A gardener’s retreat

PUBLISHED: 11:00 03 June 2013 | UPDATED: 11:00 03 June 2013

A relaxing place to sit under the wisteria walkway

A relaxing place to sit under the wisteria walkway


Chris Cork, head gardener at Beeleigh Abbey near Maldon, has been on something of a spiritual crusade in the stunning surroundings of this former monastery.

‘When I first came to work here in 2006,’ explains Chris, ‘there was only one large ornamental border, a few fruit trees and roses, together with some existing trees and shrubs.’

Covering three acres, the gardens at Beeleigh Abbey, which itself dates back to 1180, have been open and enjoyed by visitors over several decades, but sadly went into decline during the 1990s.

Chris explains: ‘Before I came here it had taken a few years for the previous head gardener, John Angel, to reclaim the neglected paths and weed the borders.’

Since then, Chris has worked closely with the owners of Beeleigh Abbey, Christopher and Catherine Foyle, in developing new features in the gardens and enhancing the planting in existing areas. Today, the gardens are an inspirational and enchanting collection of different garden areas and water features that are anchored by the stunning backdrop of the abbey.

The gardens are surrounded by mature trees and tidal stretches of the River Chelmer, which border the gardens to give wonderful views in the woodland area. A long Tudor wall near the house has masses of climbing white iceberg roses, while long traditional borders by the main lawn have large clumps of perennials and ornamental grasses mixed with trees, shrubs, annuals and bulbs to create interest throughout the year. Chris has added height in the border by using taller plants such as acanthus and the ornamental cardoon, Cynara cardunculus.

In the autumn of 2010, ground preparation work began in the Wildflower Meadow and a wildflower grass mix was sown in April 2011. The meadow now has at least 10 different cornfield species including field poppy, cornflower, corn marigold, ox-eye daisy, corn cockle and red and white campion.

‘We mow the meadow each year in September,’ Chris explains, ‘and rake off all the cuttings otherwise they will compost down and make the soil too rich to grow wildflowers, which prefer poor soil.’

Adjacent to the meadow through a pear archway is the Kitchen Garden where espalier and fan-trained apples, pears, cherries and plums adorn another Tudor wall. Vegetables are grown for the house and refreshments are served on garden open days – there’s also a cutting garden for fresh flowers which includes 15 varieties of sweet pea. A separate soft fruit growing area has gooseberries, currants, raspberries, rhubarb and six varieties of strawberries, while a line of fan-trained apple trees leads to an orchard with apple, pear, cherry, plum and medlar trees.

June sees the Rose Garden at its most fragrant and flowering peak. Approached by an 18m wisteria walkway, the Rose Garden has more than 600 old English and modern shrub roses laid in a gloriously long 43m border and smaller island beds. Chris has used an interesting method for displaying rambling roses and climbing roses by making rope and post ‘wigwams’ for the plants to scramble up.

‘The roses look really good on these supports,’ says Chris, ‘and the wigwams also add height to the borders.’

Chris’s favourite roses include Gertrude Jekyll, Grace, The Mayflower and Wildeve, although he admits it’s hard to choose favourites as all the roses look so stunning in June. With many more areas and secret spaces to explore, plants play a major feature throughout the seasons at Beeleigh Abbey gardens and this enchanting garden will inspire and delight you at whatever time of the year you visit.

Philippa Pearson is a RHS award-winning garden designer and writer. Visit www.philippapearson.co.uk or contact her on 01767 651253

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