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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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