Richard McComb explores the home-grown food secrets of Swinfen Hall.
I had been told Swinfen Hall had a Victorian walled garden and that the garden supplied fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs to the kitchen of this 18th century country house hotel.
Experience of visiting other hotels with similarly lauded credentials had taught me to expect a couple of wind-blasted patches of parched earth and a dried out sprig or two of last year’s thyme. The garden would be pokey, an after-thought.
How wrong can you be?
When I walk into the red-brick enclosure, head groundsman Paul Woolley is taping away with a hoe. “I’ve gone through three of these,” he says. “I can’t help myself.” Tap, tap, tap. He never stops.
Ostensibly, I have come to Swinfen Hall, near Lichfield, to run the rule over its seven-year-old deer park from which it culls animals for venison as part of a carefully managed wildlife scheme. But the natural, teeming spectacle of the walled garden, and Paul’s infectious enthusiasm, temporarily sidetracks me.
The garden covers half an acre and supplied the grand dinner parties hosted by Samuel Swinfen, the hall’s original owner, who made do with only 55 domestic staff.
It’s like stepping onto the pages of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden in here, all tweeting birds, bursts of sun rays and wind rustling through trees.
Paul explains how the place was waist high in thistles and ragwort when he first moved in his clearing tools in 2002.
Paul broke his back in a road accident the following year and now gets around the estate in a wheelchair driven by a tractor-type unit.
Now a mentor to spinal injury victims, the former prison workshop instructor doesn’t let anything stand in his way. “I always said I would come back here and I didn’t ever question it would happen,” he says. The hotel’s owners, Helen and Vic Wiser, were hugely supportive and their faith in Paul was well placed. He has brought a formality to the garden with four symmetrical beds providing produce for Swinfen’s chefs on a four-year crop rotation.
“We don’t use any pesticides unless we are going to lose a crop.
‘‘We don’t use any weedkillers among the beds. That is why I use my hoe all the time,” says Paul as he takes me on a tour. There are greens galore – cabbage, kale, purple and white sprouting broccoli, courgette, peas, beans (runners, climbing French, dwarf French, broad beans, borlotti), leeks – as well as beetroots (round, long rooted and golden), onions, carrots, parsnips and swedes.
Soft fruits include blackberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants, strawberries, raspberries and gooseberries. There are herbs, too, from rosemary and red leaf sorrel to yellow thyme and lovage.
Figs are set to be planted on a wall to catch the south-west sun.
“We will have a go. I like experimenting,” says Paul, who praises the fantastic work done by vegetable gardener Anne Marie Cahill.
“The thing I like most is that I see chefs in the garden now. They pick a bit of this and that. If they want herbs, they fetch them fresh.
‘‘You see four or five chefs out here during the day,” says Paul.
Then we’re off to see the deer, which are kept in a 45-acre park at the back of the hall. I can’t see anything