Town and country: Bridlington’s secret gardens

Penelope Weston, of The Tofts, High Street, Old Town, Bridlington, one of the gardens taking part in the open weekend.
Penelope Weston, of The Tofts, High Street, Old Town, Bridlington, one of the gardens taking part in the open weekend.
  • Hidden from view behind historic Georgian properties lie one of Bridlington’s best kept secrets. Stephen McClarence gets a guided tour around the town’s very secret gardens.
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Up an alley, round a corner, through a gate, and... well, as Phil Bonnett says: “I bet you didn’t expect all this, did you?”

We’re just yards from a Georgian street a mile or so from one of Yorkshire’s busiest seaside promenades, but we could be in a farmyard in the Wolds or the Dales. Wherever we look, there are chickens, geese, hens, turkeys, more than 100 of them strutting and scurrying and pecking and dodging the odd seagull, beady-eyed for food.

Sue and David Richardson, of High Street, Old Town, Bridlington relaxing in their garden, which can be visited by the public next weekend.

Sue and David Richardson, of High Street, Old Town, Bridlington relaxing in their garden, which can be visited by the public next weekend.

A few steps further on, the farmyard gives way to as immaculately maintained a market garden as you’d find anywhere: red cabbages and raspberries, broad beans and beetroot, onions and other things.

This is Goose Farm, one of 15 gardens taking part in next week’s Bridlington Old Town Secret Gardens Weekend. It could easily have been called, like many similar events, an Open Gardens Weekend, but Secret Gardens sounds so much more intriguing, so much more enticing, so much less – well, common or garden.

The Brid gardens are within easy walking distance of each other in the Old Town, an enclave of 18th and 19th century heritage surrounded by modern housing, and a bit of a secret in itself.

“Some people come to Bridlington on holiday and only find out about the Old Town after they’ve gone,” says Richard Barrow, one of the organisers of the weekend, which launches the Old Town’s Summer Festival. “There’s an immense amount of history here.” The history is all around you – in the Priory, the Bayle Museum and the High Street, one of the most complete Georgian streets in Britain, tightly packed with houses, antique shops, galleries and tea rooms.

High Street, Old Town, Bridlington, which is near the 15 gardens taking part in the open gardens weekend

High Street, Old Town, Bridlington, which is near the 15 gardens taking part in the open gardens weekend

On the strength of its powerful period atmosphere, it stood in as “Walmington-on-Sea” in the new Dad’s Army film due for release next February. The film’s khaki-uniformed Home Guard parade attracted widespread media coverage, and one or two reminders of it linger along the street – Corporal Jones’ butchers shop, Walmington-on-Sea Brewery signs, all rather puzzling if you don’t know why.

Some Old Towners were keen on preserving the Walmington look. “And personally I’d have liked to have seen a statue related to Dad’s Army, possibly of Corporal Jones,” says the ebullient David Hinde, Bridlington’s Town Crier, who led the film parade in full regalia. It hasn’t happened, but don’t panic, Mr Mainwaring.

David is on the committee of the Old Town Association, which aims to promote the area’s heritage and raise its profile. With his own background in tourism promotion, he knows you need something different to lure visitors. Hence the summer festival: brass bands, choirs, morris dancers, food and craft stalls, a town crier competition. But, oyez, let’s get back to the Secret Gardens, a wonderful opportunity to be nosy.

The Bonnett brothers, Phil and Richard, both in their mid-seventies, spend most of their day on their smallholding-like farm. It’s an astonishingly long plot lurking largely unseen behind the street frontage.

“It’s so quiet here, you just lose yourself in it,” says Phil. “Come and look at this turkey sitting on its nest in the egg shed. Turkey eggs – lovely to eat – creamy.” He shows me a few, the size of hens’ eggs, and then some goose eggs (bigger), and then some green hens’ eggs and some blue ones.

From egg shed to tool shed. “We get artists coming and photographing everything here to use for their pictures,” says Richard. “The tools on the wall, everything.” In one shed and out of another, and round the beds of fruit and veg.

“When people come – and we had 400 here over the weekend last year – they’re totally gobsmacked,” says Phil. “You get some older people who lived through the war and they did all this themselves, growing their own vegetables, to survive. Digging for Victory.”

“People say: ‘How come your cabbages are so big?’,” says Richard. “Well, we use our own chicken muck as fertiliser.”

“Come and see where some of our cats are buried...” says Phil, ushering me into a greenhouse. “Jason’s under there, and Ginger there, and Billy Billy Bon Bon.” Sorry? “Billy Billy Bon Bon. That’s what we called him.” And a final tip: “Plant marigolds round your tomatoes; it will stop whitefly.”

It’s odd to emerge from all this and cross the road to the garden at The Toft, a massively impressive 1670s house with an 1840s frontage. Nikolaus Pevsner reckoned it was “the most interesting house in the street” when he strolled round the Old Town for his Buildings of England survey of the East Riding.

The Toft has a classic walled garden. First a knot garden, formal and woven with tight geometrical patterns of box and plants, giving way to a woodland area, a lawn, further back and further back still.

“People are very surprised by it all; they don’t expect to find a big walled garden behind the High Street,” says owner Penelope Weston as we pass a water feature that’s not switched on. “There should be water gently splashing here.”

Hostas and periwinkle; arum lilies, rampant wisteria, even more rampant clematis. “Look at it! Look at it! You just can’t stop it!”

She does all the gardening herself, with occasional help from her brother-in-law (“the demon weeder and tidier”). “If I were really going to keep on top of it, it would take a couple of hours a day,” she says.

For some years, this was part of the Quiet Garden Movement, creating oases for rest and prayer. Nowhere could be more suitable. As Penelope says: “Apart from the occasional ice cream van, you could be here and think you’re in the middle of the country.”

Down the road, David Richardson echoes what she says. “The great thing about living here is that the High Street can be busy, and it leads to a very busy road, but you can come into the house and shut your door and it’s quiet, secluded, a real haven. You’re in another world from the street.”

His house is 1850s at the front, but 1730s at the back with a garden that was once part of a 43 acre farm stretching back 200 yards. It’s a smart courtyard garden, with an apple tree, lots of pots and planters, lobelia, delphiniums, tomatoes, runner beans, all very sheltered and sun-catching.

“A lot of gardeners come over the weekend and give you tips... and people sometimes do some dead-heading while they’re here,” says David.

“And it’s nice for people to see the garden and share something they probably didn’t realise was here; from the front they’d think the house was hemmed in. And the High Street has got as much history as some of the streets in York, a wealth of interest.”

I suggest to Penelope Weston that the Old Town is a hidden jewel. “We’re fed up with being a hidden jewel,” she says. “We want it to be a known jewel!”

• Secret Gardens weekend: June 20 & 21. One day ticket: £4; two-day ticket: £5. Available around the Old Town over the weekend. www.bridlingtonoldtown.com