Walled Kitchen Gardens by David Hargreaves

Our meetings resumed in September after the August break with a talk by David Hargreaves on Walled Kitchen Gardens and their Structures. David is an engineer and surveyor specialising in historic buildings. Walled gardens have a long history stretching back to Roman times and the emperor Tiberias had one to grow cucumbers, which he had been advised by his doctor to eat daily. The great times of the British walled garden are , however, associated with country estates in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries …

The best local example of a large walled garden is at Luton Hoo (currently undergoing gradual restoration). It is open to visitors and is quite separately managed from the Luton Hoo hotel.
Walled gardens were originally built for security from the theft of valuable crops and from damage by cattle. But they also led to the development of highly sophisticated techniques for growing fruit, vegetables and flowers, many of them exotic varieties which required heat and protection. It was walled gardens which gave rise to the development of the unique position of the Head Gardener who ruled supreme in his kingdom and frequently had fifteen to twenty staff under him. Paxton of Chatsworth and Crystal Place fame is probably the best known example. Gardening was an all-male activity apart from the presence of a weeding lady and perhaps a woman who would come in to feed the gardeners who lived on site. Well run kitchen gardens became the height of gardening craft.
David told us that originally walled gardens were constructed near to the big house and the stables with their huge supplies of horse manure. Over time, changes in garden fashions such as the development of landscape gardening required a walled garden to be hidden from view from the house and so they were moved some way away and sometimes screened with trees. David showed aerial photos with evidence of walled gardens sited near the house as well as a distant one. (Holkham hall in Norfolk is an example) The orientation of a walled garden was important to make the best use of sunshine. This was invariably just a few degrees of north/south with structures such as glass houses on the north wall to receive the most sun. Walls were generally faced with brick but might well mainly built of cheaper local materials. Walls were often heated to allow the growth of exotic fruit and this was done by building cavity walls with flues connected to a boiler which was often underground. Boilers were generally coal-fired although there are some examples of gas heating in the nineteenth century.
David then turned his attention to the structures associated with walled gardens. There was often a very imposing grand entrance to a garden for the sake of show and on the other side there would be a wide gate for the manure carts. The largest structures were glass houses which, although generally of a lean- to nature against the north wall, were often huge and sometimes of extraordinary shape. It was found that curvilinear glass panes were best at securing and retaining heat. There would also be a wide range of cold frames and forcing pits and always a dipping pond in the centre of the garden. Water collection and conservation were of great importance and every roof and suitable area was drained and connected to cisterns or dipping ponds. The Head Gardener had a comfortable house on the edge of the garden from where he would have a good view of everything that was going on. There would always be a seed room where seed could be dried and stored, seed kept from one year to the next or swapped with neighbouring gardens. Along the back range of the garden there would be the bothy where garden staff lived, potting sheds, a boiler room, tool store and stores for fruit and vegetables. Produce from the garden supplied the big house and would also be sent by train to the London town house.
The 1914- 1918 War saw the beginning of the end of walled kitchen gardens. Staff were taken into the army in large numbers and few returned. The introduction of refrigeration meant that foreign fruits and vegetables could be imported and the need for home-grown produce declined. After the Second World War many of the big houses could no longer be maintained and large numbers were demolished or their gardens abandoned. David concluded his talk with some examples of unexpected finds of abandoned walled gardens that he had come across in the course of his work on historic houses.

Our next meeting will be on 17th October at 7.30pm when Lamorna Thomas will give a demonstration of seasonal hanging baskets.
Jeremy Arthern

A small selection of David’s photos:



Our next meeting will be on 17th October at 7.30pm when Lamorna Thomas will give a demonstration of seasonal hanging baskets.

Jeremy Arthern

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