Our right-royal garden challenge!

THE walk up the drive, on a spring afternoon of blue skies and warm breezes, lifts the soul. To the left is the iconic Norman keep of Hedingham Castle, 110 feet tall. To the right, green slopes running down to ponds and larger expanses of water. Ahead, a Queen Anne house. Daydreams about strolling into a Jane Austen novel are punctured by the sight of a child’s bike propped against the steps to the front door. All in all, the views are imposing. But it wasn’t always like this. Little over a year ago the driveway was lined by overgrown conifers and nondescript shrubbery that hid the grandeur of the house rather than framed it. Other parts of the grounds were strangled by brambles. Generally, the gardens needed the kiss of life. Happily, they got one. The transformation project – from a digger’s first scrapings to the last plant going in – can be seen on Channel 4’s The Landscape Man this coming Thursday.

A few random statistics hint at the facelift involving about 25 acres of land. For a start, there was an awful lot of mud to shift: at one point a 21-tonne digger worked every day for three weeks. In round numbers, 7,000 plants were introduced and four acres of wildflower and grass seed laid.

An eight-foot-deep pond measuring 20m by 60m was restored. It had been used years ago as a swimming-pool by the local scouts; during the work, two fuel tanks from US Sabre fighter-planes were found at the bottom. The scouts had modified them as floats for rafts.

It was an unusual restoration. With virtually every penny from their wedding venue business going towards maintaining the castle and the neighbouring 18th Century house where they live, Jason and Demetra Lindsay had the kind of zero budget that would delight the next Government, before scraping together �10,000 (which ended up being overspent by 50%).

Demetra says the results have exceeded their wildest expectations. But it couldn’t have happened without a little help from their friends. (Well, make that a lot of help.) Angels in this case were numerous firms and suppliers that rallied to the cause and brought plants, equipment, muscle and other services to make the dream come true. (They’re given a rousing chorus of thanks on www.hedinghamcastle.co.uk)

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More, later, about how it went. But first we need to start at the beginning.

Aubrey de Vere, one of William the Conqueror’s knights, was given extensive tracts of land after the Battle of Hastings. Son Aubrey II built a big castle at Hedingham in the 12th Century.

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The castle passed down the family line until it was bought by the Lord Mayor of London in 1713. Sir William Ashhurst built the imposing country house in the shadow of the keep and landscaped the grounds. In the 20th Century it was all inherited by a lady called Musette Majendie.

“She was never given any training about how to look after anywhere, or how to be a manager, and it sort of went bwrrrrrr,” explains Demetra. Bwrrrrrr is bad, because it means “downhill”.

In the 1950s Miss Majendie turned the house into an old people’s home. Large rooms were sub-divided. “She spent huge amounts of money making all these changes, and putting weird bathrooms in the corners. The children’s bedrooms, because we haven’t done anything to those at all, still look like an old people’s home!”

The owner, beset by rheumatism, died in 1980, “in a frightfully cold house, living the old-fashioned way, with butler, 40 staff”. She left Hedingham to her cousin, the Honourable Thomas Lindsay, a descendant of the de Veres – “which was brilliant, because the line was nicely complete”.

Unfortunately, the 20th Century hadn’t been kind to English country life. As estate farms were sold, Hedingham had less money to tend the landscape. Parkland and woods became overgrown.

“My poor father-in-law came in, looked at it, and everyone said ‘Don’t accept the gift! You’ll have to pay tax on it and everything else,’ and he said ‘That’s not why I’ve been given it. I’m going to make it work,’” says Demetra.

The castle near Halstead, close to the Essex/Suffolk border, began offering itself as a wedding venue in 1999, with Jason’s father doing some work on the hall and arranging for a marquee on the lawn. “It was a massive struggle until the weddings came along,” says Demetra, “because there were only a few thousand visitors to the keep every year.”

When she first visited the house, it was so cold that she couldn’t imagine how anyone could bear to live there. In fact, her husband’s family hadn’t. They used to come up for weekends and holidays, doing bits of restoration work, but otherwise lived somewhere with decent heating!

Jason and Demetra married in 2003. When Natasha was born just before Christmas the following year, their top-floor flat in Brixton no longer seemed an ideal home. The choice was to move somewhere else in London or decamp to the family seat in Essex and throw their energy at it. “I was working hard as an architect on huge projects and thought ‘I’m just not going to be able to do this level of work and have a child, because I will never see the child, so what’s the point in having a baby?’” Jason had been dealing in art, so he could work from anywhere – although, in practice, he pretty much concentrates on Hedingham full-time these days.

Jason’s father had been travelling to Essex every three weeks, so it was nice for him to hand over immediate responsibility and have more time for other things, says Demetra, who’s 37. “He knows we’re not just going to use it as a really nice party house, but that we’re going for it. It sounds so silly, but it’s such an incredibly nice feeling to be trusted by someone who’s taken something from being derelict to liveable. It’s amazing to be given the reins.”

That said, “We got here and 20 minutes later we were saying ‘God, it’s beautiful . . . but it’s cold!’ There were also a dozen buckets in the house that needed emptying regularly when the heavens opened. “You’d be lying in bed, thinking ‘Don’t rain!’”

Downstairs was “OK”, but the curtains were moth-eaten and furniture sun-damaged. “Upstairs was hilarious.” Carpets, where they existed, were badly worn. Floorboards had been chopped about and altered, and the floor patched with plywood. Unsightly electrical wiring ran down the creamy-coloured walls, cracks had been filled here and there, and the upstairs had suffered with dry rot. It was a right mishmash – “habitable because at least it had four walls and a roof. Imagine a house that had just been left”.

Since they moved in, the downstairs has been a priority because of its important roll in attracting those wedding parties and thus funding further improvements. Renovation of the upstairs is necessarily having to wait its turn. Natasha’s room, for instance, has no wallpaper, though she doesn’t seem to mind.

The Lindsay family, bolstered by the arrival of twins Thomas and Anthony in late 2006, then enjoyed “a series of extraordinary good luck”. First, upmarket Braintree-based silk firm Warner and Sons Ltd re-upholstered lots of furniture, gratis, so it could use the house for a photoshoot. It also donated material to make curtains for the library.

Then The Gainsborough Silk Weaving Company at Braintree offered to use up twill so Demetra could make one of the rooms much more joyful. It had been transformed years earlier into a Prague palace for an episode of Lovejoy: dark purple damask. “I couldn’t bear it. Every time I walked in there I felt I was just about to die and enter my tomb!”

Things are now shipshape. Hedingham Castle, its grounds and buildings were the setting for 50 weddings last year, and there are 65 so far on the calendar for 2010. “Life is picking up. We have heat! Think how tight we’d be if we didn’t have to keep the place warm for weddings, when people are wandering around with bare arms!”

Good things come in threes, and the garden makeover was the third piece of good fortune.

The Lindsays became friends with Simon Pyle, vice principal of The English Gardening School at Chelsea Physic Garden, after a relative took a course. Simon rang in the autumn of 2008 to say a TV company was looking for people planning interesting garden projects.

The idea of stepping in front of the camera wasn’t alien. That spring, the couple had featured on the Five TV show I Own Britain’s Best Home, though Demetra confesses she did suffer panic attacks and once got sent out of the room because of nerves-induced giggling!

So the Lindsays – who hadn’t actually given much thought to a major garden facelift – invited the lady from Red House TV to lunch for an exploratory chat . . . at which it became clear there was a bit of a chasm in their respective positions. Neither Jason nor his wife knew much about gardening and had no budget. It wasn’t a promising recipe for riveting television . . .

“It was a bit embarrassing,” Demetra grins. “After a while, she sort of wondered ‘Why am I here?’ It was funny/horrendously embarrassing. Jason said ‘Well, look, it’s just the money thing. You’re talking about 10 acres; we could afford, maybe, to put a few plants around that lawn . . .’”

They chatted about the castle and the wedding business, and the woman suggested sponsorship might be a answer: If I got you a digger, could you do something? “Jason’s eyes lit up. Toy! Suddenly life began to look interesting,” says Demetra, who was happy to chase prospective backers “wanting to be part of something amazingly historical”.

Before long they were off and running. Work started a few days before Christmas, 2008 – on the eve of a wedding, of all days. The crew turned up, presenter and garden design expert Matthew Wilson had a stint in a big digger, everyone had a good lunch, and then they left. Demetra remembers the grounds looking like “an utter disaster zone. And we thought ‘Is this what it’s going to be like for the next eight months?’”

By January, however, she had her creative hat well and truly on, and was having fun designing the beds, pursuing visions for what ponds were going to look like, and so on. The Lindsays and the TV folk had lunchtime planning discussions. “I’d show my pathetic sketches and they’d go ‘Hmmh . . . interesting . . . English shrub next door to hot Mediterranean something else . . .’ ‘Is that wrong?’ ‘Ummh . . .’. These would be two things that a) I knew what they were; b) because they were on the list from John Woods; c) because I just liked the look of them! For me, that was good enough!”

John Woods Nurseries, based near Wickham Market in Suffolk, was one of the backers – donating several thousand plants. “The nicest people, and so passionate. They’d come along and say ‘. . . such-and-such cultivar . . .’ and I’d be going ‘Sorry, sorry . . . can we just start again? . . . what’s that one?’ They’d say ‘so-and-so japonica . . .’ and I’d ask ‘Is that green?’ So embarrassing.”

At Hedingham, John Woods has planted some new cultivars that won’t be appearing in the shops for years. “So that’s rather amazing.”

Jason, 41, did a lot of the hefty work with diggers; his wife much of the design and planning. Other people helped – such as a full-time fireman who relishes working in the Hedingham grounds in his free time “and makes it look lovely”.

With heavy vehicles in action, the early mess was atrocious, she admits. “It looked like the Battle of the Somme.” It was a really wet winter, and then they had to wait for the grass seed to grow. And then the rain suddenly stopped, just when it was needed.

The TV folk came about once every three weeks to film, and everyone got on famously.

“It was like writing an essay every three weeks,” recalls Demetra. “They literally gave you a ‘prep’ book of things they wanted. In a way, the pressure was good, because it ensured things got done.” Left to their own devices, she suspects, they’d still be trundling through the work!

It did get a bit overwrought last summer, she admits. The family was due to go on holiday in August, but Demetra was waving the white flag earlier than that and acknowledging she wasn’t going to last. “I said I couldn’t remember my mother’s phone number. We looked at the diary and realised half-term came in about three weeks’ time, and went to stay at this wonderfully rustic chalet in Switzerland where you had to light the stove for your coffee in the morning. Totally peaceful, with nothing going on.”

Final filming took place in late August. “Then I went into a coma for about a month and a half! But it’s so cool, because look where we are now. In our wildest dreams we couldn’t have imagined this.”

Gone is the solid bush and wall of brambles lining the drive, which is now effectively twice the width. “People used to come up the drive and literally slam the brakes on because they couldn’t see the house until they were upon it.” We’re now talking big vistas. New planting is established, and the lady of the house is very excited about that. “In May it will be a paint-box.”

She laughs about a filming day when plants were taken off a lorry. Demetra expected a plant to be green, say, but when she saw the new cultivar it was purple. Get ready, then, for a riot of purple and orange! It will work, though, she assures, “because it’s hot and unusual and slightly enchanted” in the bog garden (which was created in the 1920s around the 18th Century dovecote). “Sort of by luck, it’s going to look amazing.”

She’s thrilled that companies such as John Woods were taken by the idea of shaping the latest period in the history of the castle, house and grounds. The Lindsays are also grateful to staff and helpers who “always make things look tidy without you realising they’ve been. It’s all a team effort here; everyone gets their hands dirty. And we’re just the lucky, lucky people who live here”.

It seems that once you’ve started, it’s hard to stop. Case New Holland lent another digger last winter “and I was a digger widow again! Jason did some amazing work in the woods and cleared a lot of brambles that were strangling other plants and blocking what were once some amazing views.”

Demetra had the idea for a skating pond, with a low level of water, so that appeared on the agenda. She’s also desperate for a yew maze. So that will happen at some stage. “Yes,” she grins, “you’re never really finished with a garden.”

Read the book, watch the show

JASON and Demetra Lindsay battle against winter snow, a tiny budget and acres of brambles to restore the grounds of their 900-year-old castle to its former glory – The Landscape Man, Channel 4, April 29, 8pm.

The Hedingham project features in a book linked to the TV show. Written by presenter and garden designer Matthew Wilson, it aims to help people turn dreams into reality.

It seeks to demystify garden design and show how the ideas and techniques behind the landscape projects in the TV series can be applied to one’s garden at home.

Starting with the initial assessment and planning stages, and using the featured gardens as case studies, Matthew discusses the major issues that face gardeners: planning, providing for different needs, maximising space and working with nature. He also covers topics such as enhancing light levels and choosing plants for colour, texture and form.

The Landscape Man – Making a Garden is published by Quadrille at �20

Hedingham history

The Norman keep is a grade I listed building

Castle Hedingham House is grade II* listed

The mound on which they sit is an official ancient monument

Henry VIII is said to have played Real tennis at Hedingham

In those days the estate had about 70,000 acres. Today it’s about 160 – mainly woodland

Elizabeth I stayed there in the summer of 1561, aged 28

The castle and house were hired for the BBC drama Ivanhoe – and History of Britain, with Simon Schama

It was the setting for a Vanity Fair photoshoot featuring fashion designer Alexander McQueen

The pop group Steps shot a video there, while singer Ronan Keating arrived by helicopter for a photoshoot

Demetra Lindsay, a Hampshire girl, loves Essex and has become a champion of her adoptive county, relishing its palpable sense of history and angry that many people are so disparaging about Essex!

Castle weblink: www.hedinghamcastle.co.uk

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