Garden open for Easter with the National Gardens Scheme: Wood View, Great Totham, near Tiptree
- Credit: Archant
‘You could question our sanity, really,’ chuckles Edwin Parsons. He and his partner have busy jobs, almost an acre of garden, and THREE allotment plots. And they’re opening to the public this weekend. Thank goodness for mum’s help! Steven Russell reports
Elizabeth Parsons, approaching her 82nd birthday, has been busy. In the space of 30 hours she’s made nine sponges and three fruit cakes - while contemplating a trip to the dentist to have a tooth extracted.
By the way, her shortbread had just taken first prize in its class in the village show, as well as being named “best” in the cookery division.
Visitors will appreciate all her hard work when they enjoy the garden this Easter weekend - and have a cup of tea and a slice.
Teamwork is the name of the game at Wood View, open for charity on Sunday and Monday under the National Gardens Scheme.
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Anyone fortunate enough to have a house and garden holds them dear. For Elizabeth’s son Edwin, however, the bond is especially strong. He grew up in Wood View, the bungalow his parents built ahead of their marriage, and lives there today with his mother and his partner. The property is on land his grandparents once ran as a smallholding.
Roots, then, run deep.
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Over 10 or 11 years he and Ian Roxburgh have transformed the plot of almost an acre. It has plenty of “architectural” varieties and is described as “a plantsman’s garden”, featuring some rarer and more unusual species collected during their travels from Tresco to Shetland.
Elizabeth and her two sisters were born in a cottage two doors down. Before her marriage she bought a plot of land from the smallholding, the bungalow was built in 1960/1, and the newly-weds later moved in.
Edwin’s childhood memories are of a garden used mainly for growing vegetables and strawberries. He’d help his dad with the veg. Later, most of it turned to grass.
“I’ve always had an interest in it and we grew some vegetables, but it wasn’t until I met Ian and he moved here that things changed.
“He’s got a very good eye. He is very good at saying ‘We need this tree here’ or ‘We need something there.’ I’m rubbish at visualising things. I’m happier going around on my knees, pulling out weeds.
“I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do, if that makes sense. We’ve worked on it in the last 10 or 11 years.”
They might sometimes think differently, but there are never real disagreements.
“While I don’t rate myself as a clever gardener at all, I do drop a little gem in occasionally,” Edwin smiles.
“We’ve been gathering snowdrops over a period of time. I said ‘I want to put them there.’ He said ‘No. It just will not work.’ I said ‘Yes it will.’
“I ordered 1,000 and they sent about 1,600. Ian did say ‘You were absolutely right to put them there.’ You can see them from the house, in February time when they’re out. So I do make a contribution!”
Ian, who works as a database manager, grew up in Blackburn, in a terraced house with a back yard where he’d ask to take up a flagstone and put in plants. It seems he caught the bug at a young age.
The reborn Wood View is essentially traditional, with contemporary features incorporated, using terraces and pergolas to make the most of the views of the garden and over the countryside.
They do like unusual things. “If we go off on holiday to Cornwall we’ll come back with plants in the car. The most we’ve had in there is 95, including three trees!” says Edwin.
It’s a garden for all seasons - efficiently-labelled “because I can never remember the names of things!” The colours of winter cornus pave the way for camellias, crocuses, primroses and narcissus. Spring brings tulips, and summer sees a big collection of Hemerocallis - daylilies - holding forth.
The garden has about 100 hostas. Later in the summer come crocosmia and dahlias.
The last weeks of the year bring a special time: an afternoon when some trees are underlit. It’s not overtly Christmassy, explains Edwin - “There are no nodding reindeers and Father Christmas” - but they do lay on mince pies and mulled wine, and there is a magical sparkle about the place.
They last did it two years ago. “We had one of those gorgeous sunsets where everything just lights up golden, and the trees were golden. As that died down I turned on the lights and it was beautiful.”
As if the garden is not enough, he and Ian also tend three allotment plots in the unconsecrated grounds of the United Reformed Church less than 100 yards from the bungalow.
With the garden mainly flowers, shrubs and trees, there wasn’t anywhere to grow vegetables. So seven years ago they took on an allotment. Then another one was offered to them. And then the strip between those two became available.
“It takes a lot of doing, but if I’ve had a really rubbish day at work I can come home and get the spade out and do some digging. Even if it’s just for half an hour or 40 minutes it’s very therapeutic,” says Edwin, whose work entails dealing with the human resources issues of about 65 schools.
“The joy is, on a Sunday in the summer, going over there and seeing what veg is available – potatoes, carrots or whatever – coming back and eating them within an hour. The taste is just so different. You can pull carrots out of the ground and smell carrot. You can pull leek out of the ground and smell leek!”
Their next-door neighbour offered them a strip of land at the bottom of her garden, adjoining Wood View. They’re in the process of buying it.
Edwin thinks they’ll make it a more formal area, featuring a “hot bed” of cannas and so on, an alpine house, rosebeds and a herbaceous border. “I just keep looking at the work! I’m not sure it will be ready for next year, but certainly the year after.”
It’s already showing its potential, thanks to the hard work since February of Ian, who has cleared the land of brambles, opened up the view by taking out a hedge, and dismantled an old concrete coal-bunker.
It’s a lot of graft, made more remarkable because he was off work at the time, waiting for a broken wrist to heal. He bought a pair of left-handed secateurs and set to, essentially one-handed.
“You could question our sanity, really, when you think about what we do,” Edwin smiles. “It’s not a low-maintenance garden, but we both enjoy being out there. On Sunday morning it was raining but we were both pottering around. Because it’s so different to what we do every day, it’s rewarding.”
We take a stroll, beginning at the front of the bungalow, where there’s evidence of Edwin’s penchant for the exotic, with a row of crown imperials.
To the side of the bungalow is a tall, tall eucalyptus that was a silver wedding present his parents received. “It’s about 28 years old. You’d think it was a couple of hundred years old.”
Edwin admires the vibrancy of a camellia. “I think it’s stunning something could be flowering like that at this time of year.”
As mentioned, he and Ian have many snowdrops, but they’re not galanthophiles - gardeners obsessed by the plant. Edwin can’t think he’d ever pay £100 for a bulb, like some do.
They are concerned, though, with encouraging wildlife. We pass a wicker dome, a house for any hedgehogs that would like to use it. There are similar habitats for insects, and under a pergola are low-down feeders for visiting pheasants and partridges. “Within half an hour of us putting them up, they were here, feeding. When they’re empty, they bang them to tell us!”
Blackbirds do pretty well, too. Edwin heard they like sultanas. “I made a fatal mistake of buying some. They can get through two or three packets a day. We’ve got a stable door at the back. Last summer they’d fly in – the bowl was just in the utility room – and stack like planes: one on the door, one on the pot, one here, one there!”
There was no mains sewerage in years gone by. A long-redundant cesspit has been reincarnated after Edwin had an idea during one of our dry summers. “We diverted the soakaway from the roof. So there’s 5,000 litres of rainwater in there. Very useful in the summer, because waterbutts soon run out.”
A plant I mistake for a fuchsia is actually a flowering currant. Its red flowers add variety. “Normally, everything at this time is yellow.”
They don’t lay out carpets of bedding plants. “It can look very green in summer, because there’s not a huge amount of flowers, but it’s the ‘architecture’ that’s of interest,” explains Edwin.
There’s a case in point towards the bottom of the garden, where the eye is drawn to the pink of a spiky plant. It’s a Cordyline Australis – Cherry Sensation.
“Ian is very good at these focal points. If you’re at the pergola, looking down the garden, the end can appear rather dark. This makes it much more interesting.”
Beyond are some earth beds where salad crops are grown. Beyond that is a vista of gently-sloping fields. The lack of boundary hedges or walls allows the view to be “borrowed” and extends the garden (mentally if not physically). At this time of year you can even catch a glimpse of Bradwell power station, currently being decommissioned on the other side of the Blackwater. To drive there would take about 45 minutes.
Also at the end of the garden is a beehive, delivered a couple of weeks ago. The bees arrive soon and a keen beekeeper will come from time to time to look after them.
Ian and Edwin have a good success rate with the plants they tend. A few are wrapped up for winter, but the gardeners don’t have the time to go overboard.
There’s a bed of dahlias outside the back door, for instance. The advice is to lift them in autumn, dust them down and store in a dry, frost-free environment. Well, that’s too much work... and the plants seem to fare well, nonetheless.
“It is sloping land, and that seems to help them survive,” reckons Edwin. “It’s not often the cold that kills things but the wet.”
He also mentions a tree they had for six or seven years: a Chilean flame tree with wonderful orange flowers. A visitor once said it shouldn’t be growing here; it needed the warmth of somewhere like Cornwall. But it flowered.
“Then last year, when we had that really dry patch, it just went. It wasn’t the winter that killed it but a dry spell in the spring.”
It’s a very tranquil garden. Edwin remembers thinking a lady sitting quietly on a bench as one open day drew to a close had been forgotten about by the people who’d brought her! But she found it so peaceful that she asked to stay a bit longer to enjoy the quietness.
“We’ve got a friend who’s a Benedictine monk in Worcestershire and stays with us occasionally. He always describes it as peaceful here. This is a monk! He says ‘I will go and sit in the garden. I’ll put my hat on, and take my books’, and he will be out there for two or three hours.”
Edwin says it’s a good feeling when people enjoy the fruits of his and Ian’s labours.
He had a visit yesterday by folk from the Tiptree branch of the University of the Third Age. One of the members thanked him at the end, saying visiting Wood View was always a treat.
“It’s things like that that make you think ‘Yes, it’s all worthwhile, if other people get the pleasure from coming...’”
This is the sixth year Ian and Edwin have opened Wood View for the National Gardens Scheme (which since 1927 has given more than £45 million to nursing and other charities).
Wood View has itself raised just shy of £12,000 and greeted its 2,000th visitor in 2014.
“I remember, when we had the NGS inspection, saying ‘Why would people want to come here?’ and the lady said ‘Well, most people don’t have a garden like this.’ It is their Sunday afternoon out. They’ll wander round the garden, have a chat, buy a plant, go and have a cup of tea and a slice of cake. We have people who live in flats and don’t have any garden at all, and get ‘gardeners’, too,” says Edwin, who estimates he spends about 20 to 25 hours a week in the garden at this time of year, and more in summer.
There’s always an eye on the skies, of course.
Last Easter Sunday poured with rain and they got only 17 visitors. The year before was glorious and drew more than 230.
Ian and Edwin were last year invited to become assistant county organisers for the NGS. There’s a fair bit of organising and helping people. “I’ve not done any garden inspections yet” - of people keen to open under the NGS banner. “I’ve fought shy of that until I’m brave enough to do it - particularly if it involves saying ‘No’ to somebody!”
Where and when
Wood View, 24 Chapel Road, Great Totham (north), CM9 8DA
Five miles north-east of Maldon, off B1022 Maldon-to-Colchester road
Open Sunday, April 5 and Monday 6th; Sunday, May 3; Monday, May 4; Sunday, May 10.
Times 12 noon to 4pm
Admission £4, children free
Parking, home-made cakes, soup (produced from the allotments), teas, coffees and loos at the United Reformed Church hall virtually opposite
Special opening Sunday, November 29; 3pm to 6pm; admission £7; includes light seasonal refreshments at URC hall
Phone 07540 798135