Over the past decade Lady Ursula Cholmeley has dedicated herself to restoring Easton Walled Gardens to somewhere approaching its former glory.
The ancestral home to the Cholmeley family for generations fell to rack and ruin in the decades following the end of the Second World War, but now Lady Cholmeley is rolling back the years.
The Journal dropped by to find out how work was progressing before they open again after the winter break.
Q) What is the history of Easton Walled Gardens?
A) Sir Henry Cholmeley bought the manor in 1592 and ever since it has been passed down from father to son. Our children are the 15th generation here. There has been some famous visitors over the years. President Roosevelt was a friend of the Cholmeley family and he spent part of his honeymoon here with Eleanor. She didn’t want to stay for the whole honeymoon because she noticed Franklin took a liking to one of the Cholmeley daughters! But he enjoyed his stay here and described it as a “Nirvana...almost too good to be true”. It served as a hospital during the First World War and the house was requisitioned at the start of the Second World War and used as a base for 2 Para who saw action at Arnham. They had quite a wild time here (eye-witness reports recall soldiers letting off rounds in the house and throwing grenades into the greenhouses) and as a result the house was demolished in 1951. From then on it was neglected and by 2001 it was basically a wilderness.
Q) You began restoring Easton in 2000. How did you decide where to start on such a big project?
A) That was the big issue but we decided to begin on the bridge. We have pictures where you can see yew trees growing out of the bridge so it had to be taken out and put back together again.
Q) But even 12 years later you are still working on it...
A) Certainly. It does look like a garden again but certainly there is still work going on. There is still a lot of work to do on the walls.
Q) Is the aim to restore Easton to what it once was?
A) Not particularly as there were eight full-time gardeners here then. We really enjoy seeing wildlife here in the garden so rather than mow everything we have a lot of meadows which would not have been here before.
Q) The gardens are currently closed for the winter. Does this allow you to do more restoration work?
A) We do the heavy stuff in the winter then keep on top of the garden in the summer. We’ve got snow here at the moment which is really beautiful and helps hide some of the sins!
Q) What has been the biggest challenge?
A) I think just starting the project. I spoke to some well-respected people before I began who said “just don’t touch it”, so the first couple of years were the hardest. It took a long time to get planning permission to have visitors here.
Q) It must occupy you all-year-round...
A) Yes it does. There is a lot of office work which is inevitable when you are running a tourist attraction but as soon as I get out and get into the garden I remember “this is why I do it”.
Q) Have you been able to secure any grants for the work?
A) No, which is why it has been such a long-term project. But slowly and surely it is evolving back into the national garden that it once was.
Q) Do you get a positive reaction from visitors?
A) Yes, definitely and when our visitors come back in February it’s such a boost. You are so close up you don’t always see the improvements being made here, so it’s nice when people come back year after year and say it’s lovely.