Autumn Plant Fair at Helmingham Hall

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Things to do


Date of travel

September, 2016

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The Spring Fair at the end of May was almost the last sunny day before July; the Autumn Fair – we hope – began the recovery after recent storms of our wonderful late summer. If plants have anything to do with it, all will be well.

It was a cloudy day but the rain held off, and gradually the sky began to brighten. A cloud of feathery blossom on some ornamental grasses set the tone against the magnificent background of the Tudor hall. Fernatix – the pun echoes their enthusiasm – had a display of ferns and foliage plants next to a stall of ornamental trees beside the moat. There were visiting nurseries from Norfolk and Kent, a local brass band, crafts stalls and a splendid range of sculptural metal features, from decorative porches to gazebos.

Our first stop was for Kentish cobnuts, a memory of childhood. Not only nuts, though, but fudge, biscuits and roasted and chocolate coated cobs. Wonderful: and a trader so trusting I was allowed to send a bank transfer after returning home with my booty. It has already given more than a little delight with the afternoon tea.

Of course the main focus was on plants: restocking the garden after some losses due to drought, and to set up new colours for the spring border. There was also the meeting of friends and acquaintances, including a few stallholders we’d visited in the past. One, ironically, we could have bought from the day before, having passed her nursery near Bury St Edmunds. Another we’ll have to visit this week because of forgetting to collect a plant left in her care. Good news: it was saved for us – a lovely pink flowered potentilla.

We don’t go there just to spend, fortunately. There are volunteer tasks to perform: an hour’s “meet and greet” is ours, which allows a little socialising, a few shared laughs as people stagger out with plants of many sizes and stalk back with lighter pockets and purses on the trail of more. I suggested to one couple they’d better have a large car: “We’ve brought a van,” they said.

There was a stall specialising in unusual compost, from Herdwick sheep and other sources. To maintain ecological interest Suffolk Wildlife Trust was represented, with good news of its recent quest for a hedgehog officer. The job advert had aroused interest world-wide, to the consternation of the interviewing panel when it was realised that in one Asian country the salary had been mulplied tenfold. No problem in the appointment, however. We exchanged encoragement and bought a few blank cards that will do for Christmas and other purposes. Very reasonably priced they are, because the artists donate the originals.

That’s how it is at Helmingham, friendly and with plenty of people but never crowded because of the generous space in front of the hall, good nature, pleasant drinks and food, even ice cream for those who felt the day was warm enough, and a personally guided tour of the famous gardens by Lady Tollemache, a Chelsea award winner.

Some arrive early, as though at the Harrod’s sale, others drift in towards lunch time. There is a children’s trail as well as the various refreshment outlets and non-garden stalls. Everyone can find something of interest, even the man who claimed plants weren’t for him. And if the clouds didn’t entirely clear the plants and bonhomie made it seem they had.


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