Few areas in England can match the beauty and history of Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk. A walk through the town center during the summer months leaves no doubt that this accolade is well deserved. Bury, as it is affectionately called by locals, is known throughout England as one of the country’s foremost floral towns and has the accolades to show for it, including numerous Gold Awards from the Royal Horticultural Society’s Britain in Bloom and Anglia in Bloom. While on a garden tour in the South East England last July I spent a few days in this gorgeous town.
We stayed at the historic Angel Inn (circa 1452). Once upon a time it was a Georgian coaching house where kings, queens, actors and writers laid their heads. Charles Dickens himself stayed there on two occasions, 1859 and again in 1861, and mentioned his visit in The Pickwick Papers. To be sure the place oozes charm… elegant rooms, great breakfasts and friendly service (and a very nice swath of ivy covering the exterior walls). For me, however, the best part about staying at this hotel is its location…right across the road from one of the most romantic gardens I have ever visited. Come and take a stroll with me.
Built on the mediaeval site of a great Benedictine monastery (circa 1020 AD), the Abbey Gardens are notable throughout England for their stunning horticultural displays. I was delighted to be able visit the gardens over several days, wandering the grounds at different times of the day. Light quality changes depending on the time of the day and so does the the look of a garden. I enjoyed the rare treat of viewing this garden in the early morning light, in the harsh mid-day sun and in the softest light of all…just before dusk.
Outside the Walls
Though the abbey was destroyed in 1539, the foundations and part of the stone walls still stand. And, what a perfect backdrop these wall make for several rectangular beds planted in front of them. Each garden projects a different style, which is not surprising since the beds are sponsored by various business and groups who commission garden designers to do their magic.
I love informal gardens filled with color, but on this occasion I was drawn to one that is far and away from my usual inclination. The easy-on-the-eyes features of this simple garden captured my attention. Its geometric silhouettes… the orb-shaped boxwood shrubs, the lollipop inspired tree and the triangular pyrmidal cedars… illustrate how repeating elements can create a comfortable formality and order. And where is the color? Other than the soothing green of the shrubbery, there isn’t much. It goes to show that you don’t need it…at least not when the design itself takes center stage.
The Sensory Garden
Behind the stone walls, as you enter the gate, a pergola with three sides separates a courtyard garden from the main Abbey Gardens. The space projects the ambiance of a cloister where monks would have walked through in days gone by. This is the Sensory Garden or “blind garden”, as it is known by the townspeople. Created in 1990, it was designed for the enjoyment of those who are visually impaired. But, it is a garden that every visitor finds peaceful and inviting. Here, scented Roses, Wisteria and Akebia (Chocolate Vine) scramble over the pergola providing interest throughout the year. The air is filled with the heady fragrance of peonies and lavender mingling with the spicy scent of herbs like rosemary and thyme.
Teak benches are strategically placed where you can best enjoy the luscious scents. The gurgle of water drizzling from a nearby fountain encourages you to sit awhile to enjoy this intimate and meditative spot.
The Central Area
Cast your gaze beyond the Sensory Garden to the Central Area where a large expanse of lawn is dotted with islands of vibrant color. From a distance it’s easy to imagine you are looking at an immense carpet, embellished with intricate embroideries. The area was once a botanic garden (circa 1831) laid out in the same style as the Royal Botanic Gardens in Brussels. Back then it featured radiating beds of native plants and herbs arranged in their natural botanical orders. In 1936 a new design was commissioned to celebrate the Coronation of George VI. This daring design featured 64 island beds set into the lawn.
The Victorians called this style of planting “carpet bedding”, a traditional method that uses brightly colored plants grown very close together to reproduce a picture or design.
Appleby Rose Garden
Beyond the Central Area, with the magnificent Saint Edmundsbury Cathedral as a backdrop, the Appleby Rose Garden enchants and delights all who happen upon it. In the 1720s the site was an old orchard. It wasn’t until 1947 that it became a Rose Garden thanks to an American connection when during WW II many American service men were based in Suffolk. John Appleby, one of these men, wrote a best-selling book called Suffolk Summer and donated the royalties to create the rose garden….hence the name Appleby Rose Garden in his honor.
The garden is comprised of 16 rose beds with over 400 rose bushes of different types, including standards (tree roses), hybrid tea, floribunda and shrub roses. The collection includes a special rose called the St. Edmund’s Rose, named to celebrate construction of Bury St. Edmund’s Millennium Tower which was completed in 2005. The rose’s blooms are fragrant, tinged a light apricot with slight orange and pink overtones. The color, coincidentally, is similar to that of the Millennium Tower’s brickwork.
In July, when I was visited, the lavender surrounding the rose garden’s sundial was a fetching cloud of color. I was awestruck. I don’t recall ever seeing lavender in such a glorious state in any other garden (and I have seen many).
One of the most memorable moments I have spent in any garden anywhere was in this rose garden. It was about 5:30 p.m. I was the only soul there. The luscious scents of roses and lavender hung still in the quiet, sultry early evening air. Soft strains of sacred music coming from the cathedral filled the space as a choir of young people practiced hymns they would sing later at evensong. If heaven is here on earth, it was surely there in that garden in that moment of time.
From a bench in the corner of the garden, I caught a glimpse the rays of the days last bit of light casting its soft glow on the ancient stones of the 11th century Abbey ruins. I’ll never forget the sight, the scent and the sounds of this very special place.