Tag Archive: Dickens’

IMG_9810I’ve mentioned Abbey Gardens before, in the context of my role as a Green Flag Award judge. That time- spring last year- the place was looking great in its colourful bedding of bulbs and other spring flowers. I visited it again recently and the formal beds were once again looking superb; bright, clever combinations of flowers provided the sort of formal scheme once extensively used in public gardens and parks around the U.K. However, it’s very labour and resource intensive and has therefore been replaced by lower cost alternatives in many places, but it’s still good to see it done well. And here it IS done very well.

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Apart from the borders there are other interesting attractions in the gardens, which also house the ruins of the abbey, and it has great views to the Cathedral with its ‘millenium tower’. And while we were there we had a wider walk around this lovely town with its extensive floral displays.

Old School Gardener


‘Now I am in the garden at the back…- a very preserve of butterflies, as I remember it, with a high fence and a gate and padlock; where the fruit clusters on the trees, riper and richer than fruit has ever been since, in any other garden, and where my mother gathers some in a basket, while I stand by, bolting furtive gooseberries, and trying to look unmoved.’

Charles Dickens – David Copperfield 1850

Old School Gardener

Norfolk Beefing apples before cooking

Norfolk Beefing apples before cooking

The orchard at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum, Norfolk, conceals a sacred secret – it was once the workhouse burial ground, where paupers were interred in simple, unmarked graves. And there appears to be no record of who is buried where.

Today the area serves as a demonstration plot for a wide range of Norfolk fruit trees, especially apples. A field gate displays a large number of plaques recording donations of different Norfolk apple trees to the orchard.

Gate to the Orchard showing plaques recording different varieties of donated Norfolk apple trees

Gate to the Orchard showing plaques recording different varieties of donated Norfolk apple trees

One famous local variety, the ‘Norfolk Beefing’ (or ‘biffen/biffin’), is a cooking apple of some reknown. It is recorded as far back as the 1690’s on Lord Walpole’s estate at Mannington, Norfolk. Cottagers used to pick the apples and wrapped them in  straw for a while in a warm oven, after which they would be squashed down and baked again. The final apples were packed in boxes and sent to London where they were a real delicacy, known as a ‘Biffin’.

A Norfolk Biffin after cooking

A Norfolk Biffin after cooking

Biffin/Beefing apples have very tough skins, which allows them to be baked whole, and then preserved cold. Apparently when cooked this way they are “creamy with hints of cinnamon and nutmeg”.  They were mentioned in Dickens’ story “Holly Tree” and also in “A Christmas Carol” :

“Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of oranges and lemons, and in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner.”

Nearby, lies the site of a former Windmill. This can be seen if you look carefully at one of the earliest paintings of the workhouse, by Kerrison. Built in 1781, the Mill provided the workhouse with meal and flour for about 50 years. The Workhouse Master would buy a year’s supply of wheat from the local markets and this was then ground at he Mill.

In 1783, records show that William Pulling (of nearby Shipdham) was the Miller and was paid 6d a week (in old pence, or 2.5 new pence!).

By 1829 just a baker was employed, suggesting that the windmill was no longer in use. In 1837 the remains of the mill were removed. This was just one of the special buildings or rooms set aside for meeting the food and drink requirements of the workhouse, it having had a brewery as well as a bakehouse and kitchens!

Early painting of Gressenhall Workhouse (Kerrison) with windmill ringed in red

Early painting of Gressenhall Workhouse (Kerrison) with windmill ringed in red

Next to this site sits the modern compost making area, well organised and used by the volunteer gardeners to improve the soil and mulch the gardens at the Museum. Originally designed for maintenance by farm machinery, it became under used and recently has been reorganised so that the gardeners can maintain it. A system of different bays provide for the different stages of turning vegetable matter into compost (including stems and branches which are periodically chipped into smaller pieces and incorporated into the mix). There are also areas for creating leaf mould, for depositing paper waste generated by the Museum (which is incorporated into the compost) and also a turf mound which will eventually decompose into a fine loam for use in the gardens. The resulting compost is of a coarse texture, but rich in organic matter which is so good for improving soil structure, moisture retention and adding nutrients to the soil.

apple dayThe Museum  hosts an annual ‘Apple Day’ in October which is a great family day out with a range of stalls, activities and attractions including the fresh pressing of apple juice and an opportunity to bring along any ‘mystery apples’  to get them identified by a number of local experts. This lively event contrasts with the peace of the orchard, which is a fitting commemoration of those buried here long ago.

Other posts in  this series:

Down on the Farm – Gardens to ‘dye’ for at Norfolk Museum…

From Grand entrance to Grand Central at Norfolk Museum

Gypsies, tramps and thieves: garden where poor once 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

Gressenhall's orchard - a peaceful place to remember the unamed poor once buried here

Gressenhall’s orchard – a peaceful place to remember the unamed poor once buried here

Old School Gardener

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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

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