England Personified: Avebury
PUBLISHED: 16:38 29 July 2009 | UPDATED: 16:09 20 February 2013
Tara Burke of the National Trust takes us on a tour of a manor that has as much history on offer as the nearby stone circle
The Edwardian novelist RC Hutchinson wrote: 'More than once I have taken visitors from overseas to Avebury. Walking from the church to the little museum I have stopped them where, without intrusion, one has a view of the Manor; and I have said, "Do please let this one scene fasten on your memory. Whatever memories you carry away, let this be uppermost. For this, to me, is England."'
Avebury is best known as being home to the largest prehistoric stone circle in the British Isles. However, tucked away behind the museums, Avebury Manor can also tell stories of the centuries of history which have been witnessed by its halls and gardens. From monks to rebels, literary icons to archaeologists, guests and residents of the Tudor house have endowed it with a colourful past. The earliest recorded history saw Benedictine monks from Normandy living in Avebury Manor in the 12th century. The monks led a simple life, possessing only the bare essentials. In a 1324 inventory, 600 sheep, a hall, kitchen, bakehouse, brewhouse, cellar and dairy are documented. Two beds, kitchen utensils and one luxury - a chess set - are also listed.
The Manor was granted to rebellious royal official William Sharington in 1547, former owner of nearby Lacock Abbey, who narrowly escaped death after plotting against Edward VI. During the Civil War, the estate's Royalist owner, Sir John Stawell, was captured and taken to the Tower for 14 years until the Restoration in 1660. In the 19th century the Manor fell into a state of disrepair until it was rescued in 1902 by ex-Foreign Office staff Colonel Leopold and Mrs Nora Jenner. They were part of a group of young people at the time who had a passion for restoring old manor houses. During their 20 years at Avebury the couple added the library wing and incorporated old panelling, stonework and ironwork into the building. Nora Jenner, who was an expert needlewoman, repaired and created many of the textiles in the house.
Vita Sackville-West, owner of Sissinghurst Castle and famously a lover of the author Virginia Woolf, visited Avebury several times in 1924. She wrote enviously of the Manor and her later designs at Sissinghurst may well betray the influence of Mrs Jenner's work in Avebury Manor Garden.
Archaeologist Alexander Keiller, heir to the Dundee marmalade business, made the Manor his home in 1935. The charismatic millionaire's excavations of the 4000-year-old stone circle uncovered some of the Avebury stones which had been buried in the Middle Ages. He re-erected them and, where stones had been destroyed, marked their position with concrete posts he designed himself. He also opened what is now the Alexander Keiller Museum, housing the records and artifacts from his excavations.
The Manor's tranquil Edwardian garden which remains today is much as it was left in the 1920s and owes a lot to the work of Nora Jenner. Her philosophy seems to have been to retain the original layout of the garden wherever possible. The wall, probably dating from the 18th century, surrounding two-thirds of the garden was preserved and older plants, especially box, can still be found within the formal hedges. Arranged into rooms, the garden is wonderfully peaceful with plenty of places to picnic or just contemplate the outlook.
Head gardener Brian Holman, who looks after the six-acre garden with the help of one full-time gardener, a seasonal gardener and several volunteers, says: "What's lovely about this garden is that there are so many parts to it that even on a busy day, it feels quite private. It's a very tranquil and intimate place to visit." The entrance is into the walled Rose Garden where low box hedges enclose old-fashioned scented shrub roses and lavender. There are wooden benches set along the walls and it's a real suntrap. On a warm day the scent of the flowers is truly intoxicating.
Wandering into the Church Garden you can see redcurrant bushes, peach and fig trees making the most of the south-facing wall. There are also mulberry and damson trees. The plan is to plant more fruit trees like medlar and cherry, in keeping with the National Trust's aims to revive heritage plant varieties.
The gardens surrounding the house can also take you back in time. Facing the most imposing aspect of the Manor, the South Lawn used to be the main entrance to the Manor. Pineapple finials grow up the gate-piers and grape vines have been trained up the walls. There used to be a circular gravel drive here, which linked the ancient entrance to the door on this side. The mature trees in this part of the garden include beech, sycamore, laburnum, Malus and Prunus, which provide wonderful autumn colour later in the year.
In the Orchard, apple trees grow amid a sea of meadow grass and wild flowers. The trees include unusual Wiltshire varieties like the Bedwyn Beauty, Chorister Boy, Dredge's Fame and Roundway Magnum Bonum. The apple harvest is put to delicious use in desserts and sauces served in the The Circle Restaurant at Avebury, the only vegetarian eatery in the National Trust.
The Italian Walk alongside the ancient wall on the west-facing side of the garden contains topiary pillars of yew. It leads in one direction to the Half Moon Garden, so called because of the semi-circular shape of the box and yew hedges that provide sheltered show beds for the summer bedding. On the other side it continues into a curving walk edged with Nepeta and curly leafed parsley, where grapevines, honeysuckle and Escallonia cloak the walls, and then on into the Topiary Garden. At first sight, the topiary in the garden on the west side of the house seems to have been clipped into randomly abstract shapes. However, the design reflects the ceiling mouldings within the house and is best viewed from the upper rooms, when the house is open, to get the full effect.
In the Lion's Walk there is a 50-metre-long herbaceous border sheltered by stone walls and hedges, containing a mixture of plants including Sedum, Day lilies, golden rod and bergamot. It is backed by wall shrubs and climbers. In the East Garden an 18th-century flagstone path edged with glorious lavender bushes leads up to the east-facing and oldest aspect of the house, which is covered with pink and green Actinidea kolomikta and grape vines.
A walk around the Manor and gardens, as well as a tour of the stones and the wider landscape, will whet your appetite for a slap-up lunch at the restaurant. In the afternoon, discover more about our ancestors in the museum and pick up a souvenir in the shop. A day at Avebury really is an escape from the technology-drenched modern world. It inspires the visitor to visualise daily life during the last centuries, and even millennia, and go home both refreshed and enlightened.
Garden open 11am-5pm (excluding Wednesdays and Thursday)
Museum Galleries open 10am-6pm every day
Opening times for the Manor have been variable this year: visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-avebury
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