Hidden behind woodland and not far from the M56 Norton Priory truly is a secret garden, little known in comparison to other northern attractions but well worth visiting.
This 18th century walled garden at Norton, near Runcorn, Cheshire, was built for the Brooke Family between 1757 and 1770 to provide fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers for their Georgian house, Norton Hall. After the family moved away in the 1920s the trapezoidshaped garden became neglected until it was restored in the 1980s. It is now part of the larger Norton Priory Museum and Gardens site. Other highlights include the medieval priory ruins, woodland walks and icehouse.
A brand-new museum telling the 900 year story of the site opened in August 2016 also providing plenty of indoor space and a new café.
Norton Priory Museum and Gardens is home to the National Collection of Tree Quince (Cydonia oblonga) which is looked after by head gardener John Budworth, who has worked at the site for over 25 years and can be considered a quince expert. John regularly offers tips and advice for looking after your trees, as well as the many other fruits and flowers grown in the Georgian walled garden and orchard, including traditional varieties of pear and apple trees.
So, for those of us not familiar with it, what exactly is quince? Quince is an apple-shaped or pear-shaped fruit with a golden yellow skin and a strong, spicy scent. It is not eaten fresh as it is hard and bitter when raw but is delicious stewed with meat or boiled with sugar to produce mouth-watering jams or jellies.
Quince is popular with home bakers as it contains a high amount of pectin which makes it ideal for making jams and jellies. It is also high in antioxidants so it has many health qualities.
Quince would have been preserved in the autumn and eaten throughout the year in medieval times and is believed to have been the forbidden ‘apple’ which tempted Adam in the Garden of Eden.
Quince is not grown widely in the UK, but Norton Priory boasts 25 different cultivars of quince, and anyone interested in growing their own can buy quince propagated from Norton Priory stock.
Quince is quite easy to grow. It’s in the Rosacea family and grows to about four to eight metres high depending on its rootstock. It has similar growing habits to an apple tree, and requires a cold period to flower properly, with white and light pink flowers.
Quince like full sun and a rich, loamy soil, and they don’t need much feeding once established but require moisture in dry summers.
A new tree takes a while to bear fruit, usually around five years. By the time the tree is about eight you could be getting as much as 15kg of fruit from it. Try to leave the quince on the tree as long as you can so it can ripen to a good yellow, but make sure you pick it before the first frosts.
With such intensive labour, head gardener John is very grateful for the help he receives from the small gardening team and the gardening volunteers who help keep the two and a half acre garden looking its best. They also work in partnership with Halton Borough Council’s day services, who work with adults with disabilities to run a tea room, micro-brewery and ice cream parlour on site.
Produce from the garden is sold to the public, and some is used to make the jams, jellies and juices for sale in the gift shop.
The walled garden is open daily between 10am and 5pm from April until th end of October. Norton Priory produce, including quince preserves, are available in the Walled Garden shop, located in the Gardener’s Cottage.
Norton Priory holds an annual Quince and Apple Day celebration on Sunday October 9th, and there’s also a Christmas Fair on Sunday November 27th. For more info on Norton Priory Museum and Gardens, call 01928 569895 or visit www.nortonpriory.org.