The entrance to the workhouse as it looked in the early 1900's - the well house stands next to the person to the rear

The entrance to the workhouse as it looked in the early 1900’s – the well house stands next to the person (gardener?) to the rear

The former grand entrance of the Gressenhall Workhouse now performs a very different function. The once ornamental gardens and driveway have given way to a busy hub for this Norfolk Museum’s outdoor events.

As can be seen from the old photograph the main approach to the Workhouse was once a rather grand affair – a heart-shaped island of formal lawns and borders surrounded by a circular drive.  To the front, huge iron gates and a much smaller wooden door provided the entrances from the forbidding outer wall of the complex. The smaller door was the main pedestrian entrance to the workhouse being next to the porter’s lodge, the man who controlled the arrival and departure of Workhouse inmates. This door today still carries the solid metal knocker shaped into a clasped hand around a metal bar – a hint of the prison-like existence to come for the new inmates! They must have entered here with very mixed emotions – relief at having somewhere to get a square(ish) meal and a warm (ish) bed, mixed with guilt at not being able to fend for their families and anxiety about the harsh regime they were entering.

The 'Yew Tree border' in front of the chapel- before the Yews were reduced

The ‘Yew Tree border’ in front of the chapel- before the Yews were reduced

Towards the main building, but long since demolished, once stood a small building enclosing the Workhouse well (still visible in the old photograph) and the front of the 18th century main building once carried a magnificent Wisteria clambering up and along the warm red brickwork. This was, apparently, cut down to the ground by an over – enthusiastic work placement trainee about thirty years ago! A small rooted area remains and is being carefully trained up the walls once more, in the hope of restoring this once glorious feature. To the side the workhouse chapel is fronted by a small border which is dominated by two Yews and a cherry tree with spring bulbs and other under – planting. Recently these Yews were reduced in width in an attempt to provide a more open, sunny site for the other planting (and increase the width of the adjacent paths). The hard cut – back has improved the shape and balance of the border whilst not harming the Yews, where new growth has begun.

The magnificent Copper Beech Tree in autumn

The magnificent Copper Beech Tree in autumn

To the right of the main approach sits a majestic old Copper Beech tree (which gave its name to the Old People’s Home that succeeded the workhouse after the 2nd World war – ‘Beech House’). This area was originally sub divided by walls into exercise yards and a playground for the adjoining boys school, and in later years for those in the nearby infirmary (and featuring two revolving wooden tuberculosis pavilions). There is also an avenue of beech trees on the approach to the Workhouse believed to be 150 years old.

There is some evidence that the southern section of this area, adjoining the modern café was laid out as a formal ‘garden’ but the historical accuracy of this is uncertain. Today this area houses a semi – permanent marquee used for the many events now taking place at the Museum.  A large expanse of grass (useful for picnicking for the Museum’s many summer visitors) is surrounded by areas of planting including an isolated Crab Apple tree, planted in more recent years as a memorial to a former member of the Norfolk Archaeology Department (also housed on the site).

There is also a long south – facing border of mixed shrubs adjoining the walls of the former workhouse, some of which are now rather large for their position adjacent to the building. Others – such as several clumps of Boston Ivy – clamber up the walls and are vigorous enough to get under the eaves and into the roof! Recently these shrubs have been pruned to try to restore their scale and shape as well as encouraging new growth, with some success. And spring bulbs also provide splashes of colour underneath the mainly evergreen shrubs. But a perennial problem is the rabbit population which have burrows in this border and which also occasionally escape into some of the adjoining gardens to wreak havoc!

Shrubs in front of the southern wall of the old Workhouse- showing the arcading that was once open

Shrubs in front of the southern wall of the old Workhouse- showing the arcading that was once open

The walls here still show the evidence of the (once open) arcading that sheltered individual ‘cottages’ for families living in the workhouse. This was before its daily routine became harsher in the mid 19th century, when inmates were divided by sex and age and so families were split up.

One of the borders in the Cafe Garden

One of the borders in the Cafe Garden

Today’s cafe building was once a  fever or isolation ward commonly known as the ‘itch ward’. More recently this was the Museum’s Education Centre, for which a garden was laid out by volunteers in the 1980’s. This was further remodelled into the current space, presumably upon creation of the café and now houses a  delightful, smaller courtyard garden of mixed borders with picnic tables.

Today's courtyard on an event day at the Museum

Today’s courtyard on an event day at the Museum

Today, the large entrance courtyard and its adjoining spaces provide a great setting for the main workhouse buildings and perform an important role as a thoroughfare for the Museum’s visitors as they explore the surrounding gardens and on event days when tents, stalls and other temporary exhibits spring up into a hub of activity.

Other posts in this series:

Gypsies, tramps and thieves: garden where once poor trod at Norfolk Museum

Cottage garden recreates 1930’s at Norfolk Museum

Old Workhouse Garden a wildlife oasis at Norfolk Museum

Unique heritage gardens at Norfolk museum

Old School Gardener

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