Nick Hartley writes –
The Pleasure Grounds of Scarning – By the middle of the nineteenth century Dereham was known as the ‘Garden of Norfolk.’ The name reflected the presence of the many market gardens, fruit fields and orchards that surrounded the town. And was in stark contrast to its previous name as ‘the dirtiest town in Norfolk.’
The town itself was fast expanding. In 1845, it was home to nine butchers, ten bakeries, eight blacksmiths, three gunsmiths and five milliners. There were thirteen beer houses and twenty taverns, among them the obligatory Lord Nelson on the High Street and the George Inn on the edge of the market place. There were confectioners, cabinet makers, boot and shoe makers (seventeen in 1845, most of them on the High Street and Baxter Row) perfumers, tailors, straw hat makers, saddlers, wine merchants, watchmakers, wheelwrights and whitesmiths.
Dereham was a fashionable town. Before the arrival of the railway, horse drawn carriages regularly travelled in and out of the town, en route to King’s Lynn and Norwich. Ladies walked with parasols in summer; men wore hats. The town had its own theatre, run by the celebrated Fisher family, who built theatres across Norfolk. There were Assembly Rooms, at which the local gentry cavorted at society balls, and a fading tourist attraction – St Withberga’s well, near which a public bath house was built and visitors were encouraged to drink the revitalising spring water, similar to those who travelled to Buxton in Derbyshire for its health giving waters.
In 1806, Dereham welcomed a new vicar. Charles Hyde Wollaston was a younger brother of the distinguished scientist William Hyde Wollaston. His father was a well known astronomer. By the time he arrived in the town, he was thirty four. Ten years earlier he married Sarah Willett Ottley, whose family derived their income from estates on the Caribbean island of St Kitts.
The Wollastons had ambitious plans. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the couple owned more than a hundred acres of land. Much of it was laid out as Vicarage Park, which extended into Scarning near Church Farm in what we now know as Scarning Water Meadows. Here the Wollastons laid out a park with carefully planted trees and fashionable walks. At the same time Charles Wollaston demolished the vicarage and built a new home for his family.
The inspiration for the pleasure grounds is not clear, but may have been encouraged by the expertise of the town’s many gardeners. One of these, William Moore, ran a nursery on Commercial Road, employing six men and two boys. The nursery contained many exotics. In 1847, the botanist James Grigor recorded that Moore’s nursery was ‘chiefly noted for its rich and varied collection of American plants and shrubs,’ together with a ‘fine selection of roses.’ In the greenhouse a heavenly blue Morning Glory was in flower. The flowers had originally come from the New World.
The Wollaston’s development of their land was ongoing. In the 1840’s, Charles straightened the watercourse at Vicarage Park. Ten years later, the town’s controversial new vicar, Benjamin Armstrong, wrote that ‘the gardens and grounds’ of the vicarage were ‘exceedingly pretty and extensive, one chief feature being a shrubbery walk to the church, well-timbered and admitting occasional peeps of the beautiful church through the foliage. A pretty drive goes up to the door, and a park-like meadow is spread before the drawing room windows.’
The site remained largely unchanged until the end of the nineteenth century. In the 1990’s, the Church sold the vicarage and the grounds immediately around it. The park to the south was partly developed for housing and a conifer belt was planted to provide a screen between the houses and the grounds around the vicarage. The land to the north of the vicarage was used for the construction of a new school and further housing.
At the same time, Church Farm in Scarning was sold and the land developed into the housing estate off Draytonhall Lane. However, parts of the former pleasure grounds as laid out by the Wollastons remain. The watercourse still flows in a roughly straight line heading across the meadows, through Washbridge and on to Rushmeadow, where local workers used to grow water cress for the restaurants and smart hotels in London. Although there is no mature timber left, the outline of former tree clumps have been identified. On a sunny afternoon, it is possible to stand on the meadows and to visualise its past of ladies with white parasols and gentlemen striding out, walking cane in hand to planned vistas and delicate planting.
As for Mr Moore’s nursery gardens, these are now lost beneath Morrisons car park.