It isn’t often that I have to have a stern word with myself about putting the brakes on while visiting a garden. But the joy I got from entering the walled garden at Knightshayes, the National Trust (NT) property in Devon, meant that I found myself forcing myself to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n otherwise I would have missed much of the beauty. At one point I was virtually jogging just to get to the next, exciting bit.
I had driven down to the West Country at sparrow-fart to avoid the traffic on the first Saturday of the UK school holidays; picking up the youngest of the Bees from Uni felt like the end of an era and I needed a garden visit to kill some time. I was in the cafe at Knightshayes (more of which later) by 10.15am, thinking how jolly clever I was to have missed the inevitable July-jams on the M5. On my approach to the property, I found myself in an alarmingly long queue which I thought was rather odd, it being early, and with most normal people heading towards the coast; thankfully I held my nerve and this turned out to be hundreds of folk going to the Mid-Devon Show which was in the grounds of Knightshayes but some distance from the actual house and garden.
Candy-floss, long-horned cattle and a ferris wheel beckoned but I know what I like and I like what I know.
Weirdly, I also thought in visiting Knightshayes I was following the recommendation of a good friend, T, but when I sent her a pic saying, “so where am I?” and the answer came back, “haven’t a clue”, it transpired she had in fact recommended Tyntesfield.
And if you are thinking, with this level of confusion and disarray it is any wonder I manage to do achieve anything at all, I couldn’t agree more.
The National Trust has its detractors, but I am a fan: friendly staff, nice things in the shops, good food and coffee and they (with our help) look after some of this country’s gems. The garden shop at Knightshayes was without a doubt the best I have ever seen, and it was a small miracle I came away with nothing – only the thought of plants being squashed by four years of Uni detritus, guitars and Ikea bags full of bedding put me off. The NT shop was chock full of goodies though (which I didn’t pass on – I didn’t know I required steel straws until I got to the till where, incidentally, the lovely lady serving was offering free fudge) and the cafe was excellent for both coffee and lunch (gluten free quiche: the nicest I have tasted). Friendly staff, a coffee out-post next to the house itself, and an interesting story to tell, topped off by the best NT walled garden I have ever seen. And did I mention the second-hand book shop? What more could you ask for on a sunny day in July in Devon?
The pièce de résistance was, without a doubt, the magnificent walled garden. First though, a little about why Knightshayes is there in the first place:
Back in 1816 a group of Luddite protesters wrecked John Heathcoat’s lace-making factory in Loughborough, so incensed were they at the introduction of his ‘pillow and bobbin” lace-making machines. They demolished 55 lace frames with axes and hammers and set fire to the lace; within half an hour, the factory was lost and 200 men out of work. He refused compensation from the county to keep his business in the Midlands, and moved instead to Tiverton in Devon. Many of his workers followed him down to the West Country on foot, so trustful their employer would rise again and continue his success. In a speech at a public dinner in 1843, John recollected how he “came almost like a ship-wrecked mariner cast away upon your shores”. The people of Tiverton welcomed this successful businessman, which he repaid by building houses, schools and churches for the community, still distinguishable today by their grey-painted doors.
It was one of his ancestors who, in 1868 bought the Knightshayes estate which looks down on Tiverton and on his factory. The house standing then was demolished and, at the very peak of the Victorian country house building, Knightshayes as we see it today was built and extended as a solid expression of the family’s status and values. To this end, William Burges was employed as lead architect; most of the outside of Knightshayes is to his plans, but the family drew the line at his eccentric and bold (fantastical) interior plans (a Juliet balcony in the living room anyone?) and so the slightly less flamboyant interior designer John Dibblee Crace was brought in.
I wasn’t even planning to look inside the Gothic Revival house, but the story of the last owner of the property (Sir John, the 3rd Baronet who died in 1972 and left Knightshayes to the National Trust) building a 9-hole golf course for his wife (the acclaimed golfer Joyce Wethered) on their (substantial) ‘front lawn’, plus a painter-decorator accidentally unearthing an original ceiling which the NT didn’t know was there, got me interested enough to have a wander, and I am glad I did.
BUT, the main reason for visiting from my point of view, is the garden which the National Trust describe as
….an outstanding garden, whose plants represent one of the most varied and valuable botanical collections in our care.
Within the wider estate, there is a Formal and Woodland garden, a Douglas Fir Walk, herbaceous borders by the terrace in front of the house, a dry (paved) garden, a lovely pond in the Pool Garden and an Arboretum.
But it is the Kitchen Garden, fully restored by the NT in 2001 which really caught my eye, and where I needed to stop myself from running around it like a small kid, high on coca cola and too much ice-cream.
It is a triumph! Covering an area of just over four acres, (four acres!) on a south-facing slope, it was probably designed by Burges (in 1870) and it was a clear statement of the family’s wealth in both production and display. Many of the plants are very helpfully named (which adds several stars to any garden visit in my book), and I believe there is a staff these days of six full-time gardeners and three trainees who work across the entire garden and parkland. On top of that there are perhaps as many as 50 volunteers and my goodness, what a great job they all do. The day I went I only saw one gardener and there were times when, due to the vastness of the place plus the lure of the ferris wheel, I could have been on my own.
I was very taken by what I call the ‘business-end’ of the garden, where much of the unglamorous work gets done and where I found these rhubarb forcers, lined up like Chinese warriors, members of the Terracotta Army who have gone on their holidays to Devon.
I highly recommend a visit if you are in the Tiverton neck of the woods: a beautiful area of England, and boasting what could well be my favourite ever NT garden.
Annie Bee xxx