Step into the Gunby Gardens

Winter morning sunshine in the Gunby kitchen gardens

From sheltered walled corners, wildflower areas and sweeping lawns, the Gunby gardens offer something of interest whatever the season.

There is no prescribed ‘tour’ of Gunby’s gardens, but you may like to start through the white gate at the north east corner of the house. Arriving onto the lawn under the ancient cedar of Lebanon, you'll come to the the pergola garden, where you'll see a pair of lead urns filled with pelargoniums. These lead to a brick arch which takes you to the pergola beyond. This is in a series of simple supports over which apple trees are tightly pruned. Some of the many varieties are ‘James Grieve’ and ‘Kings Acre Pippin’ dating back to a list compiled in 1944.

Apple pergolas in the Gunby gardens
Apple pergolas in the Gunby gardens

The walled compartment surrounding the pergolas, contains the cutting border, a rose garden, the yellow border and a herb garden. To the left the herbs (over 80 of them) have been re-arranged around a central stone trough. Both culinary and medicinal varieties would have been used in a country house of the scale of Gunby. 

The roses to the right include yellows and oranges Chinatown, Arthur Bell and Graham Stuart Thomas with reds Frensham, Wilhelm and Orange Triumph.

Come and smell the Gunby roses
Man smelling Gunby roses

The little box edged lawn with its central sundial was probably laid out around 1900 by Margaret Massingberd, who also brought the little blue domed seat from elsewhere in the gardens as part of her re-planning of this area. Honeysuckle is planted on either side of the seat and frames the view of the mixed herbaceous border on the other side of the lawn.

View from Gunby's Blue Temple
View from Gunby's blue temple

Continue to the cutting borders that run down to the greenhouses either side of the pergola. Here the flowers are grown that are used for many of the flower arrangements in the house. The square brick building nearby is the dovecote. This is as old as the house (possibly older) and houses its resident flock of white doves, see if you can spot htem flying overhead.

View of the Gunby gardens from the stable windows
View of the Gunby gardens from the stable windows

The gardening team can often be found near the Gunby greenhouse and potting shed, preparing and propagating plants for the season ahead. Gunby's garden cats are likely to be snoozing nearby, enjoying a catnap in the sun.

The Yellow Border is a double herbaceous border featuring unusual plants such as Buphthalmum speciosum, a large-headed yellow daisy, Achillea ‘Cloth of Gold’ and Ligularia clivorum ‘Desdemona’, another daisy, but orange this time with leaves tinted with purple. At the end, the arched gateway on the left leads past Kipling’s couplet, immortalised in stone, into the kitchen garden.

" Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made by singing, ‘O! How beautiful!' and sitting in the shade"
- Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Glory of the Garden’

It appears that of all the areas of the gardens at Gunby, the kitchen garden has altered least in appearance and usage over time. Paths divide the garden in four main compartments and the linking perimeter path are all recorded in Peregrine Massingberd’s plan of 1806. In the heyday of the gardens then and ever since the four compartments and wall beds have been in vegetable production. A list, dated 1806, recorded fruit trees on the garden walls, which included: White Magdalen peach, brown fig, Chaumontelle pear, Temple Nectrine, Nutmeg Peach and Breda Apricot . 

Gunby gardener Clive is inspecting his crops
Gardener Clive in Gunby kitchen garden

Today pears, plums, gages and figs cover the walls with apples and more pears forming patterns down the central double herbaceous border. Flowers change from blues to oranges and red and back to blues and whites with the seasons.  Roses, a gift to Lady Montgomery-Massingberd in 1962, form the centre path. These include the Pemberton hybrid musk roses ‘Penelope’, ‘Cornelia’ and ‘Prosperity’ famous for their heavy scent, at its best in the cool of a summer’s evening.   

Seasonal produce from the kitchen gardens is for sale in the tea-room.

Step into the kitchen garden
Gate in Gunby's kitchen garden

Instead of a wall on the south side, a yew hedge divides the kitchen garden from the canal. Irish juniper trees are dotted along the formal line of the walk, which is known as the 'Ghost Walk'. A young woman of the Massingberd family died after the murder of her stable lad lover by her infuriated father.  Her ghost is said to walk here. The dying boy’s curse is supposed to be responsible for the remarkably few occasions in the history of Gunby that the succession has passed directly from father to son. 

" It is this profuse combination of seasonable fruits and flowers…that invests Gunby with the air of a still living English country home"
- James Lees-Milne, Gunby Guidebook, 1946

Passing through the double iron gates, the path to the church runs straight on and two walks wind round to the right.  One leads back up the south side of the canal whilst the other, left-hand one leads into a cherry walk, planted first in 1939. Only one of the original trees survives, a ‘Pyrus malus’. Re-planting has included a Great White, prunus serrulata ‘Tai haku’ which, in 1987, marked the sixtieth anniversary of The National Gardens Scheme, of which Gunby was an original supporter. The surprise view of the east front of the house leads you onto the east lawn.

Perfect stripes in the Gunby lawns
Stripes in the Gunby lawn

The uninterrupted view of the east front of the house is framed by some fine specimen trees, a black mulberry, a robinia and a liquidambar aswell as a couple of cedars, all planted in the last couple of decades to provide succession to trees that have been lost during the twentieth century.

In the shrubbery to the left Rosa cantabrigiensis makes a show, with ‘Wedding Day’ clambering through the holly behind.

There's lots of seasonal colour in Gunby's wildflower walk
Gunby wildflower walk

Behind this shrubbery take the a wildflower walk snaking along the park boundary. In season it's bright with winter aconites, snowdrops, crocuses and primroses. The carpet of wood anemones is particularly beautiful in March and April. In 1904 a tennis lawn was created here due south of the house.  On the East Lawn, a pair of box-edged beds holds hybrid tea roses ‘Mrs Oakley Fisher’ and the heavily scented ‘Etoile de Hollande’.  The planting of the great cedar of Lebanon was in 1812.

" …and enable me to make pleasant shady walks for the summer all around the mansion. Nothing can be more charming and delightful than the prospect of so many pretty rising plantations…"
- Peregrine Massingberd, Journal entry 1812

The current formal planting of a pair of parallel yew allees dates from 1902 with a stoned walk centrally leading to a sundial formed of a baluster from old Kew Bridge.   

Last year the Gunby front gardens were planted with onions to replicate a photo from the 1940s
Front aspect of Gunby Hall

On the walls of the house ‘Sylvia’ and ‘Madame Butterfly’ fight for attention, whilst back in the courtyard the vigorous ‘Mermaid’ (a single yellow rose) climbs up by the little gate in the corner and ‘Breeze Hill’, climbs happily on the clock tower opposite in big cabbage roses of pinkish apricot.

Why not buy a Gunby plant from the tea-room and recreate a bit of the garden at home? The Gunby gardening team will be happy to give you advice on how to best look after it.