A Spring Visit: Columbine Hall

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Spring brings the start of the garden-visiting season for us. This year, one of our first visits was to Columbine Hall, a timber-framed house built in about 1390. It was originally the gatehouse of a medieval manor-house and stands beside an even older defensive moat.

This attractive historic home had its gardens open to visitors as part of the ‘Great Garden Trail’ in aid of Suffolk’s St Elizabeth Hospice. The gardens here were begun by owner Hew Stevenson and his late wife, Leslie Geddes-Brown and developed with the aid of their head gardener, Kate Elliott.

Columbine Hall’s gardens have a dreamy air. The ancient house is surrounded by its moat and gardens (which are a mix of formal and very informal), with views to open fields and the Suffolk countryside.

Columbine Hall, formal lawns
Formal lawns within the area bounded by the moat. A parterre lies alongside these, and beside that is a much more informal area.

Traditional lawns surrounded by tall clipped hedges (above) provide calm, quiet spaces which contrast with the wilder, nature-inspired parts of the grounds. I particularly loved the area in the below, right-hand photo. Here white and ‘Spring Green’ tulips mingled their way through cow parsley, below rows of pleached limes.

Columbine Hall, informal planting
Left: Part of the bog garden, where moisture-loving plants flourish along the edges of a narrow stream. Right: Beside the parterre is a wilder area where tulips grow through cow parsley – one of my favourite parts of the garden.

There are a number of different areas to the garden. A parterre provides a formally-structured area near the house, with rows of pleached trees, clipped cubes of box, and climbers on obelisks. In summer it will be full of flowers, including irises, alliums, hardy geraniums, lavender and Alchemilla mollis.

Nearby, the planting gradually becomes wilder and less formal as it gets closer to the edge of the moat. In a couple of weeks or so, the cow parsley in this area will have reached its full height and its mass of tiny white flowers will create a wild and romantic froth.

A bank with bluebells lies in front of the Mediterranean garden (to the right). Above and to the left is the edge of the orchard.

Outside the space encircled by the moat are other gardens. There is a bog garden, where moisture-loving plants grow, and a walled kitchen garden which, in summer, will be full of colourful vegetables, roses, dahlias and sweet peas. There is also an orchard – which was in full of blossom when we visited – and a Mediterranean garden. (You can see part of both in the photograph above.)

Tulips at Columbine Hall
Some of the tulips at Columbine Hall

A few weeks earlier the garden’s collection of Engleheart daffodils would have been in flower. (Columbine Hall holds a part of the National Plant Collection of daffodils bred by Rev. G.H. Engleheart in Victorian times.) Now though, it’s the tulips that demand attention in this garden. (Thousands of tulips are planted every year by Kate Elliott and her assistants.)

There are tulips of a wide range of colours in the garden, even in the vegetable garden, where white tulips look very well with the bold silvery leaves of cardoons. My own favourites amongst the tulips were the dark, reddish-black ones, which you can see below. (I have ‘Black Parrot’ and ‘Queen of Night’ in my garden, as well as the white and green ‘Spring Green’.)

Columbine Hall - tulips, irises and fennel in a border.
Tulips, irises and fennel in a border beside the house.

My visit to Columbine Hall was thoroughly enjoyable and it gave me both inspiration and food for thought. Seeing the gardens there has encouraged me to wonder how I can combine wild and cultivated plants in my own garden. It would surely make it more appealing to wildlife if I did. I wouldn’t have thought that tulips would look so at home with cow parsley, but it works and looks really lovely. At the same time it provides a better habitat for wildlife.

I hope I’ll get the chance to visit Columbine Hall again. It would be very interesting to see how it looks later in the year. I’m sure it will be beautiful in summertime. I’ll be keeping a lookout to see when their next garden-opening is!

White and 'Spring Green' tulips with cow parsley by the hall.
White and ‘Spring Green’ tulips with cow parsley under the pleached limes give an informal, nature-inspired feel.