Posts by beck@becklaxton.com

March 2021

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In view of the ongoing pandemic and the Government’s latest roadmap out of lockdown, we have had to cancel our popular Easter children’s event and defer our Anniversary Fete to a later date. As it stands, we plan to hold the Fete on Sunday 27th June, which is after the 21st June tentative deadline when all restrictions on social mixing will be lifted. However, we are all aware that the situation can change quickly, so please look out for further announcements nearer the time.

We were very pleased to re-open the Garden to visitors in February. Current rules allow for households and support ‘bubbles’, and for two people from different households to meet outdoors for recreation and exercise. From 29th March, the ‘rule of six’ will apply again, allowing more people to meet up outdoors, with further restrictions easing after 12th April and again from 17th May. Confused? If so, go to the Government’s website to see exactly what is and isn’t allowed.

Back in the garden there are lots of signs of spring. Yellow brimstone butterflies and early bumblebees are active on warm days. Snowdrops and aconites have gone over but the crocuses are hanging on and open up fully when the sun shines. Early daffodils started to flower in March and will be at their peak in April, and later on early tulips and crown imperial lilies will appear. There is still a surprising amount of spring blossom to appreciate – and for our honey bees and other pollinators to feed on – including Cornus mas, shrub honeysuckles and Mahonias. Damson trees and ornamental cherries are starting to show their pink and white flowers, giving a tantalising glimpse of the ‘main event’ when the apple blossom comes out in April and May. Can’t wait!

We’ve noticed a lot of ladybirds emerging from their winter hibernation in recent days – mostly seven-spotted ones. Are we in for a significant ‘ladybird year’ in 2021? The last was in 2018 when huge numbers were seen pupating on tree trunks in the garden during very hot summer weather. Another interesting insect to look out for now is the hairy-footed flower-bee. This species emerges very early in the year, flying low over the ground to feed on spring flowers such as early-flowering borage, Pulmonaria and yellow archangel. They are difficult to observe, restless and fast-flying, but you might be lucky enough to spot one. Ask one of our volunteers for help.

We will be putting up scaffolding on the front and side of the Challis house for some essential maintenance work. Unfortunately, this hampers progress on planting up the front garden, but we will continue to do what we can. At least, it will give us more time to select and source the key plants needed. Gardening cannot be rushed – this is no television makeover job à la Titchmarsh!

There are often surprises in the Challis world. Recently, our builders found an old bottle under the floorboards of one of our properties. It is in remarkably good condition and cleaned up well. The two labels are clearly legible, one with a date of 1862. It is not clear this was the date the bottle was made but it must be from around that time. This bottle of blackcurrant wine was made by Hill, Evans & Co., Worcester and bottled by Robert Waters. The label on the reverse of the bottle makes interesting reading:

INTERNATIONAL EXHIBITION
London 1862
Extract from the “STANDARD” of Nov. 1st
“In the cursory notices we have from time to time given of Class 2, which embraces chemical and pharmaceutical processes, we have omitted to mention WATERS’ QUININE WINE. We are all the more sorry for this because we can bear personal testimony of its value as a tonic, to the innocence of its composition, and of the pleasantness of its taste. Quinine in any form is apt to induce nausea and headache; in the shape of the Quinine Wine of Mr. Robert Waters without its sickening tendencies. Again, Quinine is usually dissolved in a powerful acid, which adds considerably to the disagreeableness of its taste. We do not know the process of Mr. Waters, but we do know that there is apparently no more acid in this Quinine Wine that there is in ordinary sherry bitters, and that it is equally palatable and far more medicinal.”

Well, you don’t see testimonials like that nowadays! Those of us that have taken quinine medication for malaria or tasted quinine wine can identify with the author’s sentiments.

We have started to produce a monthly newsletter, to inform visitors and the general public about what’s happening in the Challis Trust, with what to look for in the garden and any recent news. Get your copy from the garden or the Green Weigh shop or find it on local Facebook pages.

Mike Redshaw

Published in Sawston Scene, April–May 2021

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January 2021

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Looking back to this time last year, volunteers were busy putting together the exhibition ‘Half a Pound of Tuppenny Rice …’ on the co-operative movement and shopping in Sawston. Since then, of course, the exhibition had to close early due to the Covid-19 outbreak, the planned celebration of fifty years of Sawston Scene didn’t materialise and all our events except the Open Gardens were cancelled. It has truly been a very strange year for everyone.
We have now reluctantly had to take the decision to close the garden to visitors during this second national lockdown. Given the seriousness of the current situation, we had no alternative. This is very disappointing for all of us, but we trust you understand the reasons for this. We sincerely hope we will be able to re-open the garden in the near future, possibly some time in February, but who knows…?

On a positive note, however: once the garden re-opened in early June, we have never had so many visitors during the regular opening hours on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons. It was hugely satisfying to see the garden used in this way as more people discovered our peaceful and safe haven in the centre of the village. Many groups took advantage to meet up with friends and family, including Pampisford WI, OWL, the Royal British Legion, Cambridge Art Circle, Wool’n’Tea, Sing to Remember, Cambridge Rare Disease Network and Dan’s tai chi class. We also welcomed others to the garden in the evenings for practical sessions – Sawston Steel Band, Pilates, Sawston WI and Sawston Boys and Girls Brigade among others. The garden is a versatile location, suitable for all sorts of activities and get-togethers. We thank the Sawston community for their support and patronage during this difficult period and we look forward to hosting more gatherings in 2021.
One thing we have all learnt in 2020 is the importance of nature and green spaces for our well-being and mental health. This is acknowledged and strongly supported by the Government and leading charities, such as the National Trust, the Royal Horticultural Society, National Garden Scheme and not least the medical profession, who all make strong cases for keeping parks, gardens and other green spaces open to the public for exercise and relaxation. Here at the Challis Trust, we are very pleased to be a part of this community and fully endorse the view that nature needs to be accessible and conserved.


Our team of volunteers has grown, as we’ve all found more time on our hands to take on other activities. Volunteer hours were at a record level, 30% higher than preceding years. This has enabled us to keep well on top of routine gardening jobs and to carry out some additional tasks. Thanks indeed to all our volunteers, the garden has never looked so good. And Mary Challis’s chickens have been given a new home!
Many of you will have seen the changes in the front garden of the Challis House on the High Street. It was due for a makeover! We don’t really know what the front garden looked like in Mary Challis’s time, but there are reports of lawn and bedding plants either side of the path, with climbers growing up the side wall. A pair of laburnum trees stood at the front, creating an ‘arch’ over the pathway. Only one remains now. The house was formally known as ‘The Laburnums’, its name etched on a glass panel above the front door. It is planned to reinstate the two laburnums when the second one dies and to install a new glass panel.
The new look is more modern and formal, with symmetry either side of the path. The two small paved areas on each side reflect the colours and dimensions of the front of the house. The main colour theme will be yellow, blue and grey-green, complementing the laburnum flowers when these are in full bloom. The evergreen Pyracantha ‘Orange Glow’ will be trained to cover the side wall. It is not yet fully planted as it proved difficult to source some key plants, due to disruption in the supply chain of planting material during the pandemic. Hopefully, these will be available in the spring. Do follow the progress in the coming months.
There are early signs of spring in the garden. Many snowdrops and a few aconites are already in flower and should be at their best in February and March, to be followed by crocuses and daffodils. In the winter/spring long border, the dogwoods (Cornus spp.) are looking really good this year, with solid stands of yellow, green and red stems. And many of the winter-flowering shrubs are starting to produce strongly perfumed flowers, notably shrub honeysuckles, winter box, Viburnum spp. and Mahonia. Hopefully you will be able to visit soon and not miss out on these winter displays.
Ever optimistic, we are planning to hold several events this year. The programme of Challis Trust events is:

Events planned for 2021

Anniversary Fete
Sunday 16th May

NGS Open Gardens
Sunday 13th June

Big Challis Family Picnic
Sunday 18th July

Challis Horticultural Show
Saturday 4th September

Spooky Saturday
Saturday 30th October

Sawston Winter Fair
to be confirmed

Hopefully, these will take place as planned in 2021! Mike Redshaw

Published in Sawston Scene, February–March 2021

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November 2020

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At the time of writing this, in the second lockdown, we are grateful that the government has allowed green spaces, such as our garden, to remain open to the public for exercise and recreation. All organised meetings and gatherings, of course, are not allowed and the house and museum remain closed.

The beneficial value of green spaces for mental and physical well-being is now widely recognised, and has certainly been brought into the public domain by the Covid-19 pandemic. Many organisations, such as the National Garden Scheme and the National Trust, are actively promoting the importance of getting out in the natural world and encouraging us to visit parks and gardens. Green spaces such as the Challis Garden have never been as important as they are now. We are very pleased to welcome visitors to relax and enjoy this wonderful safe and peaceful place. There is always something new to see and people to chat to. Do drop by for a walk around the garden or to simply sit and relax.

The Royal British Legion installed a stunning poppy display for this year’s Armistice commemoration, which attracted lots of compliments and attention. Well done to the many ladies who made good use of the extra time at home to crochet poppies. The result was a spectacular ‘torrent’ of poppies spilling down the front of the Challis House. The Challis Trust is honoured to host this annual display and we look forward to seeing next year’s creation – but it will prove a hard act to follow!

The two owls carved from an old walnut tree have proved very popular with visitors and volunteers alike, and are now a key feature of the garden. Our ‘Name the Owls’ competition was very well supported, attracting over a hundred entries – a fantastic response. Thanks to all who entered. It was hard to choose a shortlist of five entries to go forward to a public vote, but there were a few obvious ones that appealed to the judges and a few quirky ones to throw into the mix. In the event, there was a very clear favourite, using clever puns to produce two familiar names – ‘Victawnia’ and ‘Owlbert’, suggested by Phoebe Marsh. Many congratulations to her for these endearing names. The runner-up was Alena Neesam for ‘Ozzy’ and ‘Barney’. Now that our owls have names, we hope they will live up to them and reign over the garden for many years to come.

We have had a very successful fruit harvest this year, but this has now come to an end, with the last of the Bramley apples. Much of the produce was used to make an impressive range of jams, chutneys and jellies. Many thanks again to Andy Jackson for his culinary skills! A lot of the apples were processed to make apple juice, mixing donated apples with our own. Three sessions produced a very creditable 178 bottles, far more than previous years. Each batch is different, depending on the mix of apples available at the time, but mostly Spartan, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Bramley and Lane’s Prince Albert. The mild weather and regular rainfall in late summer and autumn resulted in ripe, juicy apples ideal for juicing. 2020 appears to be a good vintage!

The mild weather through October and November has allowed people to get out and about, with many more people than usual visiting the Garden. The autumn colours persist here and there, but the strong winds in early November stripped most of the leaves off the trees. The main herbaceous beds, however, are still colourful, well into November, unaffected as yet by early frosts. Bulbs are already pushing through so it won’t be long before we have snowdrops, aconites and crocuses showing.

There is still lots of work for the gardening team. Shrubs and herbaceous perennials have put on a lot of growth this year: now is the time to lift, divide and replant. There are large amounts of compost and leaf mould to apply to feed the plants over the coming season. Large shrubs and trees need pruning and shaping. Lots to do, but we are blessed with a large team of enthusiastic volunteers. Thanks as ever for everything they do to make the Challis Garden such a wonderful place and asset for the village.
Finally, we are delighted to have new tenants in our little shop, which has been vacant since ‘Shop For Your Community’ left in 2019. Our builders and decorator have fully restored and updated the property inside and out to make it fully compliant with current regulations for lettings. We wish Chris and Kelly every success in their new venture ‘Green Weigh’, selling sustainably and ethically sourced food and household products, with the aim to minimise single-use packaging. Very best of luck! Mike Redshaw

Published in Sawston Scene, December 2020–January 2021

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September 2020

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It has been a delight to see so many people using the garden during the past few months to meet up with friends and family, as the Covid-19 situation limits the opportunities for travelling further afield. As well as our regular visitors, we have also welcomed many new faces to the garden. As one of them commented recently, it really is a hidden treasure in the centre of the village. If you haven’t been to the garden yet, please do drop by to see for yourself. There are lots of different areas and plantings to view, with plenty of seats and benches to rest on. Always something new to see or to revisit favourite parts, or to find a quiet spot to read or chat.

We are pleased too that some local groups have been using the garden for various activities or to hold meetings, as their usual meetings places are still closed. There are regular sessions of tai chi, Pilates, sketching and painting, and the Sawston Steel Pan Band have been practising here. The Royal British Legion, Women’s Institute and Sing to Remember also hold regular meetings and social gatherings. More recently, Cambridge Rare Diseases Network – a support group for families affected by a range of very rare conditions – have met in the garden. They had had great difficulty sourcing venues for outdoor activities and have been delighted to ‘find’ the Challis Garden.

In view of the ongoing Covid situation and the recently announced restrictions limiting meetings to a maximum of six people, we ask visitors to respect these guidelines when using the garden. There are notices on each table to remind everyone to keep to the ‘Group of Six’ rule and to use the hand sanitisers. Thank you for your cooperation.

It is disappointing that we haven’t been able to hold any events this year, and have now decided to cancel our popular Spooky Saturday Hallowe’en event. Under the circumstances, it would be impossible to maintain social distancing and maximal group sizes, given the nature of the usual activities and lots of excited children. A great pity, but we feel it is the right decision.
Our ‘Name the Owls’ competition has attracted lots of entries so far. We hope to get more entries from children once they receive their entry forms at school. A shortlist of names will be selected for a public vote and the winners will be invited to a small socially distanced naming ceremony, most probably on 31st October. Good luck to everyone who enters. If you haven’t seen our owls yet, do come and have a look to see what the fuss is all about!
The garden has benefitted from an upsurge in volunteer numbers as well as visitors in recent months. Many new volunteers have offered their time to help in the garden, for which we say a very big thank you. This has enabled us to keep up with garden maintenance and also to tackle a few long-outstanding tasks. And there’s always more to do!

Like everyone else, we have had bountiful crops of fruit this year – especially our plums, gages, damsons and apples. Andy Jackson (of ‘Andy’s Allotment’) has excelled himself making record quantities of a variety of jams and chutneys, using produce from the garden. In early September we processed some of the apples from our own trees and donated fruit to produce sixty bottles of apple juice. Many thanks to those people who brought apples for juicing. We’ll have another session later in the autumn.
The herbaceous borders are looking good: lots of colour with asters, penstemons, dahlias, begonias and zinnias, which should last well into October. With the autumn fast approaching, we are now looking towards cutting back perennials that have finished flowering and reducing overgrown clumps.

For those of you looking to renovate borders or starting new gardens, please do have a look at our stock of plants for sale. There is always a wide choice of planting material available – have a look, you might well find what you need for that gap or replacement, or to introduce something new. This year, we also have two-year old semi-standard ‘Mary Challis’ apple trees for sale. These are unique to our garden and can’t be purchased elsewhere. A cross between Cox’s Orange Pippin and Dr Harvey (an old English cooking apple), it has been accepted as a unique variety and listed on the Register of Local Cultivars. It produces large apples, with very good cooking properties but sweet enough to be eaten raw. If you are interested, please contact us to reserve a tree.

We also have two-year-old golden rain trees Koelreuteria paniculata for sale. Also known as Pride of India, these are handsome trees, up to 10m tall, that produce striking pinkish-red foliage in spring and masses of yellow blooms in June–July that develop into bladder-like seed capsules in the autumn. A great specimen if you have the space, though the size can be controlled by pruning.

We would like to acknowledge and thank the Royal British Legion for a generous donation, sourced from the Central Co-op, for which we are very grateful. This has been used to purchase a much-needed log-splitter and some ornaments for our ‘chicken shed’ exhibit.

The Challis House and Museum remains closed for the foreseeable future and is unlikely to open again until next year. However, a visit to the library and archives for research purposes can be booked by appointment.
Mike Redshaw

Published in Sawston Scene, October–November 2020 – see page 17 for a feature on groups meeting in the Challis Garden.

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July 2020

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The garden was understandably closed to visitors during the lockdown for several weeks. Since re-opening in the second week of June, we have rarely been so busy. It is wonderful now to see lots of visitors enjoying the garden as a safe and peaceful haven to meet up with friends and family. At the time of writing, the museum and the archives are still closed and we do not anticipate opening any time soon. Our Easter event in April and the Anniversary Fete in May were cancelled, but we were able to open for the National Garden Scheme on 28th June and 5th July. However, we have decided to cancel all other events for 2020, including the Horticultural Show.

The Challis Trust has supported the National Garden Scheme since the garden was first opened to the public in 2009. We were somewhat surprised, but delighted, at the annual meeting of the Cambridgeshire NGS group, to be awarded an inscribed trowel in recognition of opening the garden for ten consecutive years. As you are probably aware, the NGS raises money from garden openings, such as ours, to raise money for key nursing and caring charities, including Macmillan Cancer Support, Marie Curie, Hospice UK, Carers Trust, Queen’s Nursing Institute, Parkinson’s UK, Perennial and many others. This is especially pertinent at the present time, with many of these organisations on the front line in the fight against coronavirus. They need our money more than ever before. Our two open days raised around £700 for the NGS, so thank you to everyone who supported the Open Garden events.

The NGS has donated around £3 million pounds annually in recent years, but it estimates its income will be down by 80% this year due to the lockdown. This amounts to a huge shortfall in funding for many of the charities it supports. If you have been affected by the pandemic or have experience of any of these charities, please consider making a donation to the NGS in lieu of visiting a garden this year, to enable it to continue to support these important charities. You can watch some virtual garden tours online at www.ngs.org.uk and make a donation there.

We managed to continue basic maintenance in the garden through the lockdown. The garden is looking very good now; it is such a pity that visitors could not see it in spring and early summer. There were very good displays of spring flowers through February to April, but the exceptional hot and dry conditions in April put an early end to these. Early-flowering summer shrubs and trees put on good shows, notably Laburnum, Philadelphus and lilacs. In the herbaceous borders, irises, peonies, penstemons and geraniums all blossomed well. ‘Gaps’ in these plantings have now been filled with colourful annuals raised in our glasshouses, including begonias, zinnias, cornflowers, pelargoniums, salvias and rudbeckias. The wildflower meadow in the centre of the main lawn is at its best now. Lots of colour to come in the summer months!

There is a good stock of plants in our nursery. Annuals, herbaceous perennials, grasses, alpines and some shrubs and trees are all available. We also expect to sell half-standard two-year old ‘Mary Challis’ apple trees in the autumn. There is limited stock, so please let us know if you would like us to reserve one for you.

Very sadly, an old walnut tree died earlier this year and had to be removed. However, it will be given a new lease of life by the woodcarver Ben Hayford, who created ‘Gerry the giraffe’ next to Merlin Mica’s store. The carving should be completed by the time you read this. Do come and have a look at the new incarnation.

I’m sure the wildlife in the garden benefitted from the peace and quiet of the lockdown. The spring birdsong was delightful this year, with goldcrests, goldfinches, chaffinches, blackcaps, thrushes, robins and wrens singing throughout the day. In the winter, a single red-legged partridge was present but has since moved on and been replaced by a male pheasant – a very colourful addition. Hedgehogs are also often seen. For those of you interested in birds, from 2017 we’ve compiled a list of birds seen in or from the garden, and in May reached the milestone of fifty species – not bad for a semi-suburban setting. The fiftieth record was something of a surprise – a pair of common terns passing overhead. These birds are almost certainly part of the small colony breeding at Dernford Reservoir. It is surprising what there is to see if you stay alert to the sounds and sights around you.

All three of our beehives are occupied this year and developing well. The two flow hives received swarms collected locally in 2019 and came through the winter intact. A first small harvest of honey was extracted from one of these hives in early May, giving a mixture of comb honey and set honey. The prospects for the summer harvest are promising. Fingers crossed!

For obvious reasons, there is no activity in the Challis house at present or for the foreseeable future, so little to report on in the museum and archives. Our team of archivists are keen to resume their work sorting and cataloguing materials and artefacts. Planned exhibitions are on hold but will be set up as soon as circumstances allow. As they say ‘watch this space’. Meanwhile, stay alert and stay safe. Mike Redshaw

Published in Sawston Scene, June–September 2020

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