Gallery: Southwold garden is product of 30 years of love, commitment and beauty

The garden of Jim and Sarah Swinley, Reydon Grove House, Reydon The garden of Jim and Sarah Swinley, Reydon Grove House, Reydon

Sunday, July 27, 2014
9:00 AM

We’ll have to hurry if we want to enjoy the Swinleys’ garden near Southwold, for when the end of the season approaches – and it will probably be our very, very last chance. Steven Russell finds out why.

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I’ve been asked not to labour the point, but Reydon Grove House is up for sale. It’s been home to Jim and Sarah Swinley for 34 years. “Don’t be too sentimental about it, will you – though I feel it,” Sarah says during a tour of the land in which they’ve invested more hours than they could count. They’re moving only because it’s all become too much work where they are.

So, with the elephant in the garden acknowledged and swiftly dispensed with, we’ll move quickly on to more intriguing things: like Miss Willmott’s Ghost.

Knowledgeable gardeners will know the perennial, with its spiky leaves and cone-like flower-heads, as Eryngium giganteum.

Ellen Willmott didn’t hail from a million miles away. Apparently, as a teenager in the mid-1870s, she came to live at Warley Place – south-west of Brentwood and close, today, to the M25.

The garden of Jim and Sarah Swinley, Reydon Grove House, ReydonThe garden of Jim and Sarah Swinley, Reydon Grove House, Reydon

The amateur horticulturalist was something of an eccentric. “When she visited people’s gardens, if she liked them she dropped some bits of seed,” says Sarah. “It’s very difficult to transplant, but not that uncommon.”

Miss Willmott’s Ghost is just one plant among dozens and dozens of rewarding inhabitants at Reydon Grove House, near Southwold.

The Swinleys moved there from Sussex when Jim became bursar of nearby Saint Felix School. Since then they’ve basically “made” the garden, which runs to probably an acre or an acre and a half.

They first opened it to the public to raise money for Suffolk Historic Churches Trust, which supports the repair and maintenance of churches, chapels and meeting houses around the county. Jim worked for them for many years, voluntarily.

The garden of Jim and Sarah Swinley, Reydon Grove House, ReydonThe garden of Jim and Sarah Swinley, Reydon Grove House, Reydon

Later, it opened as part of the National Gardens Scheme (which also benefits charity), and then helped medical aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontières and the local church.

Currently, donations from visitors – who have to make an appointment – are going to Southwold’s library, in North Green. “We’ve got an excellent girl running it and you know how libraries are so strapped now. Last year we gave them £150, from people being very generous with donations, and this year it will be well over £100. So it’s worth doing.”

Strictly speaking, the season ends on July 31, but the couple are happy to extend that for a week or two if the interest is there and people get in touch.

We stroll, and Sarah explains how they’ve turned the garden into what they wanted. A bed of heather had to go – she doesn’t like heather – to make way for other plants. “We call it the parterre, because it is a part error, my husband said – because we should never have dug it up.” Why? “Well, because it was more work!”

There was nothing planted in the back yard when they came – much has been added – and there have been changes to the vegetable garden area. Jim still works a patch, but some of it has been grassed over time and some turned into an orchard.

Sarah says she was long keen on gardening, becoming more passionate about it and plants as time went on. Her husband, she says, is more keen on growing his veg.

We walk past cheerful Argemone, and Achillea Paprika. “It ‘dies well’, which is very important with plants.”

There are many Euphorbia. “We have very sandy soil, and the result is that some things don’t like it. Phlox” – with their carpets of small and colourful flowers – “are difficult to grow, but Euphorbias, we’ve got about nine different ones. Roses don’t like it. They like a heavy clay soil and this is so light.”

Sarah says the plants in the garden have generally either been grown from seed, by her, or given to her.

“That you see all over Suffolk; all over this light, sandy soil,” she says, pointing to Russian sage – Perovskia atriplicifolia – with its lovely violet hue. “It loves it here.”

Euonymus alatus is apparently the burning bush of Bible fame – the plant featured in the Book of Exodus, when God appeared and told Moses to lead the Israelites into Canaan.

“Again, it dies well, which is very important in plants.” What does that mean, exactly? “It still looks OK when it’s dead; some things look very dreary!”

Over time, Sarah has put in more shrubs. “Verbena bonariensis does very well here. It’s just luck,” she smiles. “Daylilies are useful but don’t live very long.”

Quite a few plants came from a brother in law in Ireland who was quite a well-known gardener.

This year has seen quite a few opium poppies. “Normally I pull them up if they’re mauve, but if they’re that rather lovely red and black I leave them.

“This year the garden has been better than it’s ever been, I think, because we’ve had so much rain. That’s why Irish gardens are so good!”

There are several varieties of fern; Sarah loves them. A Japanese painted fern, for instance, is elegant and eyecatching.

The Tanacetum vulgare “Golden Feather” is a pretty shape, too. “That’s apparently on the endangered plants list, but it flourishes here.”

The garden lost about 13 trees during the great October storm of 1987, but, happily, many fine specimens survived. There’s a majestic and richly-coloured cut-leaved purple beech, for instance, that offers beneficial shade for other plants.

The Swinleys used to describe their garden as “owner-maintained”, but they do now have assistance in keeping the place looking glorious. They have someone to mow the grass, for instance, and today there’s a plantswoman in from Woottens of Wenhaston to help keep things ship-shape.

They might well leave, at some point in the nearish future, but they’ll doubtless take many happy memories with them of days spent tending the earth – and leave behind many visitors grateful to have enjoyed the beauty of Reydon Grove.

Potential visitors to the garden must make an appointment by calling 01502 723655.

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