January 2023

New Year is always the right time to look ahead to future seasons but also to look back on the year past. 2022 was a rollercoaster of a year weather-wise: a mild spring, exceptionally dry summer, and much higher than average temperatures in autumn followed by an Arctic blast in mid-December. That caused a lot of damage to tender herbaceous perennials and shrubs; it’s still too early to assess just how bad the damage is, so we are delaying cutting back to allow these plants to – hopefully – recover. The worst of the damage was to geraniums and succulents in the glasshouses, even though they were heated: -10°C was just too severe and difficult to protect against. We anticipate replacing a lot of plants in the spring.

It was interesting to examine the many animal tracks in the December snow. Our resident fox was very active, with trails all over the garden. Cats, squirrels and a few large birds accounted for the rest. We even spotted a snowy owl (see photo)!

On a happier note, the worst of the pandemic is behind us and we are seeing many visitors to the garden and museum. Our Platinum Exhibition celebrating the late Queen’s seventy years as monarch was very well attended, with a total of 684 visitors, including 108 children. The exhibition is still in place and can be viewed on Tuesday mornings, if there are stewards available. It won’t be dismantled until the next Exhibition opens in April (dates to be confirmed). This will be about street names in Sawston that are named after important local residents and other dignitaries. More about this in the next issue.

We are pleased to present a full programme of events in 2023, which is set out on the inside front cover. In addition to our well-established annual events – Easter Saturday, Open Gardens, Horticultural Show & Fete and Spooky Saturday – we hope to have Half Cut Theatre back and some more musical performances. If there are any local musical groups that would like to meet in the garden on Sunday afternoons to practise or perform, you are more than welcome to come. Just get in touch to arrange a date.

The main gate is open again now that scaffolding has been removed from the new building. We may have to close this entrance when building work resumes, but the side gate will be open. Sharp-eyed visitors will have spotted a few bricks with initials engraved into them on the new building. These were rescued from the old ‘pink shed’ and carefully incorporated into the new build. No records exist about these engravings but we can make some informed guesses at to whom they might belong to. There are three sets of initials:

  • A.J.C. This almost certainly relates to Mary Challis’ grandfather Arthur James Challis (1832–1903). A grocer and draper originally, he expanded his interests to become an auctioneer and built a property empire in Portobello Lane, Shingay Lane and next to the Fox pub, as well as the Challis House and Monk’s Orchard. He was clerk to the parish council when it was set up in 1895 and had been assistant overseer since 1880. He was also a member of the school board. A prominent figure in Sawston, well-versed in village affairs.
  • E.C. We know there was an Elizabeth Challis who was left £50 in AJC’s will, but it is not clear why she had been included in his estate. The jury’s still out on this one.
  • W.F. 1880 This could have been William Freestone, who appears in Kelly’s Directory for the late 1880’s. He was a currier and carrier in the leather industry in Sawston but we don’t know if he was linked to the Challis family.

If anyone has any knowledge or thoughts on these engravings, please do share them with us.

Garden work is now focusing on the main winter tasks to prepare the herbaceous beds for the coming season – mulching, pruning autumn-flowering shrubs and fruit trees, and collecting the last of the fallen leaves. Some corrective pruning is also necessary now to remove over-extended branches, dead wood, and misshapen or unbalanced growth on mature trees. This will be carried out by our regular tree surgeons while the trees are still dormant.

Spring bulbs are emerging everywhere, with extensive drifts of snowdrops, aconites, crocuses and daffodils to look forward to. Some sections may be roped off to avoid trampling these delicate flowers. Now is also the best time to enjoy winter-flowering shrubs, such as Christmas box (Sarcococca), shrub honeysuckles, Viburnum fragrans and Mahonia. Take a stroll along the Winter/Spring walk to appreciate these, interspersed with colourful dogwoods and underplanted hellebores.

We look forward to welcoming visitors to the house and garden. There is always something new to see and you can check what’s on offer from our plants, produce and gift stands. We still have a good stock of seasoned logs, honey, apple juice and preserves to choose from. Cash only, so come prepared! Mike Redshaw 

Published in Sawston Scene, February–March 2023 issue.