Plenty of Chelsea stars though fortunately no show gardens. They’d come after only one day’s break from dismantling their displays yet had energy for more. And who needs Chelsea when Helmingham, with its moat and three gardens managed by gold-medallist Lady Xa Tollemache, looks like something from a fairytale. For good measure Lady Tollemache even gave a talk about her gardens during the morning of the Spring Plant Fair. Later there was advice available from a “plant doctor”.
Suffolk Plant Heritage is part of a national network dedicated to preserving plant quality and diversity. Each county takes a turn to host a national conference and all have spring and autumn plant fairs, to display their work and host high class plant people selling their products. It is our great good fortune to spend these days at Helmingham.
National collections of various plants are held in each county. Suffolk has dianthus and Cedric Morris irises at one end of the scale and horse chestnut trees at the other. Both Morris irises and horse chestnut have faced threats recently: neglect in one case and disease in the other. The work collection holders do complements the seedbank at RHS Wakehurst Place in Sussex.
So, to the plant fair, where the only celebrities are the plants and their growers who may have featured on TV. Beth Chatto is no longer able to be with us, but it was good to see her garden represented, as it was to see the walled garden at the Hall has planting in the manner of the late Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter. Roger Harvey, frequent gold medal winner and this year with silver-gilt, was present, so were (it has to be plural if only because they are larger than life) Fernatix.
To say Helmingham provides a backdrop is like saying St Paul’s Cathedral is a church in London. It enhances the environment of the fair and challenges everyone to do as well as possible.
The brighter colours of plants on display work really hard against the mellow Tudor brick of the Hall. With luck some of them can be framed by the entrance arches. All around are the huge meadows of the estate, with oak trees, highland cattle and deer in the distance. If the intensity of plant or crafts hunting becomes stressful there is always a gentle walk around the moat, into the herb garden or the walled garden and even the wild garden beyond. With overcast skies and a chill wind to start the day we had need of steady exercise (or a cup of coffee) but when the clouds cleared it was a spring day to revel in.
For children there were a quiz and colouring cards, for other countryside aspects there were the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, the Suffolk Punch (heavy horse) Society, bee and insect charities. The fair also featured a 1950s dance floor, hand-made crafts and clothes, ice creams (coming into their own by noon), a Pimms bar, pizzeria and other food outlets to complement the Hall’s cafe.
It is hard to know what more there could be except, in our case, enough money to buy all we might covet and enough space to keep it. Nonetheless our car came home well-laden with the bank account somewhat depleted.