Victoria Engleheart has lovingly tended her gorgeous gardens at The Priory, Stoke by Nayland, for more than 40 years, and opens them just once a year for the National Garden Scheme charities. You won’t want to miss seeing them.

The glorious gardens at The Priory, Stoke-by-Nayland, look out across Constable country.

If visitors can tear their gaze away from the interlinked lakes, vast flower-filled borders, and walled garden with historic greenhouse where oranges and lemons grow among orchids, they can look across lawns and dappled woodland to the church featured in John Constable’s final work of art.

For such a magnificent garden, it is surprisingly secret too, tucked into Constable's familiar landscape of tree-shaded, river-fringed meadows.

There never was a priory, explained Victoria Engleheart, who looked after the garden for more than 40 years,

Great British Life: Victoria Engleheart in the gardens at The Priory, Stoke-by-Nayland, which she tended for more than 40 years.Victoria Engleheart in the gardens at The Priory, Stoke-by-Nayland, which she tended for more than 40 years. (Image: Rowan Mantell)

Instead there was a Norman knight, generations of farmers and landowners and a grand house surrounded by an ever-growing garden.

Victoria Engleheart arrived at The Priory in 1979. The rambling house and fine gardens had been in her husband’s family for several generations and soon the gardening became her domain.

‘My mother was a gardener, and her mother before her, so it’s in the blood!’ she said.

‘I love looking at it, but what I really like is doing it.’

Today the gardens flow around the house with woodland, meadows, lawns sloping down to water garden set around the series of small spring-fed lakes, stately specimen trees, bright rhododendrons and azaleas, a walled garden, a rose garden, huge topiary hedges, joyous summer borders, new raised vegetable beds and a historic greenhouse, heady with exotic plants and fragrances.

Great British Life: The gardens at The Priory, Stoke-by-Nayland. The gardens at The Priory, Stoke-by-Nayland. (Image: John Engleheart)

Victoria gardens with a particular focus on fragrance. ‘I thought everybody did!’ she said. During her four decades in charge as she folded tracts of the estate’s farm fields and woodland into the garden, adding to the remarkable views stretching beyond the gardens to gently rolling farmland and the medieval churches of Polstead and Stoke-by-Nayland. Carefully framed by parkland, woodland and garden trees, they have been treasured by generations of Priory gardeners.

‘They are two of my best garden ornaments!’ laughed Victoria.

Artist John Constable particularly loved 15th century St Mary’s, Stoke by Nayland. It appears in several of his paintings and a preliminary sketch of the church for a new work of art was on his easel when he died in 1837.

The family has been opening The Priory gardens to raise money for the National Garden Scheme charities for more than 60 years, with the annual open day overseen by Victoria for more than 40 years. This year the date is May 19 and Victoria said the rhododendrons, azaleas should still be looking stunning and the borders would be ramping up their summer show.

Great British Life: The gardens at The Priory, Stoke-by-Nayland. The gardens at The Priory, Stoke-by-Nayland. (Image: John Engleheart)

She recently handed over responsibility for the main garden to her son and daughter-in-law, and a gardener, but retains her love of the glories she has helped create – alongside a gardener’s joy at the chance to design a new garden around the nearby farmhouse she has moved to (and where she and her late husband began their married life.)

Before marriage and children, Victoria was a furniture restorer, working for clients including the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Trust. As she raised her children she developed the garden.

Before the Second World War there were eight gardeners here. For several years Victoria was helped by a scheme called Women Returners to Amenity Gardening, for which she trained gardeners looking for a career change, employing them part-time at Stoke-by-Nayland and giving them experience of everything from potting and pruning to planning and planting. She has employed trained gardeners too, over the years, and workers from the family farm do the mowing and hedge-cutting, leaving Victoria free to propagate and plant, tend and nurture, design new areas and make the most of existing glories.

Her approach is led by plants she loves. In the nine acres surrounding The Priory there is always a place for a new enthusiasm, sometimes whole new sections of garden, sometimes single flowers. She is currently delighted by an anemone pavonina she has spent five years trying to establish and is now romping along a sunny path. ‘It’s too pretty for words!’ she said.

Great British Life: The gardens at The Priory, Stoke-by-Nayland. The gardens at The Priory, Stoke-by-Nayland. (Image: John Engleheart)

Several years ago she became fascinated by snowdrops and some of the woodland now sparkles with around 40 species as winter turns to spring. A glade created in celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee is bright with a mass of species tulips and on the grass leading up from the lakes there are trees planted for her eight grandchildren.

She loves all the garden, but the historic greenhouse is her absolute favourite place, packed with tender and exotic plants exuding heady scents and glossy bright flowers and fruit. She has nurtured many from seed and serried ranks of small pots show shy spikes of new growth. Nearby are veteran plants which were established and thriving when she arrived.

Visitors on the National Garden Scheme day are often astonished to find The Priory gardens, folded like a delicious secret into countryside they thought they knew.

And after decades of nurturing the garden, Victoria’s passion for this place, and her fascination for the process and products of horticulture, is undimmed. Caring for a historic garden is a combination of honouring and celebrating tradition, seeking out beauty and being inspired by continuous renewal. After a lifetime of gardening Victoria is handing one garden on to the next generation – and continuing to create her first completely new garden.

Great British Life: The gardens at The Priory, Stoke-by-Nayland. The gardens at The Priory, Stoke-by-Nayland. (Image: John Engleheart)

The gardens of The Priory, Stoke-by-Nayland, will be open in aid of the National Garden Scheme charities on Sunday May 19, 2-5pm, adults £5, children free, home-made teas.

3 more gardens opening for the National Garden Scheme charities in Suffolk this month:

Fullers Mill Garden, West Stow, near Bury St Edmunds, on Sunday May 5. The enchanting seven-acre garden on the banks of the River Lark was created over 50 years.

Wyken Hall Gardens, Bury St Edmunds, on Saturday May 25. The four acres of gardens around an old manor house include knot, herb, rose and kitchen gardens plus a pond, maze, orchard and herbaceous borders, with a woodland walk and vineyard nearby.

Acer House Gardens, Leiston, on Sunday May 26. A third-of-an-acre garden with acers, topiary and pond water feature with fish.

For more information on all the gardens opening for the National Garden Scheme in 2024, pick up the latest brochure from garden centres, tourist information centres and libraries or visit

3 more Suffolk gardens to enjoy this May

Ickworth House gardens. The earliest Italianate gardens in the country are open daily 10am-4.30pm.

Somerleyton Gardens, near Lowestoft. Restored and reimagined as a series of ‘rooms’ the gardens include a grand parterre, walled garden, rose garden, sunken white garden, arboretum and one of the finest yew mazes in Britain. Open Tuesdays, Thursdays, Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays.

Helmingham Hall Gardens including parterre, borders, rose knot garden, and orchard, surrounding the moated hall. Sundays to Thursdays from May 1.