Chicksands ‘secret’ garden

When I wrote to the MOD proposing DE Gardeners, I sited examples of historic gardening in the military. I spoke of the fruit trees planted after World War II on patches to help people feed themselves and of the older houses that had been allowed to retain established shrubs and trees, showing that there had always been people who tried to garden, against the odds of maintenance contractors.

The story of Chicksands Priory is in a similar vein. Founded in the 1150s, it was dissolved in 1539 thanks to the reformation and entered the ownership of the Osborne family in 1576. It was sold by the same family to the MOD in 1935, a common fate of grand buildings and estates around the British Isles as the depression bit and the government prepared for war. Inevitably the government developed the areas of use to the war effort and ignored the rest.

Chicksands Priory from The Virtual Library

This bring us to the walled garden, or kitchen garden as it would also have been known. A feature of all great houses, it was where the food was grown for the occupants. The MOD did not need to touch the walled garden because there was so much parkland to build on as well as the space available in the Priory itself. During the war Chicksands was a secret listening post – sending intercepted enemy transmissions on to the more famous Bletchley Park for decoding- and today is home to Defence Intelligence Training Group (DITG). Photos from the archives show that during the war the garden was used, providing a relaxing space for members of Y service, operators of the secret radio-listening station. Plaques commemorating fallen members of Y service from around the world have also been found in the garden showing it was an important space to people, and one they thought would be maintained over time.

Y Service Memorial, Photo: MOD

However, the garden was not maintained and fell into ruin so it was a wilderness when in 2019 Capt Vicki Gosling co-ordinated a team of volunteers around a plan to restore the garden into a usable space for the current community. Plants were propagated and sold to raise funds to buy tools and as the garden was uncovered, so was the enthusiasm of more and more volunteers under the auspices of head gardener Annie Bamber. The garden now houses new allotments and restored vegetable beds. A Black Hamburg vine was discovered, growing since the 1800s it has been restored by volunteer Katie Greenwood and although it was hoped the garden would produce it’s own Walled Garden Muscat wine to help raise funds for future maintenance, it was found to produce table grapes as opposed to wine producing grapes.

Before, Nov 19 & After 2021
Photo: Katie Greenwood

For her efforts, Capt Gosling on behalf of the Chicksands Conservation Group was awarded the Silver Otter Award and the Social Value, Community and Heritage Award as part of the annual Defence Sanctuary Awards that recognise outstanding conservation and sustainability efforts across the MOD estate.

Getting a new project off the ground requires a particular set of skills. Huge enthusiasm, driving passion, a willingness to step out and break no ground physically and metaphorically. Sometimes it means battling through other people’s dissenting views that what you are doing is the right thing to do. Once complete and obviously successful congratulations quite rightly pour in and dissenters vanish as if they never existed. It takes a different set of skills to run a project and in this case, to put in place an ongoing plan not only to maintain the new garden but also so build on its legacy and find sustainable ways forward of integrating it into the life of the base.

Before, Nov 19 & After 2021
Photo: Katie Greenwood

Step up new head gardener Bethan Morton who has been employed permanently to ensure the future of the garden is in safe hands. A pilot scheme has been launched with Defence Gardens Scheme in partnership with the Veteran’s Community Network providing horticultural therapy courses for veterans with mental health issues.

This enforces the point I made to the MOD in my paper to them launching DE Gardeners, that the benefit of gardening for mental health was so well documented there was barely a veterans charity that didn’t have a horticultural element. Here at Chicksands, personnel and their families are also encouraged to experience the benefits extending that essential support to the service community. Not to be left out, children living at Chicksands and Henlow enjoyed an Easter egg hunt run by the Army Welfare Service.

Funding has been received to start restoration work on the ancient greenhouse and ESS have purchased a polytunnel to support the sustainability projects taking place within the walled garden, which will allow them to produce herbs and vegetables for the mess kitchen, catchily called ‘From Fork to Fork’. A green fingers group is due to be launched for children to come and have a go at gardening and of course adult volunteers are always welcome – no prior experience necessary!

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