Sometimes, writing this blog feels like being let into a wonderful secret. I get to visit places I've never been, and see things I'd never normally see. And so it was that this week, I borrowed some sensible shoes from my housemate and headed to Raveningham Gardens, just as snow was threatening to fall, and a bin lorry was threatening to block in my car.
Images: Isabel Johnson
What I will say - straight off the bat - is that Raveningham Gardens is incredibly easy to find. Turning just off the A146, it's a straightforward drive down a leafy county road, before hitting signposts that clearly point you in the direction of your destination. The entrance to the gardens is equally easy to locate, but at the same time surprisingly understated; if - when you visit - it feels like you're turning into someone's driveway, that's because you are.
The Raveningham Estate was acquired by the Bacon family around 1735, and it is still their place of residence today. Before the 1950s, the gardens were typically Edwardian style: terracing with an Arts and Crafts influence and a Victorian walled garden providing produce for the house. However it was Lady Priscilla Bacon who inspired the transformation of the garden which was to follow over the next 50 years and into the new the millennium. The current residents of Raveningham Hall - Sir Nicholas and Lady Susan Bacon - are equally instrumental in the vitality of the garden: Sir Nicholas is president of the Royal Horticultural Society,and works on the garden all year round; Lady Bacon’s sculptures can be found around the garden, and in 2000 she designed a Time Garden based on a 17th century essay by Francis Bacon, in which he discusses the passage of time.
What exists now is 10 acres of a garden bursting into life, comprised of all kinds of colours, textures and shapes. It is immaculate but feels wild, and in every sense it feels like a real, home garden. You won't find branded signs and leaflets at every turn; instead you are free to explore the garden at your own pace, guided by your own curiosity (and maybe one of the pick-up maps if your curiosity isn't so reliable). It is simply beautiful: elegant and rugged, and different around every corner.
I visited on a day of particularly weird weather: as I arrived the garden was illuminated by a low winter sun - the kind that somehow manages to warm everywhere except your fingers and the last 2 millimetres of your nose. Bundling out the car wearing what felt like every jumper I own, I was lucky enough to be shown around the garden by Estate Manger Jake Fiennes.
We headed through the Time Garden, into the Walled Kitchen Garden, which has been brought back to working order in the last 20 years. Here, vegetables and fruit are produced for the House, and you can buy these in tearoom depending on what's in season at the time. Beside the garden there is a bright and beautiful conservatory, which is an airy jungle of organised plants and flowers.
We stepped through the Kitchen Garden and followed a gravel path in the direction of a sleepy-looking lake. Snowdrops were sprinkled around our pathway, giving the smallest glimpse of the spectacle to come, before arriving in a grassy clearing enclosed by enormous trees. This used to be the old Victorian pleasureground wood, however In 1987 the great storm destroyed the trees here, and so the tranquil arboretum was born in its place (containing oak trees collected by Sir Nicholas as well as new trees and shrubs). Behind that, there is a pond where the old ice-house stood, before you come to the brilliant - but also baffling - 'stumpery'
So it turns out 'stumpery' is kind of what it sounds like: a place of stumps. Conceived by Sir Nicholas, the stumpery is a theatrical walkway of felled trees, in a crazy prehistoric drama of natural sculpture. Its entrance is heralded by two magnificent upended oaks, and the journey through the walkway almost takes you to the edge of the lake. With the sun shining through the dry heart wood that surrounds you as you take the pathway, the stumpery feels like another world, like a scene from a Grimm brothers' fairytale.
Throughout the garden you will also find many sculptures by the current Lady Bacon, who studied Sculpture and Drawing at City & Guilds and the Royal Academy. They can be found nestled in hedgerows and in the trees, lending the garden a dimension where the use of human hands is visible and unchanging. If you pick up a map, the sculptures are marked on there, so you won't miss even the most hidden pieces.
However what Raveningham Garden is famous for - and really, the reason for my visit - is the blanket of snowdrops that gently cover the entire garden. Throughout February, they are at their finest, and according to Jake are currently bang on for the time of year.
More than 150 different varieties of the flower were planted throughout the garden by Lady Priscilla, loved snowdrops (or Galanthus, as is their latin name) for their variety and because she was introduced to them by a great friend. Now, they can not only be seen covering the gardens at Raveningham, but also as the emblem for the Priscilla Bacon Lodge Hospice, where all proceeds from the garden's charity days are donated. On Sunday 11th of February, Radio Norfolk garden specialist - and friend of the Bacon family - Richard Hobbs will be taking free guided tours, where you can find out all about the garden and the snowdrops. There really are an astounding variety of the flowers - looking at them altogether you will be amazed by the differences between each flower.
I ended my visit at the tearoom, where all kinds of fresh cakes, hot soup, pastries and drinks are served. There is nowhere better to regain the feeling in your fingers after a couple of hours roaming around the garden. The inside is cosy and bright, and there is 'pooch parking' in the courtyard outside if you have come with a furry companion (dogs are welcome at Raveningham but MUST be kept on a lead).
In the courtyard you will also find a stand selling various plants and seeds - the bunches of picked snowdrops are particularly sweet!
The snowdrops are unmissable. I cannot recommend a visit highly enough, and it is the perfect way to spend a sleepy Saturday or crisp Sunday that heading out into the countryside to walk around the park and - just for a few hours - escape in someone's back garden. Garden entry is £5 for adults, concessions £4.50 and children under 16 go free. Most, but not all, of the garden is accessible by wheelchair, as most of the gardens is hard ground.
Their are also plenty of other floral seasons coming up throughout the year, including roses flowering in June,and Agapanthus in July and August. I will certainly be heading back to see the place in bloom again, and find out what's new in the cake selection.
You could spend many hours at Raveningham garden just exploring. It is a really beautiful place, maintained by the hard work of the staff and the generosity of the Bacon family. Pulling away as the snow started to fall again, I felt like I had found another part of Norfolk that makes this place feel even more like home.
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