Midsummer already

I always arrive at the longest day on 21st June with mixed feelings. While I relish the long hours of daylight and the peak of the flowering season in the garden I am also surprised at how quickly we arrive at this midsummer day; too soon, it seems, after the memory of the short cold days of winter.  I want to linger at this moment before we turn that corner, once again, towards those short days and longer nights.

The Midsummer Solstice, a celebration of the longest day of Summer, is associated with many ancient Midsummer traditions, and surrounded by mythical tales of fairies and supernatural visitors. But after the religious reformation in the early part of the 15th century, the church became increasingly uncomfortable with the Pagan celebrations associated with Midsummer and started to ban many of the rituals in favour of a more Christian festival. The celebration was then renamed to mark the birth of St John the Baptist and, appropriately, was called the Feast of St. John the Baptist.

The plant that is most closely associated with this time of year in the walled garden must be St John’s Wort, Hypericum perforatum with its golden yellow, star shaped flowers, slit shaped perforations on the leaves and red staining sap.

A perennial, native to Britain, Europe and Asia, this plant was believed to have infinite healing powers, the red juice produced by the leaves representing the blood of St John. It was once known as Fuga demonium, devil’s flight, and was believed to give powerful protection against Satan. The house that had St John’s wort hung above the door was safe from thunder, lightning and fire. Neither witches nor the devil himself could cross the threshold. On account  of its red juice and the perforations on its leaves it was interpreted by the Doctrine of Signatures  as a wound healing herb and an oil reddened with the juice was sold in apothecary shops as a treatment for burns.

Another plant greatly enjoyed in the garden at this midsummer-time, for its colour, beauty but most particularly it’s exquisite scent is the rose, and a fine example is the vivid striped Rosa gallica ‘Versicolor’ or ‘Rosa Mundi’ we have growing in the nosegay garden.

Gallicas are the oldest of the garden roses, having been grown by the Greeks and Romans and later being used as a parent for many of our more modern cultivated roses.  Rosa Mundi is the earliest known stripped rose dating back to the 1500s. Legend has it that Rosa Mundi was named after Fair Rosamund, a mistress of Henry II, England’s monarch from 1154 to 1189. Henry’s wife, Queen Eleanor is said to have poisoned the lovely Rosamund by breaking into the house Henry had built for her at Woodstock in Oxfordshire. This legend is depicted in the oil painting by Evelyn de Morgan (1855 -1915) shown here.

(Courtesy of The De Morgan Foundation)

The stained glass window above Rosamund shows two lovers in an embrace. The Queen carries a small flask of poison, plus the thread that has led her through the maze to the house. She brings with her shadowy evil forms of dragons and apes, while blood red roses lie at her feet. In contrast, winged cherubs and shadowy doves of peace accompany Rosamund and white roses, symbolising purity and innocence, lie at her feet. Rosamond stares at the flask of poison held by the Queen, recognising her doom.

This legend makes an attractive picture, but is contradicted by historical fact. Henry actually imprisoned Queen Eleanor from 1174-1189 for supporting the rebellion of two of her sons against their father. Rosamund entered a nunnery in 1174 or 1176 and died there in 1176. At the time of Rosamund’s death, Queen Eleanor was a prisoner in Winchester.
Moving from a strange tale to a strange plant: I am always delighted when something pops up in the garden that I have never seen before and we all reach for the wild flower books to see if it can be identified. This specimen was discovered by a volunteer while weeding the North wall border the other day.
It is called Lesser Broomrape (Orobanche minor), a very curious looking parasitic perennial that lacks chlorophyll, feeding on the roots of the pea and daisy family. This clump was found growing very near to the oxeye daisies growing in our meadow grass. It belongs to the Broomrape family (Orobanchaceae) which includes another similar native plant called toothwort (Lathraea squamaria), an unearthly looking parasite which grows on the roots of trees, especially hazel, elm, alder and willow. The tiers of flowers resemble dirty, mauve stained molars, giving rise to the common name.
Back to more everyday matters, we have reached the busiest time of the year and our community vegetable garden is in full swing.
This smart new banner draws attention to the plot and there is plenty to get the taste buds tingling when you get there.
Strawberries are cropping well, helped by our newly installed seep hose system.
the rhubarb is having a riot….
 …and ingenious ways are being invented to keep the crops well watered.
Gardeners (and helpers) are busy…..
Veg are available to buy from the stall….
And we have even been out and about in the local community, representing the Friends Group at Witham Community Day on 9th June.
Visit on a Tuesday and one of the volunteers will be happy to show you the community garden and offer you some of the harvest to take home.  The best buttery new potatoes ever tasted,  freshly dug and on your plate in no time….tempted?
The Heritage Lottery project is making great progress and we are pleased to announce the completion of stage one – repair of the viewing platform. Joe puts the last few fixings to the floor before work on the steps can begin.
And with a final coat of preservative to the oak boards, all is finished, and very lovely it looks too.
The next stage was to repoint the paving that runs under the arbour. A volunteer away day group from a charity called ‘Trees for Cities’ were the unlucky victims for this laborious task. After a demonstration from Joe they applied themselves with enthusiasm and seemed to enjoy the change from their usual day jobs.
What a difference. No more high heels getting stuck in the gaps!
In the meantime, two time lapse cameras have been installed to capture a year in the life of the garden. Here is a sneak preview of what the camera can see. It will be taking 6 frames per day, each of a split second duration. This will be edited, after the year is completed, to give a fascinating insight into the seasonal changes in the garden.
We have an opt out scheme for anyone who would prefer their image not to appear on the final version, although, as you can see, identification would be very difficult at this range (ask in the visitor centre for more information).
Plans are also well under way for the oral history interviews. We are contacting people who have had a connection with the gardens over the past 30 years and asking them to contribute their memories of the garden. We hope this will form a valuable and interesting record for posterity and added interest for our visitors. If you have memories of the garden, know somebody else who has, or if you would like to help us with this piece of historical recording, please contact us.
None of this would be possible, of course, without the generous support of The Heritage Lottery fund.
Enjoy your gardening in this lovely warm weather, but keep up the watering!

Volunteer week 2018


We have just celebrated National Volunteer week for 2018 and would like to pay tribute to all our wonderful volunteers at Cressing Temple, who tirelessley dig and snip, weed and clip, plant and sow making everything grow in the gardens. Without them, the gardens would not be as they are today:


We are always getting appreciative comments from our visitors about how wonderful the gardens are maintained, how lovely they look and how pleasing it is to be able to buy the produce grown on the site. So much of this is thanks to the strength of our volunteer team.

As a mark of our gratitude, we had an extra special tea-break this week, with lots of goodies and extra time to linger and chat.

I wish every tea-break was like this!

We were able to show off our new banner for the community garden.



Tell a tale….

Share a joke…..

And have just one more piece of cake. We won’t want to go back to work at this rate!

ECC notice and appreciate all the hard work of our volunteer team, as this recent comment from the new Head of Culture and Green Space about the walled garden demonstrates:

“it looks absolutely fabulous!

Please pass on my thanks to all the volunteers.”

Volunteering at Cressing Temple is all about feeling part of something and contributing your time and effort for the good of the local community. Everyone does as little or as much as they are able and everyone is valued. If this sounds your kind of thing, if you like being outdoors, would like to meet new people, share your skills or learn new ones, perhaps you could come and join us? It isn’t all about gardening: we do beekeeping, we sell plants, we create displays and information for the public, we do woodwork and DIY and there are opportunities to do historical research and garden tours. If you would like to know more, please email us

or phone to leave your contact details at reception on 03330 132738

Join the team and be part of a place that has been growing things for at least 800 years!









Celebrating the history of Cressing Temple Gardens

Three cheers for the Friends of Cressing Temple Gardens! They have been awarded a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund for £63,900 to carry out essential renovation to the garden structures, produce a year in the life of the garden film, improve the way we explain the garden to the public and inform them about the plants and invest in more volunteer opportunities and nurture volunteer skills.

The news was well received by Essex County Council who own the site. Dee O’Rourke, Head of Culture and Green Spaces said: “We couldn’t be prouder or more grateful to the Friends of Cressing Temple Gardens group for their work and success in securing this funding. The volunteers play such an important part in helping us maintain the beautiful gardens and setting that is Cressing Temple and we can’t wait to see how they put the funding to use for this exciting project. We are sure our many visitors will be just as thankful to them as we are.”

The site manager was also very pleased: “Lovely news this week for the Friends of Cressing Temple Gardens group of volunteers. We are thrilled for the Cressing group and can’t wait to see their work over the coming months. Our parks rely heavily on the role volunteers play in working with us and we are so grateful.” Want to know more about volunteering with us? We’d love to hear from you – find out more on the Country Parks website    http://www.visitparks.co.uk/volunteering/

We will keep you posted as this project takes shape. The first job is to replace the floor of the viewing platform, which has been closed to the public for several months, and we have been keen to get cracking. You can see the perilous state of the floor here.

The volunteers and Cressing staff made light work of dismantling the old oak floorboards.

Unfortunately this revealed the rotten state of the joists which will need to be reinforced before the new floor goes down. One thing leads to another in this kind of job.

We are now eagerly awaiting the start of the repairs by our carpenter, an expert in traditional timber frame construction. Watch this space for blow by blow updates on our progress.

And now for another triumphant achievement, how about this:

Tim, seen here admiring the mighty mandrake root (Mandragora officinarum) which took quite an effort to wrestle out of the ground. As I’m sure you know, the folklore surrounding this plant and its extraction is legendary.  In medieval texts the root was often depicted wit a strangely human appearance and all manner of special powers were attributed to it.

Our medieval forebears liked nothing better than attributing meaning to things they came across in the natural world and the mandrake plant has had more symbolism attached to it than perhaps any other plant.

Here are just a few of the superstitious beliefs surrounding this plant.

The root was believed to turn into a miniature human and scream in pain when dug up, which was carried out in darkness at midnight. Animals were often used to pull it out, avoiding the inevitable curse of the malign evil spirit that lived in the plant which would inflict madness on anyone brave enough to attempt it. How are you feeling Tim?

In ancient times strange rituals were built around the gathering of this plant. The Greeks believed they first had to draw three circles around the plant with a sword, then facing the west to avoid evil spells, the taproot could be severed. To cut a second piece the gatherer must first dance around the plant using a magical sword  made of virgin iron and only ever used for Mandrake gathering.

Mandrake was sacred to the moon goddess, Selene, on account of its powers over sleep and death. Selene is also the goddess of witchcraft so in Medieval England Mandrake was the natural witchcraft plant.

Once gathered the Mandrake root was treated with great care and reverence. Washed in a running stream for a day and night it would then be wrapped in a clean white linen cloth and stored somewhere safely in a wooden box. It would be brought out whenever certain spells were being used, accompanied with the appropriate prayers.

Another legend that was particularly favoured in Germany between the 15th and 18th Centuries was that Mandrake would grow at the spot a crimal was buried or beneath the gallows on which he was hanged. The roots were known in Germany as the ‘little gallows man’. Pretty gruesome.

The mandrake is an amazing plant with its ability to put down an impressively stout taproot in a matter of a few years. No wonder it became the subject of so many tales and superstitions. But it had a very practical and essential use in medieval times that had nothing to do with superstition. It was one of the chief components of a medieval anaesthetic called Dwale potion. The medieval word ‘dwale’ means confused or dazed and a combination of the gall from a castrated boar, lettuce, hemlock, henbane, opium, mandrake and bryony would surely have been very effective. They contained powerful chemicals such as morphine, hyoscine and narcotic alkoloids that would put you to sleep for hours at a time if administered correctly. I guess mistakes would have been costly!

With this perfect weather I hope you are all getting out in your gardens. This is the perfect time for planting so if you have any spaces to squeeze in one or two extras don’t forget our plant table is well stocked and extremely good value. Small pots holding big plants that are just ready and bursting to get going in your gardens. And all your purchases go to help us keep the walled garden looking beautiful and bountiful all year.








Down memory lane

While we all wait for this year’s growing season to get going I thought I would take a walk down memory lane and look at some old photos of Cressing Temple. We are thinking of creating a display of Cressing memories and would like to share photos of the gardens,  buildings or people connected with the site, either recently or in the past.

In the meantime here are some oldies I have found. First some views of the site before it was purchased by Essex County Council in 1987.

The Barley Barn as it was in Frank Cullen’s day.

And some views from the moat, looking across to the Wheat Barn.

And Frank Cullen himself of course, owner of the site from 1913 – 1971.

And his much loved walled garden as it was in his day.


Moving ahead to the early days of ECC ownership, an aerial view of the site before work on the garden began.

Following archaeological excavation of the garden, plans were made for a new layout. The man with the beard and green folder under his arm is Martin Wakelin, one of the architects of the new design. Explaining his vision that is now our reality perhaps.

Notice the quince trees in the background – no longer there sadly.

The early days of the garden construction, half a fountain and no sign of the star pool yet.

A very new looking platform!

And the finished fountain looking rather exposed with hardly any plants for cover. Roy Martin, the site warden, and Martin Wakelin admiring the work.

Early days, with an embryonic knot garden and step over hawthorn hedge! Can’t do that these days.

Moving on to memories of the lovely old apple tree standing in what is now our pumpkin patch.  One of the many victims of honey fungus in the garden.

And so was the huge walnut that stood to the right of the Gardeners’ Shelter.

The team of carpenters who built the shelter in 2008.

My first memories when I started as gardener in 2012 were of a garden that looked like this! Exuberant and free some might say, and certainly charming, but a little too unruly perhaps?

My colleague Jane and I had our work cut out!

The sacred border was full of old rosemary plants, due for a renovation.

And the trellis had definitely seen better days.

Work to replace all the old trellis soon made a huge difference.

With the team of volunteer gardeners growing stronger every year it became much easier to keep the garden looking well cared for.

Sad losses like the old apple tree became opportunities for new ideas.

And with the Friends Group working hard to raise money for the garden, some bigger improvements became possible.

And so it is with any garden. Ever changing, always developing, and such is the delight of gardening.

Today the gardens have more volunteers caring for them than ever before and the Friends Group is going from strength to strength. The results of such a team effort are there for all to see.  Who knows what memories we will be looking back on in the years to come but they will all add to the rich history of the garden’s  circa 460 year history.

If you have memories of the gardens to add, please let us know. You could copy photos onto a memory stick, email them to us, bring in a photocopy or show us the originals for us to scan.

Happy Easter and happy gardening.










Are we safe to call this Spring?

Some of us are all ready for Spring…..

But the weather has had other ideas lately……

Perhaps the birds should hold back a while before they get on feathering their nests. Mind you, we have provided a few extra desirable residences for our birdlife to consider this year. You may remember us growing bottle gourds (Lagernaria sisceraria)  in the walled garden last summer. We thought they might make an interesting alternative to the usual boxes – we will see what the birds think!

On 6th March some of our volunteers  attended a study day offered by Share Museums East at Gainsborough House in Sudbury. The day was offered to volunteers working in museums in the Eastern region and was called ‘Gardener’s Delight.’

They thoroughly enjoyed it and made us feel envious when they told us about it! Here is a summary of their day.

“A short update on an amazing study day with fellow volunteers from all over the region, including English heritage, stately homes and museums, altogether about 30 of us!

We enjoyed a full day of interesting presentations from a history of Gainsborough House to Cedric Morris and how irises influenced his painting, to a talk from a horticulturist blogger who recently published a book on the Secret Gardens of East Anglia.

Following a wonderful lunch and leisurely stroll around the gardens which contains a 400 year old Mulberry Tree and a small collection of irises collected by Cedric Morris. We had free entry to Gainsborough House which housed paintings of himself and Morris also a small exhibition of Constable.

We returned to an inspiring talk from a Professor of history at UEA on the current biodiversity changes in orchards since 1600. An amazing speaker and enthusiastic landscape historian.

Altogether a great opportunity to share knowledge with fellow volunteer gardener’s and to meet like minded people.”

So who was Cedric Morris?

Before the Second World War, Morris was a well-known painter and breeder of irises, which he admired for their ‘elegance, pride and delicacy’. In 1940 he moved to Benton End in Suffolk, where he cultivated a garden inspired by Claude Monet’s at Giverny. He grew about 1,000 new iris seedlings every year.He ran the East Anglian Art School with his partner Arthur Lett-Haines for more than 40 years and was an avid gardener who bred irises to award-winning standard.

He raised his seedlings  by hand-pollination; sifting and assessing them for vigour and form and using his artist’s eye to produce painterly colours, including pioneering soft pinks and muted yellows. His painting Iris Seedlings is one of his best known.

Iris Seedlings 1943 Sir Cedric Morris, Bt 1889-1982 Purchased 1981 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T03230

The Mulberry (Morus nigra), is a native of Oriental countries but has been grown in this country since the early part of the 16th century, for its fruit and as a food source for silkworms. It is of slow growth, eventually reaching 20 – 30ft, with spreading branches usually wider than the tree is high, as shown by this example. A wonderfully, rugged and picturesque tree, but not one for our smaller modern gardens perhaps.

Another oriental, growing in the Gainsborough garden, this is Hamamelis mollis or Chinese witch hazel, a lovely early flowering shrub discovered in 1879 by Charles Maries from the famous Veitch nursery on one of his plant hunting expeditions in the Far East. It is an exotic relative of the American Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) introduced in 1656, which became a popular medicinal plant due to the astringent action of the tannins it contains. It remains a well known herbal remedy, used for varicose veins, skin inflammation and for healing wounds and burns.

Back in the gardens at Cressing we have made the most of the few nice, fine days to get some planting done. In the tea garden we have been adding more hedging roses, Rosa ‘Wild Edric’, a strongly scented, strongly coloured rugosa type, bred by David Austin. In a few years it should make a cheerful welcome to visitors as they enter the site.

In the same area we have planted clumps of a very vigorous, tall grass. It is one we dug up to make way for the hedging roses and I have no idea of its name. But it is tall and sturdy, making a lovely sight in late autumn, into winter and we thought it would look good here with the moat as a backdrop.

Other jobs have included replanting the water lilies, with Pete drawing the short straw for the plunge this time!

Take a deep breath Pete…..

And go for it!

We are hoping to get a better water balance this year, with less murky green and a clearer view of the fish. More oxygenating plants, a higher density of surface covering plants and possibly a lower density of fish should help the situation.

The Friends Group had a very successful AGM on Sunday, despite the inclement weather. About 30 people braved the snow and came along to hear news of the a very busy year for the Friends and listen to a fascinating talk on Essex apples and orchards by Neil Reeve. He has collected all 34 varieties of Essex apple tree – amazing there were once so many varieties in this County when today you would be hard pressed to find that many in the whole of the UK!  Neil told us of his ambition to see more of these varieties, maybe the entire collection, growing in our Cressing Temple orchard. An exciting thought and something for the long term. We already grow the wonderful varieties D’Arcy Spice and Chelmsford Wonder, but how about adding Braintree Seedling, Maldon Wonder or even Eros! There is currently a Heritage Lottery Funded project run by Orchards East to support and stimulate interest in orchards and orchard fruit growing. In Essex alone there has been a loss of 75% of our traditional orchards over the past 30 years, more than any other Eastern County, so it would be a great achievement for us to do our bit to reverse that trend.

Today was the first day the ground seemed dry enough to get in and do some good spring clean up tasks. We were working in the Cullen garden and had a very satisfying morning snipping back, weeding, clearing debris and rearranging things.

Now we need a bit of sustained warmth to make it all grow. What was that? talk of more snow over Easter – never!

And if this warmer weather has made you all think about getting into your own gardens, our plants are out on the sales table to tempt you. Garden plants have gone up to £2.50 this year, with the herbs staying at £2.00. Both really good value and they are strong, healthy plants that will grow away quickly once planted. Members of the Friends Group will get 50p off every plant, so well worth the membership fee.

This weekend sees the start of our season of events at Cressing Temple with the Oakleigh Food and Home Fair. Some of our volunteers will be working in the gardens to talk to the visitors and others will be selling plants on the stall.

We’re off for another year!

















The 2018 AGM will take place on:

18th March


in the conference room

The short business meeting will be followed by a talk about apple orchards by Neil Reeve, from The East of England Apples and Orchards Project.

Please come along if you can. We have an exciting year ahead.

The AGM documents are as follows:

2017 minutes

AGM notice

Nomination – proxy form

Chairman’s report



Back to winter

My last post was entitled ‘lengthening days and signs of spring’! What a joke, I should take it all back after this week. With the start of March I would normally be thinking all systems go, with the job list mounting and that spring like feeling of wanting to get on with things. Instead of that, I have been cooped up at home most of the week, catching up with admin and looking out on a not at all spring like picture in my own garden.

Cressing has been closed to the public since Wednesday with the drive so deep no cars could get down without getting stuck, as Paula found out to her cost on Thursday!

So while I have been tucked up in the warm my thoughts went to all those poor plants, covered in snow and not being able to escape the freezing temperatures. How do they cope?

Freezing causes damage to plants as water inside their cells turns to ice and expands. But hardy plants, those that can survive below freezing temperatures, are capable of some clever cold hardening (I could do with a bit of that myself!). This mainly involves increasing the concentration of sugars in their cells, which lowers the temperature at which the fluid freezes, rather like anti-freeze does in our cars. The cell walls also become permeable, allowing excessive water based sap to be forced out of the cells into the spaces between, where it does less damage to the plant if it freezes. This can cause another problem for the plant – extreme dessication where the plant basically drys out. To deal with this there are special cells which secrete proteins into the spaces between cells to stop them freezing. All very clever stuff which enables many of our garden plants to endure, if not enjoy, these sub-zero temperatures.

As I haven’t been at Cressing while this big freeze has been going on I can’t show you pictures of what is undoubtedly a very pretty scene there. And the thaw is starting over this weekend so perhaps the picture will be very different next week. But we have had lots of wintry days since Christmas and the garden has looked rather lovely in the frost, especially when the sun was out.

I’m sure most of us are ready for an end to the wintry conditions but it is good to remember the garden can look beautiful in the cold, when it is pared back to the bare bones and its structure and symmetry are all the more obvious.  William Robinson tells us in his seminal book The English Flower Garden “Winter is not a time of death, but of happy strife for plants and men.”

Some of the stars of the winter garden are those with scented flowers, pumping out their perfume on warmer, still days to attract the few pollinators that might be about. One of these is the winter flowering honeysuckle, Lonicera purpusii, a dense twiggy bush with brown wood and creamy coloured flowers in the first three months of the year. The flowers appear back to back on the bare twigs and they emit a rich heavy perfume, especially pronounced on a calm day. We have one flowering now in the Cullen garden and it is well worth paying it a visit and breathing in the sweet scent.

The winter flowering plants are so vital for providing nectar to the brave insects that are beginning to emerge after their long winter hibernation. Our honey bees are certainly grateful of any flowering plants they can find at this time of of year and it is really important for us gardeners to not neglect this when we are choosing what to plant. This bee certainly seems to be appreciating the winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis), a plant that becomes more abundant at Cressing every year and is certainly a delight to see.

The Friends hosted another very successful quiz evening recently, which kick started our fundraising towards the compost loo we are hoping to install at the community garden this year. The conference room was packed and the heat generated by all that brain activity resulted in a need to open the windows, despite the chilly temperature outside! Congratulations to Andy and his team of boffins who showed their expertise on subjects ranging from chocolate slogans to events of 2017 to spelling to TV soaps, to US presidents and flags of the world. Mind boggling stuff! For keen quizzers out there, the Cressing Temple Community Shed will be hosting another quiz on MAY 18TH AT 7.30 in the conference room.

Another date for your diaries is the Friends AGM, this year to be held on SUNDAY 18TH MARCH at 2PM in the conference room at Cressing Temple. After the business side of the meeting there will be a talk by Neil Reeve on traditional orchards, which promises to be very interesting. Neil is a member of The East of England Apples and Orchards Project and he was one of the experts identifying your apples at our Apple Day 2017. Please come along to support us if you can. There have been some significant achievements over the past year and some exciting news for 2018.

We will be starting our new season of plant sales very soon so it is time to plan your summer displays. This snow will soon be a distant memory and we have the anticipation and excitement of spring to look forward to. Keep warm and dream of summer!