This is what faced Ursula Cholmeley in 2000. A young mother with a toddler and a new baby, she decided (and persuaded husband Fred) that the once magnificent gardens at the ancient family seat at Easton in Lincolnshire deserved to be brought back to life. And two years later they started work, having to bring two nine tonne tractors in just to remove the top growth.
Easton Park’s story is rather sad. In 1901 an imposing manor house, Easton Hall, stood proudly above the steep tiered steps down to an immaculate terrace and huge walled garden, split by an imposing 106 metre line of clipped yew, planted in 1852. Franklin D Roosevelt honeymooned there, and David Niven was a later guest.
But the hall was requisitioned by the army during World War II and the soldiers based there – from the parachute regiment – are said to have literally trashed the place, letting off live rounds in the house and throwing hand grenades into the greenhouses. Later the lead was stolen from the roof and the entire building was demolished in 1951. It was only the fact that the bulldozer broke down that the gatehouse and stables remain today. In one part of the garden, there’s a steep spoil heap where you can still see the debris from where the bulldozers simply tipped hundreds of years of British history down the hill.
After ten years of hard graft with a small team and no corporate budget, the Cholmeleys have performed a minor miracle. A hidden garden has been coaxed out from the undergrowth. There are cutting gardens with hundreds of sweet peas, billowing summer borders, lawns and steps, clipped hedging and smart pathways, leading to hidden walkways. Some of it, as you expect, is still work-in-progress and you can see the scale of the task that still faces the team.
However it is a fabulous place to visit for gardeners, or families who want a day out with room to roam and a treasure around every corner. I even found giraffes. Yes giraffes. And unlike many historic houses, children are positively encouraged to stay ON the grass: there are containers with an assortment of footballs to borrow.
The once derelict buildings that remain (you have to get your head around where the actual house once stood by reading the helpful information boards dotted around various vantage points) are now transformed into pleasant tea rooms, and you can sit on a sunny patio overlooking scented gardens. There’s even a viewing platform for great views and at the moment, a ‘swallow cam’ where you can see the feathered visitors nesting in the potting shed roof. The History Room has photographs which show the astonishing task taken on over the last decade.
It took me just over an hour to get there from Northampton, up the A43 and the A1. Entry is £6.25 or £2 for 5-15s.
You can visit the garden’s website here
All photographs and text © NorthamptonshireGardens