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How you can visit Bishop Graham’s magical garden at Norwich Cathedral this summer

PUBLISHED: 12:36 26 June 2020 | UPDATED: 12:36 26 June 2020

Head gardener Sam Garland with the herbaceous borders of the Bishop's Garden which is opening as lockdown restrictions are eased. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Head gardener Sam Garland with the herbaceous borders of the Bishop's Garden which is opening as lockdown restrictions are eased. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Copyright: Archant 2020

Take a private tour of one of Norwich’s hidden treasures and meet the man who makes magic happen in the city’s own Garden of Eden.

The vegetable garden in the Bishop's Garden which is opening as lockdown restrictions are eased. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYThe vegetable garden in the Bishop's Garden which is opening as lockdown restrictions are eased. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

It’s like Paradise Found: an idyllic four-acre plot in the heart of Norwich hidden under the shadow of the city’s famous Anglican Cathedral.

On this ground, the Bishops of Norwich have walked since 1100AD.

Underneath our feet there are the lightning-scorched remnants of the Cathedral tower which toppled in 1463 scattering wood and masonry as it fell and the final resting place of countless Anglo-Saxons.

There are the foundations of a grand feasting hall that brings to mind magical scenes from Harry Potter and the remains of an Elizabethan row of cottages.

Head gardener Sam Garland checks the Gigantomo tomatoes in the Bishop's Garden which is opening as lockdown restrictions are eased. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYHead gardener Sam Garland checks the Gigantomo tomatoes in the Bishop's Garden which is opening as lockdown restrictions are eased. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

And on top of it all, there is a small slice of heaven which head gardener Sam Garland surveys with justified pride.

He was appointed to his role in August 2019 and, with a part-time assistant and an army of volunteers, tends this wonderful patch of heaven which is the private garden of the Right Reverend Graham Usher, the Bishop of Norwich and is open to the public on select dates.

“We all love it when people visit the garden because so much work and love goes into every single bit of it and it’s fantastic to share it,” says Sam, on a sweltering day.

A garden has been on this plot in some form since around 1100AD when Bishop de Losinga began to build the cathedral and his palace.

Head gardener Sam Garland with the Hebe plant, grown from a cutting from Queen Victoria's wedding bouquet, in the Bishop's Garden. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYHead gardener Sam Garland with the Hebe plant, grown from a cutting from Queen Victoria's wedding bouquet, in the Bishop's Garden. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The original Norman stonework of the North Transept of the cathedral is still visible from the garden, which was extended in the 14th century. The walls built 700 years ago still survive in addition to a number of ruined buildings from the medieval era, including the entrance gate to that spectacular feasting hall known as Bishop Salmon’s Porch.

“Occasionally, as you dig, you hit a medieval foundation or find a bit of masonry from the tower fall – the history is there in the ground and we work with it every day,” said Sam.

“It’s a dream job. I feel incredibly privileged to be here and to be looking after a garden which is so loved by so many people.”

Sam, who is originally from the Peak District, first moved to Norwich for his degree studies at the University of East Anglia. After gaining his philosophy degree and taking a Masters degree in Sheffield, and after living in Spain for a period, he began to apply for jobs.

A view of Norwich from the Bishop's Garden. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYA view of Norwich from the Bishop's Garden. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

He said: “I looked at all the normal things, fast-track graduate schemes in the civil service, that kind of thing, but in the background, I knew what I really, really wanted to do…”

Sam’s maternal grandparents loved gardening and he often helped in their garden and his parents were also green-fingered – horticulture was in his blood.

He studied for a PGCert in International Horticulture at Writtle College in Essex while also working as a pest monitor on fruit farms across East Anglia and has also maintained the gardens at Swannington Manor near Norwich.

Before taking the job at the Bishop’s Garden, he had been working at the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley in Guildford.

The pond and fountain in the new herb garden in the Bishop's Garden. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYThe pond and fountain in the new herb garden in the Bishop's Garden. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

“To find a job like this in the city I love felt like a dream come true,” said Sam, who lives with partner Fuchsia in a house where he admits they do little to the garden (although they do part-own a field near Dereham with his parents where they have started to grow vegetables, trees and – excitingly – their own vineyard).

At the Bishop’s Garden, however, visitors can see stunning herbaceous borders, a small woodland walk, boxed rose beds, a plentiful organic kitchen garden, greenhouses, a wild grass labyrinth and a long shade border with hostas, meconopsis and tree ferns.

There are bamboo glades, a herb garden marked out by Union Flag-patterned rows of hedges, bee hives courtesy of Bishop Graham and a host of rare and unusual plants, including a Hebe planted from a sprig taken from Queen Victoria’s wedding bouquet in 1840. Something wonderful hides around every single corner.

Throughout lockdown Sam was able to work – albeit alone until he was given a helping hand by local resident Brian Wells, whose day job is as a coffee van barista outside Marks and Spencers in Norwich.

“Brian cut the grass and helped in lots of ways – I was glad to see him!” laughed Sam, adding, “and the coffee was really, really great!

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“Lockdown has really inspired people to grow things and I think it’s led to a real excitement about gardening

“People get a lot from being outside – the physical exercise, the release from the everyday, the joy of being around plants and nature, the aesthetics and, of course in the case of fruit and vegetables, the healthy benefits of eating your own produce.”

A principal focus of Sam’s is to work with the Bishop of Norwich to initiate horticultural practices that raise the garden’s environmental credentials and make the garden a beacon of success for environmentally led horticulture.

Consultants will help with future planting schemes and the purchase of machinery that reflects the Bishop’s environmental concerns - Sam has recently planted new beds which require very little water.

“It’s a wonderful place to be every day, whatever the weather, and I am enjoying making my mark on a garden which has been here for centuries,” Sam says.

Bishop Graham and his family are often in the garden, a wonderful attachment to a job that he tells me he is enjoying hugely, even though his tenure has included the only closure of the Cathedral for a long period of time on record.

“I think it’s the first time it has been closed since it was built,” he tells me, “and of course that is hard, if completely understandable.

“It’s why it’s such a joy that we can open the garden. We had thought it would be entirely impossible to open the garden at all this summer and that would have been such a shame.

“But with restricted numbers and people being mindful of social distancing, we have been able to allow people in to see the wonderful work that Sam and the gardeners have been doing.

“For some people, their visit to the garden has been the first time they’ve been out since March. One couple celebrated their Golden Wedding anniversary with their family at a socially-distant picnic on the lawn: it was really very moving.”

As we stand on the upper lawn terrace, close to Bishop Reynold’s Library, built in around 1662 and now used by the Norwich School, the view across the garden and climbing up towards Kett’s Heights is breathtaking.

“We could be in the middle of the countryside,” he says, “sometimes I feel like the luckiest person alive!”

Open Days:

The Bishop’s Garden will be open on July 5 (for pre-booked guests) and on selected other days during the summer, all of which will help raise funds for good causes.

Next week’s open day will help raise money for the Bishop’s Lent Appeal, to raise funds to buy a vehicle for the Diocese of Dogura-Dogura in a remote part of Papua New Guinea.The vehicle is desperately needed for education and medical provision for the local community.

Admission to the garden on July 5 is free, but it is hoped visitors will generously support the appeal.

Having taken advice, social distancing and hand sanitizing will all be observed on the day and numbers are strictly limited. The Bishop’s team will regularly clean chairs and handrails.

There will be no catering provided on the day (which has slots for visits at 10.30am to 12pm, 12.30pm to 2pm and 2.30pm to 4pm) but guests are permitted to bring their own picnic. Plant and honey sales using a contactless card or a ‘cash in the bucket’ system will be operating. Book tickets here.

The gardens will also be open over a few weekends later in the summer to support local charities; see more information here

Private Tours can be arranged at mutually convenient times through the Bishop’s Chaplain – email: bishops.chaplain@dioceseofnorwich.org; or telephone: 01603 614172.


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