With no show gardens or overwhelming crowds the Suffolk Plant Heritage Spring Fair follows Chelsea and is as picturesque as Hampton Court. The moated Tudor house may not have reached local “boy done good” Cardinal Wolsey’s pretensions but it has been good enough for the Tollemache family who built it and have descendants still living there.
As well as opening the gardens throughout the summer and inviting locals inside in aid of the village church at Christmas, when the family portraits are as impressive a family tree as can be, Lord and Lady Tollemache host the Heritage Plant Fairs in May and September. Lady Tollemache, a celebrated garden designer, leads a tour on these occasions; otherwise, visitors find their own way round.
So, to business: the first 800 visitors receive a free plant. Attendance may be judged by the last plant being handed over less than two hours from opening. With perhaps 1000 people by 1 pm there was still plenty of space to walk or stand about in. The only slight difficulty at the stalls was reaching the plant that caught your eye before someone else had bought it.
Exhibitors come from all over the eastern counties and one came from Kent. There are numerous Chelsea medallists, and Suffolk Plant Heritage had a few of its own Sarah Cook’s gold medal Cedric Morris irises. Sarah’s garden at Shelley is open on Sunday 31 May from 10 am to 4 pm, when all of her irises will be on show.
Rain had been forecast but nothing dimmed the sunshine until after lunchtime. Food and drinks of many kinds kept energy levels up through a constant to-and-fro with purchases between showground and car park. Coffee, traditional lemonade, ice cream, fudge, strawberries and cream, all were available with more substantial fare at grills and barbecue stalls. There was no doubt the plants and a variety of craft or antique items sold well. For anyone visiting on an ordinary open day there is a cafe and plants can be bought from the Helmingham gardens.
At big plant shows the only place for meeting friends or holding conversations would seem to be refreshment tents. Though there are tables to eat or drink at, it is easy to stand around and talk anywhere on site. This means many casual conversations begin on the stimulus of a plant or some other cue. For example, my casual mention of going back to Cumberland prompted someone to ask where we’d lived. At once we were in reminiscence mode about the different places we’d known. A plant set another stranger on a subject that left us both almost as friends. There were also stall holders we knew from visiting their nurseries.
Throughout the day there are events at the Plant Heritage marquees. Jim Marshall gave a fascinating talk on “Grub in a Trug,” though we had to leave just before the end to take our turn on the gate. A plant propagation demonstration followed, with another talk in the afternoon. A “plant doctor” was on hand all day to give advice.
If it’s worthwhile to travel from Kent as well as drag yourself out after an exhausting week’s exhibiting at Chelsea it’s no wonder the Spring Plant Fair at Helmingham goes from strength to strength.