By Haydn Brown.
The painting depicted below is of a derelict cottage; a once former “Tea House” in equally once rambling and romantic gardens in Norfolk. The painting is by James Mayhew who, as a sixth former, submitted it as part of his then ‘A’ Level examination. His choice of subject was well chosen because of its personal and family association with the garden in which it stood.
This association began, for him at least, after his Great Aunt and her husband had bought the gardens and moved into the estate’s “Redclyffe House”. In James’s own words:
“In the mid-1960s I would be taken to these grand, elaborate gardens and lose myself amongst the camellias and rhododendrons, the tumbling “Cinderella” steps and tiers of shrubs that possibly rivalled Babylon.”
To think that the boy’s imagined ‘Babylon’ would not have been possible had it not been for an enterprising Norfolk-born pioneer in preventive medicine, by the name of Dr Michael Beverley who, in 1881, purchased seventy-six acres of land on the western end of Brundall and built what was to become Brundall Gardens. Because of its wooded but unusually vertiginous picturesque slopes, the gardens became known locally as ‘Little Switzerland’, and people loved them – proof of this being the numbers that flocked there in their hey-day!
(Two views further of Brundall Gardens out of season. Photos: Justin Franklin.)
After many years of dedicated work, Dr. Beverley eventually transformed those seventy-six acres into the magnificent garden that it became. Magnificent because it contained a variety of features which included the rockeries and three-stepped ponds which led down to a vast expansive lake; the lowest pond was said to have contained a large and ‘legendary pike that could never be caught’. Around this landscape he planted shrubs and trees – many of them still surviving as specimen trees towering above lake and garden. Along with the original plantings was a collection of exotic birds to excite the visitor. He also built a somewhat luxurious log cabin as a weekend retreat for him, his family and friends.
However, thirty-eight years after his dream first found reality, Dr Beverley’s wife died. This was in 1919 and from that point he must have lost interest in the gardens and estate for he began the process of selling them off – ‘lock,stock and barrel’. This took time and it was not until 1921 when Frederick Holmes-Cooper, who had made his money from the cinematic industry, bought the complete package. He was clearly an entrepreneur in the strictest sense for he lost no time in developing the estate further for, presumably, no other reasons than to generate an increased number of visitors and a greater return on his investment.
One of his first projects was to replace the Log Cabin, which had burnt down just after he had bought the estate; this replacement came in the form of the impressive three-storey ‘Redclyffe House’ built within the grounds for his family; it was high above the vast expansive lake, the three stepped ponds leading down to it – and the large ‘legendary’ pike which could never be caught. Nearby, also overlooking the ponds and lake, was a ‘stone hart’ which was to become more than a feature of the garden. It was often upon this cooperative creature that children were sat to have their photographs taken by Khodak ‘brownie’ box cameras for the family album back home.
Further additions to the Gardens included the Tea House with its genuine Delft tiles placed around the fireplace; these depicted sailing boats . Further down on the river bank was a dance pavilion alongside the landing stage, plus a magnificent Hotel, unsurprisingly named the Riverside Hotel, since that is where it was – on the banks of the River Yare! In 1922, it was said that in excess of 60,000 people visited the Gardens. The sun was to shine in so many ways for both the owner and visitors.
Frederick Holmes-Cooper investments in the vincinity of Brundall did not stop with his Gardens; he also owned the Brundall Gardens Steamship Company and the postcard below was actually an advertisement for day trips on the SS Victorious from Great Yarmouth to the gardens, where entrance fees were 3/6 for adults and 2/- for children under twelve. The reverse of the card told them:
“Any person taking a trip by the SS Victorious leaving Southtown Bridge any morning except Saturday (weather circumstances permitting) to Brundall Gardens, “The Switzerland of Norfolk”, will be amply rewarded. Luncheons and teas at the commodious riverside restaurant at moderate prices.”
Frederick Holmes-Cooper’s enterprising exploits did not stop with his purchase of the Gardens or his ownership of the local steam company. Such was the Garden’s popularity that he was also successful in negotiating for trains on the Norwich to Yarmouth line to stop at what was a bespoke station. It was opened on 1 August 1924 as the ‘Brundall Gardens Halt’ station; its installation costing £1,733, on top of which Holmes-Cooper gave LNER £150 per year to fund a stationmaster – everything seemed complete. The station would be renamed as simply Brundall Gardens in 1948.
However, in 1937, the entire gardens were sold and its gates firmly closed to paying visitors. Over future years, serious neglect set in and some sections of the land were ‘gifted’, or used for downsizing with the remnants sold off to a builder. By the time of the Garden’s last sale in 1968, the original 76 acres had diminished to just 18 acres. Then, in 1969, some fifty years after the Garden’s creation, the impressive ‘Redclyffe House’ was destroyed by fire and the once magnificent gardens sank further towards total neglect.
(Two aspects of the neglected Brundall Gardens. Photos: James Mayhew.)
Unsurprisingly, when there is neglect, vandals soon emerged from wherever they fester and did their worst. In the case of the Gardens, they invaded the area, destroying the Tea House and the stone hart before moving on. The stepped-ponds, the lake and the legendary pike remained but were almost completely forgotten because everywhere became overgrown; shrubs ran wild and the ‘cinderella’ stone steps leading from the house covered in ivy. Everything that was once neat, tidy and attractive became overgrown; sparking at least the imagination of children seeking excitement and adventure amongst the undergrowth. Even the stretch of riverbank, which lies between the Yare and the lagoon, became suffocated with the highly invasive Japanese Knotweed – which one would hope has now been completely eradicated! It was a legacy from the days of Dr Beverley when the plant had been extremely popular from Victorian times.
So, what, if anything, remains of Brundall Gardens? The Lily Lake still lies alongside the railway line, and a small area of the original gardens managed to survive the developer’s bulldozers to become the private gardens of the houses which surround it. The “Cascades” which were a series of ponds leading down to the lake, plus the remains, of what is believed to have been a Roman dock, were restored and now lie in the grounds of Lake House. This property is owned by Janet Muter who, at this point, takes up her story:
“on a chilly March afternoon in 1994, I first saw, quite by accident, the overgrown remains of what had once been the famous Brundall Gardens. By the next summer my husband and I had bought and later acquired three acres of the garden with its beautiful forest trees and water features. I was not young and planned to plant mainly small native trees, shrubs and bulbs, so keeping the area the wildlife haven that it had become. Beneath the trees I grew easily maintained perennials, such as Japanese anemones hardy geraniums and hellebores. I uncovered rockeries and boggy areas creating further interest and added a waterfall and a fountain. For twenty-five years we have opened the garden for the National Garden Scheme sharing it with thousands of visitors.”
Finally, the yacht basin became home to the Brundall Gardens Marina, whilst the landing stage and riverside tearoom site was developed some years ago to house a small marina/ boatyard and holiday cottage complex which seemed, for a long time thereafter, as unoccupied. As for the Riverside Hotel; that was renovated in the 1970s by Colin Chapman, of Lotus fame, but was later declared unsafe and it too was destroyed by fire in 1993 after a reputed lightning strike.
Last words are left to James Mayhew:
“A couple of years ago I visited Brundall Primary School. Instinctively I had parked outside where my aunts and grandparents’ “new” houses still stand (although they died long ago and I hadn’t been to Brundall since I was 18 and produced [my] ‘A’ level work). And by pure chance, one part of the garden, with the three descending lakes, was having an open day for charity.
And so, stepping back in time, I briefly revisited the re-imagined gardens. I was overwhelmed with memories; it was hard to make it seem real. Last of all I found the place where the stone hart once stood. It was probably the last time I will ever see anything of Brundall Garden. At least until I close my eyes and dream. Then I can run around, as a child, those stately trees and play in the tea house again, and sit once more on the back of the stone hart.”
In addition to those photographs kindly supplied from the gallery section of the Brundall Local History Group website, there is also their history of Brundall Gardens in “The Book of Brundall & Braydeston: A Tale of Two Norfolk Parishes” which was produced by the Group and published by Halsgrove in 2007.