How we made the Secret Garden

As you may know the Oak Room has a Secret Garden that only visitors can use! In this article I will outline how we created it.

It started life as a horrible rubbly buddlia-ridden plot at the back of the building but with a reasonable space to create a garden and it has a stunning view over the River Exe, West Exe and the hills beyond.

Before works

This is the garden after we had cleared most of the brambles and buddlia – it was a mess!

Creating the garden was one of the first jobs when I bought the place in 2014. I love creating gardens and I could see such potential! I decided it had to be mainly paving as it is to be a space that people can enjoy at any time, it needed to be robust and versatile and easy to maintain. Luckily the garden is also naturally enclosed by stone walls and faces west and the sunset.

I retained a short concrete path to save on paving costs and incorporated a feature at the end of it – a circle with a sun motif within it made of paving. I then ordered some Indian sandstone on the suggestion of my neighbour Mark who also offered to install it!  I had been to India for a month with my daughter which was an amazing experience and I wanted the energy of India to be in my garden. The bright varied colours and roughness of the sandstone was very appealing and would make a stunning first impression.

Next I created a flower bed on either side at the bottom of the walls. We found lots of huge stones so we placed them around to make the edging and filled in with some compost as the soil was very stony and poor. We even found a couple of gravestones! Apparently a father and his two sons were buried there in the 1700’s! We didn’t dig too deep when prepping the ground for the paving!

New flower beds

New flower beds surrounded by feature stones found in the garden. Can you see the headstone?!

My original plan was to have a sun and moon garden on each side and I planted yellow, orange and red flowering plants on the ‘sun’ north facing side and white, blue and pink flowering plants on the ‘moon’ south facing side. In hindsight this didn’t work as expected as the cool colours of the moon side actually ended up being the hottest side in the summer and the ‘sun’ side was more shaded and favoured ferns and more delicate plants. This was fully predictable if I had appreciated the north/south facing difference! Oh well, live and learn!

Next came the job of clearing and levelling the ground for the paving and a friend (Larry) and my neighbour Mark and his son did that. We had to drag 8 tonnes of aggregate and sand up the front steps, through the church and down the spiral staircase! This really is a Secret Garden with no other suitable access!

The site was now starting to take shape and the paving was laid. The colours of the stone was stunning and I loved the uneven naturalness of it too. The final touch was to fill the gaps between the slabs with white kiln-dried sand which looked amazing!

New paving

New paving being laid

Now time to make it into a proper garden! I spent quite a long time and quite a bit of cash collecting feature plants and pots. I also installed a water feature in the back corner which was lined with stone so the water just disappeared into the stones.

Water feature

Water feature takes shape.

I retained one token buddlia bush which grows vigorously every year and gets a bit much at times but attracts butterflies so it it worth keeping it. It has taken several years for the garden to establish but I am very pleased with the result especially as the perennial shrubs are now a sensible size and the tubs continue to expand in number and variety.

In 2017 a nice man called Graham offered to build some raised beds in the garden as I dearly wanted to grow more, especially herbs, fruits, vegetables and salad. He took most of the summer which was frustrating because no-one could use the garden most of that year!

I think you will agree that the raised beds are an attractive and useful addition to the garden and the design incorporated a rail to stop people perching on the end retaining wall which is very low with a long drop the other side. Here you can see them nearly finished but we couldn’t wait to start planting them up!

Building the raised beds

Raised beds nearly completed

As I write this in July 2018 I am loving the garden! It is maturing well and the raised beds have allowed me to grow potatoes, tomatoes, onions, strawberries, courgettes and herbs. Unfortunately I can only seem to grow salad in hanging baskets due to the hungry slugs!

Secret Garden 2018

People enjoying the Secret Garden

It is so nice that people can now enjoy the garden and the views when we have art classes, seminars and other events. I will continue to develop the garden and I very much look forward to watching it mature even more and to growing more food.

More raised beds and hanging baskets are planned and I am aiming to create a more jungle feel with feature plants like bamboo and sambuka, castor oil plant and palms, as well as more climbers. Watch this space!

Raised beds

Raised beds are great for extra growing space

Book our Secret Garden Room or come to some of our events and you will have full access to it.

Come and enjoy the garden!

Written Sue Johnston (Searle) – owner of the Oak Room



Putting the Art into Arts Centre

When you think of the Arts people generally think of music, theatre and films but of course there are also the creative arts of painting, sculpture, print-making, ceramics and crafts.

Art has a special place at the Oak Room with opportunities for people to exhibit their work in exhibitions or art and craft fairs held regularly. Helping artists and crafters to sell their work is one objective of the Oak Room, especially as there is a lack of exhibition space in the town and local area.

Meanwhile, in the downstairs Studio (also known as the Secret Garden Room) a whole array of Art Classes happen on a very regular basis. This is the place in Tiverton to dabble with watercolours, get messy with oil paints, persist with pastels, draw the human form, make a print or join in with a craft class. More and more artists are holding classes here. It is gradually becoming an Art School!

Recently the studio room has been upgraded for art workshops and there are plenty of tables, a washing up area, plenty of natural light from the large picture windows, daylight bulb spotlights for those dull winter days and a wonderful cosy feel. The added attraction is the garden terrace overlooking the River Exe which is a great art space in the summer months.

Life Class

Life drawing class

The studio attracts artists running workshops such as Belinda Reynell who teaches oil painting and Lizzie Mee teaching print-making, Ken Maharajah teaching life drawing, as well as regular workshops and classes run by the owner Sue Searle, an accomplished artist who specialises in watercolours and crafts. Art is well and truly an integral part of the activities at the Oak Room.

“I love the relaxed and supportive atmosphere of the art classes at the Oak Room” JM

Oil Painting Class

Oil Painting class with Belinda Reynell

The Oak Room Arts Centre, right in the heart of Tiverton, is also a place for people to come and enjoy a wide range of live music, eclectic and intimate theatre, and our speciality – Silent Movies – with the pipe organ being played live! The next one is in March. These more high profile events are usually well supported and popular and are the signature of the goings-on at the Oak Room.

The Oak Room is also proving popular as a party venue and we have hosted anything from a Baby Shower, works Christmas do’s and a gathering of belly dancers, to a 6 year old’s party, several wild 30th birthdays and a 70th and 80th too. The eclectic surroundings, great acoustics and the facilities of the bar, café and kitchen prep areas as well as the garden terrace make it an attractive and unique venue. Wedding bookings are also starting to trickle in. To walk up the aisle to the pipe organ playing the Wedding March, and the grand feel of the historic building, makes it feel like a real occasion!

See our website for more details of upcoming classes.

New PA System arrives at the Oak Room!

The Oak Room Arts Centre, which has amazing acoustics anyway, has now got a PA system.  Formerly a church, the main hall is designed to carry sound and the addition of a PA system gives more control over the sound and allows music and voice to fill the room.

The system is designed to take up to 32 instruments and microphones all controlled by a mixing deck and amp. The main speakers and bass bins are mounted on the balcony and the sound travels around the building to give a superb surround sound.  In addition there will be no feedback problems when microphones are used. There is also a monitor speaker at the front of the stage.

PA System

Oak Room Arts Centre has a new PA System

This is a real step up for the Oak Room Arts Centre and it means that bands, discos and live music events can use the equipment which is all set up for the room. It is a quality system and available for use.

Sue Searle, the owner of the Oak Room says “I am delighted with the system and it will prove to be a real asset to the Oak Room Arts Centre. The sound is AMAZING!”

System specification:

  • Peavey 2600 Amp
  • Behringer Mixing Deck – Eurotrack UB2442FX – Pro – 32 channel
  • Sony CD player
  • Sony mini-disc player/recorder
  • Behringer Ultra Curve Pro
  • Wharfdale Pro Powered Stage Monitor
  • Peavey Front of House Speakers HyS 2 x2 – mounted on the balcony
  • Black Widow 18″ Bass Bins x2 – mounted on the balcony
  • Radio Microphone – Audio technica ATW-T52
  • SM 58 Microphone Cabled Mic
  • Behringer Ultravoice XM 8500 Cabled Mic
  • 4 Mic Stands
  • 1 Guitar Mic Stand