While I was travelling recently I had the occasion to visit Hill Close Gardens in Warwick and I fell in love...
As far back as the 18th Century the boundary of Warwick was festooned with a fringe of gardens. Judging by the images we find on old maps these were as much pleasure gardens as allotments. Each plot had a summerhouse, a small pepper-pot shaped building.
Burbage plots are long narrow gardens that used to extend around many traditionally constricted medieval settlements. But in some cases these plots are separate from their householders. These were called detached gardens. Hill Close Gardens are the vestiges of Warwick’s version of detached gardens.
Unusually in Warwick, these gardens were owned, not rented. This might have helped to secure their existence into the 20th Century. Particularly charming are the stories about different owners. For example the Benjamin Chadband owned Plot 24. By 1870 records show that this plot was surrounded by a hawthorn hedge, had a summer house, ornamental roses, paths with edging tiles and an impressive crop of cucumbers. There were also cherries, apples, 29 gooseberry bushes and 32 currant bushes. That makes an awful lot of currant buns. There was even once a pigsty on this plot. Today the plot is tended by George Mills who carries on growing impressive veg.
One of the most charming aspects of the plots is their summerhouses, each built by the owners, but many following the 18th Century pepper-pot design which set something of a precedent. On Plot 22 (pictured at the top of this article) the Savage family who owned a furniture shop in Market Place and lived in nearby Linen Street, built themselves a very fine summerhouse using recycled windows and chamfered bricks. They put in a tiny corner fireplace and a small hob for boiling water for tea. Their summerhouse is decorated with contrasting bands of blue engineering bricks, and is clad inside with paneling that might have come from the furniture shop. Old wardrobe sidings perhaps?
The pleasure of the gardens is that you can walk around them, even sitting yourself down in some of the summerhouses to enjoy the view. Most plots hold a mixture of flowers and vegetables and almost all have a mature apple tree or some other salvaged fruit treasure.
After the war the gardens fell into disrepair. Some became stabling for the nearby Warwick Racecourse horses; others were blighted by relief road plans. By 1993 the council had acquired all the land and proposed a housing development. This galvanised local people. A surprisingly enlightened committee of Warwick Town Aldermen decided that the council should restore the gardens rather than take a quick profit on the land. (Sadly the racecourse did not do the same and some fairly ugly new houses have been built on one side of the site.)
An action group had already got stuck into the task of repair. They found the site littered with abandoned huts and pigeon lofts. Every spadeful of soil revealed abandoned tools, or worse still dumped bags of cement or clay. Skip after skip was taken away. Gradually a few restored plots joined the tended plot of George Mills.
Over time every garden has been restored, using traces of the old plots wherever possible. The variety of layouts and designs are part of the interest. I particularly favoured the plots that had set aside half the space to a formal parterre of vegetables and then planted the other half with an orchard. With the aid of grants many of the old summer houses are now re-built. Several of them have been listed grade 2*. A hut was commandeered as a meeting room and more recently a lovely new modern education centre and meeting room has been built complete with green roof and wind turbine.
Today volunteers tend the crops and share the bounty. Surplus is sold off. I could have bought rhubarb, raspberries or currents as well as nursery plants. I was also delighted to find I could buy a cup of tea and homemade cake in the centre. The managing trust does a lot of educational work and arranges loads of events, all of which can be found on their website: http://www.hillclosegardens.com/
Consult the website for details of opening hours. In general the site is open every day in summer and weekdays in winter (subject to the weather) The £3.50 entry charge makes a welcome change from the £10-£15 I’ve been paying to visit far less distinguished National Trust kitchen gardens.
I occasionally write about vegetable gardens that I visit. I always pin details to my Pinterest site. https://www.pinterest.com/wendyshillam/gardens-to-visit-great-potagers-and-kitchen-garden/