History and harmony at Houghton Hall Walled Garden

James Kimmingsin Public Places

Winner of the Christie’s Historic Houses Association’s ‘Garden of the Year Award’ back in 2007, the five-acre Walled Garden is one of Houghton’s most popular attractions.

Over ten years later, Richard (Head Gardener) and Rosie Ernst (Deputy Head Gardener) joined the team at Houghton and soon realised that a lot was needed to return the walled garden to its glory days.

When Richard and Rosie joined the team just before the Covid-19 pandemic, they both had the same reaction: “There is a lot of work needed.” Three years later, the garden is nothing short of a spectacle. We found out how they have enhanced the aesthetics of Houghton’s Walled Garden.

Rosie talked about the challenges that the pair faced during the first year of working at the walled garden: “Within the first five weeks, all our team got furloughed. We lived in New Houghton village very close by and had our own bubble, but it meant that there was only three of us working on the five-acre garden for quite some time. Richard worked on one side of the garden whilst my son, Michael, and I worked on the other side.”

“We got to April and everything was growing like crazy. We knew we couldn’t manage the garden with just the three of us, so we brought Jaroslav Karpac back to assist – he is an expert at cutting the hedges. The other four team members were furloughed for the full twelve weeks.”

Rosie and Richard both gave gratitude to influential figures who had helped them throughout their careers. Richard said: “I think you learn everything from a variety of head gardeners along the way. Working within the National Trust you pick up things from everyone. You never stop learning in horticulture.” Rosie rolled back the clock to her time at Wisley: “One of the people who has influenced me the most is one of my old teachers called Mr Waite - the glass house specialist. He worked everyone hard, but we learnt so much from him.”

Throughout the summer, Houghton Hall hosted its first ‘The Walled Garden at Dusk’ event, as they welcomed members of the public to view the garden in a completely different light. Rosie told us more: “We often have people coming here to view the different art and sculptures around the garden. On an evening watering duty at the peak of the season, we took a moment and thought, wow. This is just so special. It gave a completely different perspective compared to the daytime. Lord and Lady Cholmondeley were in agreement, so The Walled Garden at Dusk event was born. We hosted two over the summer, each welcoming over sixty people. The light is completely different as well as the smells, the fragrance, the birds, the moths and the bats. It’s a totally difference experience to through the day. The colours of the flowers pop in the evening light.”

“We will certainly look to do two or three of these events this summer,” Richard added.

When discussing education within horticulture, the message is clear from Richard: “It is massively important, and we both went through the formal route at Writtle College.  However, the Professional Gardeners Guild is hands-on learning for three years at different properties. By the time you finish, you could have the knowledge to step into a supervisor role. Building that CV up can really help to move onto some of the best gardens and grounds in the UK and other countries.”

When asked what we can expect from Houghton in the future, Richard gave an overview: “Plans are already underway for the development of our vegetable garden. We have our cherry walk; the beds are currently empty, so we have plans to do something else with that. We also plan to mulch certain beds, due to having very sandy soil here.”

Rosie is looking further afield in terms of plans for the garden: “The Japanese Embassy introduced the Sakura Project; to give cherry trees to places that are open to the public, in order to allow more people to experience the joy of cherry blossom in the spring and, at the end of last year, we finally received our allotted number of trees. This has been in the planning for about two years and it will be great when visitors can start to enjoy the trees.”

History of Houghton

Houghton Hall was originally built for Sir Robert Walpole in the 1720s and is now home to the 7th Marquess of Cholmondeley, a descendant of Sir Robert Walpole, and his family. The Hall is surrounded by extensive parkland and is located about 13 miles away from Kings Lynn, in the heart of the Norfolk countryside.

Richard expanded on the history of Houghton: “The hall itself was designed by the leading architects Colen Campbell and James Gibbs, with interiors by William Kent. The wider landscape is a Charles Bridgeman design. The walled garden has always been here. By the time the 5th Marquess of Cholmondeley inherited the hall and moved here with his wife Lady Sybil in 1919, things were quite worn down.”

“She had to focus her attention on both the hall itself and the gardens around it. This is where Lord Cholmondeley, who inherited Houghton in 1989, got his inspiration from. His vision was to dedicate a proper garden to his grandmother Sybil, and he decided that the garden would be based around reflection and solitude.”

Team effort is key

Richard commented: “The team effort comes straight from the top to the bottom. We have Kevin and Jaroslav who help mainly with the mowing and the hedge cutting. We also have a Professional Gardeners Guild student, Oliver, who joined us in August last year. We all swap and change tasks. We receive plenty of praise from visitors who come here, but it is truly a team effort.”

Whilst Richard and his team take care of the Walled Garden, groundsmen Richard Churchman and John Gooch are employed full time to look after some 100 acres of lawns and other mown areas. They keep everything looking immaculate with the help of fellow experts Norfolk Lawn Care for technical and specialist advice. They are kept busy all year round, with responsibilities such as planting hedges and trees, pruning, clearing timber, rotavating and looking after the deer park.

As well as the full-time staff who work on the walled garden on a daily basis, Houghton also relies on the work of volunteers. Richard concluded: “They very much enjoy coming here and are highly valued.”