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August 2010

The dangers of gardening at Girton

Browsing at an antiques fair today near my home in Suffolk, I came across a copy of Jane Brown's A Garden of Our Own'. Not an antique but pretty rare nevertheless. Published in 1999, this is a slim booklet was brought out as a history of the Girton College Garden. I hadn't seen it since I visited Girton three years ago while doing research for Gardening Women.

What I was looking for was information on Chrystabel Procter who had been the gardener there from 1932 to 1945. Chrystabel was, according to garden historian Jane Brown, 'the most outstanding of the college's gardeners'. I followed her career from the Glynde College of Lady Gardeners to her final job at Bryanston boys' school.

Procter transformed the gardens of Girton between 1933 and 1945, planting 11,000 crocus corms and creating autumnal displays of Michaelmas daisies, chrysanthemums and red hot pokers to ‘shout a welcome to Freshers on the day they arrive.’ Not that she had an easy ride when she arrived in 1932 as I soon found out. Don’t waste your time trying to grow flowers,’ Miss Swindale, Girton’s previous gardener told Chrystabel. ‘All the Fellows had the right to pick flowers for themselves for their rooms whenever they wanted to and almost wherever they wanted to [and] even breaking branches off the flowering and other trees was permissible and commonly done by certain Fellows!’

Miss Swindale explained that this practice had once been permitted only in certain places, but had now gradually spread to almost all parts of the estate except the borders in the front drive.  ‘I couldn’t bear it’, she added, ‘and now the Research Fellows are doing it too.’ With her customary commonsense Miss Procter eventually stopped what she considered vandalism by growing flowers especially for room decoration, but it was a hard-fought battle to get the College staff to agree to this compromise. It was also agreed that ‘scissors must be used, as few leaves as possible should be gathered. The Committee would be very grateful if Fellows would abstain from picking from any tree, shrub or shrubby creeper.’ These rules applied during vacation as well as during term, so there was no time of year when Miss Procter’s horticultural domain was not under attack from lurking flower arrangers.


What's a man doing among Gardening Women?

You may well ask! The reason is that a favourite company of mine, The Chocolate Elephant, have been writing about family connections on their blog, and lo and behold, it turns out that the father of CE's owners, Ian Thomas, rescued the herbal shop, Culpeper's, in the 1970s. It had run into financial difficulties in the 1970s after the death of its founder, Hilda Leyel.

Mrs C E Leyel, as she was always known, started the revivial in popularity of herbs in the 1920s and 1930s, started the Society of Herbalists, and founded Culpeper's shop selling long-forgotten herbs and remedies. Because of all this, she features in Gardening Women.

Citrus Original 1

The original shop, in London's Baker Street, sold wholesome sweet-scented distillations of plants in various forms of medicines, perfumes, lotions, superior soaps and creams, the latter made from such healing flowers as lilies, roses and cowslips. Culpeper’s also offered many of the simple tisanes, such as camomile and lime-blossom tea, so popular abroad but at that time almost unknown in this country.’ A male visitor to her new shop was entranced.

"A certain new establishment which I was tempted into the other day is radiant and alluring with its green facade, its barrels and jars and bottles, and not a little of the atmosphere of the garden about it - not merely the physic garden, but the garden of the flowered walls, and birds and spaniels and lawns. Yet to my eye it is the words on the jars and bottles that are the most attractive feature of this new herbalist. On the herbalist’s labels I found words that, if not actually new to me, had been long forgotten, and just for that reason came back with added charm: such words a Comfrey and Agrimony, Eyebridge and Melilot, Borage and Basil, Silverweed and Marjoram, Betony and Lovage."

Thanks to Ian Thomas, Culpeper's have several shops across the UK and abroad, and Mrs Leyel's dream continues.

Two very different Suffolk Gardening Women

I'm doing the rounds of Suffolk gardens at the moment and recently took advantage of 'Gardener's Friday' openings to visit Lucy Redman's garden at Rushbrooke and The Walled Garden at Langham Hall. Both are not far from Bury St Edmunds. And what a contrast!


Lucy is a self-confessed 'maximalist' plantaholic who runs design courses at her home throughout the year. When I arrived, she emerged from her home apologising for not having heard the bell as she'd just been dyeing her hair pink! No photograph to prove it but indeed she had.  And she claims she's just about to take some mauve paint spray to her dried allium heads as well - and I think I believe her!


The latest addition to this unusual garden is a 'river' of metal dramatically created by Lucy and her husband and newly planted with gravel-loving succulents. Even ever-energetic Lucy admits it was a labour of love in its creating.

Moving on to the Walled Garden at Langham Hall was a very different world. Here Phil Mizen runs Langham Herbs but I was there to met Sue Wooster, holder of the NCCPG's National Collection of Alpine Campanulas. Tucked away at the end of the recently restored walled garden, Sue's Bellflower Nursery is a relatively new venture allowing her to display her collection of alpine campanulas as well as selling a selection of them and other perennials.

August is not the best time to see alpine campanulas but such is Sue's enthusiasm, I'll be back in the Spring to see the display in all its glory. The garden and nursery are so peaceful that it's a place to linger and learn.