Day visit to Alswick Hall and Hopleys Garden Centre

September 22nd 2016

Report by PM Steve Dowbiggin

A strong contingent of the Company, led by the Master and Mistress Gardener, met on a bright early autumn day to walk in the footsteps of Queen Elizabeth I at Alswick Hall.

We were warmly welcomed by Anne Johnson who, with Mike Johnson, owns this hall and gardens and surrounding farmland just north of Buntingford in Hertfordshire. After a very convivial coffee in their new extension (which blended perfectly with the traditional building), we were treated to a tour of quite exquisite gardens brimming with interesting plants which had been planted with much thought and good design.

Anne has a passion for plants which spilled out of every sentence she spoke as we walked around. She gained an interest in gardening from her mother and has used this to great effect since they inherited the house and gardens from Mike’s father.

There is too much of interest to list examples in this article, but the herbaceous perennial borders at the entrance were exceptional, as was the planting around the house which, even at this difficult time in the gardening year, looked fresh and interesting.

Anne continues to extend and develop the gardens and projects such as the Woodland Walk, Jubilee Border and Wildflower Meadow have been completed and new projects and ideas abound.

Many would have happily stayed at Alswick all day but we were enticed away to visit Hopleys Nursery a short drive away.

When we arrived at the Nursery at Much Hadham, the fingers and credit cards of the active gardening contingent of the Company started to twitch, given the quality and range of plants available, but retail therapy was postponed in favour of a wonderful and convivial lunch and tour of the gardens by its owner Aubrey Barker.

Hopleys was established in 1968 at a time when the horticultural industry’s backbone was made up of such specialist nurseries supported by a knowledgeable public who demanded quality and variety.

Over the last 50 years the increased efficiency of the present retail industry has reduced the range of plants available. Now we are told what we can buy, not asked what we want to grow in our gardens.

Hopleys, however, keeps alive a tradition of specialist plant production on a commercial scale. Such nurseries need nurture and support if we are to have freedom of choice in the future.

Hopleys plants are known for raising and introducing new garden plants of merit. They established this reputation when they introduced Potentilla ‘Red Ace’ in the early 1970’s and the list of credits since then is longer than some garden centres total range of plants available!

The tour of the five acres of display gardens was an illustration of how plants thrive when they are planted where they will grow best.

As with the tour in the morning, what made it exceptional was the knowledge and passion of the owner that provided a magic that held everyone spellbound. We retired to the shop for some retail therapy and the chance to purchase some difficult-to-find plants of excellent quality at very reasonable prices.

The day was an enormous success. The friendliness of the Gardeners and their interest in every aspect of plants and gardening is always a joy and two incredible hosts meant we all learnt something.

All present were extremely grateful to the Master and Mistress Gardener for organising such a memorable day. It was also pleasing to note that along with the Gardeners having a wonderful day, as a result of both hosts declining payment, the Company was able to donate £150 to the Herts Air Ambulance (Aubrey’s charity) and £150 to the Alzheimer’s Society (Anne’s choice).

Sometimes everyone wins!

Alswick Hall and part of its exquisite gardens.
Alswick Hall and part of its exquisite gardens.