History|The NurseryThe day Peter Gill first saw the six acres of walled vegetable gardens in the park of Holkham Hall, near Wells-next-the-Sea on the North Norfolkcoast, it was entirelyempty of vegetation, bar a few strawberry plants and some ancient Brunswick figs against the walls.
The day was February 7, 1966, and he had come to join the brave owners as head nurseryman. It was aworking kitchen gardenuntil the 1950s, but it had been running down since 1939.
The six acres held the derelict remains of what, in its heyday, had been one of those fruit, flower and vegetable gardens which could only beafforded by the nobilityon their landed estates.
Walls ofsoft pink brickhad been built round the first four acres in the 1780s. By the 19th century, another two acres were annexed, to keep up with the demands of the house.
Even in decay,the gardens boasted anastonishing array of buildings: there is still the series of vineries, glazed in 1872, which runs the length of one wall; grapes once grew here in profusion and the whole is currently being restored.
More than two-thirds of the original timber remains, Mr Gill advises; its survival is due to the fact that highlyresinous pinewas used, and was painted with linseed-oil paints. There are 14 smaller glasshouses, including an orchid house, as well as a mushroom house and cold frames.
Three years after Mr Gill arrived, theplace was transformed. During the summer of 1968, the beds were rotavated and, he remembers, he and the retired army major who, with his wife, was the owner, ‘planted a bit of everything we had’.
The early years were hard and dispiriting. The nursery existed by selling anything it could-cut flowers, lettuces, runner beans and wallflowers: ‘anything quick and easy’.
The major’s wife, a war reporter who had fled from Russia, worked alone, while her husband had a job at the War Office in London. The three of them, almost by accident, saved theentire historic complex. ‘We made no structural alterations at all.’
The major and his wife, Mr Gill adds, died in harness in 1986. Today, more than three decades on, the ‘bit of everything’ has become mature borders of berberis, ceanothus, philadelphus and less hardy plants, such as Arbutus unedo f rubra and fremontodendron. Roses and clematis clamber up the walls and a wisteria drips over a brick archway.
Holkham Nursery Gardens
Tel: +44(0)1328 711636
Open daily 11am to dusk, November to February (closed December to early January) and 10am to 5pm, March to October