clearances; well-made terraces and steps down to the stone bridge; stone walls, gateways, and unusual Salvin-designed garden buildings.

Everything amounted to an exceptional unique sense of history and place, despite showing their age and needing challenging repairs. Nevertheless, they bravely first opened the gardens to the public in 2002. In Lady Ursula’s own words, “the sanctuary and atmosphere of the valley are a daily inspiration”. Two decades later, having invested all their energies and creative ideas in developing every useful aspect of the site, they have created a first-class, beautiful garden of national significance.

Sir Fred had formerly trained as a professional photographer. His great eye for composition has proved extremely useful for marketing the gardens in the media. However, beside offering splendid teas and scrumptious cakes, the couple knew they had to attract sufficient visitor numbers to make both extensive restoration and the upkeep of 14 acres of gardens viable, especially during the competitive high summer season. A ‘unique selling-point’ (or USP), ‘Unforgettable sweet peas’, was to be Easton’s special attraction.

From the last week of June, don’t miss a spectacular show: over 100 different sweet peas, both heritage and modern varieties, delicate ruffles of elegant blooms, in sweetest shades, on long stems that are perfect for cutting.

The antique sweet peas are highly scented with smaller flowers, the more contemporary sweet peas have been cultivated to be larger and bolder. Lady Ursula is a recognised expert and offers great advice on how to grow sweet peas on Easton’s website. See www.visiteaston.co.uk/category/gardening-advice.

Hasten down to Easton now that summer’s here. You might find dragonflies and kingfishers on the river, or maybe a fairy or two amongst sweet pea wigwams and columns, stirring charming childhood memories. Encourage your children to follow in Cicely’s footsteps and try their hand at painting flower watercolours.

Look out for the new red seedling sweet pea, Lathryus odoratus ‘Red Hat’ donated by Queen Maud the Merrier! Visitors to the ‘Pickery’ are generously invited to cut fragrant sweet pea blooms, many with intriguing names and stories, to take home with them. This way everyone contributes to their repeat-flowering regeneration through the summer. I also recommend Easton’s packets and gift tins – seeds to start your own sweet pea collection, safe in the knowledge that every seed has been trialled and tested. These make simple, attractive, and pleasing gifts that keep on giving, both for young gardeners and also every ‘young at heart’ plantsperson.

Sir Fred and Lady Ursula have created some beautifully appointed holiday rentals in restored cottages and interesting outbuildings. Guests are free to walk in the romantic grounds in the peace and quiet of evening when the public has gone home. Then again, you could hire a summerhouse for a day. The ‘Meadow Retreat’ offers a perfect spot to get away from all your cares and picnic with your family and friends.

In 1905 Easton played host to a newlywed US President who was travelling on honeymoon. Franklin D Roosevelt was much enamoured by the gardens, describing them as ‘A dream of Nirvana… almost too good to be true’.

Who knows, perhaps the premier combination of peaceful, old setting and vibrant, contemporary gardens and wild-life friendly planting might attract our current Prime Minister and his new wife to stay on their belated honeymoon next year. The sweet pea harvest is guaranteed to be spectacular!

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