If you want to take yourself or a visitor to Norwich to somewhere ‘different‘ you cannot do better than to walk for ten minutes from the Market, along St Giles, across the footbridge over Grapes Hill, turn into Earlham Road and pass the Roman Catholic Cathedral before turning into the drive between two gateposts beside the small sign which reads ‘The Plantation Garden. A Victorian Town Garden.‘
This sign immediately tells you that here is something very unusual - a 19th century town garden. Quite a number of Victorian great country house gardens have survived: Heligan and Biddulph Grange are perhaps the most famous of those which have been restored during the second half of the 20th century. Town gardens, however, because of the convenience of their proximity to urban centres, long ago became mere ‘brownfield sites‘ and were built over with small houses or even supermarkets. The fate of the Plantation Garden was almost (in the 1970s) to become a multi-storey car park - and frustrated motorists might still have some regrets that that plan was abandoned!
When you turn through the gates into the garden you quickly forget how close you are to the city centre. You walk down towards a quiet oasis, where lawns and flowerbeds are surrounded by wooded slopes which cut out the noise of the city traffic. An amazing array of built features also strike the eye - a ‘Gothic‘ fountain, ‘medieval‘ walls, a ‘rustic‘ summerhouse and bridge, rockworks and follies. What is the explanation?
The Plantation Garden now looks, to an amazing extent, much as it did in its Victorian heyday. It was in 1856 that Henry Trevor, the creator of the garden, began to shape it, and he worked on it for the rest of his life, until he died in 1897. When he first took over the lease of the 3 acres of land beside the Earlham Road, the area was not very attractive. Since medieval times flints had been mined here from tunnels cut into the chalk, then a large chalk quarry had been excavated. The leaseholder before Henry Trevor was a bricklayer, builder and lime burner, who had two lime kilns on the land. Next door, where the Catholic Cathedral now stands, was the City Gaol! Henry Trevor must have been a man of determination and imagination to think that he could make a gentleman‘s residence and beautiful garden in such an unpromising position. By 1883 he had succeeded so thoroughly that White‘s Directory of Norfolk in that year declared that ‘The grounds of H. Trevor, Esq., "The Plantation", situated in a deep dell, the site of ancient and extensive chalk-pits, is a gem of landscape gardening, and its tropical and sub-tropical collections are in high repute.‘
Henry Trevor was, by profession, very interested in the fashion and tastes of his time. Born in Wisbech in 1819, he came to Norwich and trained to be a cabinetmaker and upholsterer, at a time when people were beginning to fill their houses with furniture. He opened a shop in the name of ‘H.Trevor‘ in 1842, in Exchange Street, a short walk from the Market, and prospered greatly. By 1851, he was already employing thirty men, and had taken on his stepson, John Page, as an apprentice. Later Henry Trevor took John Page into partnership and the firm became ‘Trevor, Page & Co.‘ We can judge its expansion by the fact that one hundred men from the works and the shop attended Henry‘s funeral in 1897. Many people even today remember buying top quality furniture at ‘Trevor Page‘, for the shop remained in business until 1983. The shop sign stands today just inside the gate to the garden to remind visitors where the money for the garden came from.
We can see from the garden itself plenty of evidence that Henry was very aware of the fashions and tastes of his time. A best seller of the year 1856, when Henry was starting to build his garden, had the unusual title ‘Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste‘. Shirley Hibberd‘s book was so popular because many people who had moved from the country to live in towns liked to remind themselves of the country styles they had left behind. We can see how Henry used the rustic style in his designs for a bridge at the north of the garden and a summerhouse at the south. From these two points perhaps the best views of the garden can be seen.
When we look at the fountain, a magnificent construction 30‘ high, we see Henry using a completely different fashion. The ‘Gothic‘ style had become very popular by the middle of the 19th century, when the Houses of Parliament were being rebuilt in just that style. One business near Norwich had benefited greatly from the popularity of the medieval look - Gunton Bros at Costessey made chimneys, windows, and various ‘fancy‘ red and white bricks to suit the fashion. Henry was able to buy from them pointed white brick windows, looking just like medieval church stone windows, for his fountain, as well as chimney bricks and very many other designs to use in his amazing walls, with their dazzling range of patterns.
Henry designed his garden so that a variety of circular walks could be taken at different levels. Paths ran around the top of the old quarry, and half way up the slopes on each side. Thus he could look down upon the elaborate patterns created by the ‘carpet bedding‘ in the five beds cut into the main lawn. If a visitor chose instead to walk along the lawn on a level with the flower beds he could climb up the steps and steep slopes of the ‘Italian‘ terrace at the far end of the lawn and lean on the balustrade while he enjoyed the view from there. It was, and is, possible to spend a long time in the garden enjoying it from different angles and always spotting something new in its structures.
Although he revelled in the medieval style, Henry was altogether ready to embrace the technology of his day. In 1871 he bought from Boulton & Paul, Norwich manufacturers of conservatories, a very large conservatory which he placed on the upper lawn. We know it was called the ‘Palm House and Winter Garden‘, and that it was fitted with ventilators, propagating tanks, hot water pipes and a fountain. It has long since disappeared, but an information board giving its history can be seen near the flower beds which show the outline of the original building.
Henry Trevor died in 1897, and all his obituaries describe his love of flowers and how he delighted in sharing the pleasures of his garden with other people. He was himself a devout Baptist, but he was ready to open his garden for events held in aid of good causes of any denomination. In his will he left £50, the equivalent of a year‘s wages, to his gardener, who had worked for him for nearly 40 years, and that also demonstrates the great importance of the garden to Henry.
After Henry‘s death, the lease of The Plantation was held by several people who were still able to afford to keep up the garden, though the large conservatory had had to be demolished early in the 20th century. The last private tenant was George Green, Gentleman‘s Outfitter, who became Lord Mayor of Norwich in 1919. During the 10 years that he lived at the Plantation, he loved to be photographed in the garden, with parties of visitors including his shop staff, groups of sea scouts and a convention of Baptist ministers. However, when he died, in 1929, no single tenant could be found to take on this large establishment, and a group of doctors took the lease and set up a private nursing home. For a time they kept up the garden, but later, when their business closed in World War II, and the house became a hostel for midwives, flowerbeds and paths were grassed over, and there was no money to spare for maintaining the garden.
Nature never lets growth come to a halt, and by 1980 sycamore saplings had taken over the fountain and much of the lawn, paths on the slopes had disappeared, all the balustrading was lost under a mountain of ivy and the rustic bridge had collapsed. It was a jungle.
In 1980 a brave band of volunteers set up The Plantation Garden Preservation Trust and the long task began of restoring the garden so that it would once again look as it did in 1897. Everyone who has worked and does work in the garden can feel proud of the achievements of the past 28 years. Their reward is the appreciation of the many visitors who enjoy and admire the garden today.
For more information:- www.plantationgarden.co.uk