Something Special in the Eyre:
A Historic Eastern Shore Jewel quietly awaits Spring
If you’ve been on more than one garden tour in your life, you know that they can be as different as night and day—from manicured, stately sculpture gardens to working research conservatories, to small corners in private homes. They can also be as different as winter and spring. Such is the case with the centuries old gardens of Eyre Hall, just up the road a bit in Cheriton.
Taking a Winter Wander
If you’re new to the area, and have traveled down Route 13, chances are, you’ve seen the gracious, stretching driveway lined with eastern red cedars and crape myrtles and wondered where it leads. And if you’ve never thrown caution to the wind and turned into the drive to find out, may I suggest, “DO IT!”
Don’t wait. Don’t wonder. And (this goes against all I’ve ever been taught), don’t feel like you have to ask…the family welcomes your arrival. After a serene mile-long drive, you’ll find yourself on the grounds of Eyre Hall, one of Virginia’s most intriguing and well-preserved historic homes. The property has been owned by the Eyre family since the mid 1600’s and remains in the family to this day, for some 13 generations. The stately home that anchors the property is open for tours only once a year. But the gardens…well, the gardens are a hidden secret that locals and a few lucky tourists know are open all year to anyone who happens by. It isn’t advertised to the public which means during your visit, you may very well have the gardens all to yourself—in most any season. The gardens, planted around 1800, are part of the Eastern Shore Garden Tour and are widely recognized as one of the oldest continually maintained formal gardens in America.
Back to that ‘don’t wait’ advice: I urge you to go see Eyre Hall’s gardens now in the midst of our Eastern Shore winter. It may be a bit chilly and you’ll likely feel a nip in the wind blowing off nearby Cherrystone Creek. But this is the ideal season to meet this elegant old garden for the first time.
A winter garden offers enormous rewards to those who know how to look. Far from the bountiful, cascading blooms and colors that will festoon Eyre Hall gardens in spring, wintertime means you’ll be able to discover the essence of the garden—its underlying structure and framework as created by its original designers of yore.
Gigantic crape myrtles that have been estimated to be around 200 years old frame the entrance of the garden with their twisting trunks and smooth, blonde bark. And within the formal garden’s gates, some of the garden’s ‘rooms’ are lined with these enormous, serpentine beauties, as well. Absent of competing blooms and flower-laden limbs, you’ll be able to see the trees differently—as faithful sentinels of the Eyre home place, keeping watch for ages. Indeed, these reverent trees were some of the first crape myrtles in America, coming over as exotic specimens from China.
Then there are the boxwoods. While they’re here in every season offering structure and privacy, winter invites a visitor to look more closely. Walk toward the house and discover a twisting and whimsical path of boxwoods that was once a formal knot garden. If you’ll pause among the wild beauty of it, you can make out the original formal design. The tight-leafed bushes create low canopies, coves and nooks that are irresistible to children. You can easily imagine echoes of children from generations past playing among these natural hideouts. They’re perfect shelter for rabbits during winter, too, so keep your eyes open. You may discover a lovely little friend among these storied shrubs.
History is everywhere in this garden. The knot garden that long ago burst its borders. The ancient crape myrtles. The original smoke house and dairy for the home. And, one of the most interesting sites, Ann Eyre’s original Orangery, constructed around 1818. It’s a tumble down version of its original grandeur but the winter garden calls you to take a closer look. You’ll see a dovecote at the roof peak (pigeons were kept in formal gardens of old for the odorless ‘fertilizer’ they produced for the garden). You’ll see the old handmade bricks, the fireplaces and ingenious masonry ductwork that circulated warm air to the citrus trees. And nestled between the orangery and the house is the family graveyard. Pause and feel the reverence of the place.
Now and Next
Though it’s still winter, this bewitching garden is not without color. Violet and gold pansies stand in cheerful rows seaming the border beds with optimistic color. And you’ll be struck by the sheer height of the towering camellia bushes in the center of the garden. Enormous, deeply cupped blossoms cover the shiny, waxy green leaves of the bushes. Thousands of pale pink petals fall and scatter on the surrounding earthen walkways.
Which leads me (as walkways are wont to do) to my absolute favorite part of this winter garden: the moss-covered walkways that run through it. Visit and you’ll see why. The garden’s walkways are naturally illuminated with a carpet of impossibly bright green, velvety moss. It’s a lush, emerald path that’s the stuff of fairies and fables. Even during my recent mid-winter visit, I just had to take off one of my heavy boots to feel it with my bare foot. And yes, I recommend this, no matter the weather.
On my most recent visit, I was fortunate enough to be accompanied by Laurie Klingel, the creative force and horticultural expert behind these historic gardens. She has designed and managed the planning, planting and maintenance of this national treasure for two decades. If she is in-garden during your visit, I encourage you to say hello. The garden is second nature to her as are many entertaining tales about the generations of family who lived here—from the making of a long gone turn-of-the-century tennis court to a huge magnolia planted to celebrate the birth of a dear and revered Eastern Shore gentleman—she knows it all, and easily shares with all who ask.
Talking with Laurie and exploring the gardens is an amazing opportunity for looking back…across the centuries, with the generations who planted these trees and walked these very pathways.
As an amateur gardener and lover of gardens, I believe there’s also a special magic in looking forward. During my visit, Laurie reminded me of one of my favorite things about a winter garden—anticipation!
She shared with me what would be bursting forth in the weeks and months to come. The formal garden will, of course, be elegant and brilliant: hundreds of tulips and other quintessential springtime flowers will blanket the parterres with color. Just beyond the gates along a grassy woodland walk, some 40,000 daffodil bulbs have been sown and await their golden debut in mere weeks. And that, as they say, is just the beginning. Hundreds of thousands of bright blooms will spill from every corner of the property.
It will be beautiful.
It will be fabulous.
It will be nothing short of spectacular.
But if you can get here during winter…if you can get to know the soul and spirit of this special garden now,
it will be worth it.
Take a winter walk through Eyre Hall garden:
3215 Eyre Hall Drive, Cheriton, VA 23316