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Explore the enchanting Fairhaven Garden

PUBLISHED: 17:13 08 May 2018 | UPDATED: 17:16 08 May 2018

Candelabra primulas (P. japonica and P. pulverulenta) flank the raised boardwalk leading to the West Garden. In the distance is a honeysuckle azalea (Rhododendron luteum), named for its honeysuckle-like scent (photo: Annie Green-Armytage)

Candelabra primulas (P. japonica and P. pulverulenta) flank the raised boardwalk leading to the West Garden. In the distance is a honeysuckle azalea (Rhododendron luteum), named for its honeysuckle-like scent (photo: Annie Green-Armytage)

© Annie Green-Armytage 2017

Step into a world of ancient woodland, primeval plants and peaceful waterways and discover the enchanted world of Fairhaven Garden. Annie Green-Armytage falls under its spell

In the east of our great county, framed by vast, never-ending skies, are the flatlands of water, reed and grazing marsh we know as the Norfolk Broads. Originally thought to be natural bodies of water, they are actually man-made; flooded peat workings dug out in medieval times as a source of fuel.

Lying on the edge of one of these, in the little village of South Walsham, is Fairhaven Woodland and Water Garden. Connected to South Walsham Broad via a series of narrow dykes which form its backbone, the garden is host to ancient woodlands of oak, alder and ash, which are underplanted with giant, prehistoric-looking Gunnera manicata, butterburr (Petasites alba), and Fairhaven’s signature plant, thousands of pink and purple candelabra primulas.

Primula pulverulenta (candelabra primula) Primula pulverulenta (candelabra primula)

The gardens were founded by the second Lord Fairhaven, Henry Broughton, back in 1947, and he introduced the water loving primulas, along with camellias, rhododendrons and American skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanum), imported from more exotic climes. Jump forward a few decades and the stewardship of the garden was taken on by The Fairhaven Garden Trust and head gardener George Debbage, who brought the garden into the public domain for the first time.

He evolved a characteristically pragmatic way of encouraging primula proliferation, by strimming the plants back when the seed was ripe, scattering it effectively and efficiently alongside the pathways. Current manager Louise Rout was a child in the village at this time, growing up with the garden as her backdrop to daily life.

Pale form of Primula japonica (candelabra primula) Pale form of Primula japonica (candelabra primula)

“We used to come fairy-hunting here after school,” she remembers, “and my mum worked here one Easter, when I was nine, so I helped Beryl [George’s wife] to clear the tables in the tea-room, and do the washing-up.”

Louise found herself drawn to the garden more and more, and started to assist George full-time, one year into her ‘A’ levels, when she realised that a desk job was not for her.

Rhododendron luteum (honeysuckle azalea) Rhododendron luteum (honeysuckle azalea)

“I was like a caged animal, I just wanted to be here,” she says laughing. “I love plants, I love wildlife, I love trees, I love photography, so it’s all in one spot for me. And it’s an ever-changing package - every day you can walk in the garden and see something different.”

Over the years the garden has evolved as all good gardens do. Some changes have been premeditated, continuing and extending projects which Louise and George planned before he retired in 2007. These include introducing more varied planting for a longer season of interest, increasing accessibility to the garden, and encouraging a greater diversity of wildlife.

Manager and lifelong Fairhaven devotee Louise Rout standing in front of the Great Oak Manager and lifelong Fairhaven devotee Louise Rout standing in front of the Great Oak

Some changes, however, are responses to naturally occurring events, in particular, the rising water levels caused by climate change. “Flooding is becoming more of a concern in the Broads in general,” explains Louise. “In July 2008 the main bridge path was up to our knees in water from a high tide. We didn’t get salt water but all the fresh water was pushed up the river system. And when we get these very high tides we’re under water for a long time which means that the nitrogen leaches out of the soil, so then some of the plants, including the primulas, start to suffer.”

In this organically managed environment, they have combated this by feeding more intensively with leaf soil and replanting in a wider variety of environments, as well as raising the main boardwalk by nearly a foot. There is also an ongoing tree reintroduction programme, which is currently focusing on the beech population, with its shallow root systems and preference for decent drainage. “We are planting young trees in different areas of the garden, trying to find their new Goldilocks zone,” smiles Louise.

An old boat is moored on the river close to the Great Oak (Quercus robur), seen in the background. An old boat is moored on the river close to the Great Oak (Quercus robur), seen in the background.

Some trees, though, seem impervious to the vagaries of climate change. The King and Queen Oaks, at 950 and 800 years old, are not going anywhere, and give the garden a sense of permanence, an ancient, peaceful place rooted in its surroundings. For Louise, that atmosphere is key to its attraction.

“I can arrive here stressed and tense, and a few minutes in the gardens and it’s all lifted,” she says. This feeds her determination to pass on her passion for Fairhaven to someone like-minded. “I need somebody to start to think about the gardens as I have, to grow up in this place,” she says.

Young Himalayan birches (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii) in the Dell garden. Young Himalayan birches (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii) in the Dell garden.

“When your job is to look after these venerable trees, I think it does put our lifespan into perspective. It teaches you that this job is a stewardship, not for us, or even for the next generation, but for the next two down the line.”

Fairhaven Woodland and Water Garden is located on School Road South Walsham, NR13 6DZ. Open all year round except Christmas Day, 10am to 5pm March to September, 10am to 4pm October to February. For more details visitfairhavengarden.co.uk or call 01603 270449.

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