“Lost” gardens which grew tea, tobacco and bananas

Date: Thursday 24th April 2008

A HORTICULTURAL student is appealing for help to solve the mysteries of the “lost” gardens of Newton Rigg, near Penrith, which once grew tea, tobacco and bananas.

Sarah Gray (right), aged 32, is researching the 108-year-old history of the estate, now home to the Newton Rigg campus of the University of Cumbria.

“How the gardens have evolved over the last century or so is a bit of mystery,” she said. “We know very little about the people who planted the magnificent walnut tree next to the library and other key specimen plants, or whether the suggested brick wall of 1900 which would have created a semi-walled garden was ever built, only to be demolished later.”

She has already enlisted the help of former Border TV gardening expert Henry Noblett, a former head of horticulture at Newton Rigg. Together they have unearthed some important information which helps to explain the evolution of some parts of the garden.

“We have managed to piece together planting plans from maps dating from the 30s, 50s and 70s information which could so easily have got lost over time,” she added.

Sarah has also discovered maps confirming the site and shape of the first horticulture training garden, which was proposed in 1900 to help retain agricultural students for an entire year.

Records reveal that the care of fruit trees in this garden has changed very little over the decades. They were given a summer prune, manured and banded with grease to protect them from the destructive larvae of the Codlin moth practices which continue today.

“Trialling various varieties was a major activity at Newton Rigg and in the 30s raspberries such as Norfolk Giant proved to be a good late variety. However, Perfection and Red Cross were removed because of poor cropping and their susceptibility to the mosaic virus.

“More exotic plants were also grown, such as banana, pomegranate, tobacco and tea. It would be fantastic if we could find a picture of some of these plants growing as they must have been very unusual at the time,” said Sarah. Her research has even unearthed some fascinating social history. During the Second World War, chinchilla rabbits were bred for meat and Land Army girls and Italian prisoners of war worked the fields in and around Newton Rigg.

In the 1950s, Newton Rigg students and lecturers got a glimpse of racism, American style. “We have photographs of black students from an American college visiting Newton Rigg,” said Sarah. “Apparently the principal of the American college advised lecturers at Newton Rigg to wash their hands after greeting his own black students!”

Inspired by the Lost Gardens of Heligan, in Cornwall, which she recently visited, Sarah is eager to write a definitive history of the Newton Rigg gardens. “I want to hear from former students or lecturers who might be able to remember how the layout of the estate changed over the decades,” she said. “Sharing memories of the gardens would also be a great way of bringing them to life.

“Historic gardens can transport you back in time, but the Newton Rigg estate has never stood still for long. It has constantly evolved like people’s own gardens.

“Today, I find it a very inspiring place to study. I love the peace and tranquillity created by the tall hedge that protects the main garden, but more than anything I want to look back into time to see how it has changed.”

If anyone has any information or photographs relating to the history of the gardens of Newton Rigg they can contact Sarah on e-mail at lostgardensgooglemail.com.