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Abbey's on the road again; gardening.

Byline: Ann Evans

ITS DOORS HAVE BEEN CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC FOR TEN YEARS, BUT NOW THE 12THE CENTURY STONELEIGH ABBEY IS REOPENING AFTER A MAJOR REFURBISHMENT

AFTER ten years of being closed to the public, visitors will soon be able to enjoy the splendour of Stoneleigh Abbey when it is reopened to the public on April 1 this year.

This 12th century abbey is currently undergoing a massive refurbishment programme and over the last four years there has been major restoration work on the park and gardens as well as to the abbey itself.

Although the south and east wings plus the top two floors of the west wing of the abbey have been converted into private homes and apartments, the magnificent state rooms of the west wing will be open to the public along with the gardens, parkland and woodland.

Landscape architect and garden historian, Hazel Fryer, has been involved in the renovation of the abbey's grounds.

She explained that the landscaping for the abbey was the vision of watercolour artist Humphrey Repton (1788-1818) and other major landscape designers, and is quite unique in the county as the only complete Repton in Warwickshire.

Visitors will be able to relax and enjoy the designs and ideas Repton had for the abbey gardens, particularly along the River Avon on the south side of the building, where a little summer house can be seen beneath the weeping willows.

There are 690 acres of park and woodland surrounding Stoneleigh Abbey and the man in charge of the massive task of keeping the grounds in shape is John Daffin, senior gardener.

Accompanied by his trusty spaniel Saffron, John along with co-gardener John Golby, sees to everything from tending to the acres of grassland, to trees damaged by wind, and the planting and nurturing of flowers and shrubs in the many borders and flowerbeds.

"As every gardener will tell you, the amount of rain we've had has made

gardening difficult," John Daffin said.

"When the weather is bad, all you can do is the maintenance and paths and hedges. We have nearly two acres of lawns but we can't do anything this time of year.

"It's best to just keep off the grass because you can do more damage with it being so wet.

"We also had a lot of tree damage just before Christmas, but you can't even get a tractor to them because you'll make ruts. Basically the weather determines the way we do things.

"We have all kinds of trees - lime, cedar, Chilean pine, copper beech, willow, tulip trees, magnolia, oaks.

"We've also got trees which were planted by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Plus we've got the oldest and largest English Oak tree in the country - around 1,000 years old."

Before planting borders and beds with a variety of hardy plants John prepared the ground by cultivating and the use of some base bonemeal fertiliser to help them along.

He said: "This year we've planted young yew trees along the terraces by the river, and in the flower beds we've planted daffodils, tulips and narcissi - there won't be any crocus however, the squirrels ate them! We're overrun with grey squirrels, and moles too, which do a lot of damage to the lawns unfortunately.

"It's very good soil in these flower beds, it's very light" John added.

"There's lots of stones. I'm sure that's why they called it Stoneleigh, because there's so many stones.

"When I first started with these flower beds the earth was just like pudding - wet and sticky. Once it's dry it will be lovely to work on."

Working to a plan based on colours, John has planted shrubs like hebe Red Edge, Lavendule Angustifolia Hidcote, Weigela Florida and Philadelplus Belle Etoile.

He said: "This particular flower bed will also help to hide a building behind them. These shrubs have been in about a month and as soon as it starts to warm up they'll begin to really grow, but they will take about two years to really establish.

"Once the shrubs are planted you just need to keep forking around the plants and keep the weeds out. The weeds here have been feeding down year after year, germinating. It's a never ending process."

It's the autumn, that John particularly likes: "I suppose autumn is my favourite season because that's when things are winding down and you have the lovely colours of the trees.

"Of course, you also have all the fallen leaves to deal with.

"We have about three tons of leaves which we collect up and rot down to use as compost.

"I suppose my biggest problem is that there is just not enough hours in the day to do everything.

"Still, it's a great job, and I love it."

VISITORS' INFORMATION

STONELEIGH ABBEY will be open to the public from April 1, every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, from 11am-4pm.

Admission to the house and the garden is: Adults pounds 5, children pounds 3, OAPs pounds 4.50, family pounds 14.

Admission to the garden and parklands is: Adults pounds 2, children pounds 1, OAPs pounds 1.50, family pounds 5. Groups of 20 or more pounds 4.

Guided tours can be arranged by calling 01926 858585.

STONELEIGH FACTFILE

IN June 1858 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited Stoneleigh Abbey. During their stay it had been arranged for them to plant a tree. Queen Victoria planted an oak and the Prince Consort a Wellington Gigantia. While Prince Albert's tree flourished, it is thought that the oak didn't survive, although an oak tree does stand close by the Prince's tree. No one knows for certain whether this is actually Queen Victoria's oak.

JANE AUSTEN'S description of Sotherton in Mansfield Park almost certainly recalls her stay at Stoneleigh Abbey when, eight years earlier, she went to stay with the Rev Thomas Leigh who had unexpectedly inherited the estate in 1806.

ORIGINALLY there was a Cistercian Monastery on these grounds which dates back to the Norman times. It is believed that stone from the monastery has been incorporated into the walled garden of Stoneleigh Abbey.

THE abbey's redevelopment is a joint venture of private and public funding. The public funding has come from the Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage and the European Regional Development Fund.

IN 1960 a fire damaged the west wing, virtually wiping out the top two floors. Staff were rescued from the roof.

JOHN'S TOP TIP

_Plan around the weather. Keep off the grass at this time of year when the ground is so wet, or you'll do more damage than good. Likewise try not to walk where you'll be planting, or you'll just compact the soil.

My own particular favourite flower is sweet william because it's pretty with a beautiful smell.

CAPTION(S):

A GREAT JOB: Stoneleigh Abbey's head gardener John Daffin at work in the grounds; DIGGING IN: Head gardener John Daffin works on the borders
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Coventry Evening Telegraph (England)
Date:Mar 31, 2001
Words:1154
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