This could so easily have been one of those coffee table books to be flicked through absent mindedly, gazing at gorgeous photography while skimming over the text. But it’s much more than that.
Which isn’t to say it’s not an attractive book. 144 pages of thick, glossy (but not too glossy) paper stock bound into a package slightly shorter and wider than an A4 page, and just over half an inch thick (never underestimate the importance of the physical aspects of a book; the pleasure derived from a well designed object adds immeasurably to the enjoyment of the contents, while a poor or cheap construction can be an irksome distraction). But the names adorning the jacket inspire confidence in every way – the experienced team of Barbara Segall and Marcus Harpur as author and photographer respectively, with a foreword by plantswoman Beth Chatto. By the end of the introduction, I was hooked.
Secret Gardens of East Anglia takes us on a tour of the four counties of the region via 22 gardens, ranging from vast sites such as Penshorpe Natural Park (Norfolk) with the Piet Oudolf designed Millennium Garden at its heart, to John Tordoff's tiny back garden at 38 Norfolk Terrace (Cambridge).
Most of the gardens get three double page spreads, and the end matter includes a map of the gardens along with details of addresses and opening times (one garden is not open to the public).
As with all the best garden writing, Barbara Segall weaves her narrative as much around the people as the gardens they create and tend. Living in an area characterised by big skies, but also low rainfall, strong winds and light, sandy soils, we come to learn how each of the garden owners have met these challenges, and are given an intimate perspective upon the unique gardens they have created through their perseverance and boundless enthusiasm.
Marcus Harpur’s photography sees the reader transported into the heart of the gardens. and sometimes into the heart of the borders themselves, as with the shot of the Desert Wash section of the gardens at East Ruston Old Vicarage.
If there is one criticism it’s that there’s insufficient space to cover a tour of 22 gardens in the detail you'd really like. The images contain such a wealth of information that they frequently require more room than they are allowed within the gallery pages that end each garden’s allocation of spreads. There’s clearly a balance which needs to be struck in order to avoid increasing the extent of the book, reducing the number of gardens, or restricting the number of images, but the compromise can be a little frustrating. There were other areas where I'd have liked further information – where the text tells us of the efforts of Hunworth Hall’s owners Henry and Charlotte Crawley to lay out the gardens in the Anglo Dutch formal style, I was desperate to see a garden plan from which to contexutalise the formal features so tantalisingly depicted in the photography, and alluded to in the text.
With 22 gardens, it would have been hard to have fitted this into the allotted space. But I think people would be prepared to pay a little more for the extra information, and to allow the photography a little more room to breathe.
But this is a niggle, really, and as wanting more of a good thing is not a bad place to leave a reader, I can heartily recommend this title for an armchair tour of some of the most beautiful and interesting gardens in England.
The 22 gardens visited are: Barnards Farm; Columbine Hall; East Ruston Old Vicarage; Elton Hall; Helmingham Hall Gardens; Hoveton Hall; Hunworth Hall; Kirtling Tower; Parsonage House; Penshorpe Natural Park; Polstead Mill; Raveningham Hall; Silverstone Farm; The Manor, Hemingford Grey; The Manor House, Fenstanton; 38 Norfolk Terrace; Tinkers Green Farm, Ulting Wick; Wickham Place Farm; Winterton Lighthouse; Wood Farm and Wyken Hall.
Secret Gardens of East Anglia – a private tour of 22 gardens is published by Frances Lincoln on 7 September 2017, priced £20.