garden pic gressenhallThere are around ten different heritage gardens or other tended spaces at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum, near Dereham, Norfolk.

I’ve been a garden volunteer here for the last couple of years and spent time as a trainee Heritage Gardener. I plan to explore these spaces in my blog over the coming weeks. Here’s some background information.

References to ‘gardens’ in the Workhouse records (from  late 18th to mid 20th centuries) are relatively few, as most of the spaces within the walls of the former Workhouse were ‘yards’ of various kinds, being used for exercise or work by the inmates (including stone crushing). Records indicate that there were areas of active cultivation, mainly to grow food for the Master, staff and inmates. Major areas of food cultivation (most located just outside the Workhouse walls) no longer exist.

The current workhouse buildings were developed in the late 18th century after an Act of Parliament encouraged ‘Houses of Industry’ to be set up. People unable to look after themselves and/or their families were able to live in the buildings and do work to earn their keep. Before this, from Tudor times, the poor were the responsibility of local parishes and prior to this were looked after by religious orders, or informally by neighbours, friends or family.

The Workhouse meant a harsh, regimented life

The Workhouse meant a harsh, regimented life

1834 saw the Poor Law Reform Act  which converted the House of Industry into The Workhouse. Conditions became much harsher with families split up into different groups – adult males, adult females, boys, girls, unmarried mothers with babies, tramps (or ‘casuals’) etc. Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist conveys the strict regime.

Union Farm showcases historic farming practices with animals and fields

Union Farm showcases historic Norfolk farming practices

Gressenhall and other Norfolk workhouses expanded and reorganised accordingly and this system remained largely the same for the next 100 years. The Poor Law  was eventually abolished just after the 2nd World War and Gressenhall became an old peoples’ home- ‘Beech House’ (named after the magnificent Copper Beech tree in the main courtyard). Finally, in 1979 the old peoples’ home closed and the site was developed as the Norfolk Rural Life Museum, including the acquisition and development of the adjacent Union Farm as a showcase for farming methods and practices of yesteryear.

The historical role of today’s heritage gardens has resulted in most of them being enclosed by the walls of the workhouse buildings, boundary or dividing walls and sometimes, native species hedges or other natural boundaries. These ‘Gressenhall Gardens’ are principally the result of voluntary effort beginning in the 1980’s. The spaces were developed to support the Museum’s role in telling the story of the Workhouse and Farm, Norfolk’s broader landscape and rural life, as well as the more contemporary issues of environmental sustainability and biodiversity.

an aerial view of Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum

An aerial view of Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum, Norfolk

Several of these heritage gardens are domestic in scale and style with mixed planting and other features,  probably due to their clear definition into manageable spaces coupled with the interests and ideas of volunteers and staff. Some of them perform specific roles in helping to interpret this Norfolk museum site and deliver some of it’s messages;

  • Cherry Tree Cottage Garden illustrates a typical Norfolk cottage garden of the 1930’s, using plants and techniques from that time
  • The Wildlife Garden has habitats, planting and other features that are conducive to wildlife. A small border also features ‘useful plants’
  • The Orchards are growing varieties of apple and other fruit native to Norfolk (this is located on the graveyard of the old Workhouse)
  • The Dyers’ Garden features plants used in natural dyeing
Cherry Tree Cottage garden is set out like a typical 1930's cottage garden with vegetable varieties and techniques of the time

Cherry Tree Cottage garden is set out like a typical 1930’s Norfolk cottage garden with vegetable varieties and techniques of the time

A recent development has focused on the ‘Education Garden’, which is an important space used by the Museum’s Learning Team and others, adjoining as it does the Learning Centre. A new ‘Curiosity Corner’  provides an area for children under 5 to explore – it has various natural and other ‘child-size’ features; eg a willow tunnel, turf seat, rock pile, fossils, various metal birds, insects and animals and a hazel ‘wig wam’.

Over the coming weeks I’ll introduce you to some of the more important heritage gardens in this important Norfolk museum.

Further information:

Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum on Facebook

Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum blog

Old School Gardener

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