Monday, 26 May 2014

Hill Close Gardens - Food and Flowers

A lovely sunny spring day and a spare afternoon triggered a brief but refreshing visit to an old haunt of mine: Hill Close Gardens in Warwick.

After a warm welcome from volunteers, we were off to tour the individual garden plots that collectively form this wonderful little restored Victorian garden - merely a stones throw from the middle of Warwick. 

Around two acres survive of these gardens that were in their heyday rented or purchased for private recreation and growing produce. Back in the day, hedges and fences provided private spaces for affluent business people who didn't have the luxury of a garden with their main accommodation, as many of them lived above their shop so to speak. Each plot was invaluable for escaping the pressures of work, and after years of nurturing, many plots were retained by families who handed them down through generations.

 Accounts survive that list the quantities of fruit trees that existed on each plot, and given the size of each space, trees must have been expertly trained to fit them all in! Many of the garden plots feature dainty summerhouses that are simply the sweetest of garden buildings; each one placed perfectly to make the most of the passing sun and views. 

There was a hierarchy of plots across the sloped site - higher plots with better views across the common were more expensive, indicating higher status and wealth. Some of the larger summerhouses have basements for tool and produce storage, and cute fireplaces to ward off autumnal chills, but all offered shelter, a place to rest, and views over their garden. 

Today, the houses are used to display early tools and information, but have lost none of their charm through the process of restoration, all being matched closely to their original form after investigation and research. There's also an excellent, if slightly uphill, path network, that allows relatively easy access to most garden plots.

Hill Close Gardens are now largely cared for by an employed gardener and a large team of volunteers, some of whom have been granted care of individual plots, though many of the gardens supply fruit and veg' for sale - in support of the gardens. There's an education team, the visitor centre hosts a range of horticultural events, and the gardens are an important link to our Victorian gardening heritage.

What I love about Hill Close however, is that after huge initial investment, they settled down to eventually become neglected - almost lost forever. But after public rescue and restoration, the gardens are once again settling down, and ultimately are back in the hands of gardeners who like their Victorian counterparts; are using the spaces creatively for food & flowers.

Hill Close remains team work of many hands, and is a superb example of these early town or 'Guinea' gardens. Naturally, I would find interest if there was nothing but a pot plant and bench, but these gardens work on a variety of levels and offer so much - not the least being its variety of planting. There are plenty of plant packed borders arranged largely in a cottage style. Spring bedding areas were going over for my visit but the Auricula's were beaming on their display shelves, and the herbaceous planting was coming through strongly.   

I think variety is one of the strengths of Hill Close. Not only is it a heritage asset, it is a thriving garden and relevant to many local folk - too many to list. I remember many visitors rediscovering vegetables and fruits that their parents or grandparents used to grow, and it was touching to hear their recollections of a family garden previously forgotten - quite emotional and evocative discussions in some cases. 

After a wander through the Victorian style glasshouse, used for modern day propagation and display, and of course a check of the plants on sale, I ventured beyond the centre to a hidden plot - the education garden. This garden is a little closer to my heart as I was heavily involved in its creation, and it was good to see it maturing nicely. The top fruit and hedges I planted, staked and tied were growing strongly, the perennials were clumping up, and the hogging paths, that some thought would be washed away, were holding well after a very wet winter. On the whole, this little garden area was singing along and as with all the plots at Hill Close - looks in good order and very much loved.  

Hill Close Gardens - a real gemstone in Warwickshire's garden network - be sure to make a visit!
Images © Gary Webb 2014