Kay in the kitchen garden

Work in Progress

22nd February 2019

Jill Glenn meets a family undertaking a major horticultural restoration project in a secret garden…

For hundreds of years, from the middle of the fifteenth century, there was a Manor House tucked away just south of St Mary’s Church in Harefield; there was a deer park on the site even earlier. By the Tudor period there was, according to the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest, ‘a house, courts and gardens within walls incorporating an arcade’. Within the park ‘pools, walks and avenues’ were laid out. By the 1680s Harefield Place (a name now appropriated by a luxury conversion of what was originally Harefield Lodge, in Ickenhham) had become a substantial house set in grounds within a deer park of about 97 hectares. The house was largely demolished by 1813, but the gardens…

The gardens, and the 19th century orchard, are still there – slowly, lovingly, being restored to their former glory (with a contemporary, eco-friendly, organic, permaculture twist) by the McHugh family: architect Patrick, musician Kay, and their three young adult daughters.

They took it on as something of a project. Although it was the idea of the three acres of outdoor space that attracted the McHughs – “we weren’t really bothered about the house; we were just interested in the land…” – it was, nevertheless, the house that took up most of their time initially. When they acquired the place in 1995, the buildings – their property is formed from the coach house and stables to the original manor – were derelict. It took them two and a half years to get it to something even approaching a habitable state; it was still ‘basic’ when they moved in with their three daughters, Meave, then 3, and new-born twins Aideen and Diane. Kay shrugs off the difficulties. It was always all about the garden, parts of which had been used as a nursery and all of which was seriously overgrown. “I never dreamed in a million years that I’d have a walled garden… it’s an absolute gift.”

Even so, the first ‘proper gardening’ as Patrick and Kay call it, didn’t happen until 2005 when they installed a polytunnel – “the life and soul of the entire garden” – and the raised vegetable beds. It was, as almost everything is here, a mammoth undertaking. To honour the garden’s Tudor origins, they opted for a formal geometric pattern, which Patrick designed. That was the easy bit. Then the levels had to be calculated, and the beds – all 56 of them (roughly equivalent to four full size allotment plots), in varying sizes and organised in quarter-sections to make crop rotation easy – dug out. Kay recalls that she cried as she planted out the 800 box hedging plants, which arrived bare-rooted during a drought; she was convinced they would not survive, and that both the money and the effort would be wasted…

Today it looks glorious. The hedges are thriving, and the paths, which used to be bark on membrane, have been replaced with brick, another visual nod to the garden’s heritage, and a much more practical solution. Even last week, ‘out of season’, there were still crops in some of the beds, and the polytunnel is filling up with seedlings, including peas and beans that are almost ready to go out.

The entire garden is organic, and Kay is very keen on companion planting – “ideal for pollination” – so the whole place is full of flowers throughout the year, too. Along with the main companion plants (calendula, marigolds, borage, Californian poppies, nasturtiums, zinnias and cosmos), there are also substantial herbaceous borders along the length of the plot.

Planted up in 2015 and 2016, they are 60m long; one is 3m deep, the other 2m deep, and both are planted in 10m repeating sections of shrubs and perennials; the shallower has a range of fruit trees planted behind against the wall. It all fits with Kay’s ambition to create something that is beautiful to look at, productive and historically appropriate.

In addition to the rotation plantings in the vegetable garden, there are also permanent beds of globe artichokes and Jerusalem artichokes, for example, and herbs – Kay reels off a long list, from the common such as parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, to the more unusual: think licorice, and Lady’s Bedstraw, and even woad – and a plan for a mushroom bed. Last year the pumpkin bed, another permanent fixture, contained three varieties of pumpkin (all splendidly named: Jack O’ Lantern, Yellow Hundredweight and Rouge Vif D’Etampes) and two varieties of squash. The crop was, as it usually is, excellent. “On a good year,” Kay says, “we harvest more than fifty butternut squash.” The family stores them in the basement, eats them at a rate of around one a week, and generally comes to the end of one harvest just as the next is ready. They’re not fully self-sufficient (“Everyone asks that…”), but, she adds, “we produce a huge amount of veg, and we eat it all.” She’s pleased to eat much more seasonally, rarely supplementing what’s grown by something purchased out of season, and to have become “much more inventive, both as a gardener and a cook”.

The polytunnel also contains young strawberry plants ready for the new fruit cage. Some 8x14m in size, the cage is currently skeletal and waiting for its mesh to be fitted. Designed by Patrick and made by local artist blacksmith Derek Marshall, it will be a thing of beauty in both form and function: in addition to currants, gooseberries, raspberries, blackberries and the like, it will also contain small trees – a mulberry, a cherry, perhaps a walnut – and the area to the front will be planted with vines. “Patrick will have it done very soon, won’t you?” asks Kay, and he nods. “I will; it’s on my list.”

The list is a long one, and as structural as it is horticultural. The walls are getting on for 400 years old, and are all in need of constant attention (and rebuilding). ‘Within the main walled ornamental enclosure,’ the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest listing continues, ‘are the remains of 17th century terraces and other features, dominated by a rare and extensive early 17th century brick garden arcade’. The origins of this are unclear, but Harefield Place was, in the 1630s, home to Alice Spencer, the Countess Dowager of Derby and a friend of poet John Milton, who wrote a masque, called Arcades, in her honour; it was performed here to mark her 75th birthday in May 1634, and the current theory is that the arcade of ‘tall round-backed niches with half hemispherical heads’ was built to provide the backdrop. The long grass terrace in front of it would make a perfect stage.

The area was impenetrable when the McHughs moved in, but has now returned to a more natural state. It’s currently carpeted with snowdrops. What was once a large ornamental space was replanted with Kentish Cobnut trees around 150 years ago, and the McHughs find themselves in something of a dilemma: tree experts are very excited about the orchard, but it compromises the infrastracture of the original renaissance garden, of which there are vanishingly few left in the country. How to satisfy the two separate histories is a conundrum as yet unresolved.

In one corner there are beehives, surrounded by bee-friendly planting; there’s just one colony at the moment, but the family hope to have four hives productive in the future. Nearby is a raised platform, built of remnants of brick and tree trunk, allowing a superb view over the adjacent kitchen garden, the fields beyond and the sunken line – home to a vast badger sett – the other side of the wall.

There is, it seems, almost nothing that cannot be recycled or repurposed here. Some years ago, for example, Kay and Patrick acquired four giant plastic tanks (6,000 litres in total), originally used to transport concentrated orange juice, with which to implement a substantial rainwater harvesting system. The tanks are housed in a shed-like structure at one end of the garden, beneath solar panels (the McHughs couldn’t put these on the roof of the house as it is a listed building), and filled with rainwater collected from all the main roofs – the family house, Patrick’s office and the annexe – which is then pumped out to four taps positioned around the vegetable garden. “Theoretically it was a good idea,” they say, “but it has been challenging to put it into practice…”

Nothing appears to daunt the McHughs, however, and there are always new schemes being dreamed up put into practice. On the list at the moment are a ‘lean-to’ glass house which will be partially below ground and thus earth-sheltered. It will keep the temperature more evenly balanced than a normal greenhouse in which day and night temperatures can fluctuate wildly. It will provide an entirely different environment to the polytunnel; Kay’s eyes gleam at the prospect.

The house and the gardens are beguiling places, and they draw people in; two of Patrick and Kay’s three daughters still live at home (the third is away at university), one with a boyfriend in tow, and all help out in the garden, as do some of their friends. Ahead of their first National Garden Scheme Open Day last year, there were some serious working parties. “Lots of heavy lifting,” recalls Aideen, 20. “We’re always moving piles of old bricks around the garden to new homes.”

All the girls appreciate being part of a big project, though. “The place unites you,” says Patrick, and Aideen agrees. “We spend more time together as a family,” she adds. “You work in the garden all day, and then you eat together in the evening. It’s good.”

You can’t fail to admire the thoughful, respectful restoration of Church Gardens. It’s a project on both a grand and a tiny scale – from the ongoing attention needed by the walls to the careful planting of miniature iris. It’s both impressive and intimate.

Kay and Patrick are now starting to open Church Gardens to the public to help raise funds towards rebuildiing the walls. There are Open Days from 2 to 5pm on 22 April and 27 May, and the National Garden Scheme Open Day is 26 August (https://www.ngs.org.uk/find-a-garden/garden/34868).

It’s also possible to arrange a two hour private visit for groups, families, friends or societies: a private guided walk of the gardens, plus tea and cake.

Places are also available on five hour visits, which include a private guided walk of the gardens, talks on the history of the garden, organic vegetable and fruit growing, seasonal planting and permaculture design, Q and A with gardener and designer/builder, plus home-made lunch, tea and cake. These take place on 20 April, 1 June, 20 July, 17 August, and 7 September.

Email churchgardensharefield@gmail.com to find out more and book a place.


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