An urban Eden
This week, our gardening columnist is spellbound by a blooming, city-centre oasis
Public parks and gardens are a distinctive feature of British towns and cities, a source of considerable civic and community pride. In many a handsome place, they provide the douceur de vivre that draws people to live there, and makes metropolitan life so civilised and desirable. Northernhay Gardens in Exeter, where I spend happy visits with my cousin, are a fine case in point.
The site of the gardens is dramatic and so is its history, which dates back to 1612. Possibly the oldest public open space in the country, Northernhay Gardens incorporate a good stretch of Roman wall and the only chunk of Saxon town wall to be seen in England. The site was quarried for stone by the Romans to build the city walls, and in Norman times formed part of the defences of Rougemont Castle. The early park was largely destroyed in 1642, in the Civil War, when defensive ditches were dug outside the walls for the city’s defence.
Following the Restoration, in 1664, the city set about reinstating the gardens, planting hundreds of elms and laying out gravel paths. The gardens languished a little in early Victorian times, but in 1860 were transformed with new planting, a rockery and small waterfall. Some fine statues were introduced, and in 1923 a magnificent war memorial to those who died in the First World War was created by local sculptor John Angel. In the mid 1900s, the elms planted in 1664 succumbed to Dutch elm disease. A new avenue, of liquidambar trees, was planted as a millennium project.
Additional drama is provided by Rougemont Gardens, which are on the other side of the city wall, once the site of the castle moat. Now linked, these are exhilarating spaces, but what is unexpected and exciting is the quality of the contemporary planting – mixed borders of old roses, long drifts of Japanese anemones and penstemons, glorious dahlias, huge blocks of Verbena bonariensis and obelisks swathed in sweet peas.
The man responsible for this is Parks and Playing Fields Officer, Galvin Short. He has been looking after this magnificent site for 20 years, helped by just two gardeners and transient trainees. On a Friday afternoon, at very short notice, he generously abandoned his paperwork to give me a guided tour in a rain shower so intense it turned my notebook into papier-mâché, requiring a copious exchange of emails in the days that followed to fill in the rainobliterated gaps.
Both Northernhay and Rougemont Gardens have magnificent trees and shrubs – an Acer griseum from the former Veitch nurseries, magnolias and acacias and the ‘Cornus Line’, which runs the length of the Long Bed, from the Lodge to the listed bandstand, 57 varieties of dogwood including ‘Eddie’s White Wonder’. But long before the recent vogue for perennial planting in municipal parks and gardens, Galvin had a vision, which was to ‘bring the cottage garden into the city’. So, instead of what he calls ‘edging, infill and dots’, he introduced species roses – Rosa canina, the dog rose, the rugosas ‘Rubra’ and ‘Alba’, rubrifolia and rubiginosa – underplanting with cranesbills such as the reliable ‘Johnson’s Blue’. He likesdaylilies, foxgloves and echinaceas – purpurea and ‘Harvest Moon’ have performed well this season – and the giant primrose-yellow scabious, Cephalaria gigantea. He plants beech, photinia and other hedging material as a backdrop or within a bed to provide a range of heights – his ‘Manhattan skyline’ effect.
The vision is not complete. New borders are being planted to celebrate the magnificent Veitch Nurseries, once the pride of Exeter, at the new entrance in Rougemont Gardens to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, known to locals as RAMM. The museum has been brilliantly refurbished and extended by the architects Allies and Morrison, and is the 2012 winner of the Art Fund’s Museum of the Year award. RAMM, Rougemont and Northernhay are just three of many reasons for enjoying a visit to Exeter.
Northernhay and Rougemont Gardens: www.exeter.gov.uk
Contact Sarah at email@example.com
Jobs to do this week
- Plant bulbs in containers for brightening up the house in winter and early spring. Attractive bits of old china are ideal – no need for drainage holes, but use bulb fibre for best results.
- In the vegetable garden, plant overwintering onion sets – Radar is my favourite. The onions should be ready in July and will store until winter.
- Prune rambling roses when flowering is over. Cut out some of the older stems and prune side shoots back to three buds from the main stem.
- Do some tidying in the garden, clearing dead leaves and lifting and dividing herbaceous perennials if necessary.
- Plant green manures in any empty beds in the vegetable garden. They suppress weeds, protect nutrients from being washed away by rain and add organic matter when dug in. Try the Autumn/Winter mix, £3 per packet from www.pennardplants.com
Plant of the week
Dahlia ‘Bishop of Oxford’ has bronze/purple foliage and vibrant coppery-orange flowers on straight stems. It has been a star of the exuberant plantings in Northernhay Gardens this summer. Widely available; look out for tubers in spring.
Related tags:gardening  Sarah Langton-Lockton  public parks  Northernhay Gardens  Rougemont Gardens  Galvin Short  Acer griseum  magnolias  acacias  dogwood  Eddie’s White Wonder  Rosa canina  dog rose  rugosas  Rubra  Alba  rubrifolia  rubiginosa
Daily tip from the lady archive
“THERE is great satisfaction to be had in properly ironed garments that look as if they have just come out of the shop window.”The Lady. You Can’t Iron? 19th February, 1953