28 hidden gardens to visit in Bury St Edmunds

Isobel Ashton's garden in Bury St Edmunds

The beautiful sunken area of Isobel Ashton’s garden created by her late husband Ted Ashton. - Credit: Isobel Ashton

One of the county's favourite summer events is back - your chance to take a peek inside some of the gardens tucked away in the historic heart of Bury St Edmunds

Hidden Gardens of Bury is celebrating its 35th year after a break in 2020 due to Covid when gardens could only be viewed online. This year visitors can discover 28 gardens normally hidden behind the walls and buildings of Bury’s historic streets.  

The major fundraising event for St Nicholas Hospice Care has raised over a quarter of a million pounds since its inception, according to community fundraiser Lizzie Cross. 

“Hidden Gardens is probably our longest standing supporters’ event and a mainstay of our calendar. It’s events like this that actually fund the work we do.” This year’s event will also include a virtual tour for those still in the care of the hospice, not well enough to go in person or self-isolating.   

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Hidden Gardens started when hospice committee fundraiser Tricia Mellor decided to open her garden with the view that if members of the public were willing to traipse through her “meagre plot” others might be persuaded to open their gardens too. When Tricia retired, Isobel Ashton (whose garden is featured here) and Pam Whittingdale took over. Today, Elizabeth Barber-Lomax is Isobel’s co-partner. 

Hidden Gardens of Bury is on Sunday July 11. You can purchase a ticket online in advance at hiddengardens.co.uk or on the day from the hospice gazebo on Angel Hill, Bury from 10.30am. The cost is £7 with accompanied children under 16 going free. The gardens will be open from 11am-5pm. 

Hidden treasure in the town centre

Isobel Ashton, a founder member of Hidden Gardens, has created an unforgettable space in the heart of Bury.

Isobel Ashton at work in her garden in the heart of Bury St Edmunds.

Isobel Ashton at work in her garden in the heart of Bury St Edmunds. - Credit: Marion Welham

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How do you provide focus in your garden when one side is dominated by a large 1960s telephone exchange? Remarkably, Isobel has managed it in her garden. Far from being a distraction, the BT building adds drama to the space as a backdrop to the vast walnut tree planted by Isobel when she arrived with husband Ted in 1986. 

“It was a present from my husband’s mother because we got married that year. She gave us a walnut with a little leaf growing out of it and that’s the result,” she laughs. 

The garden is steeped in the history of Victorian Bury, being the site of the women’s and girls’ exercise yards for the workhouse that dominated College Street in the 1840s. The BT building now occupies what would have been the master’s garden. 

A large walnut tree adds a dramatic touch to Isobel Ashton’s hidden garden.

A large walnut tree adds a dramatic touch to Isobel Ashton’s hidden garden. - Credit: Marion Welham

When the Ashtons took it over, the garden was mostly vegetables, fruit trees, and overgrown clinker paths and had been with the same family since 1913. Today it is a restful space with lovely focal points created with vases, benches and a sunken area lined with old granite sets from the streets of Bury, the creation of Ted Ashton who died in 2016.  

“Every stone and brick in this garden is down to the work he did and it has not deteriorated at all,” says Isobel. The  couple were inspired by the display of roses at the National Trust’s Mottisfont Abbey, and Ted made ironwork with little bosses for their own rambling roses to clamour over, among them pink ‘Debutante’ and rich violet ‘Bleu Magenta’. Virtually everything in the garden, apart from the yews, was planted by Isobel and Ted, including a handsome pair of silver birches and a hawthorn with red flowers which, Isobel explains patiently, the pigeons eat. 

The idea, says Isobel, was to bring the eyes down from the surrounding buildings. This she has achieved with great aplomb. Colourful perennials such as astrantia, salvia, peonies and campanula pack the borders, happily thriving in the light soil, enriched by feeding over the past 35 years. Isobel now has 39 clematis, including the lovely Clematis koreana ‘Blue Eclipse’ – purple blue with a cream edge - as well as many classic old shrub roses such as ‘Cardinal de Richelieu’.   

Testimony to the rich soil are an abundance of worms to which Isobel attributes her “lumpy lawn”. Naturally the walnuts are a boon for squirrels which bury them, creating more cavities. They will also feed on tulip bulbs given half a chance but Isobel is one step ahead, starting them off in pond baskets. Spring this year brought a wonderful show of the wild daffodil Narcissus pseudonarcissus in the grass.  

“A friend gave me 10 bulbs two years ago. I planted them and had 10 flowers and this year I had 50. It just amazed me,” says Isobel. 

A loquat, raised from a pip, makes a spectacular show

A loquat, raised from a pip, makes a spectacular show in one corner with the soft yellow blooms of the ‘Canary Bird’ rose. - Credit: Marion Welham

This is a garden of discovery, always something to draw you further in. The loquat Eriobotrya japonica, raised from a pip, makes a spectacular show in one corner with the soft yellow blooms of the ‘Canary Bird’ rose. Last year’s scorching summer almost put paid to the Acer palmatum 'Osakazuki' but little shoots appeared further down “so we’ll wait and see,” says Isobel. Any notions of the garden being sheltered from harsh winds by the surrounding buildings are soon dispelled by Isobel as she points west in the direction of College Lane. 

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“It’s what I call the San Francisco effect where the wind is channelled down these streets. In the 1987 storm we lost the most enormous apple tree and it just about touched the house all the way round. That wind was so strong coming down the lane that it sucked the bricks out of the walls.” Today, all is calm. Despite being in the centre of town, there’s little or no traffic noise.   

“Only when the wind is in the east,” Isobel explains. Instead she can enjoy the bells of St Mary’s and the Cathedral which can be seen across the rooftops.   

A plant paradise from scratch

Pam and Malcom Bowling will open their garden for the first time for the event.

Downsizing from a large home with a Victorian greenhouse, a small meadow and a tennis court sounds like common sense in later years. That’s exactly what Pam and Malcolm decided 12 years ago, but there was another motive. 

Pam and Malcom Bowling’s new house sits in a garden created from scratch on the former tennis court.

Pam and Malcom Bowling’s new house sits in a garden created from scratch on the former tennis court. - Credit: Marion Welham

Pam, a retired psychiatrist and keen gardener, wanted was somewhere to start her planting from scratch. That’s how the Victorian greenhouse became the site of their new home and the tennis court their new garden. 

One challenge was to mask the A1302 just beyond the hedge. Pam tackled this with storeys of planting including Japanese acers, hellebores, alliums, and a row of Sorbus pseudohupehensis 'Pink Pagoda', the rowan with pink berries.  

“I’ve planted those in the lower storey so that the leaves would mean we don’t get the passengers on double-decker buses peering into the garden,” she says good humouredly. Her great love of plants takes precedence over design so that gravel and alpine troughs sit happily alongside shrubs and perennials, with the wild meadow retained beyond.  

“I’m not so mad about the lay-out but I do like the colours to look right,” says Pam. “If I think something would look better elsewhere, it comes up whether or not it’s in bloom. But of course I water it to make sure it survives.” 

Corokia x virgata 'Yellow Wonder', with yellow and brown bearded irises.

A happy combination: Corokia x virgata 'Yellow Wonder', commonly known as the wire-netting bush, with yellow and brown bearded irises. - Credit: Marion Welham

As with any building site, the chalky soil suffered so the Bowlings ferried in tons of rich fen soil to get the plants off to a flying start. Impressively large compost heaps just beyond the meadow do the rest. 

A tour round the garden has Pam enthusing about all the plants she has introduced. Cornus ‘Eddie’s White Wonder’ has bloomed for the first time, the photinia is at its floriferous best and the Judas tree is looking spectacular. Today Pam’s peonies are a talking point, the golden Caucasian variety ‘Molly-the-Witch’ is still in bloom and the red fern leaf Paeonia tenuifolia awaited with anticipation. 

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The Victorian greenhouse might have gone but a handsome replacement sits next to the new house with rows of jazzy pelargoniums ready for display outside. This is where Pam raises plants from seeds and cuttings. 

“I’m going for yellows and oranges this year,” she declares. It’s also the place where she seeds her meadow wildflowers such as red campions to get them going so that they self-seed. Among the great froth of cow parsley in the meadow are other 'must haves' first spotted at Chelsea or Sissinghurst, such as the wild carrot Daucus carota ‘Dara’ and a fascinating acid green triennial Smyrnium perfoliatum. 

Pam Bowling watering her pelargoniums in the greenhouse.

Pam Bowling watering her pelargoniums in the greenhouse. - Credit: Marion Welham

And her favourite? Probably a silly question for such an avid plant lover. “No I haven’t got one,” she says. “But sometimes I get fed up with things and hoick them out because they are a five-minute wonder rather than an all-round performer.” In her sights is a New Zealand flax. “That’s coming out this year because it doesn’t give enough value.”  

It’s clearly time to leave and let Pam get on with her finishing touches before she opens for Hidden Gardens, in this her first year.      

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