As you drive down the hill from the village of Daresbury it’s not difficult to imagine a time when the rolling landscape before you led directly to the level shores of the River Mersey. All of this despite the dominating cooling towers of the Fiddlers Ferry Power Station.
This was in the days of the Brooke family, the owners of Norton Priory, who were responsible for building the two and a half acre walled garden between 1757 and 1770.
When at last the family moved due to the increased pollution in the new industrial area of Runcorn, the garden became neglected. Restoration work began in 1980, the garden was eventually reopened seven years later.
The original plans of the walled garden were lost in a fire at the Brookes’ house. However the remaining walls show the garden to be quite unusual in the fact that it is trapezoid in shape and that the north facing wall is the longest.
Despite the loss of the original plans historic research has revealed that in 1797 a number of varieties of peaches, nectarines, cherries and apples were bought from Caldwell’s Nursery in Knutsford. In 1814 additional similar plants were bough from T & J Whalley of Liverpool.
By the time we get to 1860 the heated glass range was producing more exotic fruit such as pineapples and oranges. However, when it came to the restoration it was decided to recreated the garden in a series of ‘themed’ areas to reflect the Georgian era. Some of the main features of the gardens now include a Rose Walk, Herb Garden, Pergola and various coloured borders.
The design of the rose walk was inspired by a series of old photographs showing a long border of roses which led to the peach house. So in the restoration it was decided to use old rose varieties some of which date back to the time of the Brooke family.
Plants were selected not only for their grace, colour, form and scent but which would also flower over a long period.
The Herb Garden is an area containing examples of plants used both medicinally and culinary.
The Pergola now marks the spot once dominated by wonderful Glasshouses. Now, however, the old remains are set about with colourful climbers and deep vibrant borders.
The colour border was inspired by the famous plantswoman Gertrude Jekyll and so contains swathes of colourful plants arranged in colour patterns reflecting Jekyll’s tastes as a watercolour artist in her own right.
An ‘L’ shaped deep border within the garden contains an interesting mixture of shrubs, grasses, bulbs and herbaceous perennials. The bed is designed to display, colour, form and texture throughout the year. This border is also a haven for both shade and sun loving plants.
One of my favourite parts of the garden is the croquet lawn. It’s not often you find a croquet lawn in a walled garden, maybe it was some ‘tongue in cheek’ connection to Alice in Wonderland, especially when you realise it has a ‘crown’ on it similar to a crown bowling green.
Imagine trying to play croquet on that!Finally there are two other points worth noting about the unusual garden. Firstly it has added and Eco building to the garden, basically a house made of straw bales which when rendered looks just like a normal house - is this the future answer to the house building programme?
Secondly Norton Priory has a national collection of quinces (Cydonia oblonga) Black Sea. Quince originated in the area around the Black Sea. The name Cydonia is derived from the city of Cydon now Khania in Crete. Quince was first mentioned in Britain when Edward I planted four trees at the Tower of London in 1275.
The fruit was dedicated to Aphrodite and to Venus, the Greek and Roman goddesses of love, beauty, laughter and marriage, so the fruits were eaten at nuptial ceremonies.
The ‘golden apples’ of sacred myths were probably quince fruit. So far in the national collection there are about twenty varieties, each with their own distinctive smell. Just whilst I mention plant collections, I hear that very recently Norton Priory has been given a collection of Cheshire gooseberries as part of a heritage lottery grant to keep alive not only old varieties but also old traditions of growing.
Norton Priory might not look like it did when the Brooke family had it in the 1700s but it’s just as interesting today, perhaps even more so, go and visit, see it for yourself.