A walk around…Helmingham Hall

As promised in the last blog, there was one more place we visited in Suffolk which deserved a blog entry all of its own – a garden so stunning I am still not quite sure it was real.

Just a few miles from where we were staying is Helmingham Hall. The house itself is an impressive moated Elizabethan pile, but is not open to visitors – in any case, the Chelsea-medal winning gardens are what people (by people, meaning ‘me’) come to see. 

You approach the main garden down an avenue of fruit trees, and then wind through a wild flower meadow and woodland area before crossing a bridge into the walled garden – all the while getting tantalising glimpses, Secret Garden-style, of the treasures within. 

It was well worth the wait to see what was inside….

What seemed like miles and miles of borders, all fully packed from front to back with flowers in bloom. Not a weed in sight, not a plant out of place, everything so tightly packed you could barely see a patch of soil.

The amount of effort that goes into making gardens like this, I can scarcely imagine. The planning required to get the right heights of plants in the right places, the seasonal planting, the colour schemes, just seems exhausting to me – who can’t even keep one raised bed consistently planted and looking anything other than patchy and shambolic!

Of course this garden has its peaks and troughs too – the wild flower meadow was past its best when we saw it, and the sweet peas were all but done, but we saw the ‘late summer’ borders just coming to their peak.

This border particularly impressed me with its composition – the contrast of light and dark foliage, the ivy providing a uniform backdrop to the sharp oranges and yellows of the flowers – but all offset by the graceful verbena providing height and a restful purple hint after all that citrus.

Now, I’d never think of planting a bed like this. I don’t know my shrubs well enough to know what background foliage to put in, I prefer blues and purples and pinks so I avoid yellow and orange flowers – so I miss out on the striking contrasts a display like this can give you. 

Well obviously I don’t also have years of experience or a fleet of gardeners helping me, either, but this picture does give me some sense of what I’d like my raised bed to be like – lots of different shapes and heights, no gaps or bare earth, lots of contrast, a sense of there being waves of colour laid over darker foliage. Well, it’s something to work towards.

Besides the borders, there were avenues of runner beans and squash, lavender in full bloom, beds of globe artichoke, sweet corn and courgette, and lovely flowers everywhere you looked.



Lots of mental notes of plants I’d like in the garden one day…alliums, more poppies, ornamental thistles…plus, the bare bones of the garden structure itself was beautiful, too – the gates, the statues and urns all looking exactly the part.

There was even space for a little topiary of the less conventional kind.

On the other side of the house was a smaller garden holding a traditional knot garden, mainly planted with herbs.


There was also, I was relieved to see, what appeared to be a bit of private fenced-off garden for the family to be away from prying eyes (where else to put your swing ball or hang out your washing?)

I can’t imagine what it’s like to have this as your real, actual everyday garden – I wonder if the owners do go and sit in the main walled garden when all the visitors are gone, or do they see it as more of a stage set for the glorious flowers, rather than somewhere to actually live in, to belong?  
Truth be told, I don’t spend much time sitting in my garden, either – sitting in the house looking at it, yes, but not in it. That is something I’d like to change next year if we can sort some better garden furniture.

I would recommend Helmingham to anyone who even slightly likes gardens – though be prepared to come away with serious envy of all the plants you’ll never have time or space to grow.
Plus the pretty, rather shabby  stables courtyard cafe gave us a chance to watch baby house martins being fed in their nests while we ate our lunch – how lovely is that? 

I’ll be making a plan to come back to Helmingham one day -maybe next time a guided tour….



In praise of…purple

If you had asked me, when I was a child, what my favourite colour was, I would have had a very definite answer: purple.

Not just any purple, either; I particularly liked the pastel shade of purple Smarties, and claimed they were my ‘favourite’ Smarties. (How stupid was I? Everyone knows the orange ones are the best).



(Yes, I did buy Smarties just for the purposes of illustrating this blog, and no, I’m not ashamed…)

These days, I can take or leave purple Smarties, but I do have a lasting fondness for that pale shade of purple, especially when I come across it in the garden.

The classic purple spring blossom, for me, has always been lilac – so classic, in fact, that it gave its very name to that delicate, lovely pale shade of purple.

Besides my early interest in Smarties, I can remember that I loved the Lilac variety of the Flower Fairies – indeed, the Flower Fairies can be found at the root of many of my most-loved flowers from childhood – and of course the Lilac Fairy of the Sleeping Beauty is the stuff of many a ballet-mad girl’s daydreams, so there are clearly all sorts of reasons why I’m predisposed to like lilac.

However, as I’ve discovered, not all lilacs are lilac!

Classic pale purple lilac

Classic pale purple lilac

This gorgeous specimen above is on an otherwise rather shabby street corner near me, and as far as I’m concerned is a proper shade of lilac. When I came across it, I had to stop and take a picture straight away, regardless of the fact that the house behind was shrouded in scaffolding and it was otherwise not a great photo opportunity – the lilac simply demanded to be photographed.

Then, I discovered to my delight that we had a lilac in our garden. As it prepared to bloom, I noticed the buds were much darker, closer to the brash, showy colour of buddleia, and was a bit disappointed it wasn’t my favourite pale shade.

Our lilac, a deeper shade of purple

Our lilac, a deeper shade of purple against a perfect blue sky

Looking at it in full bloom, though, I would be seriously churlish not to admire such a magnificent tree – and close up, the smell is wonderful. I’ve noticed, too, that the blossoms seem to get paler as they mature, so I have been able to enjoy a whole range of lilac shades in the last few weeks.

White lilac, raindrop

White lilac, raindrop

Suddenly I began to see lilacs everywhere – even a white variety, above, and one that was so pale it was almost pink.

Another recent purple favourite is wisteria – not a plant I’ve ever appreciated very much before, but I’ve come across it in a couple of local places recently and been blown away by how beautiful it was – and again, the scent is also gorgeous.

It’s one of those plants which impresses with its scale, whether it’s covering the front of a house or along the length of a garden wall. It would never work on our 1930s house, which is far too boxy and lumpish, but on the more elegant proportions of this Georgian style house it looks just right.

Wisteria on a Georgian house

Wisteria on a Georgian house, in late afternoon sun

What with the lilac, and pansies, and sweet peas (hopefully, eventually) and irises, and violets, and lavender, my garden certainly isn’t short on purple, but from my front garden snooping there is one thing I REALLY want…

Purple columbine

Purple columbine

I love columbines in all sizes, shapes and colours anyway, but isn’t this dark purple shade just heavenly? Photographed in a rain shower with raindrops still on it, which somehow made it even better.

Finally, something bizarrely NOT purple, also seen in a local garden: a white lavender.

White lavender

White lavender

I’ve heard of white heather, sure, but white lavender, never. Didn’t get close enough to find out if it smelt properly lavendery, but it certainly looked rather classy (although I will admit to picking a bit of goose-grass out of the middle of the bush to make a better picture. Yes, I’m now actually weeding my neighbours’ gardens for the sake of this blog. Don’t thank me, folks, it’s all part of the garden snooping service…)

Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly, lavender’s…tasty?

When I began planning my urban cottage garden, it went without saying I would be planting herbs.

Herbs, to me, are the classic cottage garden plant, and for those of us lacking the space or the skill to grow proper fruit or vegetables, it’s an easy way to grow something we can use for cooking, and subsequently feel all smug about in a Good Life kind of way. (Not that all herbs are easy to grow, as I’ve learned, but that’s a whole other blog post).

The first plant I grew in the garden was lavender, planted by the back door to get the full benefit of the beautiful scent, but unless I started making those little lavender bags which end up in the drawer with the tights that never fitted and that scarf which just doesn’t go with anything, there wasn’t really anything I could do with it.

Lavender and roses in a Dulwich garden – classic cottage garden style

I did like the idea of making lavender cupcakes, having tried them in posh cupcake shops over the years, but was put off by the rather complicated recipes I’d seen (and by the prospect of fiddling round with red and blue food colouring to get just the right shade of icing).

Then I was given this book, and found it had what looked like a very straightforward recipe. The lavender in the garden had just come into bloom, and I was going to a NCT mums meet-up where cake was going to feature heavily, so I thought I had better give it a go.

The recipe called for 6 lavender flower heads, but I threw caution to the wind and picked 8.

These were chopped up using my beloved mezzaluna (how Habitat catalogue circa 1988 am I?) and added to the cake batter. It felt a bit odd adding raw flowers straight from the garden to food (they had been washed first, I must stress!) but once mixed in, the batter looked pretty much as normal and the smell of lavender was not overpowering – to the extent I was a bit worried the flavour might end up a bit diluted.

After cooking, however, the cakes had a lovely lavendery scent and rose perfectly – always a worry when trying a recipe for the first time.

The icing was, as I predicted, the most fussy part of the recipe – why food colouring bottles aren’t made with droppers in the top any more, so you can add colour a drop at a time, I don’t know – and I ended up with blue fingernails in the attempt to get the perfect shade.

Cupcakes iced and finished with crystallised violets

The recipe called for glace rather than buttercream icing, which was at least easier to make, and flavoured with orange juice. I added crystallised violets as decoration – not strictly according to the recipe, but I love crystallised flowers (would it surprise you to learn the last cakes I made were flavoured with rose water and decorated with rose petals?) and, well, the colour matched.

As it turned out, the lavender flavour was just about perfect – not over-dominant, but not too subtle either, and even my husband, who probably doesn’t quite share my love of flowery cupcakes, liked them too.

My next plans? As the combination of orange and lavender seems to go so well together, I’d like to try them together in a shortbread biscuit…and I’m also keen to do some baking with rosemary, as my ever-hardy rosemary bush grows bigger and bigger, and I’m always looking for new ways to use it. Perhaps my book has a muffin recipe I could try out….