31/10/2016 I have Wyken Vineyards to blame for my addiction to Brahma chickens, amongst other things. I first saw them in the orchard at Wyken Hall, along with peacocks, turkeys, guinea fowl and other chicken breeds. I couldn’t stop laughing: when they walked (read: waddled) or ran, they reminded me of somewhat overweight matronly housekeepers in full 19th century gear. Ridiculously fluffy, heavy chickens with trousers on. ‘I absolutely have to have some of those!’ excluded all other thoughts, and the search began that evening.
It is my favourite Suffolk garden open to the public, and not only because of the animals. It is a beautiful place, and one for dreaming in, which I have only lately come to realise is an indispensible element of my life. £12* is no price at all to pay for a season of inspiration and unlimited dreaming opportunities…
Before you reach the entrance to the garden, a deer park-like meadow on the right with standing and fallen oak trees is often inhabited by llamas and sheep if they are not doing the rounds of other meadows on the farm. On my last visit a new sign had been put up on the perimeter fence opposite the restaurant/café:
The llamas and lambs
are not fond of being petted
but if you pet Angelica the cow,
please wash your hands afterwards.
Request from the Health and Safety man
who is quite nice.
It made me grin. I’m not sure if it was the cow’s name, or the fact that it seemed to be taken for granted she would like to be petted, or that the Health and Safety man’s niceness might be in question, that I found most amusing. Active liking of being petted is not something I particularly associate with cows, although many of them are curious, friendly and don’t seem to object, if trying to eat you isn’t an indication of their objection.
An impressive beech tree stands directly opposite the garden gate. Turning right through the gate is Wyken Hall, boasting some of the grandest chimneys I have ever seen. I had always assumed ‘Suffolk pink’ was the average pink of many timber-framed cottages around Suffolk, but according to Kenneth and Carla Carlisle who own Wyken Hall**, it is actually this more interesting, deep, rusty red colour, not far off the red of my own house, though it is hard to tell how they compare without seeing them side by side – and cameras are notoriously unreliable in their rendition of shades of red, pink and purple.
In front of the house is what I originally thought a Mediterranean-inspired terrace, with a low hedge of lavender bushes in front of a row of high espaliered apple trees and blue oversized rocking chairs. But then I read, to my surprise, that Carla Carlisle is from Mississippi, and it is in fact reminiscent of a southern veranda. The rocking chairs were brought all the way from her home state.
To the right as you face the house is an old timber door with wooden child-sized benches on either side of the entrance and, directly in front of it, five interlocking circles (inspired by a 1911 herb garden design) with a fountain by Bungay potter Clive Davies at the centre.
I rarely linger here; the various chairs and benches look inviting, but I cannot escape the feeling that I am intruding on someone’s private home, and I am usually too early to catch the rocking chairs bathed in sunshine. So I continue along the brick path down the side of the house and turn left into the orchard: an open lawn with many varieties of old and young apple trees. This orchard has changed my perspective on garden furniture: I used to think scrubbing and oiling was the only way to stop it becoming unattractive, as well as being more pleasant to sit on. Here, however, I have seen chairs and table left to their own devices, covered with lichen of different sorts, and I have to admit it has far more character and aesthetic appeal. Perhaps one wouldn’t want to sit directly on them in whites, but that is about its only disadvantage as far as I can see. The furniture has become a living part of the garden.
Last year I saw a bantam scratching around in the orchard with her brood of guinea fowl chicks, already bigger than she was. I knew chickens weren’t fussy about what kind of creatures emerge from the eggs they so patiently sit on for three weeks or more, but actually seeing the phenomenon for myself, for the first time in my memory, was highly entertaining.
In the near right corner of the orchard is an envy-inducing vegetable garden that always looks as though a team of gardeners must be dedicated to its wellbeing every week of the year, although I very rarely spot anyone working there. I assume they must work in the morning, and the garden is open only in the afternoon. My green-eyed contemplation of this feat of edible gardening is often accompanied by the comical creaky noises of the guinea fowl and the somewhat less ear-splitting, more comforting bleating of sheep coming from the field beyond.
A brick path to the right leads round the back of the house. Beyond some exotic-looking flowerbeds (I suspect these are the so-called ‘Red Hot border’, but have not managed to confirm this) is an immaculate lawn with a sculpture of two grazing black sheep. It has taken many visits for me to stop mistaking these sheep for real ones, as only a hedge and beautiful wooden gate separate them from their animate, noisier cousins.
Past the house, the brick path leads to wisterias and a rose garden, where the path splits in many directions between flower beds and espalier apple trees on either side of a fountain. Impressive though this part of the garden is, my destination is usually the pond just beyond it, through the blue gate.
This is one of my favourite parts of the garden. The pond is deep and clear, with water lilies flowering in August and September – perhaps for longer but I am not yet familiar with the habits of water lilies, as they refuse to grow in my pond (perhaps due to their reputed incompatibility with ducks). There are two comfortable wooden chairs with leg rests on a wooden platform overlooking this pond and I frequently sit here to read, write or stare, when I am not standing to peer over the rail looking for newts and water boatmen, both of which are usually easy to spot.
The other advantage of sitting in this spot is that I can appreciate my other favourite area of the garden by just turning my head to the left: the ‘Dell’, a sunken path with steep slopes on which are planted Himalayan birches – poetically named Silver Shadow – with the whitest trunks I have ever seen, and a bench at the end of the path beneath a giant oak. This is the sort of place that ought to be able to convince even the most garden-averse that a garden can be a living work of art.
This spring I happened upon the fritillary meadow to the left of the Dell. I actively looked for it last spring, having seen it marked on the garden ‘map’, with no success. Perhaps fritillaries have this magical quality – that they appear when you are not looking for them, and do not when you most earnestly seek them. My father managed to grow a crop for a number of years under some Japanese birches in my garden. Then, all of a sudden, they were gone and I haven’t seen them since. I wonder if they will reappear one day like the 2 lone crocuses that suddenly popped up last year for the first time by the side of the driveway.
Emerging from the Dell to the right is a beech maze. It took me a while to find my way round the first time I tried, but this is the maze where I learnt the failsafe way to navigate a maze, as explained to me by a friend. At the centre of this maze is a prize worth waiting for: a hut on stilts from which you can see over the maze and survey the sheep in the fields beyond as well as other parts of the garden.
There is much more to explore, but this gives a taste of the Gardens’ treasures. Sadly, though understandably, they are only open April to September. When October arrives my mind moves many a time towards Wyken Hall Gardens and is stopped in its tracks when I remember I have to wait until spring to visit again.
But there are consolations the rest of the year: the farmers’ market which takes place every Saturday morning, and a woodland walk leading down to the vineyard where, even if there are no grapes to admire, an information board on grape varieties and wine making can be found. Also open year round are the restaurant, café and elegant country shop, from which I am always in danger of emerging with at least five new books, and where several items in my guest accommodation originate.
As I write now on the last day of October, I am sitting on the sunny café terrace in short sleeves: a still, bright morning after mist, without a hint of wind or chill in the air. The sheep are grazing on the meadow in front of me and the fruity smell of fig leaves radiates from the converted barn wall behind me. I have been treated to the unusual sight of galloping cows and llamas, and one of the cows is now mooing passionately about who knows what…
*The price of a season ticket, or £4 per visit.
**My curiosity to know more about this place and its inhabitants has been satisfied through the informative leaflet provided on a visit to the Gardens, and two books:
Wyken: the Life of a small Suffolk estate by Kenneth Carlisle
South Facing Slope: writings from Country Life by Carla Carlisle