Gallery: Spectacular floral displays at The Abbey Gardens in Bury St Edmunds

The sensory garden.

The sensory garden. - Credit: Archant

The Abbey Gardens in Bury St Edmunds are one of the county’s most spectacular floral displays. James Marston met the team behind one of Suffolk’s best known landmarks

There’s nowhere like the Abbey Gardens on a summer morning – even if it is a little overcast.

Townspeople are strolling through on their way to the shops beyond the Abbey Gate, a young lady sits under a tree reading a paper, a group of schoolchildren, clipboards in hand, are identifying trees, and an elderly trio of ladies are chatting on a bench.

It’s a peaceful idyllic scene.

Hugely historic, the Abbey Gardens are the iconic and free public park of Bury St Edmunds.

Within its 12 acres there are magnificent abbey ruins, formal gardens, a rose garden, a sensory garden, a café, a children’s play area, an events area, a water garden, a bowling green, paths and walkways, and hundreds of trees.

Damien Parker, parks manager for St Edmundsbury Borough Council which has owned the gardens since the 1950s, is the man in charge.

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A trained horticulturist and arboriculturist, Damien leads the team of gardeners and planners that are responsible for the spectacular formal planting as well as overall maintenance of the gardens.

The 43-year-old said: “My grandparents had a market garden and I got the gardening bug from them.”

He added: “After the dissolution of the monasteries the abbey was plundered by locals for stone which was used in the construction of buildings around the town. The site was effectively left vacant until the 18th Century when botanical gardens were laid out; there are still some original trees which were planted at that time.”

For the last 101 years the gardens have been free to the public.

Damien said the gardens attract a million and a half human visitors a year, alongside a selection of bird life, ducks, squirrels, and occasional Muntjac deer and the odd fox. There is also a lively Abbey Gardens Friends group with about 100 members.

With a budget of around £300,000 a year, the gardens employ five full-time gardeners and three rangers. Significant planting or projects have to get the approval of English Heritage in order to ensure the Grade 1 listed site’s archaeology remains undisturbed.

Damien said: “The trees are in good health and they are checked once a year to make sure they are safe.

“The gardens really are the jewel in the crown of the parks we have and it is a privilege to work here.”

Part-time parks officer Caroline Brown designs much of the formal planting. There are a total of 56 flower beds which use around 24,000 plants a year.

She has been in her current role for more than ten years.

She said. “I started my career in accounts and administration but retrained in landscape design. I didn’t enjoy being inside an office, I wanted to be outside. My duties include being part of the team which designs each year’s planting scheme for the Abbey gardens. There are two schemes each year, one for the winter and spring and then another scheme for the summer. The summer planting scheme is planned six months in advance. There are lots more flowers to choose from. We sit down and plan the planting; we talk about the overall effect and a build up a plan over about two days.

“Last year we had the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics so our planting scheme included a lot of red white and blue.

“We like to create a colourful impact for visitors as they walk in from the Abbey Gate. We aim to have a co-ordinated display and for people to be impressed. We are looking for a wow factor.”

Elsewhere in the gardens, near the bowling green is the water garden – an area which has been somewhat neglected over recent years. Caroline said she is currently working on a new design for the garden after an anonymous benefactor donated funds – around £40,000 – to the gardens.

She said: “The water garden has become a bit overgrown so we are going to clear it out and plant new borders. It is a very exciting project. Our benefactor has wished to stay anonymous but he loves the Abbey Gardens and wanted to see his money used here. It is a remarkable gesture.”

Steve Burgess, 56, has been the gardens’ head gardener for the last 12 years. He said: “This time of year is very busy as we are taking out spring plants and bulbs and planting new bedding. We are hoping this year’s scheme is going to be extremely colourful.”

Sarah Stamp is St Edmundsbury borough councillor with responsibility for heritage, arts and culture in the town.

The mother-of-three said: “It is a very precious place, you can escape here from the bustle of the town, it is very peaceful and easily accessible. Bury St Edmunds and Suffolk can be very proud of these gardens. It is a very historic part of the town and an important part of the package Bury St Edmunds has to offer visitors.”

And for one regular visitor, 85-year-old Mona Howard, the gardens have been part of her life for as long as she can remember.

She said: “I remember coming here with my mother when I was a child. It was quite different during the war, there were pigs where the rose garden is now. I brought my children here when they were young and I meet my friends here now. I live nearby so it is easy to get here. It’s very peaceful here.”