Last week, we stopped by at RHS Partner Garden Wyken Hall, near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk.
It was a blustery end-of-season kind of day but, keen to eke out the last scraps of enjoyment from our long, rather lazier than planned summer, we ventured forth enthusiastically in search of the sights, smells and views that make a garden lover’s day. And with any luck to learn a new trick or two.
The 16th century hall is in a part of the country we’d once considered moving to, and the visit reminded me of why we’d been so tempted. We were visiting family in Norfolk and the route to Wyken took us through winding forest roads, where you’re warned to look out for prancing deer, across sun-bleached, gorse-covered heathland and on to seductively wooded valleys, then pretty villages with duck ponds and Suffolk-Pink thatched cottages (a shade that dates back to the 14th century, and that was achieved with limewash and elderberry or, rather more prosaically, buttermilk and pig’s blood).
The settlement of Wyken, outside Stanton, can be traced to Roman times, and the Wyken estate is recorded in the Domesday Book. The hall itself was built in 1570, with wings added in 1630 and 1680, then a major facelift following much later in 1920. So, it’s a mixture of styles, but with a predominantly Elizabethan feel, its current copper red limewash (the original Suffolk Pink) true to the era and very striking indeed.
The first stop-and-stare garden moment comes as you go through the oak gates. To your left is a wide veranda with cornflower-blue rocking chairs, a bold statement against the copper red walls of the house. Between them, apple trees are espaliered high: a clever trick that obscures neither the view from or to the house. The rocking chairs were brought in by owner Kenneth Carlisle’s American wife, Carla, from Mississippi, and are the first of a few cheeky nods to the US that contrast really well with the otherwise English feel throughout the estate.
Facing the veranda is a quincunx. I admit I had to look up this word: it’s an arrangement of four objects with a fifth at the centre. Like the number five on dice. A popular way of planting trees, it works brilliantly here with rings of box hedging, formal clipped topiary at the centre of four and a water feature in the last. The design was inspired by a 1911 scheme put together by Gertrude Jekyll for Knebworth House. Generous plantings of pure-white cosmos provide an effective filler between hedging and topiary, popping brightly against the dark green background.
From here, the garden trips along happily around the house, a series of individual rooms connected by trellis arches, gaps in hedging, handsome gates and alluring pathways leading you on through tall lichen-covered brick walls. Topped, if you’re lucky, with a peacock or two. The effect is one of excitement and discovery (one of the essentials of good garden design). It’s no surprise to learn this section of the garden was designed by Arabella Lennox-Boyd, on a weekend visit to Wyken Hall back in the 1980s. Her own garden at Gresgarth Hall in Lancashire opens a handful of times a year for visitors, and it’s at the top of my gardens-to-visit bucket list.
Forming a year-round backbone to the herb, knot and rose gardens is box and yew. It’s bold, adaptable, evergreen and the perfect foil to flowering plants, whether they’re spring bulbs, old-fashioned summer roses or autumn-flowering Japanese anemones. Wyken has covered all bases, making use of clipped cones, tall windbreak hedges and sentry-like rectangular yew boxes, as well as wide box balls, marking the ends of paths like punctuation points or bringing rhythm to planting along wide brick paths.
Another great garden designer’s trick Wyken uses to perfection is the borrowed view. The croquet lawn is perhaps my favourite example, where a stepped wooden Art Deco gate in the yew hedge provides the perfect link to sheep grazing in the field beyond. Leaving the rose garden through a blue gothic gate leads to the garden pond and its bucolic oak pier. To one side is a 2m beech hedge, through which ‘windows’ have been tunnelled through the greenery to give strategic views back into gardens.
Beyond the more formal, floral parts of the garden are plenty more elements to wander through and learn from. There’s a fabulous nuttery with walnuts and Kentish cobs, a well-tended kitchen garden, peaceful silver birch dell, maze, lime walk, woodland and, at the limits of the estate, a vineyard. Its produce, including the award-winning Wyken Moonshine, a sparkling white, can be sampled at the onsite restaurant (25 years in the Good Food Guide) or bought in the shop.
Clever, creative and productive, this is a garden that effectively mixes elements of past and present, from both sides of the Atlantic, in a space that is at once educational and wonderfully calming. Make sure you add it to your list of Suffolk visits!