The glorious gardens of Gunby Hall

Forthcoming events at Gunby Hall

Saturday 22nd July, 7pm
The Secret Garden, Chapterhouse Theatre

Saturday 12th August, 7pm
The Comedy of Errors, Rain or Shine Theatre

Saturday 9th & Sunday 10th September, 10am-4pm
Heritage Open Days

Sunday 8th October, 10am
Apple Day

Full event details at: www.nationaltrust.org.uk


Words by:
Caroline Bingham
Featured in:
July 2023

Caroline Bingham visited this ‘town house in the country’ on the eve of Rose Week to meet Senior Gardener, Tasha Johnson.

Tasha heads a dedicated team of four who keep the eight acres of gardens in pristine condition, getting to grips with the underlying dense, clay soil, to produce wonderful displays year-round. I visited earlier in April with friends and the cold weather had certainly stalled the start of the season but had extended the lifespan of the beautiful spring bulb displays. I commented to Tasha how much I had admired the pots of colour co-ordinated tulips arranged on steps outside the old stables. She was delighted with how well they had worked and thought they must have been the most photographed feature of the whole winter. It is an idea I will have no shame in copying for my own garden next year.

Roses galore
Just a month later and I arrived as the roses were ready to burst into bloom. With more than 80 varieties within the gardens, many planted by members of the Massingberd family who lived in the Hall for more than 250 years, Tasha admits that she is yet to identify a few of the older roses. Rose Week is held at the beginning of June and marks the time from which the garden can be seen in all its summer splendour. On the day of my visit, well-rotted cattle manure was still to be seen around the roses; a mulch to keep the borders as fertile and resilient to dry conditions as possible. There are some stunning scented roses such as Chinatown, Arthur Bell and Graham Stuart Thomas, whose perfume fills the air on hot days. As well as four gardeners, there is an army of volunteers who do their share of the spade work, guide visitors around the house as well as man the tea room and bookshop throughout the year.

Family seat
The main house was built in 1700 for the Massingberd family, whose land extended from Gunby to the coast where Skegness is now located. The extension to the left hand side, the music room, was added in the Victorian period. The beautiful symmetry of the main house is typical of many London town houses of the period, transplanted into the Lincolnshire countryside. The fortunes of the Massingberd family dwindled under one particularly profligate heir (Naughty Algernon) and when the National Trust took over the Hall and estate in 1944, just 1,500 acres remained. This surrounding countryside is typical of lowland farming, with grazing cattle and many permissive paths for relaxing walks, abundant with wildlife.

An informative tour
We began our tour of the gardens from the courtyard, walking under the clock tower which will soon be undergoing renovation and headed through the main gates to the formally laid out front garden. The circular drive sweeps in front of the entrance steps of the house, from where there is a view across a stoned walkway, through a pair of yew hedges towards the parkland. Located on the path is a sundial formed from a baluster from the old Kew Bridge.

Tasha explained that the white tulips which had featured in these beds were being lifted to be replaced with summer planting. Bulbs are kept and planted back into other areas of the garden in the autumn.

Tasha was particularly pleased, this spring, with a display of pink tulips in the orchard which had been replanted in this way.

There are some fine specimen trees framing the view of the house; a black mulberry, a Robinia, as well as a couple of cedars. A shrubbery lies to the left, behind which is a wildflower walk which is bright in winter with aconites, crocuses and later wood anemones.

We followed the path at the side of the house to the lawns behind. Two large beds in the shape of exclamation marks are the main feature here to the left of the path. A family with young children were happily playing with Jenga blocks on the grass in the sunshine; one of the activities which were laid across the site for visitors to interact with. You are welcome to bring a picnic too. We joined the boundary walk further along past the large rectangular carp pond, following the line of the yew hedge, on the other side of which lies the kitchen garden.

Kitchen garden
The kitchen garden’s layout has changed little over time and is still very productive for both fruit and vegetables. Pathways divide it into four compartments with a centre path lined with hybrid musk roses.

Planted in the early 1960s by Lady Montgomery-Massingberd, varieties such as Penelope and Prosperity give delicious, heavy scents. We followed the perimeter path admiring the fruit trees which cover the walls; plum, gage and fig among them. Apple and pear trees are arranged down the central double herbaceous border.

Sundial lawn and herb garden
Through the kitchen garden doorway lies the box edged lawn, featuring a central sundial, which was probably laid out by Margaret Massingberd around the turn of the 19th century. Here are many of the older rose species. A perfect spot to sit and admire this area of the gardens is the blue domed seat known as the Blue Temple. Framed with honeysuckle and quite a suntrap, this must be another of the most captured images of the garden.

The path in front of the Temple runs down to the greenhouses which produce the plants and flowers which feature in arrangements around the house. Visitors can make their own purchases, by paying at the café, from a plant stall alongside. I could not resist investing in a couple myself. I managed to slow Tasha down enough to take her photograph, framed by a rose, against the side wall of the dovecote. The resident white doves were flying in and out overhead.

To the side of the Sundial Lawn is one of the most recently planted areas, the Herb Garden. Basking in an area of maximum sunlight, the paving and gravel is interplanted with species which need these hot, dry conditions to achieve maximum potency such as lavender, thyme and rosemary.

England is a garden
Adjacent to the sundial lawn is the Yellow Border. This double herbaceous border is packed with perennial and many unusual plants such as Achillea ‘Cloth of Gold’ and Ligularia clivorum ‘Desdemona’, an orange daisy with purple tinted leaves. The Massingberds were friends with Rudyard Kipling and an engraved stone mounted into the wall at the end of the path quotes from his poem, ‘The Glory of the Garden’: ‘Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made/by singing:– “O! How beautiful!” and sitting in the shade’.

Gunby’s gardens are certainly a testament to the dedication of Tasha and her team. Such effortless beauty in a garden does not come without a great deal of back-breaking work behind the scenes. Tasha had given me a running commentary of not only her knowledge as a plantswoman but also her thirst to find out even more on the history of the evolution of the gardens at Gunby and the quest to identify those species of roses whose names still evade her.

Renovation projects and Pioneer Rooms
As well as maintaining the gardens, maintaining the fabric of the house is a year-round project too. I already mentioned that work will begin shortly on the renovation of the clock tower but inside the house surveys and decisions need to be made on how to tackle a larger structural problem.

The main staircase is closed off to the public at present, although access to the first floor can be gained via a back stair. A beam supporting the south elevation of the main house is weakened by the deterioration of its underlying, original timbers.

You can find out more and make a donation to Gunby to help them carry out conservation work on the house and restore the integrity of the building by going to the National Trust website.

On the first floor, the recently created Pioneer Rooms give the public the chance to sit and learn more about the Massingberd family’s connections to and influence on the women’s rights movement, close association with William Morris, Alfred, Lord Tennyson and the Bloomsbury set.

Tasha and her team sustain gardens which really do offer something to admire in all seasons, so I am sure I will be making my third visit to Gumby later this year to see the gardens in their autumn colours.
Meanwhile make the most of the summer spectacle. Well-behaved dogs are welcome on a lead so the whole family can come along.

It is recommended to pre-book your visit at: www.nationaltrust.org.uk, Adult £9 Child £4.50



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