Attingham Park, Shropshire

Jules Hudson learns the archaic art of maintaining a walled garden on a National Trust working holiday

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Prince Charles once suggested that “gardening was good for the soul”. I couldn’t agree more. My own garden allows me to create a space that is all mine, and gain respite from the rigours of everyday life. So when I was offered the chance to join in at a unique experience at Attingham Park’s walled garden, I jumped at it.

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The 1st Lord Berwick began 4,000-acre Attingham Park in Shropshire back in 1782. Like most great houses of its type, it had a self-sufficient walled garden at its heart – the engine room that kept it going all year round.

I’ve long had a fascination with walled gardens. I explored my first, tucked away in the Marquis of Anglesey’s estate near Plas Newydd in north Wales, 20 years ago. In the middle of its great walls, ancient doorways beckoned, their gates hanging idly on rusted hinges.

Beneath the overgrown turf line you could see hints of its former layout – slate kerbs and cobbled pathways. In the corner, an old tool shed looked out over what was once an industrious and enchanted space. It’s a place I often recall and I would dearly love the chance to bring it back to life.

Behind the walls
This sense of hidden treasure behind great walls is one of the most captivating elements to any walled garden. Now in the care of the National Trust, the fortunes of Attingham’s once neglected treasure trove have been reversed.

Over three years, gardener Dr Kate Nicoll has worked with an army of volunteers to bring the walled garden back into use, supplying the estate and now the café with homegrown produce.
Last year, Katherine Bone joined Kate on a secondment from the Women’s Farm and Garden Association. Their joint enthusiasm for the garden’s renovation is infectious.

“The main part of the walled garden covers two acres. Since the war, it’s fallen on sad times, at one point becoming a football pitch,” Kate told me. “But unlike many great houses, which saw part if not all of their walled gardens demolished, all the components were here to get it back into use again.”
For Katherine, it’s been an inspiring start to her career
in gardening. “I’ve learnt so much over the past year and it’s exciting to work this garden in the way in which it was designed,” she told me.

Ready volunteers
To recreate a Georgian garden of this kind requires manpower and the restoration has made Attingham a popular destination for people wanting to escape the pressures of work, meet new people and learn new skills.

4,000 people a year are attracted to the National Trust’s working holidays. These volunteer breaks could involve repairing footpaths on Snowdon, dry stone walling in the Lake District or clearing borders at some of Britain’s most influential gardens.
When I arrived at Attingham Park, I joined a dozen or so volunteers – some were old hands at these breaks, while others were trying out the concept for the first time. While helping out with a spot of potato planting, I caught up with some of this spring’s escapees.

Among the youngest was Sarah, a researcher from London. She told me how she enjoyed the chance to get some fresh air and get her hands dirty.

“It’s impossible for me to have a garden at the moment, but to have the chance to share in this one is fantastic”.

Fellow volunteer Paul discovered he was coming to Attingham when he opened his 60th birthday card: “I’d mentioned that I liked walled gardens but I had no idea what my family were planning. I wouldn’t have missed this for the world. It’s my first time but it wont be my last, and the company has been terrific.”

I also spoke to Colin, who has been on 40 trips like this and is now a team leader: “It’s a whole week without radio, TV and newspapers,” he told me. “I’ve worked alongside people from 18-83 – fencing, walling, planting, digging – you name it. People come from all over the world, and while occasionally there are language difficulties, at the end of the day, a spade is a spade. Hopefully I’ll be back on another before the year is out.”

Pride and produce
As I worked, I chatted to Kate, who explained how walled gardens became the driver of great estates in terms of food production. They excelled in the exotic and were a source of pride among those that worked in them, and among the gentry that enjoyed their spoils. Thus, out of something practical, arose something magical and, at least in my view as a would-be walled gardener, profoundly beautiful.

Competition abounded and, in striving to create the perfect walled garden, our understanding of horticulture accelerated in the 18th and 19th centuries. Within these walls, gardeners grew every kind of vegetable and fruit. The walls not only kept out the wind, but also pests such as rabbits. They could also be used to grow espaliered pears and apples, carefully trained along the south-facing portions.

Ingenious heating, supplied by flues within the walls, produced fruit through the winter, as recently discovered fire pits at Attingham demonstrate. Clever stuff indeed, but the introduction of glasshouses did away with the need for this new technology.
In the frame yard, I came across two enormous glasshouses set against the northern walls and a melon house, all of which would have been heated with huge iron pipes.

“Producing ever more exotic fruits for the table, and to be able to do so all year round was hugely important to the nobility,” Kate told me. “The most prized were pineapples. We have records showing that some were sent down to London for Lord Berwicks’s son.”

Practical beauty
From exotic fruit to the rows of humble spuds I had just helped plant, it’s comforting to know that Attingham’s walled garden continues to supply the estate 220 years on. And the garden here serves to remind us that growing your own is not a new concept, that sustainability should be a fundamental aim not a fad, and that sometimes functional features create some of the most beautiful and enchanted surroundings.

I’ve always wanted a walled garden, and I know where there is one just crying out to be rescued, but in the meantime I think I’ll keep dropping in on Attingham Park. With such a huge amount of effort going into it, it’s unlikely to ever look the same twice.

Useful Information

How to get there
Attingham Park is four miles from Shrewsbury, on the B4380.
Or take a train to Shrewsbury
and then the Arriva 96 bus.

Find out more
ATTINGHAM PARK
01743 708123
www.nationaltrust.org.uk
Park is open daily 9am-6pm, mansion is open 11am-5.30pm 12 Mar-30 Oct. Adults £9.90, child £5.80. The park has good wheelchair access, but access in the mansion is limited.

Working breaks
The National Trust runs around 400 working holidays every year, from goat herding to organic gardening. Stays cost from £90, including food and basic accommodation.
0844 800 3099
www.nationaltrust.org.uk

Stay
BROMPTON FARMHOUSE
Brompton SY5 6LE
01743 761629
bromptonfarmhouse.co.uk
A beautifully decorated farmhouse in extensive gardens.

Eat
MYTTON AND MERMAID
Atcham SY5 6QG
01743 761220
myttonandmermaid.co.uk
Have a drink in the garden overlooking the River Severn.

More walled gardens to visit

Knightshayes Court, Devon
Restored kitchen garden on
an eccentric estate (above).
www.nationaltrust.org.uk

Tatton Park, Cheshire
Grows Edwardian varieties
of fruit and vegetables.
www.tattonpark.org.uk

Llanerchaeron, Ceredigion
This 18th-century villa is home to 200-year-old fruit trees.
www.nationaltrust.org.uk

Blair Atholl, Perthshire
A restored 9-acre garden around a statue of Hercules.
www.blairatholl.org.uk

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Lost gardens of Heligan, Cornwall
Pineapples, melons and exotic glasshouses fruit thrived here.
www.heligan.com