Open gardens, plant fairs and gardening shows are coming thick and fast at the moment. I’ve got leaflets piled up in the kitchen and dates scribbled in my diary in the hope I can make it to as many as possible. It does seem that there are even more garden related events this year than ever. You’ve got to admire the optimism of the organisers after last year’s dreadful summer when many shows and festivals had to be cancelled. With so many competing for our spare time though, events need to stand out from the crowd if they are to attract more than one man and his dog.
Once such place for me, is the Garden Festival at Hellens Manor, in the small Herefordshire village of Much Marcle, and last weekend was the sixth year it has been held. The organisers have created a weekend which could win awards for being the friendliest garden show of the year. A combination of stalls, rural crafts, talks and great food set in such a beautiful location makes for a relaxed day out. The basis of the festival though is caring for, and understanding a little more about our environment. The carbon footprint of the large flower shows is an issue that should get more attention, but at this festival the planet and plants go hand-in-hand. Admittedly you’d struggle to make it here without the aid of a car, but public transport is thin on the ground in such a rural county.
The event last year was cancelled due to heavy rain and flooding so it was pleasing to see the sun basking on visitors this time around. Plant nurseries from the local area had put on a good display under the dappled shade of the trees. There was a tempting range of vintage bits and pieces. I’ve got a bit of a thing for zinc baths at the moment and there was the cutest old wooden cart which would have looked lovely planted up, but sadly I don’t have the space. Add in some willow weavers, coppicers, gorgeous wooden furniture, clothes made from vintage fabrics and a stall teaching composting skills and you get the kind of vibe this place has going on.
The brilliant charity Tools for Self Reliance had a stall. Run by volunteers, tools that have been donated to them are cleaned and repaired and are then sent out to countries in Africa. Much of the charity’s work is funded by the sale of tools not in demand in Africa, at places such as the Garden Festival. They even have a sewing machine workshop reconditioning hundreds of machines a year and sending these out to communities in places like Tanzania giving women the opportunity to earn an income.
From the heart-warming and ethical to the local cider, available on draught from an outdoor bar attached to one of the barns. I never used to be a fan of cider because my taste buds had been scarred by the dreadful stuff my friends drunk when we were teenagers. Gwatkin’s is the real stuff though, packed full of appley flavour. There was award-winning local baker Alex Gooch, and his amazing breads. His bread is the best I’ve ever tasted. . . . well, apart from Wellyman’s delicious sourdough that is. There was also The House of the Rising Bun which competes with Bread of Devon for the best baker’s shop pun title I’ve come across so far. Tables were dotted about in amongst the orchard with pretty pots of violas on them, and as people settled down in the sun for a bite to eat local bands entertained. Tea and cake were available in front of the manor house as a troupe of female morris dancers performed their routines. It all felt like a very British summer’s day.
The weekend saw a variety of talks with an environmental theme. I was disappointed to miss Brigit Strawbridge talking about bees on the Saturday, but spent a fascinating half an hour listening to Stephen Powell talk about his experiences of trying to establish a community forest farm near Abergavenny.
Hellens Manor itself is fascinating. There has been a building on the site since the 11th century but the original manor was built around 1250. The inner courtyard from that period still remains but the rest of the house dates from the Tudor times with some additions made during the reign of Charles I. It’s still a family home but it is possible to look around inside. We didn’t get a chance on Sunday but we plan to go back to Hellens in October for their harvest celebrations so might pop in for a nosey around then. Much Marcle is the centre for Herefordshire cider production. Orchards dot the landscape and there is a long tradition of celebrating the apple harvest. The Great Barn at Hellens hosts the Feast of Apples which includes vast displays of apples and pears harvested from the local area. There will be a variety of fruity related events including perry making and apple identification, where apples can be brought along and an expert will identify the variety, in a fruit version of the Antiques Roadshow. You’re unlikely to go home financially richer at the end of the day though.
The gardens are a combination of formal and romantically wild. There is something about these old buildings though that can carry off a garden that is a bit untamed. Higgledy-piggledy paths and plants tumbling out over them seems to fit somehow. The formal areas with their knot gardens are in the process of being restored and are in keeping with the age of the property but if you’re looking for lots of planting and herbaceous borders I wouldn’t say the gardens were particularly worth visiting in their own right. If you’re here already there are some lovely species roses, and a new physic garden which is overlooked by an impressive and rare example of an octagonal dovecote.
So if you fancy a plant show with a difference and can make it to Herefordshire next June, make a date in your diary for the Hellens Garden Festival.