East Ruston Old Vicarage Garden
East Ruston Old Vicarage Garden

An exotic garden in an exposed location just a few miles from the north Norfolk coast, East Ruston Old Vicarage Garden is the creation of Alan Gray and Graham Robson. At 32 acres in size it is one of the largest gardens of the late 20th century, and one of the finest privately owned gardens in England. Garden highlights include a sunken garden, topiary, water features, wildflower meadows, a walled garden, and a Mediterranean garden.

The garden's proximity to the North Sea helps moderate the influence of cold winds, and winter frosts are less severe than areas further inland. The location also ensures milder winters and low rainfall than gardens further from the coast. The mild growing conditions mean that East Ruston gardens can grow a very wide variety of half-hardy plants, helping give the garden an air of exoticism.

The garden began almost by accident. The owners were given an old slide that showed the landscape in winter, when the old field boundaries stood out. It struck Gray and Robson that the field boundaries, such as ponds, hedges, ditches, and banks had provided a necessary habitat for local wildlife and plants.

So, armed with an Ordnance Survey map of the site from the 1880s they set about replanting some of this lost habitat. Over the following decades this new/old landscaped area became the basis for long borders, and carefully planned vistas, as the garden grew and took shape. And the birds and wildlife returned; from kingfishers to partridge, woodcock to barn owls.

The entrance to the Green Court
The entrance to the Green Court

Garden Highlights

Our photos will give a better sense of this exciting garden, but we'll run through a few highlights that caught our eye as we explored.

At the garden entrance is a courtyard modelled after a roundabout, with pyramidal picea, hollies, and clipped box.

Beside the house is a Dutch garden, bounded by eight box-edged flower beds and a teak greenhouse. The beech hedge is clipped to create a window looking towards the tower of St Mary's church. At the centre of a long border is a wooden summer house where you can sit and look across the lawns to the Dutch garden.

Leading away from the house is the King's Walk, the only part of the garden designed to be viewed from the house.

The Mediterranean Garden pavilion
The Mediterranean Garden pavilion

Beyond this is a secluded tree fern garden, with tall tree ferns creating forming a mosaic of overhead branches resembling a Gothic cathedral vaulting. A green court leads to a rose garden with old fashioned roses in red and white shades.

A pergola hung with vines leads to the exotic Garden, centred on an unusual fountain created with a modern sculpture that makes a spout of water fall back in on itself rather than be blown by the wind. Plants like bananas and tetrapanex give this garden an unusual ambience.

A woodland garden area is criss-crossed by meandering trails. Trees are underplanted with hydrangeas to create colour throughout most of the year.

In complete contrast is the Desert Wash, a dry garden designed to invoke the spirit of the Arizona desert, with agave, aloes, and cacti.

Keeping with the dry climate theme is the Mediterranean Garden, based around several south-facing terraces. A featured plant here is the echium pininana from the Canary Islands, which produces four-metre high stalks with bright blue flowers.

A popular area is the Winter Garden, where a sheltering belt of Monterey Pines have been clipped to create a porthole shaped viewing window centred on the red and white striped tower of the Happisburgh Lighthouse a few miles away on the coast.

Pathways through the Woodland Garden
Pathways through the Woodland Garden

The East Park area includes 12 acres of formal avenues, planted with Italian alder cut to form high hedges protected by Monterey pines.

One of the most recent additions to the gardens is a heritage apple orchard, boasting over 50 varieties of fruit from across East Anglia.

These are just a few of the highlights of what is a stunning garden, easily the equal of many more famous gardens, and an absolute delight to explore.

In an effort to ensure the garden's continued survival, the owners offered East Ruston to the Royal Horticultural Society. The offer was rejected on the grounds that the location would not attract enough visitors. The success of the gardens in private hands makes you wonder about the wisdom of the RHS decision.

As of this writing, some 30,000 visitors enjoy East Ruston each year, supporting three full-time gardeners and a popular restaurant. Judging by the happy crows I saw while exploring the garden on a sunny May afternoon, the garden's future is assured for the foreseeable future.

Both the gardens and the nearby medieval church are located far away from East Ruston village itself. Don't head for the village and expect to find the vicarage, as this will take you several miles from where you need to be. The garden is on Vicarage Road, just off the B1159, north of Stalham.

I came to East Ruston Old Vicarage Garden by complete accident. Following my passion for historic sites, I was visiting the neighbouring parish church of St Mary. I found the church locked, but a note on the door said that I could find a key at the garden. So I popped along to the garden, where they did not, in fact, have a key, but they told me where I could find it locally. I went off in search of the key, but I was so intrigued by the garden, and it was such a lovely day, that I decided to come back when I'd finished exploring the church.

I was glad that I did, for it is a thoroughly wonderful garden, full of surprising vistas and quirky little pockets of solitude and vibrant colour. No two garden areas are the same; each offers a different ambience, different planting, and a unique feel. No matter where you look you'll find something intriguing. I particularly enjoyed how the garden hedges were aligned to focus your attention on distant viewpoints such as the church tower and the Happisburgh lighthouse.

More Photos

About East Ruston Old Vicarage Garden
Address: Vicarage Road, East Ruston, Norfolk, England, NR12 9HN
Attraction Type: Garden
Location: Off the B1159 north of Stalham, beside the parish church
Website: East Ruston Old Vicarage Garden
Location map
OS: TG365288
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express


Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low to exceptional) on historic interest

East Ruston, St Mary's Church - 0 miles (Historic Church) Heritage Rating

Happisburgh Lighthouse - 1.6 miles (Historic Building) Heritage Rating

Happisburgh, St Mary's Church - 1.6 miles (Historic Church) Heritage Rating

Stalham, St Mary's Church - 2.4 miles (Historic Church) Heritage Rating

Ingham, Holy Trinity Church - 2.4 miles (Historic Church) Heritage Rating

Honing, St Peter & St Paul - 2.5 miles (Historic Church) Heritage Rating

Sutton, St Michael's Church - 3.4 miles (Historic Church) Heritage Rating

Smallburgh, St Peter's Church - 3.7 miles (Historic Church) Heritage Rating

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