Plantation Garden: 40 wonderful years of Norwich’s green oasis
PUBLISHED: 10:18 31 May 2020 | UPDATED: 10:12 02 June 2020
Generations of children knew it as the secret garden but now that secret is shared by all. Derek James visits the Plantation in Norwich
It was 40 years ago when a trust was formed to rescue a wilderness and transform it into a place of beauty and tranquillity close to the city centre.
And what a tremendous job they have done and are doing. This is very own garden rescue on a grand scale we can all be proud of.
Tucked away off the busy Earlham Road near St John’s Cathedral, we have much to thank members of the Plantation Garden Preservation Trust for. They have taken on the never-ending task of caring for this wonderful place with gusto.
A number of events were planned in June to celebrate the anniversary. They have been postponed for a year but the story of the enchanting garden and its history deserves to be told now.
And yes, it is OPEN daily for visitors in these days of isolation and lockdown.
The adjoining Plantation House, the home of the original owner, welcomed new arrivals when it was a maternity hospital and over the years many nurses, parents and children return to revive such happy memories.
Chairman of the Trust, Roger Connah, explained how a number of local residents had ventured into the garden and decided to start restoration. There was a gathering at the Assembly House in May 1980 and 30 people joined up.
“Ever since then the organisation and nearly all the work has been by volunteers of all ages and fitness. Donations from local charities and individuals as well as bequests have enabled the larger works to be done by local contractors,” he said.
The daunting task of clearing the neglected jungle began later in 1980 and soon made progress especially around the fountain which is the iconic structure in the garden.
A report at the time said: “We have removed several hundred sycamore trees and yards of ivy. The bones of the garden are revealed and many more trees are planted.”
The key information came from the auction particulars of 1897 soon after the death of the original owner cabinet maker Henry Taylor and the 1883 map of the city gave a clear outline of structures, paths and some of the beds.
Roger says the clear intention since 1980 has been to preserve as much as possible of the site while respecting the final design at the death of the owner. He had taken a 99 year lease in 1855 and built his house next to what was a deep and steep chalk pit, almost in open country but with the city jail (now St John’s Cathedral) as his neighbour.
It is clear that he started the garden layout immediately and progressed it over the next 40 years, with walls, greenhouses, paths and a large palm house. Could it have been one from Boulton & Paul?
The volunteers battled on throughout the 1980s uncovering up to 400 metres of paths including the woodland walks favoured in Victorian times.
Membership rose to 100 by 1985. The health authority vacated Plantation House and it became a hotel.
Slowly but surely, thanks to much back-breaking work, the garden was brought back to life and the people were returning.
By 1987 it had attracted a thousand visitors during some open days, The trust continued to grow and spring flowers were planted on the long border and summer bedding on the palm house terrace. Vases on the Italianate Terrace were replaced.
The rockery feature with a cascade was uncovered and now hosts a collection of more than 30 species of fern.
The famous bus sinkage in 1988 on Earlham Road was almost opposite the gates, and this coincided with subsidence under the tool shed.
The walls built by Henry Trevor have an unusual facing with a mixture of flint, stone, clinker and many brick fragments of multiple panels. These were traced to the brickworks of Guntons at Costessey.
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Roger explained the rest of the main lawn was levelled and sown, 1,000 plants were bedded out and the garden took the shape we see today.
Charitable status was granted to the trust in 1989 and the fountain was brought back to life with water lilies, goldfish and frog-spawn added to the fountain n basin.
Events were taking place, a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was held in the garden. Electricity was added to the shed and fountain. Teas on two open days in 1995 were served on the lawn with some members in period costume.
Work began on the rockery bed which was rebuilt and planted. The palm house was demolished in the 1920s which is not surprising with the cost of maintenance and heating. It is said that the two saddle boilers served 1,000 feet of piping and the labour and cost alone would prohibit any future replacement.
A fine young palm tree in its place, surrounded by flowers, is growing well. A fitting tribute.
The rustic bridge was restored as a replica in 1998 with a substantial grant from the Norwich Society to commemorate their 75th anniversary and the first publication of a garden guide was a great success…the third edition is still in use today.
General improvements continued and as the public began to enjoy frequent visits, an honesty box held the entry fees, and some years later the Post Office donated a Victorian post box which was installed in a secure brick pillar post.
Into the new century the garden is marked by a brown tourist sign on Earlham Road and the shop sign from Trevor Page is renovated and set up prominently in the entrance.
The restoration work continued apace and the Plantation was transformed into a picturesque flower show amid splendid surroundings with renovations using as much of the original materials as possible.
The old tea shed was replaced with a new and grander purpose-built building to improve facilities for all volunteers and the garden entrance is enhanced by the addition of some new grand wrought iron gates.
Work on the old chimney flue was completed in 2013 with financial support from The Preachers Money Charity in the 400th year of its original founding in the will of Sir John Pettus.
New drains and soakaways were installed to prevent flooding and a section of the wall adjoining the neighbouring cathedral was repaired with help from the Heritage Lottery.
Far more people – well in normal times – are enjoying the wonders of this garden and the number of public events keeps growing.
As Roger says: “The Plantation Garden is open to the public every day with a charge into the honest box of £2 and the footfall in 2019 has been almost 40 per cent higher than the previous year.
“The Trust is committed to encouraging visitors to the city and local people alike through a strong presence on social media and the website, and through the many people who enjoy the events,” he said.
The income to allow the work to progress and carry on comes from the subscriptions of the 750 members, the honest box and the many events including summer Sunday teas, cinema shows, jazz picnics, firework parties and more.
There are now a team of around 80 volunteers of all ages who offer their time to come into a place which has a peaceful charm of an oasis of calm so close to the busy city centre.
“The grant from the HLF enabled us to create a primary school programme which we make available free of charge so that schools can access the garden,” said Roger.
“We have printed booklets of a children’s guide and a maths test which fits in with the curriculum and gives an opportunity for teaching in a peaceful open air location.
Of course we hope that the children will return with their families to see the garden,” he added.
While the anniversary celebrations have been postponed for a hear the Plantation Garden remains open every day from 9am to 6pm. All they ask is for people to respect social distancing.
The perfect place to relax at this troublesome time.
With thanks to Roger Connah and the rest of the preservation team.
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