Wonder Wall

16th April 2020

For generations, Britain’s walled gardens stood neglected and abandoned. But today, with the growing focus on food provenance, these magical spaces are being transformed once again into bountiful kitchen gardens.

  • gardening

  • estate

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  • Goodwood House


When Angus and Zara Gordon Lennox took over Gordon Castle in 2008, one of the biggest challenges they faced was working out what to do with the historic walled garden. The Moray estate’s sprawling eight-acre plot, which dates back to the 18th century, had been grassed over and left to its own devices for decades. It did, however, have certain key things going for it. The 15ft-high walls, home to over a million bricks, were in “reasonably good nick”, as Angus jauntily puts it, the soil was extremely rich, and there were 259 espaliered fruit trees still producing, having been steadfastly maintained by (now retired) head gardener Willie Robertson, who started working on the estate in 1946. Rather than viewing the walled garden as an albatross, they decided to make it the cornerstone of their plans to revitalise the estate, which had been sold by the Gordon Lennox family in 1938 before being partially repurchased in 1953 by Angus’s grandfather, Lieutenant General Sir George Gordon Lennox (grandson of the 7th Duke of Richmond and Gordon). It would be used to grow ingredients that would form the basis for a new Gordon Castle Scotland luxury brand, with goods ranging from bath and beauty products to premium gin, ciders, chutneys and jams.

“The reality was that there was no way we’d ever be able to make money running it as a market garden,” explains Angus. “It’s too big to supply food for one household but too small to compete with the likes of Tesco. The only way we could join the dots was to turn it into a visitor attraction. It occurred to us that if our products were sold around the world, people might then want to see where they came from. Therefore, we should make the garden look as attractive as possible.” To this end, having interviewed various noted landscape gardeners, they embarked on a £1.2m restoration programme with Arne Maynard, chosen because he’s not just an award winning designer but also a passionate kitchen gardener.

Seven years on, they estimate they’re still only two-thirds of the way through the work. “You have to remember that when we started it was a blank grass field,” says Zara. “There was nothing except a central path of chippings. We had to lay 48,000 bricks, stretching over 2.5km, just to edge the paths. That sort of thing doesn’t happen overnight.”


While the Gordon Lennoxes confess there have been times when they’ve questioned the wisdom, or indeed sanity, of taking on a project that included planting 1,000 fruit trees and restoring a near-derelict Grade A-listed glasshouse, the result of all this toil is not just one of the largest fully productive walled gardens in Britain, but an undeniably heavenly space. It is visited by thousands of awestruck horticultural enthusiasts each year and has attracted glowing write-ups everywhere from Gardens Illustrated to Country Life. Gordon Castle Scotland, meanwhile, sells over 300 products, while the café, using produce grown on-site, has won several awards. There’s also a range of accommodation available, including the delightful 18th century Garden Cottage, which adjoins the walls.

Walled gardens occupy a unique place in the history of Britain’s grand country houses. The concept of creating an enclosure to protect your crops from harsh extremes of weather and roving animals may have been around since Roman times – with walled gardens also an important feature of the abbeys that sprang up across Europe during the medieval era – but it was adopted and perfected in this country between the 17th  and 20th centuries. It was also during this period that the walled garden changed from being a purely productive space to an area for recreation and, let’s face it, for showing off – somewhere to enjoy a predinner stroll with your guests, who would marvel at your bounteous frame-yards, cloches and orchid-houses.

It was the expansion of the empire and the burgeoning interest in exotic plants that proved the ultimate catalyst for this horticultural revolution, notably the craze for pineapples, which had first arrived on our shores in 1657. Soon, owning a pinery, orangery and glasshouse bursting with a cornucopia of Mediterranean fruit or tropical ferns was de rigueur for any prominent landowner. Of course, growing exotic flora required time, energy and money but, as Jules Hudson points out in Walled Gardens (National Trust Books), they were “a potent symbol not just of wealth and good taste, but also of horticultural skill and ambition”.

I don’t think anyone’s ever visited a walled garden and not felt a sense of calm and peace, of being nearer to nature. There’s something about being in an enclosed space that makes you feel safe and happy.

So, what exactly is it about walled gardens that makes them such exceptional places to grow? In essence, brick walls create a microclimate, as Zara Gordon Lennox confirms: “It’s remarkable – even though we’re in the north of Scotland, when the sun has been out in February you can put your hand on the wall and you’ll feel the warmth.” These were centres of intensive production, built on horticultural wisdom passed down through generations.

For large estates, judicious planting meant your vegetable patches could supply the kitchen all year round. Walls were angled to catch the maximum amount of sunshine, while glasshouses extended the growing season and protected citrus trees from frost. Subterranean root stores, meanwhile, enabled you to keep parsnips, potatoes, beet and carrots through the winter, carefully stacked in layers of sand. During the 18th century, many country estate walled gardens, which had always been attached or adjacent to the main house, were relocated – incompatible, as they were, with the “improved landscapes” prescribed by Capability Brown, William Kent and, later, Humphry Repton. (After all, it’s not easy to create a sweeping rural idyll when there’s a whopping great brick wall in the foreground.) Instead, they were shifted some distance from the main house, screened by small copses and situated near stables, where they would have a ready supply of horse manure.


As with many aspects of Britain’s country houses, it was the First World War that precipitated the decline. After the armistice, there was a shortage of apprentices and the economic viability of walled gardens were challenged by the growth of fresh food being shipped in from around the globe. By the Second World War, most had been demolished, transformed into Christmas tree farms, orchards or tennis courts, or simply grassed over. Ironically, it was in 1925, precisely the point when most people were rushing to demolish their walled gardens, that Winston Churchill, in characteristically contrarian fashion, started building his 1/8-acre kitchen garden – with his own hands. Visitors to Chartwell may be more impressed by his planting vision than his bricklaying skills but you can’t fail to admire the future PM’s willingness to “keep buggering on” despite his self-avowed shortcomings.

The reality is, even modest walled gardens like the one at Chartwell are extremely labour-intensive. Most require hand-weeding. In the course of their research, Angus and Zara Gordon Lennox unearthed the Gordon Castle payroll from 1848. It lists 48 people as gardeners. Today, by contrast, Zara leads a team of just three, bolstered by “lots of volunteers in the summer and a few in the winter”. Rising labour costs therefore made walled gardens untenable, and by the 1980s, there was barely a single one in operation anywhere in the country. Yet over the past decade, the pendulum has swung again, with a growing recognition.

With the Victorian passion for plant-hunting reaching its zenith, glasshouses came to symbolise the might of the British Empire. The latter was a vital weapon in the walled garden’s Arsenal. The word “hotbed”, which now means “a place to encourage rapid growth” was precisely that: an enclosed bed kept artificially warm with a covering of fermenting horse manure, where a variety of plants could be grown or forced, even during colder months.

Suddenly you could have pineapples, melons and grapes on your dining room table – which was a one-up on the Joneses.


Vintage-inspired tin mugs, and fine bone china - for all the thoroughly deserved tea-drinking

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In Victorian times the technology surrounding walled gardens advanced even further, equipping them with heated walls, mushroom houses, cold frames and, post-Industrial Revolution, glasshouses warmed by steam boilers. But the real tipping point came in 1845 with the abolition of the glass tax. Prohibitively expensive, glasshouses had up to that point been reserved for the exceptionally wealthy. “Suddenly you could have pineapples, melons and grapes on your dining room table – which was a one-up on the Joneses,” explains Zara Gordon Lennox. With the Victorian passion for exploration and plant hunting also reaching its zenith, glasshouses came to symbolise the might of the British Empire. Indeed, Joseph Paxton, architect of the Crystal Palace in 1851, had honed his craft as head gardener at Chatsworth in Derbyshire, where over 20 years he developed a series of glasshouses for the cultivation of exotic plants and fruit, notably pineapples.

By the beginning of the 20th century there were thousands of walled gardens across the land producing that these spaces are valuable jewels of our national heritage – as well as chiming perfectly with a contemporary emphasis on localism and reducing food miles.

The restoration that set the template for this turnaround in walled gardens’ fortunes was initiated 25 years ago at Cornwall’s Lost Gardens of Heligan. Abandoned to brambles since the outbreak of the Great War, this horticultural marvel was painstakingly revived and is now a popular visitor attraction. Over the past decade, this story has been repeated across the UK, with multi-million-pound restorations at luxury hotels like Heckfield Place, The Pig and The Newt, and at country houses such as Goodwood’s neighbour West Dean, Blickling in Norfolk (Anne Boleyn’s childhood home) and Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire. Most have cafes or even Michelin-starred restaurants where visitors are served vegetables, fruit and herbs grown in the plots they’ve just strolled around, reinforcing that all-important connection between cultivation and consumption.


At Goodwood, too, there are plans brewing to revive the historic walled kitchen garden as part of the garden-inspired renovations to the Goodwood Hotel. Originally situated to the west of the house, it was moved in the latter part of the 18th century next door to the Waterbeach coaching inn (now the Hotel). The 10-acre garden, enclosed by high brick walls, produced fresh fruit and vegetables for the table in the house, as well as cut flowers, and was geared to reach its peak in late July, just in time for Glorious Goodwood Raceweek.

Included within the walled garden was a nursery for forest trees, a real tennis court and fruit houses. Exotic fruits such as pineapples, peaches and nectarines were grown there and in 1880 The Garden magazine noted “fine old standard fig trees” and the “fine Pine-apples” for which the “Goodwood garden has long been celebrated”. As elsewhere, however, this became unsustainable: in the mid-20th century a market garden operated from the garden and in more recent times, it was turned into a car park and tennis courts for the Goodwood Hotel.

The main catalyst for this nationwide urge to revive once-proud horticultural jewels has undoubtedly been the real food movement. The Gordon Lennoxes – whose ethos is “Plant Pick Plate” – cite “growing awareness of where our food comes from, concern about food miles and sustainability” as one of the two main reasons they felt the moment was right to embark on their restoration programme. The other is a widespread recognition that walled gardens have a particular magic about them – a genius loci, or spirit of the place, passed down through generations. “I don’t think anyone’s ever been to a walled garden and not felt a sense of calm and peace, of being nearer to nature,” says Zara. “There’s something about being in an enclosed space that makes you feel safe and happy. One visitor even suggested that walled gardens are like that because for centuries, people had their hands in the soil. Somehow an aura or essence gets imprinted into the ground itself.”

Walled gardens are the ultimate productive spaces... they have wonderful heat-retaining walls for growing fruit against.

This theory elicits nods of agreement from garden designers Bridget Elworthy and Henrietta Courtauld, better known as The Land Gardeners, who are firm believers in “energy” contained within the soil. Elworthy and Courtauld specialise in restoring walled gardens, having gained first-hand experience of the process restoring Elworthy’s Oxfordshire home, Wardington Manor. Vowing to create something that was “not an expensive indulgence but a working garden” they also launched a cut-flower business, recalling the days when much of London’s floral display was grown in small-scale country house operations, delivered to the capital in “ramshackle cars, out of which elegant women dressed in tweed with cut-glass accents would emerge with the most heavenly blooms” – as they write in their book The Land Gardeners: Cut Flowers (Thames & Hudson).

“Of course, beauty is important in a garden,” says Henrietta, “but the idea of being able to go out into your garden and gather from it is central to our philosophy. Walled gardens are the ultimate productive spaces because they’re protected from creatures like rabbits and deer, they have wonderful heat-retaining walls for growing fruit against, and, because they were used and worked for so long, their soil is often exceptionally healthy.” It’s a shame, Bridget adds, to put hard landscaping like tennis courts and swimming pools into such incredible soils: “Sometimes you have a foot or half a metre of rich topsoil, which is very hard to come by – it’s like gold.”

Since starting their business in 2013, The Land Gardeners have seen a surge in interest around walled gardens. They have led restoration projects everywhere from Yorkshire to Hampshire, Tuscany to the Loire, as well as being asked to create a walled garden from scratch for a client on America’s East Coast, where they’re something of a rarity despite “a major deer issue”. “Of course, it’s a big investment building a walled garden,” says Henrietta, “but you’re creating a wonderful resource for future generations.”


When embarking on a restoration, they explain, there’s always an element of historical investigation, a search for clues about what was grown where. “You’re drawing on the wisdom of past gardeners,” says Henrietta. And The Land Gardeners see it as their duty to pass on that wisdom. They run courses for people looking to restore their own plots, advising on ways to make them low-maintenance and suggesting potential revenue streams – from selling produce to local pubs to supplying flowers for local weddings.

Having advertised for volunteers to work and learn at Wardington, they were amazed by the number of applicants. “There’s clearly a huge desire to learn about gardening,” says Bridget. “It’s something a lot of people really connect with. That’s why so many of us love to visit beautiful gardens – it fills the soul, like going to an art gallery.” “Walled gardens are an incredibly precious resource for this country,” adds Henrietta. “They’re part of our national heritage and we think they should be listed – for the quality of the soil they possess and the history surrounding them.”Angus and Zara Gordon Lennox concur.

Despite the cost, stress and toil involved in restoring their walled garden, there are moments that make it all worthwhile: “On a summer’s evening,” Zara says wistfully, “when you’re standing in the middle of the garden and it’s still and quiet, and you can feel the hum of bees and butterflies on the lavender… there’s really nothing like it. It’s incredibly romantic.”

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  • spring

  • flowers

  • Goodwood House

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