Chris Pearson maintains the gorgeous garden at Shandy Hall, former home of Laurence Sterne, who wrote the uncategorisable story of Tristram Shandy. After interviewing her about the tricky task, we hung up the phone. We’d found out everything we needed to know, and we were just about to get cracking with the writing when... An email arrived.
‘A few things to add,’ she wrote. She then went on to explain what’s unique about the garden (‘The little reminders of Sterne and his work around the garden’) and what it takes to maintain the garden (‘Ideally a rabbit-proof fence. But otherwise, hard work all year round, persistence, optimism, and a good loyal band of volunteers’).
Fifteen minutes later she sent another email. She realised she’d forgotten to tell us about the moths. At Shandy Hall they trap, record and release moths to measure the biodiveristy of the garden in Coxwold, North Yorkshire. So far they’ve recorded 370 species, all of which are catalogued on the Shandy Hall blog. ‘Sorry, v important,‘ she wrote.
Then she emailed some photographs we’d asked for, and in each email she included a note, explaining what we were looking at: ‘Lawn with clover in flower. We like to have a lawn with flowers to benefit the insects and bees, and because we like the look if it. Patrick [her partner] also mows the daisies into circles earlier in the year.’
After another flurry of emails, there came a final one: ‘It’s me again, like Lt Columbo... “just one more thing...” But just in case needed...’ She’d emailed us the names of some more flowers in the gardens, adding, ‘I think also I may have sounded unduly pessimistic when you asked me about the future. I feel after 12 years I’m just starting to get into my stride.’
She didn’t sound pessimistic at all. Far, far from it. Chris is an inspiration. Originally from Nottingham, she came to Yorkshire in the 1970s, studied English and Religion at York University (where she read Tristram Shandy – ‘I’ve always loved the book,’ she says), became a librarian, and moved into Shandy Hall with Patrick in 2004.
‘For the first six years I was working full-time so it was very, very difficult,’ she told us. ‘All my holidays, all my weekends, all my spare time was spent trying to keep the garden from becoming a jungle, but I’ve gradually cut down and I’m just working two days a week now, and spending more time in the garden.’
If you don’t know Shandy Hall, it was built in around 1430, became home to Laurence Sterne in the 18th century, and as he’d already written the first volumes of his famous novel, he christened the place Shandy Hall. He wrote the rest of the book there. In 1968 Shandy Hall was bought by the Laurence Sterne Trust and became home to Kenneth Monkman, a Sterne enthusiast, who turned the hall into a museum.
Kenneth used his own collection as the basis for the exhibits, and stayed at the hall until he died in 1999, being outlived by his wife, Julia, who had designed and maintained the garden until she retired in 2004 (‘It’s her garden,’ Chris clarified, ‘it’s not mine’). That was when Chris and Patrick took over (Patrick is curator), and they had to decide, with no money available, whether to abandon the garden, or maintain it themselves.
‘It was a really steep learning curve,’ explained Chris. ‘This is a perennials garden. There’s an acre of woodland and another acre which is more formal – none of it’s really formal, but it’s more formal, more traditionally arranged, with lawns and borders and things like that.
‘In the front garden, the bit that everybody sees as they go past, it’s box hedges, and at the moment tulips and later on there are roses and little white violas. So that’s a more traditional style. But we garden for wildlife here. The wild garden is a very important – that’s the acre of woodland – so I had a lot of learning to do about the plants and trees.’
She had never gardened professionally before, but always loved it. Her family had a garden when she was a child, and as a teenager she’d grown ‘a lot of herbs’. While she and Patrick lived in the city centre of York they had allotments, where they grew salads and vegetables, but to get to grips with the huge range at Shandy, she had to study.
‘I read, obviously, being a librarian,’ she told us, ‘and I’ve got a tongue in my head, so I ask people, and gradually, after 12 years, I know what I should be doing and I know what I want to do. The only problem is having the time to do it, so I do what I can. It’s still a garden, not a jungle, so I have to be satisfied with that, and people do like it.’
Although Chris and Patrick charge people to enter the garden and museum, and there is a shop, the money raised is used to maintain the building which requires a lot of attention due to its age (as we spoke, plumbers were fixing a leak), so it can’t be stretched to paying for an assistant gardener. Instead Chris relies on half a dozen very generous volunteers, offering precious hours, to do the important, less visible work the garden needs.
‘We start from the ground soil, trying to get the microbes and insect life and everything else healthy, and of course, when you do that it goes up the food chain,’ explained Chris. ‘So we look after the soil, try and keep everything healthy, don’t use any synthetic chemicals, don’t use herbicides or pesticides, work with nature to control the pests and so we also look after the birds, because if we look after the birds they’ll eat the pests.’
The result is an incredible array of wildlife, from bees to buzzards and sparrowhawks to butterflies. No doubt Julia, who died last year, would have been proud, and one of the wonderful results of the thriving biodiversity is birdsong, considered the crowning glory of the garden. ‘It’s one of the great joys of the place,’ said Chris. One of many.
The Shandy Hall gardens are open 1 May to 30 September, 11am to 4.30pm every day except Saturday. Go to www.laurencesternetrust.org.uk for more information.