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From Issue #56 November 20, 2014

A Garden, His Quarry

A bit of beauty was saved by being lost.

By Colleen Hubbard Twitter icon

Henry Trevor never intended to create a secret garden. When the prosperous Victorian-era businessman shaped The Plantation Garden out of a scooped-out quarry, he saw it as a place of peace and beauty that he wanted to share with others. Yet in the decades after Trevor’s death, as fingers of ivy stretched over the garden walls and saplings burst through its manicured paths, it was the garden’s concealment that preserved it.

Trevor — the well-to-do owner of an upholstery and cabinetry business — took over the lease of three acres of land just outside the flint-and-mortar walls of Norwich, a city in eastern England, in 1856. In medieval times, this land had been used as a flint mine; just before Trevor’s time, it was a chalk quarry.

Trevor was a man of enormous vision, which he first used to expand his business, Trevor, Page & Co.; he was also deeply religious, part of a small nonconformist sect called the Johnsonian Baptists. Whether through his religious conviction or sheer force of will, Trevor looked at this unpromising industrial space, with its sheer walls, lime kilns, and lack of soil, and decided to construct a verdant wonderland alongside his home, called The Plantation.

He carted in loads of soil to support his plantings, hired a gardener who lived in a cottage on the site, and employed under-gardeners to build and maintain his grand design. Over the course of 40 years, Trevor created a town garden that delighted his fellow Victorians, with their taste in the exotic paired with the rustic, faux-medieval coats of arms alongside mechanical wonders like the underground coal-fired boilers he had installed to keep the glass palm houses warm and damp through chilly English winters.

Trevor chose a mix of styles to decorate the garden, mimicking the hodgepodge of designs highlighted in popular garden design publications like Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste. The medieval gothic-style fountain is inlaid with coats of arms; Italianate urns dominate the tops of steps that curl up the southern wall, and a sentimental view of simpler times can be found in the hut-like summerhouse at the south end of the garden.

Back to Eden

After Trevor’s death in 1897, a string of private owners managed the property; when the last of these died in 1929, the property fell into decline. Subsequent owners made their marks, ripping out the palm house and installing tennis courts and rose gardens that reflected the taste of the Edwardian era.

Beginning in the first world war, Trevor’s adjacent residence became a nursing home and later was turned into a boarding house for midwives in training, who were provided free lodging as part of their work. During World War II, part of the garden was handed over to the Dig for Victory campaign to boost self-sufficiency by growing nutritious vegetables instead of flowers or lawns. With no hands available to take on the onerous task of managing an ornamental garden, the space quickly became overgrown. Saplings took over the fountain as ivy obscured railings and terraces.

While many country gardens attached to rural mansions remain, most town gardens, like Trevor’s, disappeared in the 20th century as land was developed. Garden parcels became parking lots, strip malls, and apartment complexes. The Plantation Garden escaped this fate only by being a bit out of the way, and though it had fallen out of official use, neighborhood children played among the ruins.

What’s lost was found

In the late 1970s, a garden historian in Norwich, Briony Nierop-Reading, gave birth to a baby girl. During the delivery, the midwife who attended the birth told the historian about a town garden next to The Plantation, where midwives had been provided free lodging.

Picking through the brambles and sycamores with an infant slung to her chest, the new mother found something quite extraordinary: the skeleton of extensive landscaping. While most of Trevor’s plantings had matured or died, the remains of his plan were still apparent: shattered glasshouses, a moldering fountain, and undulating walls marked the property.

Nierop-Reading set up a organizing meeting at the local library, and established The Plantation Garden Preservation Trust in 1980 to bring the garden back into use. Slowly, through the labor of volunteer gardeners, they pulled away the overgrowth and began to reassemble some of the original features.

“In a way, the neglect of the garden was also its saving,” says Lesley Cunneen, a volunteer who gives tours there. “Gardens are naturally ephemeral. When people take over a garden, they want to make their mark on it. If during that period of neglect it had been taken over, someone might have made considerable changes. Instead it was a Sleeping Beauty.”

It’s surprising indeed how much the layout in 2014 echoes the photographs that show Trevor’s execution of his plan. Horse chestnuts, beeches, and yews planted by the head gardener, George Woodhouse, who worked for Trevor for over 30 years and led Trevor’s funeral procession, still muffle the breezes into the hollow. Volunteers even rebuilt the gothic fountain. Some aspects, such as the glass palm house, proved too expensive to reconstruct. And even some features that The Plantation Garden Trust chose to rehabilitate require a considerable investment to repair, such as the Renaissance-style wall that must be patched with lime putty instead of cheaper modern materials that require less skill.

Today The Plantation Garden can be found in several tourist guides, yet it still feels shared among a select set of admirers, like the school custodian who finds a place of quiet reflection there during his morning tea break. Arrive early enough on a weekday morning, and it’s difficult to believe that the garden belongs to anyone but you. Open the gate, slip a coin in the donation box, stroll along the lanes, and take a seat in the summerhouse at the crown of the garden. This quiet space, so close to and yet far from the footfalls of the city center, seems like a secret kept just for you.

Photos by the author.

Colleen Hubbard lives in England, where she writes fiction and nonfiction.

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