4. Garden Front & Grounds

A detailed look at the 1780s addition (the Garden Front) and the grounds

As we exit from the small door to the west and enter a section of the garden, we are confronted by the long wall of the Edwardian wing which extends westward across the former garden. This wing also houses the large hall used as the nuns’ chapel. Looking back at the small doorway from which we have just emerged, it is not insignificant although it is only a subsidiary side entrance. It has a pediment and pilasters.

Between 1780 and 1900 the house had a variety of owners including clergy and physicians. It is pure speculation that the former library (just to the left of this door) might once have been a doctor’s surgery, and the entrance was for his patients so that their activities would be separated from the rest of the household. They would have reached this door by means of the original right-of-way. The dark corridor may have been the waiting room – very typical of country doctors’ waiting rooms even as late as the 1940s and 50s.

We are now standing in a small sheltered courtyard adjoining this side entrance. During an excavation by Colchester Archaeological Trust in 2004 when the Adult Community College was preparing to have a lift installed to meet the regulations for the use of the college by disabled people, a small section of Roman tessellated pavement was recorded very near to the point where the Edwardian west wing joins the original house extension of 1780.

Today, well above ground, this corner of the original Rev John Halls’ house still bears evidence of gardening activities in the late C18th, and this small doorway was more likely to have been for the use of the several gardeners employed to keep the flower borders immaculate. Their tool shed and other associated out-buildings adjoined the west wall of the library. We know from these early plans that there was a lavatory here also. The outline of these various structures can be traced on this wall where brick and plaster rendering do not quite marry.

This is a more likely explanation for the side entrance which existed to keep the gardeners, their equipment and activities as unobtrusive as possible. Here also, looking upwards we have the first sighting of a cast iron rainwater head with the initials JEH (John and Elizabeth Halls) and the date 1755.

Now out in the open air, a turn to the right takes us into the main part of the garden. A further turn to the right allows us to pass the Venetian window of the former library as we arrive at the very large and grand bow window of the former dining room which is slightly elevated above three stone steps.

 The Garden Front

This aspect of the building has inspired artists and photographers of all generations. Pupils of Colchester County High School were taken into the garden in summer for their art lessons. And today, in 2014, the immaculate silk screen prints by Julie Graham who chose this building for part of her B.A. degree in Art and Design, emphasise its beauty by linking treasured functional ephemera with prints of the day.

An overall view of the rear façade of 1780 before the east and west extensions were added shows, like the frontage, that it has a very symmetrical appearance. The double bow windows are flanked on left and right by Venetian windows on both the ground floor and the first storey. The 1904 additions, to some extent, reduce this symmetry but are well hidden so that the whole remains very neo-classical and with its four Venetian windows loses none of its Palladianism.

The large bow window on the ground floor has five arched lights, the central one with an upper sash opening and small low internal and external hinged doors which give access to the garden from the former Dining Room. As we saw earlier when this room was visited, these five lights are separated by highly decorative pilasters. On the first floor, immediately above, the lower bow window is matched by a smaller bow window of three lights. The central one is glazed from top to bottom and forms a pair of doors opening to a small balcony. On either side of these the lights are glazed only in the upper third – the lower part being wood panelling. All three windows, unlike the large arched windows below on the ground floor, have a pointed apex. This is an indication of the Gothic influence which often appeared in the designs of Robert Adam and in houses built in this style.

The two large bow windows and the four Venetian windows, one on either side on the ground floor and one either side on the first floor, are also highly decorated externally with pilasters, medallions and other mouldings. Each pilaster has a shaft and a moulded capital.

Gazing upwards it can be seen that just below the parapet at roof level the stone string course continues, matching that on the frontage. The east and west wings added in the early C20th are clearly visible to left and right but are not obtrusive. Tucked round the corner near the east wing is another rainwater head in a corresponding position to the one just viewed on the west side. It also has the same JEH 1755 inscription. This is more easily viewed from the top floor when we arrive there. The small house known as Hillcrest can just be distinguished on the western side. Originally the two houses were quite separate with a right-of-way and a garden between them – internally we shall see details of this later.

The original land attached to Grey Friars when it was a monastery extended as far as the Roman wall, but the walled garden (a car park at the time of writing) was in existence when it was a priory (1904-1920) and remained so as part of Colchester County High School (1920-1957).

Falling away from the garden front with short flights of centrally placed steps between them there are a series of terraces. The upper terrace was originally a badminton court from 1920 immediately after the County High School took over the building. It was a little later marked out as a tennis court.

It was only slightly overshadowed by the ancient Holm Oak. But today there would be no hope of hitting a ball under the canopy of this 400-year-old tree. This tree has a preservation order on it and was placed in the top twelve during a competition run by Colchester’s Parks Department in 2008 to find the most impressive and well-loved tree in Colchester Borough.

 The Holm Oak

The smaller yew tree on the opposite side of the court – which may be even older – still bears the scars where a wire was tightened round the trunk in order to hold taut the upper edge of a tennis net when it acted as a temporary post. Photographic and cartographic records show that this upper terrace has remained as a lawn for decades, if not centuries.

The last occupants to have Grey Friars as a family house were the Fenns (1891-1903) and it is clear from their family photographs that they also used this upper terrace as a tennis court – and there is also reference (in Part 1 of this book) of croquet being played.

It is easy to speculate that in the C18th a more gentile game of battledore and shuttlecock might have been played here. Equally enjoyed by children and adults, it required no court markings or net and was not even competitive; the sole aim being to keep the shuttlecock going to and fro in the air for as long as possible, and then to record the total, by writing it with quill and ink on the vellum of the battledore together with name and date (see Appendix).

Perhaps this was an after-dinner summer activity enjoyed by the whole family in the late C18th when this medieval game was popular. Chippendale chairs would have been taken from the dining room together with wine glasses and perhaps a blanket to sit on.

Kate Greenaway produced many illustrations of the game in her children’s books of the C19th when the game was still played. But a much earlier engraving shows an adult game in progress with strung battledores rather than vellum ones.

It is interesting to note the outside stairway and raised terrace in the background which would have served as a viewing gallery equivalent to the first storey balcony at Grey Friars. Outside staircases on neo-classical buildings were often a feature at this time as will be discussed later.

Another feature of the Grey Friars balcony was that it originally had a lead canopy which would have served to protect the delicate skin of the ladies from the sun – essential for viewing a garden game. Studs holding the canopy in place below the parapet are still visible at the time of writing (2012).

Not only would the upper terrace lawn be very visible from the viewing points of the ground floor bay window and the upper balcony but these would also concentrate the gaze on the magnificent conservatory against the southern boundary wall of the garden. The conservatory was still in good repair when the Sisters of Nazareth arrived in 1904, but by the 1930s, when Colchester County High School had been in residence for ten years, it was beginning to fall into disrepair. It was known by the pupils as ‘the arbour’ with its wild and wonderful wisteria winding its way through the ruins. At present nothing is left except for the remains of one or two more unusual shrubs growing against the boundary wall.

The Adam style conservatory may not have been built at the same time as the 1780 house extension – it does not appear on the house plans of that era. It was obviously placed against a garden wall because there was no suitable south-facing house wall. It was built when the orangeries in neo-classical houses were beginning to give way to hot-houses and glass palaces. It formed a powerful focal point viewed from the original dining room or balcony with its spectacular glass dome and was reminiscent of the small isolated building called ‘The Orangery’ in Manhead, Devon or of the grander orangery of Syon House in Middlesex – both designed by Robert Adam.

 The conservatory

The lowest and final terrace just in front of the conservatory was tastefully set out with flowerbeds and shrubs and certainly until at least 1920 it was carefully and lovingly tended both by nuns and gardeners.

Many of the early postcards of Grey Friars which turn up at auctions and postcard fairs were written during the time that the building was occupied by the Sisters of Nazareth or by Colchester County High School, and those that are postally used bear many poignant messages (sometimes in French) sent from England by young novice nuns (or visitors) to their families in France and Belgium. The cards are often of the more picturesque rear of the building or the garden. One example written in French has a small ink cross marked on the first floor western Venetian window. It reads “Lots of love to you, little Me’e(?), and to Claude. I’ve marked our bedroom with a cross.” The card is posted in Colchester at 5.45pm on July 24th 1911 and sent to an address in Paris. The census forms of the day indicate that one of these girls was a 15-year-old (Marguerite Rameau) who might have been a pupil boarding at the nuns’ school in 1911, or even a novice nun in training.

Another card, again in French, which may have been from one of the nuns, was posted on April 2nd 1906 to Belgium and signed by Sheila reads, “My very dear Marthe for a long time I have wanted to write to you, but I did not have the time from one Sunday to the other, and time has passed. Milly, without a doubt, has said to you that I will not return at Easter, but I am sure that the time that I will spend here in England will be very pleasant and interesting – doubtless it will include several little journeys and we will spend a day in London. There will always be plenty to do. I would be very happy to receive all your news. Friendly memories, Sheila.” Maybe a small pocket rosary found under the Grey Friars floorboards (see Appendix) belonged to one of the child boarders or to a nun who looked after them, or even again a novice nun.

Returning to the conservatory which was obviously a centre of great interest, admiration and attention, we move eastwards from it and along the red brick boundary wall where we find that there is a small pedestrian gate leading into Castle Road. Nearby there used to be a small pond providing the pupils of Colchester County High School the fascination and excitement of watching the newts and water snails which were beyond their reach – or of falling in! The remainder of this high wall is of red brick as also is the east garden wall which separates the grounds of Grey Friars from Roman Road.

Despite repeated repairs, replacement and general refurbishment particularly the southern wall with its preservation order, all the walls continue to provide shelter for wild life, and footings for some attractive native wall plants which spring up in its crevices. The most notable of these is ivy-leaved toadflax – which is becoming rare. At the time of writing lesser celandines and comfrey grow in profusion on the ground near the pedestrian gate, grey squirrels inhabit the Holm Oak, and an occasional pair of mallards fly in from the Castle Park.

Within the right angle made by the junction of the north and east boundary walls there was, in the days of the County High School, an asphalt playground with netball courts marked out.

Magnificent fragrant flower borders were separated from this area by a high netting fence with a raised path running from west to east. An ancient pear tree (on the right) used to shed its hard fruit onto the path in early autumn.

During World War 2 air raid shelters replaced some of the flower borders and were even constructed close to the mighty Holm Oak. Excavations by Colchester Archaeological trust have revealed traces of these. At the time of writing this whole area is now a car park, the upper and lower areas separated by a low privet hedge. This hedge follows approximately the same line as the raised pathway alongside former flower borders, and it had a small summer house at the eastern end for the amusement of the school pupils. Prior to this when the French nuns occupied the building before 1920, a crucifix was in this same position. The exact site can be pinpointed from two chimneys of houses which still exist in Roman Road.

The boundary wall to the south, separating the grounds of Grey Friars from the garden of All Saints House was once (certainly in Colchester County High School days) a very fine flint wall with interesting shaped stones some with holes in them – very attractive to little fingers of the Preparatory Department.

Against the eastern wall separating the grounds of Grey Friars from Roman Road were small individual gardens for each child.

An occasional brick buttress helped to support the wall. It was replaced in the 1960s by one made of less attractive concrete blocks. However, a fine shrine also made of flint was set into the original wall and still survives as a relic of the nuns’ occupation. It is however becoming increasingly obscured by rampant ivy. Originally framed by flowering climbers and a backdrop of St James’ Church with its Gothic windows, on the opposite side of the road, the shrine’s position can be reliably fixed today.

All the boundary walls of Grey Friars have stories to tell, and as we proceed westwards along the southern wall we come to one of the most intriguing sections close to the original stable block. After a small part behind this collapsed in the 1990s an analysis of a barrow-load by Colchester Museum Services clearly pointed to Roman elements in its composition.

Passing the impressive garden front of Grey Friars once more we come to the western boundary wall. This is the most interesting wall of all. It is a conglomerate of brick, tile, stone, flint and cement – some elements of it may be mediaeval and some Roman. It was obviously put together from the remains of previous buildings which may have been strewn across the site. At regular intervals along it, red brick structures, although flush to the wall, may be acting as buttresses.

At the southernmost end of the wall nearest to Grey Friars house a small pointed doorway and matching door lead into a space behind, which in the days of Colchester County High School was the gardener’s shed and later was Colchester Adult Community College’s kiln room used by ceramics classes. The pointed arch here of Gothic design may go back some way. A small drawing of 1718 (included in part 1) shows the remains of Grey Friars friary with several Gothic archways. The original buildings are thought to have been much further to the east of the present building (almost opposite St James church) but there is always speculation that this existing doorway was in the same position as an earlier Gothic structure. At the site of this doorway the western wall takes a sharp dogleg bend to the west in order to encompass the site of the original side garden and right-of-way, and then is discontinued (see section 1).

At the northernmost end of this wall before it meets the southern boundary and the original conservatory there is another small overgrown shrine of brick and stone – an additional clear piece of evidence pointing to the use of the building as a priory. Again, this shrine would have contained a statue of the Virgin Mary during the nuns’ occupation.

Our guided tour of the grounds of Grey Friars cannot end without referring to the layout and contents of the Botanic Gardens. In January 1824 the Botanical Society of Colchester announced that it had leased land opposite St James’ church on East Hill (described by the Ipswich Journal of 1823 as ‘rich meadowland’) with the intention of forming a botanical garden. This would have been the land lying in the north-east inner corner of the town, the Roman/Medieval town wall forming the north and east boundaries and the southern boundary bordering High Street. It was approximately 8.5 acres

The Botanic Garden covered the site of the present Roman and Castle roads. (Further details of this venture can be found in section 5 of part 1 of this book.) Grey Friars itself was in an elevated position, and the gardens fell away towards the Roman wall, surely providing a spectacular vista.

Excavations along the northern section of the town wall according to P.M. Duncan in “The History and Description of the Walls of Colchester” revealed an underlying ‘dark tunnel’. Although no evidence of these gardens nor the ‘dark tunnel’ remain today, there was certainly a myth elaborated by the girls of Colchester County High School in the 1930s that somewhere in the grounds of Grey Friars there was a secret tunnel (for purposes unknown) which led to Colchester Castle, or even perhaps, to St James’ church.

Diarist and antiquarian William Wire notes on a plan of 1847 that any monastic fragments remaining after apparent demolition of the monastery were later salvaged and used for ornamentation. Pencil drawings by Josiah Parish from the late 1840s capture the tranquillity and diversity of the gardens and show them to be large and picturesque with naturalistic sculptures, trellis work, fish ponds, shrubberies, grottoes, walkways and avenues. If, as we explored in chapter 5 of section 1 of this book, the present high wall was not built until after the closure of the Botanic Gardens, these sights must have provided a pleasing outlook for the residents of the Grey Friars house during this period. The whole site was tastefully laid out and had an integrated nursery to help with the running costs.