Garden open at Woodpeckers, Burnham-on-Crouch

Scenes from Woodpeckers, Burnham-on-Crouch - the perfect pick-me-up as we head towards winter

Scenes from Woodpeckers, Burnham-on-Crouch - the perfect pick-me-up as we head towards winter - Credit: Archant

Can you guess which cake garden visitors like best?

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I feel so mean descending on the Holdaways when visitors are due in a few hours and the following day will bring even more. The couple have been like the man and woman in one of those alpine chalet weather houses: while Neil’s been out in the garden, tidying this and that, Linda’s stayed indoors, slaving over a hot oven. Still is, in fact. They haven’t seen much of each other this morning.

She’s baking the last of the 10 cakes she reckons will see them through. A visit to a garden isn’t complete without tea and cake, though it’s always hard to predict how much will be needed.

“You don’t want to run out,” Neil grins. “The ideal would probably to have one slice left. Maybe two…”

The Holdaways – and Linda’s mum Lilian, who lives a stone’s throw from the main house – first opened their Essex garden to visitors in 1996.

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“Over the years you get to know what they like,” Linda says, as I admire her cooking. “Coffee and walnut, that’s what they like best. Traditional Mary Berry ones. Carrot cake they like, too; and fruit cake.” Sounds good to me.

Very soon, though, the last cake will be taken out to cool; the last visitor will leave this exuberant country garden. Before the month is out, Lilian, Linda and Neil will host their final open day as part of the National Gardens Scheme.

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We have only two more chances to enjoy Woodpeckers – and one of those is today. (So get your skates on, if you’re tempted.) The final opportunity is on September 26.

It’s been 14 years and a proper break is in order. (There was an interregnum along the way, when they built up an insurance broking business.) There are gardening projects they want to tackle, and you can’t have diggers in and holes around the place, for instance, if you’re going to open the gates and let people in.

Neil and Linda Holdaway in their English cottage garden

Neil and Linda Holdaway in their English cottage garden - Credit: Archant

Fittingly, Woodpeckers is going out in a blaze of glory. Folk who know about such things reckon the densely-planted borders are at their best in late summer, when asters, bulbs, grasses and sedums – and a wide variety of other nectar-rich annuals and perennials – encourage bees and butterflies on sunny days.

The garden is in Burnham-on-Crouch, south of Maldon, and gets low summer rainfall. September brings greater moisture, and the strong colours of dahlias and salvias steal the spotlight. Swathes of nerines, colchicums and crocuses join the party. For Neil, it’s his favourite time. July and August aren’t great for the garden – hot sunshine takes its toll on the grass – but now “It comes into its own”.

For the record, visitors earlier in the year would have seen the spring-time fruit blossom in the orchard, and seas of daffodils. Early summer brought wild flowers and drifts of tulips, alliums and cammasia. Later came tunnels of sweetpeas, herbs, salads and vegetables in the kitchen garden. There was plenty to see in the large, densely-planted and (loosely) colour-schemed borders hosting annuals, perennials and grasses. When summer is at its zenith, there are clematis and other climbers easing past shrubs, over arches and walls. No wonder Woodpeckers has featured in a clutch of magazines, including Gartnern Leicht Gemacht (which my O-level in German suggests is Gardening Made Easy, though I could easily be wrong).

Neil says his good lady is “really the gardener, in the sense of the planting plan. I’m just the labour!” Linda: “I think that’s a bit too modest. You’ve done a lot of design – and labour.”

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Both born and bred in south Essex, and from gardening families, they lived in a series of home in Burnham before moving to this one in 1991. Linda’s father had died of cancer and they decided to find somewhere where they and Linda’s mum could live. “When we came, it just felt like the right place,” says Neil.

The couple would visit gardens back in the 1970s, in the early years of their marriage, and, actually, “We came here!” says Neil. “To a church fete, in the year we moved to Burnham.” That was 1975. “We’d moved to a small three-bedroom semi, classic Wimpey Home, and that summer there was a church fete here and we were sitting in this garden. Didn’t have two ha’pennies to rub together and we sat outside this house.”

Bet you never dreamed it would be yours within about 16 years. “Honestly, no. Just making ends meet, weren’t we?”

How long have they been married? “Long enough to bicker constantly!” he grins. Turns out it’s 43 years. “I was a child bride, you understand!” says Linda. They’ve got a son and daughter, and four grandchildren.

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Woodpeckers was very different when they bought the acre and a half: open lawns, with many remnants of trees. The previous owner loved his trees, but their size made the house very dark inside. Nature was taking over a bit, too. The new owners set about imposing structure and creating garden “rooms”. Hedges were planted, which also offered protection from the wind that can blow off the River Crouch. Brambles were cleared and tree stumps taken out with a chain on the back of a car.

It was his wife and her mother who worked on the garden during the week, Neil says, and he pitched in at weekends.

“My mum’s a great vegetable gardener – a vegetable fan – but Mr Sainsbury can bring the vegetables as far as I’m concerned!” says Linda. “She still potters about, growing veg. She’s 88.”

Their labours over the years have created a lovely English cottage garden. Plants are allowed to self-seed, so they have “about a billion forget-me-nots in this garden at the last count”, Neil reckons.

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He says one of his wife’s first influences was the late Margery Fish, who created gardens in that style in Somerset in the 1950s and who was, according to East Lambrook Manor, “responsible for revolutionising gardening in the 20th century”. The couple visited a number of times.

Virtually all Linda’s gardening oracles are women, including Essex’s Beth Chatto – “for her common sense and ecology” – and Rosemary Verey.

“I can’t say I’m a great plantsperson,” says Linda. “I don’t want to grow something just because it’s difficult and nobody else has got it. I did read a book once and it was about the impressionist garden; and I thought ‘That’s it!’ It’s an impression of colour.”

Another Essex horticulturalist was a major influence, and the person who got the couple involved with the National Gardens Scheme.

Jill Cowley and her husband bought a farm near Chelmsford in 1979 and turned something of a wasteland into a beautiful garden featuring plants grown from cuttings she’d brought back from trips abroad.

“I saw a notice in the newspaper one day that her garden was open and was bowled over,” Linda remembers. “I went back and went back, and got to know her; she became a bit of a mentor and friend.”

Jill, who was a former deputy chairman of the NGS and a one-time county organiser, died four years ago after a long fight against cancer.

At Woodpeckers, as in all gardens, life is about change. New things appear. One of the current concerns is looking after bees and butterflies. There are quite a few mini-meadows, and this year the Holdaways introduced honey-bees.

“When I go to a plant sale or a nursery, I stand and look at the plants, and see which one the bees are on,” says Linda. At this summer’s big flower show at the Royal Horticultural Society garden at Hyde Hall, 20 minutes outside Chelmsford, her eye was caught by a beautiful pink Francoa on a nursery’s stand, with an Angelica gigas beside it. You couldn’t miss all the bees. “I looked round the rest of the stands and when I went back it was still covered in bees. So I bought those!”

Although the garden openings are drawing to an end, the couple aren’t turning their backs on the National Gardens Scheme. Not by a long chalk. Linda’s been county treasurer – helped by Neil, who then joined the team ? and is assistant county organiser. They give many illustrated talks to groups such as WIs, Rotary clubs and University of the Third Age branches – explaining exactly what the NGS is (it was launched 88 years ago) and all about the charities it helps – and those will continue.

“It’s not unusual for people to think the garden owners keep the money!” says Linda. They don’t. The NGS was this year able to share out £2.637million raised by folk who opened their gardens and the volunteers who supported them.

The 11 beneficiaries included Macmillan Cancer Support, Marie Curie Cancer Care and Hospice UK, who each received £500,000. For Linda, who lost her dad to cancer, it’s pleasing to be able to help such causes.

The clock’s ticking. I’d better get out of the couple’s hair. Their afternoon visitors will soon be en route. No panic, assures Linda. “I think I’m pretty much there. We’ve done it for so long. Expect anything and everything!”

The garden is open on Saturday, September 19 and 26

Address: Mangapp Chase, Burnham-on-Crouch, CM0 8QQ

Time: Noon to 5pm

Cost: Admission £4, children free

On offer: Light refreshments

Contact: 01621 782137

Directions: It’s about a mile north of the town. If taking the B1010 to Burnham-on-Crouch, turn left into Green Lane just after the town sign. Turn left after half a mile. Garden is 200 yards on right. Look for NGS signs

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