See this stunning bluebell wood at Peppers Farm, Sible Hedingham, near Halstead, Essex – open on Sunday under the National Gardens Scheme

Ancient woodland, timeless and pretty

Ancient woodland, timeless and pretty - Credit: Archant

Steven Russell has his spirits lifted by a stunning bluebell wood – and discovers why Pam Turtle was wearing a Cub Scout uniform when she first saw her new home to be...

The pond and house at Fenners, near Sible Hedingham

The pond and house at Fenners, near Sible Hedingham - Credit: Archant

I’m so glad I take Pam Turtle’s advice. “Do go and look at the bluebell woods,” she suggests, after a tour of the garden she’s created largely from scratch over about 26 years. So while Pam heads indoors to put the kettle on and break out the McVitie’s Digestives, I open the gate, walk 100m or so along the edge of the field and turn right into the wood.

It is enchanting.

Photographs don’t do it justice. They can’t capture the ethereal shimmeriness of an ancient woodland whose floor is a carpet of violety blue.

I’m not easily moved to hyperbole, but “magical” is the only description for this sunshine-dappled grotto, as I’m transported to fairyland.

So peaceful: The pond at Fenners

So peaceful: The pond at Fenners - Credit: Archant

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Which, actually, is an apt word. For, as the National Gardens Scheme website puts it, Pam herself has “been a ‘seedaholic’ since small enough to seek fairies in tulips”.

“It’s true,” she smiles. “Flower Fairies books must have put it into my head, I suppose.” Flower Fairies? “Ask your mates in the office. They’re still around.”

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Turns out Flower Fairies is a classic series of children’s illustrated books by Cicely Mary Barker, born in 1895. They were published in the first half of the 1900s.

“They’re beautiful pictures of fairies, mostly living in flowers. We lived in Ilford. I think there were tulips down the front path. When you’re about two, you are at about the height that looks straight into a tulip, aren’t you?”

Beautiful in shady sunshine

Beautiful in shady sunshine - Credit: Archant

Sunday, May 3, when Pam’s garden is open to the public, represents a rare chance to see the bluebells in ancient Lowts Wood. (Do watch for the rabbit holes if you visit. And take stout shoes!)

The Essex farm where she lives has about 60 acres of woodland ? between 20 and 30 of them home to bluebells.

So when was she enraptured by nature? ? of the thrill of seeing something develop from simple seeds?

“I’ve been growing things since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. We had our own plots as children; took flowers to Sunday school teacher. It comes through the women’s side of the family, I think. My maternal grandmother gardened in the war; she did all the vegetables and fruit.”

Pam Turtle: a seedaholic since she was 'small enough to seek fairies in tulips'

Pam Turtle: a seedaholic since she was 'small enough to seek fairies in tulips' - Credit: Archant

What did the future bring for the young Pam? “I didn’t have a career. My dad wouldn’t let me stay at school!” Did you want to? “I did, really. Should have done mathematics, I think. I nearly took up farming when I left school, but that particular year I got flu very badly, couldn’t take the job up, and sort of dropped it after that.”

Pam married in her early 20s and had two daughters and a son.

Husband Leslie worked in the City of London, for one of the biggest firms of stockjobbers. In the days before the “Big Bang” of 1986, which deregulated the financial markets, jobbers were kind of middlemen between people selling shares and stockbrokers buying them for clients.

Leslie had become a partner in his firm, which was taken over by Barclays. He had enough money to pursue a new dream. “My husband had this bright idea of becoming a farmer in retirement,” Pam smiles.

Scree, plants, pond, trees, fields behind... lovely!

Scree, plants, pond, trees, fields behind... lovely! - Credit: Archant

This new adventure meant upping sticks, though they didn’t go far. Most of their married life had been spent in the Kelvedon area and, to be honest, Pam didn’t relish going. But – and this is in 1988 – they bought Peppers Farm, near Halstead.

Leslie had been looking for a while. One day Pam, who has had a long involvement with the Scouting movement, was at the annual general meeting. The county commissioner also happened to be managing director of Strutt and Parker Farms Ltd.

“He said ‘Has Leslie found a farm yet?’ I said ‘No.’ And he said ‘Well, we’re selling three.’” Peppers, near Sible Hedingham, was one of them and the couple visited all. “I actually came and looked at it in my Cub uniform, feeling a bit of an idiot,” Pam remembers.

Moving home took about a couple of years, as the properties on the farm were in need of renovation. (Parts of Pam’s house, Fenners, date from the 17th Century.) As work went on, the couple commuted back and forth to the Kelvedon area before the switch could be made permanent. “I was amazed at the energy I had then. I gardened in all weathers; did both gardens.” Today, she’s full of praise for the work of Colin Lorkin, “an expert and considerate self-taught gardener” who comes for 12 hours a week. “I mow, he does hedges plus jobs too heavy for me.”

The land around Fenners was very different in the late 1980s. “There were some trees round the pond – which must have been a job-lot from Farmers Weekly: one oak, one ash, one sycamore...” she jokes, realising at the time it wouldn’t work well. Elsewhere, it was largely grass, plus a vegetable area.

Much has changed. Did Pam have a grand vision when they bought the place? “No! It was like Topsy: it just grew. The beds had to keep becoming bigger because I brought more stuff.” Our tour of the acre of garden begins with the scree in front of the spring-fed pond. She’s been a long-time member of the Alpine Garden Society, which has a useful seed exchange scheme, and most years have seen her showing at events across the country. Why does she like alpines so much? “They’re exquisite; so tiny.”

Pam’s passion for flora and fauna has taken her far and wide ? many holidays devoted to finding examples, enjoying them and taking photographs. Countries she’s visited include China, Russia, Greece and Switzerland. “That was my pleasure in life. Last year might have been my last one. Getting up and down the mountains is getting harder. I’ve reached an age where you feel you’re dragging other people back, because you can’t keep up, carrying your rucksack.”

Pam points out an Anemone Nemorosa ‘Robinsoniana’ that originated from the Czech Republic. She’d had it in a greenhouse, not doing very well, so popped it in the garden and it’s now doing brilliantly.

We stand by the pond. She’s just put in 10 or a dozen mirror carp to keep the water lily in check. Virtually everything one can see was planted by Pam, including the imposing Lawson’s cypress. “I didn’t put the ash tree in. That was there.”

We carry on – past a prickleless Banksian rose. Behind the stables, a damp area, lies the best soil. Here are hellebores; and, at the right time of year, snowdrops.

Further round and the garden is a mass of cowslips. Pam does scatter seed around, but the bell-shaped plants are also doing a wonderful job of spreading themselves.

On the other side of trees such as willow and silver birch a field of wheat grows. Over the years she has striven to marry the garden with its surroundings, with trees planted for the shelter and beauty they offer.

Everything we can see from here, fields and woodland, is part of Peppers. When the family bought it, it stretched to about 650 acres. Today, Pam thinks the farm, now in the hands of son Bill following Leslie’s death in 2010, runs to about 700. Crops grown include oil seed rape, wheat, barley, sugar beet, and grass fodder for horses.

Also in the garden are three Metasequoia (dawn redwood). I shouldn’t have had three, Pam admits, but the little one looked as if it was going to die and so I got two more. Of course, the runt pulled through!

A couple of glassless “portholes” in the hedging were cut to allow the grandmother of 10 to keep an eye on the youngsters as they played. It didn’t ever really work, she admits, as the hedge was too thick for her to poke her head through!

We walk past viburnum and grape hyacinths. The garden also has cyclamen, colchicum, freestanding wisteria and more – plus lots of daphnes and paeonies.

Pam, like every committed gardener I’ve ever met, continues talking as she spots some rogue growth, steps into a flowerbed and surgically excises the chaff. She pushes it into the middle of a hedge.

“When I last did this, one of my family said ‘What are you doing that for?’ I said ‘Well, it will rot down.’” It will.

In contrast, a tree paeony is looking healthy. She’s got one in each of the three beds: one pink, one white and one deep pink. When they peak, they offer us large flowers. “They’ll be open when there’s nobody here!” she sighs.

Those flowerbeds were created from the previous householder’s vegetable plot, which had been treated annually with lime to alter the soil’s acidity.

This is the fourth year Pam has opened for the National Gardens Scheme, raising money for charity. It used to be later than early May. “You get to June and think ‘Argh, everything’s over!’ So I’ve brought it forward, last year and this year. I don’t know whether I’ve got it right…”

What does she love about gardening?

“It’s very hard to put it into words. You get lost in it. You can think over your problems, but they also tend to go away while you’re doing something like that.”

Many of Pam’s plants are grown from seeds and cuttings. “Growing is what makes me tick,” she says. “Seeds are magic.”

We stop by the gate. In an area that was once a pond, apparently, there are Christmas trees and holly ? good for sheltering Pam’s house from the neighbouring farmyard. “In fact,” she grins, “it’s a little bit too much sheltered now and I can’t see what’s going on!”

Address: Fenners Garden at Peppers Farm, Forry Green. One mile south-west of Sible Hedingham, near Halstead, CO9 3RP

Open: Sunday, May 3 for National Gardens Scheme

Time: 2pm to 5pm

Cost: £3.50. Children admitted free.

The essentials: Home-made teas!

Extra info: Visitors also welcome, by arrangement, February to October

Contact: 01787 460221

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