Last edited 16 Feb 2021

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Walled kitchen gardens of the Isle of Wight

A study found records of almost 100 historic walled kitchen gardens on the Isle of Wight. Now that awareness has been raised, the question is: how can these valued spaces be reused?

Old park walled kitchen garden.png
Old Park: the walled kitchen garden at Haddon Lake House in 2014 (Photo: Steve Lambert, Lake House Design).

A summer’s day with scented air and insects buzzing… a narrow doorway in a high wall with a glimpse of a garden beyond… like Alice and the rabbit hole, the curious visitor is drawn to explore. The Isle of Wight Gardens Trust, unable to resist the attraction, embarked in 2014 on a 12-month project, aided by a small Heritage Lottery grant, to increase understanding of the island’s historic designed landscapes and celebrate the trust’s 25th anniversary.

At the outset it was anticipated that about 30 gardens might be found. A desktop study identified 98. Some 69 sites were visited during the project, which included guided tours, study days with the county archivist, and lectures by kitchen-garden expert and author Susan Campbell. The project concluded with the publication of ‘Walled Kitchen Gardens of the Isle of Wight’ with facts, figures, distribution maps and a gazetteer. The findings were also deposited with the IoW Archaeology Centre. It was a busy year.

An 1870 advertisement for a first-class family residence in Ryde gave details of the walled kitchen garden with fruit trees, well-stocked conservatory and greenhouse before mentioning the number of rooms. As well as a practical designed landscape feature – the location depending on current fashion – the kitchen garden was also a status symbol. This was sometimes difficult to grasp when confronted by an overgrown space enclosed by crumbling walls.

The typical features of a walled kitchen garden in its heyday might have included:

  • High walls (of stone, brick or a combination, with the warmer brick on the inner face) provided support for fruit trees, a micro-climate within the garden, and security.
  • Entrances (ownersentrances generally face towards the house and/or are in the south wall so that the garden was seen to best effect; gardenersentrances were plainer, and often in the north or east walls).
  • Straight paths (dividing the planted areas into practical square or rectangles known as quarters).
  • Dipping pond or well (often at the centre of the garden), a practical and ornamental feature.
  • Perimeter borders (allowing space for fruit trees to be trained on both sides of the walls).
  • Glasshouses (built on south-facing walls for maximum sunlight and heated from a boiler housed on the outside of the wall).
  • Slips or slip gardens (cultivated areas just outside the walled garden which were used for hardier fruit and vegetables).
  • Orientation (an aspect slightly to the east of due south protected fruit blossom from thawing too quickly in the morning).
  • Potting sheds (outbuildings, often built against the outside of the northern wall, might include seed and fruit stores, workshops, and bothies for unmarried gardeners).
  • Frameyard (generally to the north of the walled garden), an area for cold frames, glasshouses for propagating and hot beds for forcing plants into early growth.

Most of these features can still be found at Osborne in East Cowes, a late-18th-century walled kitchen garden embellished by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who bought the Osborne estate in 1845 as their seaside family home. They raised the walls and reused the portico from the old house as the main garden entrance. The Queen’s journal records her children picking gooseberries and raspberries ‘to their heart’s content’.

Since 1984 the Osborne Estate has been managed on behalf of the nation by English Heritage, and it is included on the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England at Grade II*. The kitchen garden, with path layout and 1854 glasshouses retained, was restored in 2000 and laid out with a new design of beds and arbours of fruit, vegetables and flowers. As a tourist attraction, complete with topiary pigs in the pigsty, the future of the Osborne garden seemed assured.

Other walled gardens, without royal connections, had not fared so well. As Susan Campbell has written, until very recently they had tended to be neglected like the disgraced member of an otherwise thriving family. Appuldurcombe was first included on the register at Grade II in 1987 but the 1779 walled kitchen garden, part of Capability Brown’s improvements, was included within a revised boundary only in 2015.

At 45 sites it was discovered that either no evidence or only fragments remained. One short length of wall was left as a feature in an East Cowes supermarket forecourt – possibly better than nothing? A further 19 sites still had walls but had been developed, mostly for single or multiple dwellings in the second half of the 20th century. One Victorian villa garden had been in use as a scrap-metal works since the early 1970s and at Appuldurcombe a market garden had been replaced by holiday park caravans.

At East Dene in Ventnor (the childhood home of the poet Algernon Swinburne) the estate was divided in 1949 and the 0.43-hectare walled kitchen garden became a market garden specialising in strawberries. The garden slopes down to the south, giving glorious sea views, and the northern apse wall, a unique feature on the island, has evidence of a sheltered fruit wall. In 2014 the poly-tunnels for strawberries were gone and only a very small area was in cultivation.

The Hermitage in Godshill (a local list site) was also a market garden in the later 20th century, but by the time of a group visit in 2014 it was head high with brambles and nettles. Market gardening is at first an appealing new use, but it seems to be no longer commercially viable at a small scale. The future of this walled kitchen garden is uncertain.

At Old Park in Ventnor an early-19th-century walled garden was built for cultivating vines, which died and were replaced by fruit and vegetables. A 1906 sale catalogue describes the gardens planted with choice trees and covered with wire netting on iron supports. This site was also used as a market garden, for piggeries in the second world war, and in the later 1900s as a Tropical Bird Park tourist attraction. By the early 2000s it was derelict and in separate ownership from the principal building. The enlightened planning authority granted permission for a contemporary dwelling, Haddon Lake House, with conditions on restoration of the two-acre designed landscape within two years. In the walled garden a new decorative potager design was laid out. The new house and the rescued designed landscape have won awards. Such transformations require substantial investment and a brave approach by all involved, and they are rare.

Walled gardens come in various shapes, sizes, ages and materials, and similarly vary in significance as heritage assets. In East Cowes, neighbouring Osborne, is the Norris Estate. Here in around 1799 James Wyatt designed a gothic-revival castle and a castellated combined model farm and walled kitchen garden for an eccentric client. Both are listed Grade I and sit within a landscaped park. Humphry Repton is thought to have been involved with the design. Queen Victoria stayed at Norris as a princess; as Queen she considered buying it and later leased the castle to accommodate royal visitors. In 2014 the walled garden was disused and considerably overgrown. In 2016 Norris was upgraded from Grade II to Grade I on the register. It has the only known example of a walled garden attached to a model farm in England and the whole single-phase landscape has been little altered. Significance does not get much better than this.

By early 2016 the Norris Estate had been acquired by a developer, who held a public consultation in 2018 on their proposals for both Norris and the adjoining local-list Springhill Estate. The illustrative master plan included newbuild ‘residences’ at Springhill and a hotel in the Castle. Proposals for the walled garden included restoring the glasshouses as part of a health spa and hotel cottages built against the inside face of the walls so as not to be visible from outside. There were also planted areas with produce to be used in the castle restaurant. By September 2019 no formal applications had been submitted.

After 1945 readily available cheap fruit and vegetables made walled kitchen gardens even more of a luxury to maintain, and it is not surprising that many succumbed to development. Some were lost, together with their designed landscapes and houses that they served. Steephill Castle in Ventnor and John Nash’s East Cowes Castle are notable examples. The Isle of Wight Gardens Trust defines conservation as the process of managing change.

The 2014 project raised awareness but did not attempt to answer the question of what degree of change for a new use is acceptable in order to provide, at the least, a benign solution for the future. Walled kitchen gardens may no longer be regarded as a dishonoured and forgotten member of the historic landscape family, but they can be a difficult relative to provide with long-term care.

This article originally appeared in IHBC's Context 163 (Page 40), published by The Institute of Historic Building Conservation in March 2020. It was written by Helen Thomas, a former consultant for the Register of Parks and Gardens and team leader for the IWGT walled kitchen gardens project.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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