Finally, after a long and lonely summer, a sense of semi-normality has returned! Our volunteers have been back for a few weeks now, albeit in small groups of 5, as per the government guidelines, but it has been easy enough to keep our distance here. For the first few sessions, it was more a case of staying out of the sun as it has been hard work in the soaring temperatures, but we’ve managed to work at the back of the serpentine wall in the shady woodland, tidying in the orchard and continuing with the never-ending task of weeding the box hedging. As I have previously said, the box hedging hasn’t been cut this year to help it in its fight against the box caterpillar and, at the moment, it’s not faring too badly. We are trying to feed it and keep it as strong as possible and hopefully, once the temperatures drop and the caterpillar retreats for the winter, we can re-assess the situation. After hearing many horror stories of others’ experiences, I feel blessed that our hedging is still intact.

The fruit trees in our beautiful orchard have been prolific this year, especially the mulberries, so much so that I have made many jars of mulberry jam. Our mulberry tree is quite extraordinary and we believe it to be in the region of 350 years old. If you’ve never tasted a mulberry and get the opportunity, then do it! The flavour has an intense sweetness after an initial sour hit. Picking them is tricky and within minutes, the juice is everywhere……..apparently the Duchess used to pick them wearing black bin bags to protect her clothes! We were due to have the age of the tree potentially pinned down with DNA testing but this was delayed, along with the testing of our pear trees..another casualty of lockdown. Having looked at the mulberry tree recently with a tree surgeon, it seems like the original trunk of the tree split and, over the years, it has layered into an extensive network of upright trees connected with horizontal sections. A local man who used to pick mulberries here years ago claims that it was well known that the Raleigh family had planted it. We believe that Carew Raleigh was responsible for building the brick facade on the house in the early 1640s so he may well have planted the mulberry as it would have been an exciting addition to the garden at that time. 10,000 black mulberry trees were first brought over by King James 1 in the 1600s to start an English silk weaving industry, but unfortunately he failed to realise that silk worms only feed on the leaves of the white mulberry!!

The Mulberry treeMeanwhile in the orchard, the damsons are perfectly ripe at the moment and the trees are laden. A Gin company based in the village, Mews, have been picking the damsons and will be making West Horsley Place Damson and Sloe gins, but they have competitors within the garden team! We are making our own home-made variety, with additional secret ingredients! It’s extremely easy to make (just add pierced damsons and sugar to a half empty bottle of gin) and it should be ready just in time for Christmas.

On Friday 22 August, we welcomed a large number of guests to enjoy a few hours with their picnics within the magical confines of the walled garden. This was another opportunity to raise some much-needed funds.

A fundraising picnic in the gardensEven though it was a blustery evening, it didn’t deter anyone from coming. The gardens to date have been rarely open except for the few weeks during the opera season, so it was a great opportunity for people to visit. Funnily enough, many who came were seasoned opera-goers who had missed their fix of the gardens this year. It is wonderful for all of us who work in the gardens and all the volunteers to be encouraged by visitors who can see an improvement and it really makes it all worthwhile for us.

We also opened the gardens to approx 30 visitors on Wednesday 2 September for a garden tour, the event having been previously postponed from two weeks before due to terrible weather conditions. We were so lucky with the weather the second time around with the sun shining and glorious blue skies! A number of garden volunteers came in to help with tours around the garden which, with their smiley faces and obvious pride in the gardens, was wonderful and it worked brilliantly. We met some fascinating people, and received such positive comments that we all felt so elated and proud. Hopefully, this will become a regular fund-raising activity.

Mary Roxburghe Rose GardenAs for the Mary Roxburghe Rose Garden, we are hoping to take delivery of our long awaited Olivia Austin roses for the two opposing sections of the Rose Garden at the beginning of November, once the bare root season begins. These were unfortunately delayed just before lockdown. These have been very kindly funded through the ‘Sponsor A Rose’ appeal. New roses should not be planted in soil where other roses have grown, so we have the arduous task of rotating and replacing a huge amount of soil to ensure we give the roses the best start. The low York stone retaining walls were re-built during lockdown and the beds re-aligned so we are almost there!! And…one of our garden volunteers has very kindly and generously pledged to fund the lavender hedging which will be planted around the whole rose garden! 

In other news, Matt, who is responsible for so much in the gardens, including the very creative mowing, has now taken on more responsibility on the wider West Horsley Place Estate which extends to approximately 380 acres.  He will be a regular, visible presence, maintaining the public footpaths and developing new areas, so do wave and give him some feedback! 

The estate gatorMeanwhile, I have some very exciting news for me in the garden….. I am thrilled to announce that the National Garden Scheme are sponsoring a WRAGS trainee to work in the garden with me for a year. WRAGS stands for Work and Retrain As a Gardener Scheme and provides paid, part-time, practical horticultural training for people who have changed careers, and who are trying to re-train to move into a career in horticulture. The trainee works for 14 hours a week for the whole year, in a carefully sourced garden, under the instruction of the Head Gardener. Whilst doing this, the trainee is often studying for an RHS horticultural qualification. WRAGS is a scheme run by the WFGA, a charity set up in 1899. Alison Hepworth, who is the Head of WRAGS for London, Surrey and Kent supported a successful application to the NGS on our behalf, after being inspired by what she saw here.  It is a relief to have an extra pair of hands in the garden!  Lizzie Bourke, our very own WRAGS trainee, has joined our garden team this week!

And finally, with that ‘back to school feeling’ in the morning air and Autumn upon us, our new Director, Ben Pearce, has arrived to lead us into the next chapter of the very exciting story of West Horsley Place.

Nicky Webber

September 2020