Xa Tollemache's new book tells the story of Helmingham's gardens

 Xa Tollemache at Helmingham Hall, Suffolk

Xa Tollemache's experience at Helmingham Hall took her from knowing nothing about gardening to becoming an award-winning garden designer. - Credit: Permission Xa Tollemache

Marriage and moving to Helmingham as a young woman made Xa Tollemache a gardener and then an award-winning designer. Now she tells the story of how she transformed Helmingham's gardens, as well as many others, in a beautiful first book

Xa Tollemache has always been in demand for her story about transforming the gardens of Helmingham Hall. But after any talk, lecture or tour, the audience has one question: Where’s the book?

“I’m not a writer, you see. And I was too busy,” she says, “I didn’t have the time. But I kept being asked and when I handed over the garden to my daughter-in-law, Sophie, that was the turning point.” With the pandemic clearing her diary and a dedicated editor on hand via Zoom, Xa settled down in her new home to record all that she has achieved in the past 50 years. “I thought I ought to write something for the archives, for history, but I wasn’t confident. I write as I talk - nonsense!”

The resulting book is far from nonsense. A Garden Well Placed is an incredibly warm and personal account of how Lady Alexandra Tollemache (Xa, as she prefers to be known) created the 10 acres of Grade I listed gardens at Helmingham, after she married into the family in 1970. 

It features a calendar of the jobs which take place throughout the year, maps of the knot gardens, details of the planting, as well as a few family recipes for the produce harvested from the Walled Garden. We’re introduced to the former head gardener, and the new Tollemache home at Framsden Hall. There is also a record of Xa’s career as a garden designer. It really is a beautiful and comprehensive guide to all things Helmingham which Xa describes as “a love story”.

Xa Tollemache's book

Xa Tollemache's book is the story of how she started her life as a gardener at Helmingham Hall. - Credit: Xa Tollemache

“It’s not a gardening-for-beginners book,” she says, “but it’s a story of how I started, knowing absolutely zilch. I hope people will enjoy reading about my progression, and it will encourage them to have a go. “At first I was not interested in the slightest,” she says of those early days, when she realised as a young wife and mother it was up to her to manage the gardens . “I loved my horses and my children but I felt a sense of responsibility to look after the gardens. It was up to me - I’d better start learning. Then, when I put a plant in and it grew I was chuffed, and my confidence started to build from then on.”

Helmingham Hall's beautiful borders created by Xa Tollemache.

Helmingham Hall's beautiful borders created by Xa Tollemache. - Credit: Allan Pollok-Morris

It was as her children got older that Xa’s obsession took hold. With her head gardener, Roy Balaam, the ever-present guide, ane Lady Salisbury, her early mentor, she started to be more adventurous in her plans for the estate. Complementing the grandeur and formality of the moats, the drawbridge (which gets taken up every evening), the topiary, formal hedges, parterres and surrounding deer park, there are also tunnels of sweet peas, vegetables among the roses, old orchards, long grass and wild flower meadows. 

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“I was very sure that I wanted to plant for the garden’s sake and not fail to please the visitors. It had to be personal and a little freer than some other gardens.” Though visitors could have been seen as an intrusion, Xa says she loved sharing the garden with them and would often wander amongst them, watering or planting.

“I don’t think it’s right if you have a garden of that stature, not to share it,” she says. “That was part of the incentive to keep it looking good. People would talk to me and say how wonderful it is, and that’s good to hear. When you’re a gardener, you’re always thinking I must weed that, or prune that, or there’s a gap there. You’ve always got to improve your garden. 

Helmingham Hall gardens Helmingham Suffolk

Sharing the garden with visitors to Helmingham has been a source of great pleasure for Xa Tollemache. - Credit: Marcus Harpur

“I remember somebody asked me 'are you a paid employee or are you a volunteer?' I told them I was a volunteer and they said, ‘That’s nice. It must be so lovely working here. Are you allowed to do things on your own initiative or are you very much under the head gardener?’ I replied, ‘Well, I’ve worked here quite a long time, so I sort of know my way’.” In fact, Xa has exhibited at RHS Chelsea Flower Show three times, winning one gold and two silver gilt medals. “I’ve done three Chelsea gardens and I’ve had three children, and I think that’s fine,” she says.

Framsden Hall, on the Helmingham estate.

Framsden Hall, the house where Xa Tollemache and Lord Tollemache now live on the Helmingham estate. - Credit: Anthony Cullen

It was when her children were all away at school that Xa realised she needed to get a job, to contribute to the finances of running Helmingham. So she started designing. “I had gardened here for 20 years, by trial and error, trying out new things, making huge mistakes, planting and adding to the garden. I was looking for another challenge and I thought I would learn from other people’s gardens too. That’s how it started.”

READ: Gorgeous gardens to visit in Suffolk

Eleven of her designs are featured in the book. “I wanted to show a variety, so there are a couple of stately homes, a village garden, a townhouse, a seaside house. Some are spectacular and open to the public, others aren’t.” And though she travels widely for her work, a number of Suffolk gardens are included, not far from her beloved Helmingham.  

In 2017 it was time to hand the hall over to the next generation. So son Ed, his wife Sophie and their three young children moved in, while Xa and her husband Tim, Lord Tollemache, returned to their first home, just up the road and still on the Helmingham Estate. It was, inevitably, a wrench to leave, but Xa has relished the opportunity of a fresh challenge at another house and garden which, while not so grand, is a not insignificant property. She is still overseeing the team at Helmingham until Sophie is confident about taking control, but her visits to the hall are getting fewer.

Framsden Hall Suffolk

Framsden Hall offers Xa Tollemache a new challenge. - Credit: Anthony Cullen

“Now it’s a question of me ringing up and saying to the gardener, ‘I’ve got a free afternoon, Brendon, I’ll come and help deadheading or whatever.' It takes me about 10 minutes to bike over there,” she says. “It was the right time to move, and they’ve really taken the mantle.” Things are very different now of course. A team of gardeners works to computerised task lists and spreadsheets of planting details. “I used to write notes on scraps of paper,” says Xa, recalling her early years. “They're still being discovered in drawers and cupboards around the house. And my meetings with my head gardener meant chatting as we dug the borders together.”

She has ideas for her garden at Framsden, and is trying to make it easy to manage - "there is no such thing as a low maintenance garden!” - and she’s started a garden club in the village. “We’ve decided we’re not taking minutes and we’re not making people pay. It’s very low key, but it’s quite a big village and it’s a nice thing to do. We’ll see what happens.”

Xa embarked on the book two years ago and writing it has been part of the process of moving on. “I thought I have to do it while I’m still in charge of the garden,” she says. “Even now it would be too late - mentally, emotionally too late. I’ve handed it on. So that’s that chapter in my life shut and the book is the proof.”

A Garden Well Placed is published by Pimpernel Press