The Victorian gardens at Winsford were begun in 1880 and took around two years to build. They were a massive local building project at the time and must have used 100′s of craftsmen and journeymen to create them.
The gardens followed a fairly simple yet formal design layout. The main house stood on a flat knoll, facing south towards picturesque Dartmoor National Park some ten miles away by car. Behind the house was the thoroughfare of the estate (Winsford lane) and across this lane on the northern side where the estate farm, piggery, dairy/buttery, garages, workshops and the gardens.
The gardens were divided into three roughly equal areas; the rose gardens, formal walled flower gardens and the walled vegetable gardens. Once across the estate road, visitors arrived at the formal Victorian Rose Garden, this one acre garden contained large formal flower beds set against the backdrop of an extensive framework of climbing roses and their fragrant blooms lining both sides of the straight footpaths leading to the Victorian Walled Flower Garden and Victorian vegetable Garden.
Pictured left: The rose gardens circa 1905. Looking NW towards the potting shed (on the left), the conservatory greenhouse (centre) and the 3/4 span vine house (behind far right). The left fork in the path leads to double doors in the conservatory greenhouse and beyond in to the vegetable gardens. The right fork leads to the flower gardens.
Entry to the flower gardens was beneath an large ornamental stone arch. If you were fortunate enough to be a member of the owner’s guest party (staff had a different entrance) the view before you was dominated by a breathtaking 200′ wide heated Peach House bursting with delicious tasty promise. Above and beyond the Peach house stretched North Devon’s beautiful rolling countryside.
The remainder of the walled flower gardens would have been a riot of glorious summer colour laid out in formal beds. To date, we have discovered the original planting included agapanthus, arum lillies, chrysanthemums, carnations, begonias, geranium and dahlia varieties. These would have been treated as semi-tender plants unable to remain in the ground during the British winter.
Instead, they would have remained nice and snug in the heated frames throughout the cold winters. Their corms kept cool but frost-free until the improved light levels returned in march. Then they would be restarted in the frames with judicious watering, before being transferred to one of the forcing houses prior to being planted in the garden borders for the owner’s satisfaction in the summer. This process guaranteed a glorious display for the owner/employer irrespective of the vagaries of the English summer!
The lush flower borders were surrounded by 14ft high Victorian walls crammed with espaliers brimming with fresh fruits of the season. (Excavated pathways are shown in grey on the plan).
The plan shows the central heart of the garden based upon our discoveries. The rose gardens went right across the top of the plan, while the original orchards were located across the bottom of the plan (to the north). Conversely, and not shown on the plan is the gardener’s entrance to the flower garden, which is sited in the east wall and, for security reasons (see Victorian Walled Gardens for details), was overlooked by the steward’s house.
The summer vegetable gardens occupied the larger centre surrounded by a continuous protective ring of twelve heated greenhouses. The primary function of these greenhouses was to extend both the variety and the season of both flowers and vegetables. At Winsford there were NO cold frames. All the frames (bright green) were heated! This was a garden for two and their house guests, there were no children, and money was never an issue.
Unfortunately, the Victorian peach house no longer survives. However, with the help of photographs and the original builder’s catalogues we do have a clear idea of what it looked like. The adjacent left photo even shows an example with the same curved iron framework (pictured right) that added substantially to the capacity of the house. All that we have today are the curved marks in the wall! A peach house the size of Winsford’s would be capable of producing about 3 tonnes of peaches annually. We have also discovered evidence of an evaporative cooler midway along the Peach House to provide additional cooling and moisture.
Maria Medley (the original property owner who commissioned the gardens) and her guests would exit from the walled flower garden into the vegetable garden through a second, somewhat less ornate stone arch at the western end of the Peach House. On the Western side of the gate is a set of boot scrapers, and woe betide the gardener who entered the flower garden with dirty boots! Indeed, we have it on good authority that when Mrs Medley entered her walled garden it would have been previously cleared of all staff except for the Head Gardener who would be on hand to attend to her needs.
The Victorian visitor would be taken aback by the glorious sight of a ring of twelve heated greenhouses encircling the summer vegetable garden. The surrounding walls of the flower garden were simply not needed when such obvious protection took their place. Each greenhouse was designed for a specific purpose.
The Victorian vinery
at Winsford Walled Garden is something of a mystery. It was originally purchased as a ¾ span vine house or vinery based upon the contractor’s standard 30ft modules at the time. However, it was customised by Maria into three very distinct sections. Each section could easily grow a different crop, say an early, mid-season and late grape.
However, we have discovered a large underfloor water tank occupying a substantial part of the centre section which was raised as a growing bench above the water. The water would have been heated by the encircling pipework in an adjacent pipe trench surrounding it on three sides. This central section would never have held vines in such a high-humidity environment location, furthermore there was nowhere to put any vines since the section contained ornate cast iron staging for potted plants. So, although nominally called a ‘vine house’, at least one section did not, and could not cultivate vines and so its purpose remains something of a mystery. High-level shelving near the roof ventilators may have been used for orchids, tilandsias or similar.
State-of-the-art Victorian Compost Bins
. Running the length of the low, south-facing front wall of the vinery is a series of ornate brick underground arches. In front of these, at the foot of the vine house, runs a fabulous brick compost bin topped with beautiful double-cant brickwork. The combination of these two features is a fine example of Victorian ingenuity:- The bins would have been filled with loam topped-up with manure as it became available, because the bins were outside they could be changed at will very easily (using different manures for example) without disturbing the house itself. Roots from the vine house could spread out through the arches in to the loam which could easily be enriched from above. The bins had lids to ensure the roots did not drown or chill in the wet winter months. Additional loam could be spread on top of the manure in spring and shallow rooted spring vegetables could be forced using the rising warmth from the manure and, being shallow rooted, the vegetables would not interfere with the roots of the main greenhouse crop.
The old fruit store would have looked something like the much larger one in the picture taken from another Victorian garden. Excess fruit of all kinds, including pears and peaches, were stored in these well ventilated stores, that were dark and pest proof using fly screens over the ventilators. The long-term storage of such fruit was a Victorian art requiring much skill. Using the store, the owner’s dinning room table would be provided with otherwise unobtainable delicacies throughout the year. At Christmas and New Year wealthy Victorian owners vied with their peers as to who could produce the most exotic table during the festivities. A good Victorian Head Gardener who could deliver such treasures for the table was often ‘head hunted’ by his employer’s peers.
Cucumber or Melon House.
Sadly, the cucumber/melon house survived 112 years before the main timber superstructure was knocked down just two years before our arrival. We were obviously saddened to make the discovery, but have consoled ourselves somewhat by restoring and transforming the greenhouse and its fabulous cast iron gratings in the floor into the present Alpine House. This greenhouse displays all the diminutive hardy garden plants that would otherwise be smothered by their larger neighbours if located in the garden flower borders – so all is not lost by any means. In addition, Mike designed and built a unique greenhouse above the original Victorian base and on “How to Build a Greenhouse” he shows you how.
By far and away the most exotic greenhouse on the estate was the Conservatory Greenhouse that was built with Burmese teak, which not only looked good, but never needs painting even today. During WWII the greenhouse ‘lost’ the central hexagonal section, we believe in order to provide improved vehicle access into the gardens.
By the time Mike Gilmore arrived in 1999 the greenhouse was a desperate ruin which the UK conservation authorities reckoned on being ‘irretrievable’. The greenhouse in 1933 – even way back then ‘the rot had set in’. Yet it was another 60 years before Mike’s timely arrival so you can only guess the state it was in.
Aside from the garden walls, this greenhouse was a chief reason for buying the property in 1999. Mike was certain he could restore it. He just never thought he could do it in just three months!! But that’s another story… See the Garden Restoration section of this site for more details.
We are indebted to the generosity of both Mrs Wendy Easterbrook and her son Christopher Easterbrook of New Zealand, for their considerable help in providing us with photographs from the time when Mrs Easterbrook’s grandfather, Mr Charles Prior, was Head Gardener at Winsford circa 1900. They have also provided photographs taken by Mrs Easterbrook’s uncle during a visit to the estate during the mid 1930′s that show the estate already suffering following its division as a result of the death of Mr Medley-Costin in 1933. An example of which is shown.