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Head Gardener at Crook Hall on Her Affinity with Nature and Managing a Maze

Gardens at Crook Hall
July 2016
Reading time 5

We chat with Crook Hall’s Head Gardener Anne Tulloch about her affinity with nature, managing a maze and taking horticultural inspiration from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets

Having started her gardening journey as a youngster in County Durham growing bedding plants in greenhouses and entering the occasional leek show, Anne Tulloch became something of a nomad, working at a garden centre in Scotland before heading for warmer climes and managing a nursery down in Kent. But her roots remained in the North East, and when the job of Head Gardener at Crook Hall, a 13th century Medieval hall in Durham became available, she jumped at the chance to return. ‘I’m so lucky, I consider myself very privileged being here,’ she tells me.

Far from ploughing a lone furrow, she relies on a team of six volunteers to help keep Crook Hall’s various themed gardens in shape. Anne enjoys the company – after all, gardening  can be a lonely calling at times – but her chief enjoyment in her profession lies in the way gardening interlocks with nature, with Crook Hall’s gardens providing something approaching a green oasis amidst the backdrop of Durham and its sprawling urban scenery.

 ‘I love it here, you’ve got the roar of the traffic and the train track behind, but the bird song overtakes everything in the morning, you can’t hear anything but these birds, it’s wonderful. This one’s just a homely garden. It’s good for weddings as well. When they’re having a wedding it’s their home for the day.’

Anne’s effusive with regards to the enjoyment she gets out of tending to Crook Hall’s gardens, but she admits there are aspects she struggles with; with hard landscaping coming firmly under that bracket. ‘I don’t particularly like when you go to see Chelsea [Flower Show] and you see an awful lot of hard landscaping now. I’m more of an English country garden sort of person. We have to put paths down because the amount of traffic is wearing the grass out and it gets muddy. It’s just not my forte. I wish it was but it’s not.’

Crook Hall’s gardens feature a meadow area, an old English-themed walled garden plus a Cathedral Garden, which is popular with wedding guests due to its views of Durham’s iconic cathedral. The Cathedral Garden features leylandii hedging, cut to reflect the cathedral’s arches, while beds of dianthus and lavender echo its stained glass windows. 

‘There’s areas where there’s block planting and then there’s wild areas where we’ve got meadows,’ Anne explains. ‘I have block planting down the side of the orchard, we’ve got foxgloves and that will be followed by daffodils.’

Intriguingly Anne’s also working on developing a Shakespearean themed garden, which has become something of a personal project. ‘I’m reading all about Shakespeare,’ she explains. ‘Lots of books have been published about Shakespeare’s plants.

When I was in New York I visited the Shakespeare Garden in Central Park. There are lots of herbs and weeds involved, so I’m reading up about that.’ Along with cultivating a number of plants that are afforded poetic licence in Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, Anne’s also planning on providing laminated sheets of quotations to go with the horticultural side of things. ‘I’ve become quite a bore on Shakespeare,’ she laughs. ‘It’s work in progress.’

She also has to manage Crook Hall’s maze, a challenge she initially approached with a degree of trepidation but which has become one of her favourite tasks. ‘I love doing the maze. If you keep at it all the time it stays in shape, the children love it. I always get lost in there – it’s no fun with a lawnmower!’

For Anne planning in advance is key, and while spring is beginning to rear its head, she’s already looking towards autumn. ‘When the bulbs are out now I look where the holes are, I plan for autumn. In December I plan for summer, you always have to plan ahead.

'When you get to the end of summer, winter bedding is always in your head. I don’t want the same every year – tulip bulbs I don’t want them next year, when they die back I dig them up, dry them off, they’re good somewhere else, I just keep moving things around for interest.’

‘Anne’s also working on developing a Shakespearean themed garden, which has become something of a personal project’

In the meantime she’s looking forward to seeing the fruits of her labours when the garden begins to bloom in earnest. ‘It’s always enjoyable,’ she tells me. ‘You get things wrong but if you learn from your mistakes that’s half the battle. You put things together and sometimes it works, sometimes it’s a disaster. You’re learning all the time, that’s the beauty about it – never be afraid to try.’

Anne’s also got some tips for all those amateur gardeners out there who take pride and no little enjoyment from the joys of cultivating. ‘When I used to go round to people’s gardens they would have plants in pots and they don’t know where to put them.

'I say put them in the garden, give things a try. It’s not set in concrete, if they don’t work take them out and keep moving them round until you get it right. It’s like an artist, just give it a go. Be careful with your knees when you’re bending down, put knee pads on. The older you get it does take it out on your knees. If you don’t wear safety glasses dirt can get in, I’ve had trouble with my eyes – my back’s all right though!’

Anne’s resolutely cheerful about her work and her bubbly personality means that it’s little surprise when she invites me round for a cup of tea if I ever stop by. ‘If people come to visit it’s lovely to see them,’ she explains. ‘I like people who enjoy the garden and come and thank you. Come and tap me on the shoulder, I’m the scruffy one – you can’t miss me.’

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