Cream of the Crops

It's early Autumn and everywhere you look fruit and vegetables, herbs and flowers are ripe for the picking. 

This is the two-acre walled garden at Apley Estate in Norton, near Shifnal, owned by Lord ad Lady Hamilton.

Just three years into a massive restoration project, the once neglected garden is again growing the exotic and unusual - along with more familiar crops, many of which are heritage varieties.

"We've grown Shetland potatoes which turn blue when boiled exploding cucumbers, tiny cucamelons, yellow cucumbers and purple carrots" says Lady [Harriet] Hamilton.

Restaurateurs are getting involved in Apley's grown to order contract service', where you literally go along and plant a marker in the soil to show which is your crop.

Orders have included giant Thai basil and red perilla for The King & Thai restaurant in Broseley, mooli radishes for Shrewsbury chef Chris Burt and produce for the Hundred House at Norton and University of Wolverhampton (Telford Campus).

The Victorian glasshouses are packed with all kinds of tomatoes and cucumbers.

There's a certain reassurance that can be taken from knowing your food comes from the land you are standing on. Zero food miles and sustainability was nothing new to those gardeners of old. Walled gardens were the first word in self-sufficiency before the phrase was even invented. At the height of productivity between 1800 and 1940, the head gardeners of estates vied to grow the earliest, best and most innovative crops.

The Apley Walled Garden, which dates back to the 1770s, used some of the most advanced farming methods of the time to grow rare fruits and vegetables. The south facing walls were heated from iron boilers.

Harriet adds: "The bricks at the top of the walls were produced locally and are deliberately different and denser so they don't emanate heat as much as those below, so the heat was forced onto the plants growing against the walls."

The Hamiltons, with their four children 15-year-old twins Sybilla and Octavia, Venetia, 11, and Francis, seven, have been lending a hand with the harvesting.

"It's a lovely, special family time together," says Harriet. "We spent many evenings chatting ver raspberry canes. The children get quite competitive over who can pick the fastest."

Of course protecting our heritage is rarely viable commercially and many of the great walled gardens in Britain would not survive without the help of volunteers. Apley is no exception. Volunteer gardeners are an essential part of the project and more are needed but some gardening experience is essential, explains Harriet.

"It's a rare opportunity to work on a project of historical importance be bringing this garden back to life.

It's a chance to broaden your gardening skills and work in beautiful and otherwise private garden. Plus, you get to enjoy a free basket of veg from the head gardener."

Gavin, who is the fifth Lord Hamilton of Dalzell, inherited the 8,000 acre Apley Estate in 2006. Ten years on there have been many changes but the vision remains the same. He says: "we want to hand it on to the next generation in an even better state than that in which we received it. It's tough running estates like ours. Spreading risks and diversification, like opening a farm shop, is vital.

"Apley Farm Shop is all about being local," he adds. "Alongside our beef, lamb and game and produce from the walled gardens, we buy from suppliers as locally as possible, thereby supporting our estate, our tenant farmers and our community. It's local food from local producers for local people."

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