For his first assignment for Pitchcare, and as befits a man of his age, we sent Peter Driver, recently retired public relations manager for Ransomes Jacobsen, to visit a National Trust property close to home, and it turned out to be mutually beneficial
This was my first assignment as a freelance writer for Pitchcare and I think I struck gold. I visited Ickworth House, Park and Gardens, a National Trust property situated just four miles south-west of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, on a glorious mid-March afternoon which certainly felt like spring had sprung.
I had arranged to meet Sean Reid, Garden and Outdoors Manager, who is responsible for managing the 300 hectare estate, which includes the Italianate palace Ickworth House, the former home of the Hervey family, who were later to become the Marquesses of Bristol.
The history books tell us that a licence for the first park at Ickworth, which covered around twenty hectares, was granted between 1259 and 1264. The land came into the hands of the Hervey family in 1432, who continued to own it until the house was transferred to the National Trust in 1956.
In the early 16th century, William Hervey built a manor house at the southern end of the estate and, by 1655, the grounds covered 495 hectares (1,188 acres) and consisted of a dense network of small fields, woods and scattered trees. In 1694, it was inherited by John Hervey and, by 1706, work had begun around the old manor house to construct a walled garden and summerhouse.
On becoming the first Earl of Bristol in 1714, William Hervey enlarged the estate further and, following his death in 1751, the park expanded considerably and was set with small woods and scatters of trees, surrounded by perimeter plantations on the higher ground. During this period, George Hervey and his family had moved into Ickworth Lodge, in the centre of the park, where plans were being considered for the design and location of a new mansion.
At this time, the landscape was known as Horringer Park and was centred around the Lodge with numerous views and vistas created by a combination of new planting and the judicious use of the landscape. In 1776, the second Earl commissioned Lancelot (Capability) Brown to carry out work on the park and gardens but, although there is evidence of payments to Brown, there are no direct references to the work in progress, bringing into doubt the degree of actual work undertaken.
The third Earl's (Augustus Hervey) tenure was brief and it was the fourth Earl (Earl-Bishop Frederick Augustus Hervey) who finally took control of building the new mansion, which began in 1795 to a design by the Italian, Mario Asprucci. The building programme was short-lived as the Earl-Bishop died just eight years later and it was almost twenty years before the fifth Earl (Frederick William Hervey, later the first Marquess) completed the task. This is the house that stands in the grounds to this day and is known as Ickworth House. In 1956, ownership was transferred from the Hervey family to the National Trust in lieu of death duties.
As one of England's more unusual houses, it is dominated by a central rotunda, thirty-two metres (105 feet) high with a domed and balustraded roof. The rotunda is flanked by single storey narrow corridors linking to two pavilions; the East and West wings of the building.
The layout of the gardens around the House is the creation of the first Marquess and these have altered little since his time. He was also responsible for completing the Albana Wood and Walk, developing the Building Plantation as a pleasure ground with a variety of trees, park planting and the remodelling of estate cottages. The National Trust has planted several small plantations and individual trees, whilst some areas of pasture have reverted to arable use.
The Italianate Garden to the rear of the house consists of four garden rooms; the Temple and Spring Gardens to the east and Magnolia Garden to the west. The southern boundary contains the recently expanded Stumpery. The style of the garden is based on designs from 18th century Italian gardens, such as the one at the Royal Palace of Caserta, near Naples in southern Italy. This Italian garden initially took inspiration from the English landscape and the end result is swathes of contrasting greens with smooth lawns, clipped hedges and shapely trees and shrubs.
To the front of the house is a large round lawn and, beyond this, an area of wildflower meadow studded with ancient trees, including Lebanese cedar, the Lucombe oak - a cross between Spanish and Cork oaks and named after Wlliam Lucombe, a 17th century nurseryman. The park also boasts a Wellingtonia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), one of the world's largest trees and a native to California, Purple Beech and the Lawson Cypress, an original planting from the early 1800s and now about 27 metres (90 feet) high, and still growing.
As you might expect, the approach to Ickworth House is down a long drive, in this instance from the village of Horringer, through parkland dotted with mature trees and, at this time of year, by pasture land full of breeding ewes and newborn lambs.
I met Sean in his Grade One listed office in the former Tack Room that adjoins the old stables. This building was restored in 2014 and has been sympathetically refurbished to include office and refreshment facilities for the gardening staff and volunteers, but has retained some of its previous character, including the hooks that bridles and saddles were once stored on. Prior to this, the team were working out of a small Portakabin, so this has been a very welcome upgrade.
Sean joined the National Trust at Ickworth in May 2001 as Head Gardener, having spent the previous twenty-one years working for the local council in the Abbey Gardens in nearby Bury St. Edmunds. He began as a trainee gardener and rose through the ranks to become Head Gardener with responsibility for all the planting in the area, including the town's hanging baskets and Britain in Bloom displays. During his time with the council, he was 'Tuped' out to the various companies that were awarded the contract under the competitive tendering scheme introduced by Government in the 1980s and then back, when the council took the work in-house again.
"If I'm really honest, I got fed up with the internal politics, but moving to the National Trust was the best thing I ever did," he said. "The management here and across the NT is a knockout. They do what it says on the tin and are extremely supportive. They are respectful of everyone and you are made to feel part of a gardening community. I would challenge anyone to find a better run organisation. They care about quality; they want the job done properly and we are given the time to do just that."
Planning is an important factor, in particular planning for the long-term future of the park. Ickworth was the first Italianate garden to be constructed in England and, as such, everything that is done must take into consideration this historical context. A team of experts within the National Trust, which includes archaeologists, historians, curators, historical building surveyors, landscaping professionals and estate managers, have drawn up a conservation master planning document (The Master Plan) that runs into four volumes and acts as the blueprint for the activity within the grounds.
"We are heritage gardeners," says Sean. "We have a duty to preserve the history of Ickworth and return it to its original Italianate form, or as close as we can get. We have to work under the constraints of a Grade II listed site and this can create a few challenges, but we manage that. Part of our plan is the entrance drive.
It's a single track road, originally designed to take horse and carriage, and we would like to widen it. However, we can't, due to our listed status, so we have to look at alternative ways of managing the traffic flow."
In his first year at Ickworth, back in 2001, the estate welcomed 80,000 visitors; in 2016, that figure had tripled to 250,000. That puts a lot of pressure on the facilities and infrastructure around the park. Most of the visitors tend to stay in the vicinity of the house and adjoining gardens, but the Master Plan is looking at encouraging visitors to venture further afield.
In the south-east of the park is a neglected pleasure garden, which will be restored in the near future; there are plans for a refreshment facility in the south at the Walled Garden, which is undergoing extensive restoration, following the unearthing of a gardener's notebook in a filing cabinet in a shed on the estate.
Packed with unique history of the planting, it documents more than 240 varieties of local plum, gage, pear, and apple trees, all planted at Ickworth from 1898 to 1930. Some of these varieties, which include Blickling, King of the Pippin, Lady Ludeley, Hoary Morning and Court of Wick, were previously unknown to Ickworth staff.
"This was a fantastic find," said Sean. "When you're working with historic gardens, you don't have much to go on most of the time. You have to make the best guess you can. We've wanted to reinstate some of the fruit trees here for a long time, and were in process of deciding what to do when my colleague Cath Mobbs made this incredible discovery. It means we can now be true to how Ickworth was created in all the future work we want to do. Re-planting of the historic fruit wall began in autumn 2010 and includes some of these rediscovered varieties."
The preparation of the Master Plan also identified the need to increase disability access around the West Wing and into the Italianate Garden. At present, this work is being undertaken with the previous grass paths being upgraded to a smooth aggregate-based surface suitable for wheelchairs and mobility scooters.
"It's our job to manage the expectations and enjoyment of our visitors. First impressions are all important and that's why we are taking particular interest in the first 200 metres from the main car park to the entrance at the West Wing. We've improved the planting along the pathways and generally made that area a lot more presentable and pleasing on the eye. It's also a deliberate policy at this time of year to have the breeding ewes and new-born lambs in close proximity to the visitors, both on arrival and on the pasture close to the pathway to the Walled Garden. The children love it!"
Another major project is the creation of a multi-use trail, which is currently at the planning permission stage. The estate has enough space to allow a variety of visitors to enjoy different activities. This project will also enable improvements to many areas which are under heavy use, are potholed or muddy and in need of repair. Research revealed that more people are using the park, but for some it's still hard to access. The new circular trail is being designed with surfaces that will allow it to be used all year round. It will mean that a variety of users - walkers, adapted wheelchair users, runners, cyclists and those with pushchairs can easily use this route to explore the wider estate.
The conversation then steered around to the staff and volunteers who are essential for the smooth running of the estate. Sean has three and a half permanent gardeners, three and a half rangers who are responsible for forestry and woodland management (the half person works as both a gardener and a ranger) plus forty volunteer gardeners and thirty volunteer rangers. I suggest that it must take a lot of time to manage such a large team, especially organising the volunteers.
"You might think so, but it all runs very smoothly. We have six main garden areas and the team is split between those. The volunteers tend to work set days, so it sorts itself out. We are responsible for all the grounds and woodland management on the estate, the holiday cottages, Angel Corner - a Grade II Listed building in Bury St. Edmunds - and we support Melford Hall, another National Trust property in Long Melford, with gardening staff one day a week."
"My role is to manage the teams and provide strategic guidance to ensure that our plan is on target - short, medium and long-term. One of my gardeners is responsible for managing and organising the volunteers, so all I have to do in that area is monitor what's going on. You need different skill sets to manage the staff and the volunteers. One group are employees, the others are here of their own free will, so there's a subtle distinction to how you manage both groups. We have some long-serving, dedicated people here and it's a great place to work."
"All new staff, be it employees or volunteers, undertake an online National Trust induction programme and then they have a property induction, which involves visiting all departments, followed by a tour of the estate. The final part is a departmental induction, where all Health and Safety matters are addressed and on-the-job training is undertaken. Across the Trust, many permanent staff begin as volunteers, prove themselves, go through the interview process and, if successful, eventually become full-time employees. And we get quite a few people who leave high pressure, stressful jobs for the comparative tranquillity of working for the Trust in stunning surroundings. We are proud of our diversity and our teams are a mix of people, some with health or physical issues, but all are treated equally."
"The National Trust offers great career opportunities and they are very supportive when it comes to training and developing staff. For example, when it became obvious that the Italianate nature of Ickworth was more significant than first realised, I secured a bursary to visit some of the best gardens in Italy to see the planting and features that make a stunning attraction. Most of these gardens would feature a grotto or secret secluded space. Our Stumpery was an innovation directly attributable to that visit."
Created by Ickworth's garden team, it evokes an atmosphere of an enchanted and mystical cave, which was a fashionable garden feature in Victorian England.
The stumps belong to trees that were uprooted during the Second World War, when fields were sown for 'Dig for Victory'. Their gnarled roots nestle among the largest collection of ferns in East Anglia. This shady spot is a magical escape, especially for children, and is also a perfect habitat for wildlife, including many insects, small mammals and amphibians such as toads.
"As custodians of a large green space, we take our environmental and bio diversity commitments very seriously. We recently installed a bio-mass boiler, using fuel sourced entirely on site. It powers the central heating system and provides hot water for the West Wing and 'tick over' heat for the main Mansion. We are continually thinning the softwood plantations across the estate and replacing them with broadleaf deciduous trees, so we have an ample supply of fuel. We have a contractor to remove the trees, chip it and move it to a storage facility; it's then our responsibility to move it from store to the boiler."
"We work to organic principles and very rarely use chemicals across the estate; we use cultural or bio controls instead. For the lawns in and around the Italianate Garden, we will scarify and aerate using solid or hollow tines and the majority of our mowing is done using ride-on or pedestrian rotary mowers. For the meadow areas, we will flail cut once a year, using the hay to create compost and to promote the continued development of the wild flowers."
As mentioned earlier, another of the major projects is the restoration of the Walled Garden at the southern boundary of the estate. Although not contemporary with the House as it exists today, it was created when the Old Manor House was in existence over a century earlier. Back then, it was an ornamental pleasure garden where the family could sit, stroll or socialise.
At the beginning of the 18th century, John Hervey, the first Earl of Bristol, oversaw the design and building of the summerhouse and the Spring Garden. In the 19th century, the garden developed into one of the most productive kitchen gardens in the east of England. There were eight hot houses with exotic fruits, including specialist greenhouses for growing pineapples, and nineteen gardeners were employed to supply the estate with fruit, vegetables and flowers daily.
In 2013, the main part of the garden was sown as a seasonal meadow following the removal of a vineyard that, for eighteen years, had been producing award-winning wines. This is providing the opportunity for the land to recover from being under intensive cultivation as a vineyard and also giving a spectacular display throughout the summer. The long-term plan is to reinstate the area to a productive kitchen garden and this will involve restoring the three existing near-derelict hot houses and constructing five more.
"This is a really exciting project," said Sean. "The discovery of the gardening notebook has enabled us to get a terrific insight into the planting over that period. We have virtually completed the reinstatement of the fruit trees; we've planted around 250 varieties in the past couple of years, that's about 80% of the original scheme. The biggest part of the project will be the refurbishing and construction of the hot houses, but we'll get there."
"The garden also contains a selection of allotment plots for two local primary schools, Ickworth Park School and Priory School. It's all part of our inclusivity programme and it is great to see the children so involved, learning to grow vegetables using organic and sustainable gardening methods. The produce is sold to our restaurants and visitors, with the funds supporting the ongoing restoration of the garden."
Beehives have been introduced to the Walled Garden and, once they build up their number, will provide a home for over 60,000 bees. Apart from pollinating the fruit and vegetables in the garden, they will also produce honey to be sold in the gift shop.
My final question centred round the wildlife found on the estate. Underneath the Italianate Garden terrace are thirteen vaults that comprise the bat hibernaculum.
There are nine varieties of bat and it is one of the most important sites in East Anglia. The estate is home to the only pair of ravens in the area, a pair of buzzards, owls of every description, treecreepers, spotted flycatchers, woodpeckers, egrets, Bewick swans, a robin that will eat out of the hand, numerous ducks, great crested newts, dormice, hares, rabbits, foxes, badgers, frogs, toads, slowworms, grass snakes and members of the deer family - muntjac, roe, fallow and the occasional red deer.
After a couple of obligatory photographs, I said goodbye and went out to enjoy the sunshine and walk the estate. Being something of a National Trust philistine, I had never visited one of their properties in all of my sixty-four years. I was mightily impressed with the work being done, so much so, that before returning to my car, I took out joint membership for myself and my wife. What a great first assignment!
The author of this article is Peter Driver, the former Public Relations Manager at Ransomes Jacobsen in Ipswich. He spent twenty years in the groundcare industry, before retiring at the end of August last year. He is now writing in a freelance capacity for Pitchcare and is a PR consultant for a small portfolio of clients in the sector.