Taking a peek inside Hexham's hidden gardens

4 July 2017 10:43AM

FROM sweet, shady arbours to flowers more at home in the Himalayas to the type of architectural flourish that made an American landscape designer famous, passers-by just don’t know they are there.

But that, of course, is the draw of Hexham Hidden Gardens 2017 – the chance to take a look behind closed doors.

Designed to raise funds for Hexham Community Partnership, and specifically its work with disadvantaged families in the town, the second such event takes place this year on Sunday, July 16.

Between the hours of 1.30pm and 6pm, the owners of 10 gardens will be welcoming visitors for a browse, a cup of tea and, in some instances, a slice of cake too.

One of the jewels awaiting discovery is the treasure of a garden tucked away behind the 18th century Georgian townhouse at 23 Hencotes. Owned by Karen and Tim Tatman, its stone walls embrace a sprinkling of bijou suntraps that take them through the day.

“We get the morning sun where the umbrella is,” said Karen. “And we can sit up here, in the arbour, during the day and then down there (she points to a patio nestled against the house), we get the evening sun. My mother used to call it the drinks corner.

“Even though we are in the middle of a town, we don’t feel like we are.”

She’s no plants woman, she says – she simply buys what she likes the look of, and mostly of the bee-friendly variety. “We inherited most of the design of this garden from the Hoppers, when we bought the house from them, but we do work hard to maintain it, I suppose.

“I just like the greenness and lushness of it all.”

The vibrant blue of flowering caryopteris is counterbalanced by the acid yellow of the Lady’s Mantle, all bedded down with broken slate rather than wood chip. “I saw that idea in a magazine,” said Karen.

She has examples of the New Zealand daisy and a very healthy hibiscus, the national plant of Malaysia and reminiscent of the time she and Tim spent there.

Oh, and there’s also a gargoyle the Tatmans’ children named Gronya when they were young.

By way of contrast, John and Sheila Richards’ pride and joy, at High Trees on South Park, is a woodland garden the couple have nurtured from scratch.

“This house was built on what was originally the tennis court for the big house next door,” said John. “When we moved here 27 years ago, it was all just grass.”

A blank canvas then, something that suited them, literally, down to the ground.

John, a professor of botany at Newcastle University before he retired, worries that this is entirely the wrong season to be visiting their garden – but far from it!

This is a garden that inspires – with its texture, variety and points of interest at every turn.

After all, it is home to around 100 small trees and 1,000 different plant species, thanks in no small part to the Richards’ collections of primulas, poppies and snowdrops.

“The whole garden goes white with snowdrops in February – they really do look like snow,” he said. “Then the bulbs, primulas and rhododendrons come in.

“But the garden is at its most colourful in the autumn, with lots of autumn bulbs as well as the rowan berries out.”

They have 14 different species of rowan tree alone, which between them produce a riot of colour that runs from the more usual orange and bright red berries through to white, cream, yellow, pink and dark red.

Then there are the 300 or so pots of Alpine seedlings this past president of the Alpine Garden Society is currently preparing to stir into the mix, and the Himalayan blue poppies that so few people have ever managed to cultivate in these climes, and the Magnolia Wilsonii, named in honour of the great collector of Asian plants, Henry ‘Chinese’ Wilson, and ....

Sheila, he says, does all the hard work, planting the beds up with flowers and pruning everything that’s over a metre tall and isn’t a tree. There is a keen dividing line between their jobs in the garden. “All the herbacious stuff is mine,” said Sheila.

Further up the hill from the Richards, on Fellside, is a third participant in Hexham Hidden Gardens that demonstrates just what a golden opportunity this open day offers.

For how often do you get the chance to look round a private domain of such distinction?

A large country garden on the edge of Hexham, Delegate Cottage comes complete with pristine rolling lawns, a kitchen garden, a bog garden and an adjacent field full of sheep. Idyllic is the only word to describe it.

Owner Lynn Curtis and her family have lived there for three years now since moving up from London. “It’s the peace and quiet we appreciate after living in central London,” she said. “I did want to have a garden and a view!

“I was lucky with the garden because I inherited such a lot of stuff in it – the previous people lived here for 50 years, so it was already mature when we bought the house.”

A book publisher by profession, she has also had training in garden design, something she didn’t really get to indulge in her 20ft square London garden. “It’s been great letting rip here,” she smiled.

The side garden boasts an ornamental mound that was inspired by the creations of American landscape architect Charles Jencks.

Lynn said: “People keep saying, ‘oh, Northumberlandia’, which makes me want to scream!” So make sure you utter ‘oh, a Charles Jencks’ or you won’t get your cup of tea.

Tickets (and the accompanying map) for Hexham Hidden Gardens are available in advance from Cogito Books, on St Mary’s Chare, and the Hexham Abbey shop.

On the day, they can be purchased from the ‘starting point’ gardens at 14 Shaftoe Crescent, Queen Elizabeth High School’s walled garden and Delegate Cottage, which is the second-last house at the far end of Fellside.

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