Warwickshire’s Secret Garden
As signs of Spring start to battle their way through the storms, Muddy’s Rhiannon Kouyoumjian heads to the secret solace of Hill Close Gardens in Warwick…
If you’re a fan of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Edwardian set children’s novel, The Secret Garden – with a new film adaptation arriving in UK cinemas this spring – you’ll love these hidden Victorian ‘urban pleasure gardens’. They’ve been recognised by English Heritage as the only surviving collection of restored mid-19th Century detached plots and summerhouses open to the public in the UK. *The gardens are currently open for free while observing social distancing measures.
No, I wasn’t familiar with them either – whilst I’d heard of Hill Close Gardens, I didn’t realise what a fascinating back story they had, or what a charming sanctuary they were.
It’s a blustery, cloudy day as I make my way through Warwick town centre. Following the directions on Hill Close Gardens’ website, I’m impressed at the signage; I cross Market Square and the bus station, locate Linen Street car park and am guided by brown signs to Hill Close Gardens.
Had I brought my car, I’d have followed the signs to the Racecourse and used the ample parking (pay and display, or 2 hours free); the Gardens lie just next to the Racecourse.
I enter the site and make my way down the warren of paths flanked by hedges towards the Visitor Centre. The sounds of a bustling Monday morning melt away as I walk through the network of garden plots.
I meet Centre Manager Richard Hayward in a clean, airy new building.
Richard outlines the enthralling back story of this hidden oasis. In short, the Gardens were originally constructed in 1845 on the edge of Warwick and many other towns to give Victorians somewhere to escape to. The merchant middle classes lived above their shops and businesses and began to yearn for countryside; but, given it was the time before ramblers’ rights, the open country was inaccessible.
Many of the plots had summer houses and were used as weekend retreats.
The gardens were therefore bought or rented by these hard-working people to relax in, for ornamental planting and occasionally to grow fruit and vegetables. During the war, pigs and poultry were kept on the plots. After their heyday in the mid-19th century, the ‘detached gardens’ became less popular as people upgraded to houses with their own outdoor spaces. Most sites across the country were sold to developers, but the fact that the plots of Hill Close were owned by separate freeholders made acquisition by the council a very long and complicated procedure and the site fell into disrepair.
In the early 1990s, the Council finally had ownership of all the plots and began work to start building over the historic site. Locals who loved the space, which had become a wildlife haven despite its derelict state, put up a serious fight – including sitting in front of a digger to prevent soil sampling.
Their efforts were rewarded when English Heritage recognised the historical importance of Hill Close as the only surviving collection of Victorian detached gardens that would be fully restored and opened to the public.
Some of the original summer houses that still stood in the plots received Grade II listed status and the Council abandoned their plans, allowing an army of volunteers to take control and restore the Gardens to their former glory. Volunteers remain the primary force behind the maintenance today, with 60-70 people on the books.
The benches and lawns around the site offer a great place to relax; I’ll be back in warmer weather to sit back and admire the flora. For now, I enjoy trundling up and down the narrow paths, reading stories mounted on each gate of the families that owned the plots and spotting signs of season change including snowdrops, hellebores, primroses and crocuses. Blackbirds and blue tits stock up on beak-fulls of the fat balls hanging from trees.
During the winter and on all weekdays, the tearoom is closed so the Visitor Centre offers simple refreshments – think biscuits, tea and a coffee machine. From April to October the tearoom opens at weekends to serve cakes, soup and snacks made by Warwick bakers Bread & Co., who source produce from the Gardens and turn them into tasty goods. This summer also sees the launch of cream teas; an idyllic addition to a Victorian England experience.
The Visitor Centre offers information about the Gardens and a £2.50 guidebook dives deeper into the history. Touchscreen information stations are due to arrive within the next month and will allow visitors to explore the story of the site, along with details of plants and trees that grow there.
The ancient apple trees in the orchard are particularly noteworthy, hence the popularity of long-running annual Apple Day. Last year, for the first time, the fruit crop was pressed into delicious juice and whilst I’m there two women snaffle up six bottles between them – word is clearly spreading.
What’s On in 2020
The 2020 calendar is amply filled with public events including gardening courses, Head Gardener’s Walks (on Fridays at 2pm on Apr 17, May 15, June 19, July 17 & Aug 21), a VE Day Anniversary Celebration on Fri May 8, Music in the Gardens with picnics (June 27, 6-9.30pm), Teddy Bear’s Picnic on July 23 (2-4pm), live theatre with Heartbreak Productions on Tues July 14 (6-9pm), and Art in the Gardens (Aug 22), plus an Autumn wreath workshop, floristry demonstration, children’s workshops and Apple Day and Country Fair. You can check out all the events here.
There’s a room to hire for private events and Richard outlines how businesses and groups have utilised the unique, pretty setting, from corporate meetings to parent-and-toddler play dates. Weddings, wakes and parties have also made the most of the colourful, soothing surroundings.
Who’s it for?
I enjoyed some contemplative time alone here, but it would work equally well as somewhere to bring a friend or parents. If you’re in Warwick I highly recommend escaping the busy streets and losing yourself in a nature-rich bygone era; and you’re never too far from the plethora of cafes and pubs if you want something more substantial than the teatime treats offered here. The racecourse is also next door, offering an open space for longer walks and for children to let off steam.
Entry is £4.50 for regular folk, or free if you’re a member of either Hill Close Gardens or the RHS. Hill Close Gardens membership costs £16 per year and benefits include discounts on plant sales, priority booking for events, members-only events and a newsletter. Children aged 5-16 get in for £1.
Bread and Meat Close, Warwick CV34 6HF, Tel. 01926 493339, firstname.lastname@example.org
Winter opening times: From November – March the gardens are open Mon – Fri, 11 am–4 pm, with last entry, 3.30pm. Closed Sat & Sun.