Review by Bella D'Arcy Reed - October 2011
All photographs courtesy of Blooms, Bressingham
I had not been to the gardens of at Bressingham before, and was delighted when an invitation came to visit. I had heard about the gardens, of course, and was under the impression that they were all conifers and heathers. Well, that impression went out of the window as soon as my mobility scooter wheels touched the lawn!
The gardens are laid out in such a way that you can wander around it endlessly for it has island beds to be seen from all sides. Groups of trees to divide it up and make it look as if it goes on forever; there is a new view at every turn. Nearly every focal point is a plant or groups of plants, only the bridge and an almost completely hidden gazebo is not. There is little hard landscaping, just smooth green grass like a soft living room carpet; meticulously trimmed at the bed edges. You can stop and take in the beauty of individual plants, take still photographs but the real joy of the garden is in its movement. The garden curves around you in waves - if on wheels, try spinning (slowly!) round and round: it is like an atmospheric film of constantly changing shapes flowing one into another against a blue sky. Mesmeric.
This effect is created by groups of plants made of shrubs, perennials, grasses and trees. Groups which are an actual illustration of all those diagrams in design books about contrasting heights, spreads and shapes. Colour is graduated within the greens themselves, or in green with other single colours. Colours in perfect harmony with each other, or in complement to provide glorious contrasts.
Just when you think you have seen everything, a sign reminds you that there is still 'Foggy Bottom' ahead. This is equally easy on wheels. The first part of the grounds to be developed by Alan Bloom, this was the start of the flowing lines, the curves, the colours. I could have travelled around all day. Except: there was one hitch - trying to get up onto a ramp/bridge, I was stopped suddenly against the wood. The lawn had sunk below the level of the ramp, and I had to get help to heave the scooter up. I did mention this to one of the staff so perhaps it is not like this now. I also mentioned that the garden could do with a few more seats or perching places for people with sticks.
Considering that my first love is formal, Italianate gardens, the effect this garden had on me was a huge surprise, No straight lines, no terraces (although there is a dip into the dell, chairs users beware), no fountains and sculptures, and yet I loved it. It enveloped me visually and audially, with the rustle of leaves and grasses, bees. It even dowsed the talk of other visitors, making it sound like whispers, as the sound was enveloped in the foliage. Just think how I might have missed this through sheer pride - and prejudice...
On practical terms, the sheer amount of work and thought over the years by Alan and his son Adrian Bloom and their teams, is breathtaking. And Alan had time to make a steam museum and a working train as well! For the mechanically-romantic (if there is such a term), the train journey is a must. For the literary-romantic the sound of the train hooting beyond the garden is right back to the Railway Children! Those looking for plants, will see that many are labelled, so have camera and notebook at the ready. And yes I did buy some! A lovely Pennisetum to waft its fluffy bits about called 'Little Bunny', and for a group of blues, the hugely successful Geranium 'Rozanne', Penstemon 'Blue Springs' and Salvia x sylvestris 'Mainacht'.
I cannot say what the refreshments space is like, but there is a steep ramp down into the plant centre, which means a touch of the brake as you go down.
Houghton Hall and Gardens, North West Norfolk, PE31 6UE
Telephone: 020 7724 1617
Opening between April and September, on Wedensdays, Thursdays, Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays
Gardens opened: 11.30 am to 5.30 pm - House opened: 1.30 pm to 5.00 pm
Review by John Lea - April 2012
The long drive takes you into open parkland where you can catch a glimpse of the famous white deer herd.
We were given three options for disabled parking, near the garden, near the stable block or by the house. Considering that by when you've walked around the five acre walled garden you going to need both toilet and a tea room facilities choose the middle option and park at the garden end of the stable block. It is not far from the walled garden and the facilities are just inside. If you intend to view the house then it's best to drive the car up and park by it. I explain all this because the map that we were given wasn't much help to accessibility convenience.
In late April the garden had yet to come into full colour but as a past winner of the HHA/Christie's Garden of the Year award this five acre walled garden has many spectacular features including the longest Wisteria avenue that I've seen (that's me in the photograph chugging along it). It will be spectacular when full in flower.
With four full-time and four part-time gardeners, and extra staff in the season, the gardens are in pristine order but of course in April awaiting the summer bedding. The walled garden is flat but the paths are covered with a fine gravel that in places is loose enough to make manual wheelchair travel difficult. Two scooters are available for use only in the garden. Also, a limited number of plants are for sale.
Outside the garden, in the large stable block, there is a small gift shop and a museum with what is, I believe, the largest display of toy soldiers in the country. Unfortunately, the display cabinets are designed to be looked at standing up, there is a large wooden step by each cabinet for smaller people to look in, but they are more nuisance than help if you're in a wheelchair. In fact, I gave up and left the building.
To visit the house also has its difficulties. There is no sign indicating entrance but there is a ramp that leads down a long curving corridor and out onto a lawn in the front of the house -or is it the back? It's a bit confusing. There are more toilet facilities tucked away in the left hand corner of that garden but the house entrances is to your right. Nothing on the ground floor but a 90 year old lift takes you up to the first floor. Built in the 1720s by Britain's first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, the part of the house on display is just a museum to him. The staff were extremely kind and helpful, the views from the windows were fantastic, but the part that you visit was never a family home. Walpole, visiting for just a few weeks each year, used it just to show off to his friends in the hunting and shooting season. Apparently, his wife never made the four-day coach journey from London. It lacks any feminine touch or homely feeling and as such I found it uninspiring. But that view from the first floor balcony along a 2 1/2 mile a tree lined avenue to where their estate meets the Queen's Sandringham estate made my house visit worthwhile.
Sandringham Gardens, Her Majesty's the Queen's Norfolk Retreat, PE35 6EN
Telephone: 01485 545408
Review by John Lea - April 2012
How long do you have? Because there is an awful lot to see; we went on three different days and it is a super place to have lunch. There are no scooters available but to borrow a manual wheelchair you need to ask in the tea rooms or the ice cream kiosk.
On the first day without going into the garden, in fact from the disabled car park, we took a tractor trailer ride through some of the private parkland and woodland for a modest charge of £3; wheelchairs and medium-size scooters can get on but beware it is a bit joggy. After lunch, we had a lazy wander round the shops.
On the second morning, we rode through the woodland (following a map that we collected the day before from the shop) on a tarmac one-way drive along which you can park, picnic or just wander into the woods. Finishing conveniently in the car park.
After lunch, we walked past the garden entrance down to the beautiful church. It is wheelchair accessible and you must see it. The solid silver pulpit weighs just one ounce short of a ton and then there is also a solid silver altar. It is quite a long walk from the car park to the church.
Although the garden entrance is nearer 60 acres is a lot of garden to walk round. The charge to go in the garden is £7, wheelchair carer goes in free. But there is a carrier in the garden able to hold a wheelchair or a reasonable size scooter plus a few passengers and take them from the entrance to either the house or the museum. There is another tearoom and toilet facilities by the museum.
The museum alone is worth the entrance fee and as for the garden - it is more a superbly laid out parkland. There is a formal area but in late April, as my photograph shows, there was not much colour but a promise of plenty to come. The paths are either fine hardpacked gravel or tarmac and as such are easily travelling. But remember in 60 acres with some slopes it is easy to wonder a long way from the exit.
Across the road from the tea rooms lies the childhood home of Princess Di. Now a Leonard Cheshire home providing respite care from full nursing facilities to just being; there if you might need help. I had a quick tour inside, "Wow!" I now know where to go if my wife's throws me out.