Category Archives: Gardens

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Gardens at Chiltern Open Air Museum

Want to know more about the gardens at COAM? Volunteer, Paula speaks to members of our gardening team about what it is like to look after our historically inspired gardens.

Leagrave Garden

Leagrave garden at Chiltern Open Air Museum

COAM’s first Gardens Day, delayed for a year because of COVID, was held in late June and, thanks to the enormous amount of hard work put in by the museum’s gardeners, was an opportunity for visitors to appreciate our gardens at their very best. People delighted in the colourful flowerbeds and the neatly-kept vegetable patches and appreciated the chance to chat about the plants and the gardeners’ work. Now, some weeks later, the gardens are past their early-summer freshness but still looking wonderful and perhaps this is a good time to think differently about them and look beyond the flowers and vegetables. By considering some of our gardens from various periods in history and talking to the people who care for them, we can understand a lot about their place in people’s lives.

Haddenham garden

Haddenham garden at Chiltern Open Air Museum in 2020

Haddenham Cottage is one of our gardens representing the Victorian period. It contains a mix of traditional vegetables and herbs, together with a small lawn edged with a border of perennial flowers. The garden was largely developed by Rachael Maytum in the spring of 2020. Because this was during the lockdown, she was unable to visit any garden centres to buy plants, so obtained them from the other gardens in the museum and feels this was very much in the tradition of gardening; it reflects a sense of community, with people sharing their plants and making use of items that are available in the neighbourhood. This tradition is reflected in the garden in other ways: the lovely stone planter in the lawn is a font donated from next-door Newland Manor; two Victorian dolly tubs, sourced from the museum store, now perform a new function as barrels holding herbs by the back door; a newly-planted damson tree is protected by a fence of woven hazel, obtained after coppicing in the wood. Even the initial fertilising of the soil was carried out using a gift of horse manure!

Asked what she thought might be the most important plant in the garden, Rachael opted for the lavender. In the Haddenham Cottage garden, a border of lavender edges the path to the back door. Its purple flowers are beautiful in themselves and clearly a great source of nectar for bees and butterflies, but lavender is so much more. For centuries, it has been appreciated for its medicinal purposes, for its fragrance and for culinary uses.  A truly hard-working plant, it fully deserves its place in any garden.

Volunteer in museum allotment

Volunteer, David Ray, in the Dig for Victory allotment

Moving to a more recent time, the garden at the Amersham prefab and the allotment reflect the Dig for Victory and Dig for Plenty campaigns during and after the Second World War. The vegetables grown there are those that people would have cultivated for food and, almost without exception, are heritage varieties that people in the 1940s and 50s would have been familiar with. For example, marrows, not courgettes, are grown and the peas are the traditional variety, not mange-tout. The choice of vegetables has been influenced partly by the needs of the museum’s catering outlets and the income from these, together with the sale of surplus vegetables and the production and sale of jams, jellies and juices make a significant contribution to the museum’s finances. In this way, our allotment fully reflects the way it would have been used in the 1950s – being of practical use to provide for the needs of the family and perhaps bring in a little extra income. The allotment also gives great pleasure to visitors who like to look at, and discuss, the vegetables and offers a chance for children to experience the sight (and flavour!) of fruit and vegetables growing.

Marrow growing in allotment

Marrow growing in Dig for Victory allotment

The flower border at the allotment follows the same principle of including traditional flowers. These are mainly perennials and reflect the sort of plants that people would have grown. There were no garden centres to allow people to buy annuals and, anyway, there was no surplus money to buy them so plants would have been split and shared amongst neighbours or grown from seed. David Ray, Volunteer Gardener, loves the irregularity of the herbaceous border. There is no colour scheme – as he says, you don’t get colour clashes in nature – and plants just live happily together in a random way, reflecting how amateur gardeners of the past would have gone about their gardening.

Dig for Victory allotment at Chiltern Open Air Museum

Dig for Victory allotment at Chiltern Open Air Museum

What is David’s favourite flowering plant? He chose an unusually tall dianthus, partly because it is of interest to many visitors and partly because of its history. The previous gardener, Les, once found an unidentified pack of seeds and asked David to try germinating them. This attractive and unexpected plant was the result. It is the story that adds to its value. Similarly, David chooses the tomato plant, tomato Montello, as his favourite vegetable, partly because it is so healthy and prolific but also because of the memory of how he and Les discovered it.  As so often among gardeners, the memories and associations add to the value of the plant.

Whereas the allotment and prefab gardens date to a very particular time, the newly-established garden at Leagrave Cottages is different. When the garden was being developed, it was impossible to choose a specific time period to represent because the cottage had been inhabited for over two hundred years. Therefore, the plan was to produce what might be a typical cottage garden with a mix of vegetable patches and flower beds. Dawn Akerman, Volunteer Gardener, chose the hollyhocks and foxgloves as being among her favourite plants in the Leagrave Cottages garden, simply because they are so traditional and typical of an English country garden. She identified the benefit to mental health that comes from working in a garden and, also, the feeling of camaraderie amongst gardeners. In the Leagrave Cottages garden we can appreciate this particularly and imagine the hard-working cottager sitting under the apple-tree, appreciating the fragrance of roses and sweet-peas after a hard day’s work.

Astleham Garden

Astleham Garden at Chiltern Open Air Museum

This sense of enjoyment is continued in the garden at Astleham Manor Cottage. This garden offers a completely different perspective, being a dedicated flower garden, based on Gertrude Jekyll’s principles of providing somewhere that is just a beautiful place to be, somewhere to be aware of beauty, scent and calm.  It was designed and developed in 2008/9 by Conway Rowland, the previous Estate Manager at COAM who took considerable care to adhere to Jekyll’s ideas. Typical Jekyll features include the use of low walls, rope swags and some of her favourite plants such as bergenia (elephant’s ears) and roses. It is a very sensual place and this is what Heather Beeson, Volunteer Gardener, likes about it. Dotted around the garden are quotations from Jekyll’s writings and Heather chose these carefully to try to encourage people to think about the garden just as a place to be. Heather’s favourite plants are those which reflect Gertrude Jekyll and her principles – the iris, the lavender and the roses which embody the spirit of the garden.

So this is what our gardens at COAM reflect. If I had to choose just one word to sum it all up, it would be ‘connection’.  More than just collections of flowers, vegetables and herbs, the gardens tell us about community and sharing, about being a part of the natural surroundings, about the importance of memories and about a sense of belonging and peace.

Written by Paula Lacey, Museum Volunteer


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Ideal Gardens in the Prefab

At the close of the Second World War, as cities and towns were recovering from the devastation of bomb damage, there was a very real need to find homes for those who had lost theirs and for soldiers returning from the front lines. Luckily, the government was not blind to the problem and turned to an innovative and as yet little-known method of building – prefabrication. A quick fix was to build large numbers of temporary homes – or prefabs – that could be made in factories, speedily trucked across the country and bolted together by workers, often German and Italian prisoners of war, in a matter of hours.

1940s prefab at Chiltern Open Air Museum

1940s prefab at Chiltern Open Air Museum

More than 150,000 of these jaunty one-storey homes rolled off the factory production line (although Churchill had plans for many more). At first somewhat suspicious of these new-fangled homes, residents soon grew to appreciate their new digs – finally, a home to call their own. And what a home! Every prefab had two bedrooms, hot running water, an indoor toilet and often a gas-powered fridge: mod cons that many could only dream of in war-time Britain. No wonder, then, that the prefabs became so loved. They were meant to last just a decade – a mere stopgap as the country got back on its feet – but many of the prefabs are still standing, with residents often fighting to hold on to them.

Living room in COAM’s 1940s prefab

“The spacious bedrooms and living room, the integral drawers and cupboards, the huge windows the large garden and Anderson shelter coal shed were, to us, more palace than prefab,” recalls Neil Kinnock, who grew up in a prefab in Tredegar, south Wales.

Each prefab had a generous front and back garden and it didn’t take long for tenants to start using this new-found space to grow fruit and vegetables. The government encouraged this – How To Grow Food: A Wartime Guide helped people adapt to austerity, and the wartime Dig for Victory campaign was still on everybody’s minds. Also, growing fruit and vegetables was necessary – in 1947, bread and potatoes were rationed for the first time. Many supplemented their diets with apples, raspberries, gooseberries, strawberries and blackcurrants grown in their back gardens.

For those unfamiliar with gardening, help was at hand: the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) Garden Gift Scheme began in April 1946 to brighten and smarten up newly built prefabs, which often stood on little more than barren building sites or land only very recently cleared of bomb debris. Through the scheme, WVS volunteers collected plants and seeds from donors, often in the countryside, and delivered them to new residents.

Vegetables in COAM’s prefab garden

The popular WVS scheme asked for flowers, vegetable seedlings, shrubs, trees and hedging plants. It was taken up with such enthusiasm that a prefab garden even featured at the Chelsea Flower Show every year from 1947 to 1955, exhibited by the Women’s Voluntary Service. The WVS prefab garden included a replica of a prefab made from felt and stucco and the approximate amount of land usually allotted to a house. The exhibits aimed to demonstrate to visitors the best way to gain the most from their prefab plots, while showing how the gardens could be used as a means of self-sufficiency. The prefab garden was planted with all manner of flowers, along with a vegetable patch that included herbs which, during rationing, really drew interest from the crowds. The prefab exhibits proved to be a tremendous success and helped spread the word about the Garden Gift Scheme. And in 1949, the Queen Mother even sheltered in the prefab when an inopportune rainstorm hit the Chelsea Flower Show.

Visiting prefab gardens was very much part of the royal calendar. On 30 July 1947, Princess Elizabeth visited bombed areas in southeast London with officials from the London Gardens Society. “She particularly admired the prize-winning garden of Mr WC Bodger, a railway foreman, and asked if she might inspect his prefabricated house,” reported the Illustrated London News on 9 August 1947. Queen Mary was a particular champion and often visited prefab gardens in London. The WVS even ran a competition, offering a silver trophy presented by Queen Mary to the best prefab garden. A Mr and Mrs Hale won the prize in 1947 for their prefab garden in Bethnal Green.

COAM’s 1940s prefab bedroom

By 1948, it was estimated that at least 15,000 homes had been helped in London alone though this scheme, and the idea had spread to 28 other towns and cities across the country. In 1949, Dorothy de Rothschild, from the Homes and Gardens Department of the WVS, wrote to The Times: “This scheme has brought us into close contact with thousands of tenants of temporary housing estates who had never had any previous opportunity for gardening. Owing to the encouragement brought by a tangible gift, many householders have planted their gardens and have been surprised and thrilled to see them flourish.”

By the early 1950s, with the fear of rationing receding, prefab tenants converted parts of their gardens into a play area for children or into elaborate flowerbeds. Slowly, front gardens were given over to lawns and flowers, a sure sign of social stability.

Vegetable plot in COAM’s prefab garden

Gardening became a shared hobby among prefab residents. Typical estate layouts, with footpaths, alleys and low fences, encouraged people to look at the neighbours’ efforts and there was certainly a healthy sense of competition. Best garden layouts and flowerbeds garnered prizes and residents were not shy about sprucing up their green spaces with wishing wells and even the occasional gnome.

Prefabs: A social and architectural history by Elisabeth Blanchet and Sonia Zhuravlyova, is out now, via Historic England, £20

By Sonia Zhuravlyova
Soniazhur@gmail.com


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A Journey through the Museum’s Gardens

As well as a wonderful collection of historical rescued Chilterns buildings, the Chiltern Open Air Museum can also boast a variety of traditional small gardens that complement some of these. If you have an interest in gardens or just enjoy viewing them, the coming months are a great opportunity to visit and see the result of the hard work that takes place developing and maintaining them.

Gardens at COAM

There are currently three ‘cottage’ gardens to enjoy. Astleham Manor Cottage is the house you will see directly in front of you as you enter the museum and boasts the most extensive of the cottage gardens. Based on ideas and gardens designed by Gertrude Jekyll, who was influential in shaping garden design during the early 20th Century, you firstly come across a formerly styled garden.

Pergolas, rose arches and paving have been used to provide a structured geometric layout with a less formal planting style. Many of the plants are heritage varieties used by Jekyll such as Iris Germanica, Lavandula Angustifolia ‘Munstead’ and Rosa ‘The Garland’.

Moving on past the house you will find a small apple orchard with each tree a different variety, representing those that were grown in the Chilterns including D’Arcy Spice, Golden Harvey and Langley Pippin.  At ground level, wildflowers have been allowed to proliferate amongst the grasses including fritillaries and cowslips.

After leaving the garden most visitors head down towards the village green. On the right you will find Leagrave cottages whose small gardens include shrubs such as jasmine and aquilegia. On turning right past the cottages is the post WWII prefab. This garden is laid out to demonstrate a typical garden of the era which often included neatly mown lawns, formal rose beds and vegetable gardens.

Continuing past the prefab is the museum allotment. Just look for the scarecrow! Traditional varieties of vegetables are grown including leeks, beetroot, courgettes and cucumber which help supply the museum café. Fruit bushes provide produce for jam making and herbs and flowering plants can also be found.

Museum allotment

And continuing on the theme of fruit, almost opposite the allotment to the left hand side of the Nissan Hut is a cherry orchard. Cherries were once extensively grown in the Chilterns, but with the orchards having almost disappeared from the area for economic reasons, many varieties were lost. The museum has acquired over 20 heritage cherry trees in an attempt to help preserve rare varieties including Prestwood Black, Prestwood White and Smokey Dun.

Back on the village green, a garden has yet to be created for the recently completed Haddenham Croft Cottage, but no doubt the gardeners will have something interesting planned for the future. Continuing down the track from the village green you will come to the Victorian Toll House where another cottage garden in keeping with the period has been created.

The garden contains flowering plants including a new border with Shasta daisies and Helianthus, heritage variety crops, fruit bushes and herbs. The vegetable garden has a period cloche in use whilst the fruit is used for jam making. The herb garden has a large variety of plants that would have been used in Victorian times for cooking and medicinal use.

If you visit the Iron Age House, look out for the small garden that is planted with heritage varieties of wheat such as Einkorn, Emmer and Spelt and some herbs including comfrey, rosemary and soapwort.

On your way back towards the museum entrance just before Astleham Manor Cottage is a green building, Maidenhead Pavilion. Here you can buy surplus plants from the gardens that are sold in aid of Friends of the Museum.

The gardens certainly help to enhance the museum buildings. The majority of the hard work needed to both develop and maintain them is provided by a hard working team of volunteers who look after them as if they were their own prized gardens. We hope you enjoy visiting them.

By Julian Stanton
Museum Volunteer

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