The Tudor garden at Cressing Temple, Essex

The Tudor garden at Cressing Temple, Essex

A Friends Group about to be formed

David Andrews

The great medieval barns at Cressing Temple have been dominant features of the landscape of this part of central Essex for 800 years. This was one of the most valuable manors of the Knights Templar, and later the Hospitallers when the Templars were suppressed in 1312, and the barns are witness to their agricultural enterprise and the technical skill of their carpenters. It was here that Cecil Hewett carried out some of his early studies on medieval carpentry, and argued that they were much older than previously thought. His theories have been supported by tree-ring dating, which shows the Barley Barn to be the oldest known timber barn, built between 1235–50.

The importance of the barns was the motivation for Essex County Council to buy them when the estate was sold in 1987. But the county acquired much more than just the barns. There was a farmhouse, farm buildings and a walled garden. The two initial tasks were to understand and research what they now owned, and to carry out necessary repairs. The third was to explain and display the site as a heritage attraction for the people of Essex. When in their turn the Hospitallers in England were dissolved at the Reformation, the manor was acquired by Sir John Smyth and remained in his family until 1657. The Smyths replaced the Templars timber hall and stone chambers with a great brick mansion of the sort typical of the Tudor period. In the 18th century, a later non-resident owner rented the estate to a farmer and the house was taken down brick by brick and has totally disappeared, though its site has been excavated.

All that remains of this period of Tudor splendour is the walled garden which stood behind the mansion. Originally a pleasure garden, it had later been used as a kitchen garden. This was an asset that cried out for something to be made of it, and so the idea was born of creating a new Tudor garden which would become one of the attractions of the site. An archaeological excavation to identify any remains of the original garden was not very informative, but did show that there had been a raised brick terrace along one side of it, and brick paving round parts of its perimeter.

The 'Tudor' garden at Cressing Temple

The ‘Tudor’ garden at Cressing Temple

The new garden was designed by John Hunter and Martin Wakelin, both sadly no longer with us. It was based on an accurate study of gardens of the period, and included no features or plants which would have been introduced after 1600. A timber viewing platform on one side partially reconstructed the original brick terrace. It looks out over a knot garden, towards the focal structure of the garden, the brick fountain with four spouts representing the four rivers of paradise. From the fountain a rill leads to a still pool. To one side of the knot garden is the arbour or covered walkway covered with climbing plants. The rest of the garden is divided into compartments typical of the period, including a nosegay garden with scented plants, beds with medicinal herbs, a potager or formal vegetable garden, and a flowery mead.

The garden was a considerable achievement, unique in the county and probably East Anglia, and has been popular with the public. However, in the straitened economic circumstances of the last few years, maintenance has become an issue, prompting an initiative, sponsored by the Essex Gardens Trust, to set up a Friends Group. The County Council has welcomed this development and approved a constitution, which envisages the group working to promote the gardens, to generate funds, and provide practical help through volunteering. The initial response from local people has been encouraging, and the inaugural meeting will be held at Cressing Temple at 7pm on Wednesday 27 March, 2013.

For more information about Cressing Temple.

For further information about the Friends of Cressing Temple Gardens, contact David Andrews.

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Painswick Roccoco Gardens, the Red House, Photo © Joab Smith