YOU might imagine that it’s all gas and gaiters behind the scenes at Hereford Cathedral.

The centuries-old formal residences of the Bishop and the Dean are blessed with six acres of grounds sloping down to the Wye, and each year thousands of visitors discover the peace and tranquillity of these abundantly planted gardens nurtured for more than 700 years.

This is not quite living ‘over the shop’ for Hereford’s two highest-ranking clerics, yet the job does come with an enviably short cloistered commute to work. Away from the ‘office’, the pleasant lawns, richly assorted flower borders, grassy banks and shady coppices must have offered a welcome salve to generations of ecclesiastical brows.

These gardens are indeed Hereford’s best-kept secret, a hum of traffic crossing the river the only reminder that this spot is in the heart of the city. This is not only a horticultural gem, but it exudes the ancient history overlying it. No wonder then, that an award has come from the Royal Horticultural Society, or that a classy national magazine and the BBC came calling.

During the summer, regular tours are led by guides who relish the opportunity to spend more time here. Small details may escape the untutored eye: a handsome salmon carved into a truss in the cloisters – a reminder that this is within a stone’s throw of the Wye – or a modest plum-stone lurking in a section of wattle and muddy daub (Kew Gardens claimed it was a 17th century visitor from the Continent).

Times have changed. One elderly visitor recalled her pre-war days as a maid at the Bishop’s Palace. Serving afternoon tea on the terrace, the staff fell to their knees when the gaitered Bishop emerged, she explained. No such action was required when the Queen came to plant a tulip tree in the gardens years ago – the tree is flourishing with a wealth of stunning flowers.

This heavenly spot breathes with history and horticultural endeavour. Among the 15-strong team of willing volunteers, a husband and wife keep the Cloister Garden immaculate. Guide Beth Sandison challenges visitors to find a rose that has not been dead-headed. She even offers a 50p reward for each one; her small change remains safe.

Stepping out into the main gardens, visitors pass a brick-built building, once a bakery, even a piggery, and now the School of Music.

Hordes of hollyhocks grace the mellowed stone walls, and roses, peonies and hydrangea bushes abound. Past beds of Bishop’s dahlias, yet more hollyhocks and a spectacular blood-red rambling rose – “Surely the finest red rose in the world,” claims Beth. Here in the Dean’s garden, a low, half-timbered building in mellow red brick hunkers down by the river. “This was once a hostelry,” Beth explains. “When barges came up the river they would take their turn to tie up here.”

Before the days of rail, this navigable stretch of the Wye would have teemed with boats and river folk sought respite and refreshment here. Research has shown that this part of the riverbank has been religiously cultivated – in both senses - since the 1400s, and the present Dean, the Very Rev Michael Tavinor is more than happy to get stuck into gardening chores.

“No criticism of the flower tubs!” Beth entreats her visitors, going on to explain that these are planted up by the Dean himself. In spring there is a veritable explosion of bulbs in the Chapter House and Deanery gardens and plants reflecting ecclesiastical themes in the College Garden with lovely views of the Wye and the Old Bridge. The gardens illustrate pre-Reformation social and culinary lifestyles – though tours do not include a peep at the senior clerics’ vegetable patches.

The river does not spare these revered grounds when it is in full spate, yet the hosts of daffodils have repeatedly proved they can survive the floods. Earlier this year, however, the mighty Beast from the East took its toll on the majestic cedars in the Bishop’s Garden when branches buckled under the sheer weight of snow, but like the grounds themselves, they have survived.