It’s very easy for us to be prejudiced. As we get older and experience more, the tendency can be to grow cynical and more insular. Those we already have around us can become the walls of a fortress. The unknown is then kept at bay. […]
Every Friday since June 2017 I have had the honour of doing work experience at a garden design firm based at Renishaw Hall and Gardens in Derbyshire. This fine house stands just a short drive from the hustle and bustle of housing estates and main roads. I’ve not yet had the pleasure of a tour of the hall, although did see the reception room on a bake sale morning. I’m far from dismayed, as the manicured gardens behind make up for missing out on the interior.
You can visit Renishaw into November now – an extended season – Friday to Sunday between 10:30 and 16:30. Christmas open days are also planned, so check out the official website for further information. RHS members get into the gardens for free, although parking still costs £1.
On a fine day it’s possible to while away the time enjoying the grounds, and on any day you can partake of the scrumptious food and drink served in the café (found inside the Stables Courtyard).
The exterior of Renishaw Hall may be breathtaking. The house’s interior, I hear, boasts an array of artwork and antiques. Yet it’s the property’s people that spark the interest more than anything.
The hall was constructed in the 1600s by a landowner who made his fortune in colliery and ironworks, George Sitwell, High Sheriff of Derbyshire. As with most grand houses, Renishaw has been tinkered with since. The most recent structural alterations were performed under Edward Lutyens‘ direction in 1908.
Sitwell blood still possesses Renishaw, in the form of Alexandra Hayward. A baronetcy was tied in with the property until recently, having been created for Sir Sitwell Sitwell back in 1808.
The Sitwell family had its fair share of fall-outs, with disagreements over marriages and sibling solidarity. It’s said that Osbert, 5th baronet, couldn’t forgive his brother Sacheverell, later 6th baronet, for having married.
These two were part of an infamous literary trio, along with sister Dame Edith Sitwell. Their artistic flare and outlandish manner stemmed from distant and eccentric parents. Their mother fell prey to both blackmail and debt in her lifetime, and their father George purchased an Italian castle requiring much renovation… Not to mention the expulsion of around 300 peasants sheltering in its walls.
But, when considering the gorgeous gardens at Renishaw Hall, it is Sir George Sitwell that we must thank. He ordered the formation of the Italianate grounds closest to the hall, although it took Sir Reresby, father of Alexandra, to bring them from their state of disrepair.
We’re very lucky Sir Reresby did take the time to reinvigorate the gardens, and that his daughter puts so much emphasis on maintaining them. For starters, the view of the house from the rear of the property wouldn’t be anywhere near as perfect as it is.
We enter the gardens from the timber ticket office by walking alongside some magnificent Hydrangea (some the white-blooming Annabelle, others more traditional pinks and blues). The view of the whole is cleverly hidden away at this stage, tucked behind the prominent yew hedges which divide all into smaller “rooms”.
The gothick aviary/pet cemetery is over to the right of the path, as well as access to a small woodland trail with some literary wooden cut-outs to engage young visitors. Children will also be delighted to take a look at the carved drove of hares gazing up at the moon beneath the Davidia involucrata, or “handkerchief tree”.
Beyond these you’ll come across the Agave house, a former orangery. This doesn’t quite float my boat as I’m not an Agave fan. Don’t let that put you off exploring every corner of these gardens though. One of my favourite pieces of Renishaw artwork relaxes down by the Agave house: a wooden lion. He isn’t especially majestic. I feel a sort of sadness for him, that he isn’t going to endure as long as stone, nor is he probably as meaningful as other pieces. Perhaps we all feel like that as humans from time to time.
Lee Bestall’s Silver-Gilt award garden from RHS Chatsworth Flower Show is now just behind the Yucca House. Inspired by the landscape and fine gardens of Derbyshire, this is its perfect permanent home. Its clipped yew cones harken to the high hedges of Renishaw. The eroded classical statue in the centre of the courtyard fits in alongside other sculpture. The pastel shades within each quadrangle, demarcated by box, echo the floral tones employed by Arne Maynard elsewhere here.
The Italianate terraces absolutely steal the show. Its sturdy walls are cloaked in vegetation for much of the year, softening the structure. You still feel the strength of the site beneath it all though. Tantalising glimpses into other garden rooms are offered up on the terraces. You’d be forgiven for not looking that far, however, as you focus on the plants arranged around you. There is variety for every season. Wisteria blooms earlier on, as do rows of vibrant and welcome tulips. Further into the year vines, Phlox paniculata, roses and buddleias come alive, just some of the plants soaking the senses.
There are strong architectural elements provided by foliage variety in the Italianate area too, as photos well reveal.
Potted cerulean Agapanthus watch over the lower paths from on high:
The herbaceous borders go on flowering for months, in their pastel shades of blue. These are the borders designed by Arne Maynard, and the coolness is a theme running through much of the garden. It contrasts effectively with the Italianate terraces’ hotter hues.
That said, the garden does employ vivid pinks around the fountain, in towering Oriental lilies. I don’t use lilies enough in my own planting; they always bowl me over.
The white garden hides just beyond the herbaceous borders. I say it hides, although it’s more that I never noticed it until this summer. I stumbled upon it by chance, it seemed, while eating a wrap. Classy. A large white Astilbe catches the eye at the right time of year. Actaea matsumurae “White Pearl” – I believe – holds its own alongside this, and small white dahlias glint in the recesses. Roses, this time their petals blanched, again play their part, adding scent to the foam.
If you hear the “call of the wild”, then there is a woodland walk with paths winding their way down to two lakes. The waterpower here once fuelled a sawmill, now fenced off. I’m pretty sure myself and my friend Fiona ventured into this building on our first visit years ago.
Enough of the wild though; that doesn’t do much for me at Renishaw, even if it does serve as a pleasant palate cleanser between garden rooms.
The first and simplest inspiration granted by Renishaw Hall is the use of lighter plastic containers to house plants. The gardeners here keep the Agapanthus in plastic tubs, but these are sat within decorative stone pots on the Italianate terraces when summer comes. This allows us to change our displays much more quickly and less messily.
On a larger scale, the greatest point to take away from Renishaw, for me, is lining up your views. We should ponder carefully where windows and doors are in the house, and what we want to look at across from that. Something should always draw the eye instantly, but then the edges should also come into focus. It’s not by chance that Renishaw’s fountain is lined up with the rough centre of the hall, the wide steps from the herbaceous borders, the yew hedge portals and the semicircular bastion overlooking the fields beyond.
A limited colour theme is another aspect of Renishaw to keep in mind. If you’re a plantaholic like me, it’s all too easy to throw a menagerie of lovely plants together. This is often regardless of colour, unless you really despise a certain shade. I hear orange has its enemies… There is a real power to restricting palette. It makes the garden cohesive, like it has all been carefully considered beforehand. It turns passionate abandon into refined artistry.
Colour limitation also avoids confusion. It can be overwhelming walking into a garden of riotous, rebellious colour. Nothing in particular is noticeable, therefore we can leave said space feeling empty. Unsatisfied.
Align these two elements – strong lines of sight and limited colours – and our gardens can be strong statement pieces worthy of quiet contemplation. Until the prosecco starts flowing…
Which other gardens can you visit and find yourself walking leisurely from one country to another? Biddulph Grange is that garden.
Of course, all gardens in modern times are a journey across continents. Even our most pedestrian suburban plots probably have several international guests. Rudbeckia comes from North America; Crocosmia hails from South Africa; Eucalyptus is Australian. So what makes Biddulph Grange different? Areas of the garden are landscaped to look like foreign regions. They house features that echo exotic design. You can’t miss where you are meant to be in the world.
The quirkiness of Biddulph Grange is explained a little by taking a look in the Geological Gallery. This was once the original entrance to the garden for Victorian visitors. It was commissioned by then-owner of the property, James Bateman, and first opened in 1862.
It is a part of the grounds seemingly disconnected from the gardens, but in fact underpins them entirely.
Bateman made his fortune through industrial and banking means, and spent the money on Biddulph. He was keenly interested in botany and collected plants from around the world.
Additionally, he was a religious man. Experts believe his faith was deeply inspired by the Scottish evangelist Hugh Miller. Theology was confronted by science and evolution in the Victorian era, and thrown into disarray. Miller and subsequently Bateman were both scientists and religious men, and they hit on a way to combine the two aspects.
It was hypothesised that the Bible was correct to talk of the world being made in six days. These were not days as we would immediately think. A day represented a vast number of years, and in each of these epochs God created different species which eventually went extinct. In this way, geology and fossil evidence are valid, and prove the existence of a Creator rather than overturning it.
The Geological Gallery walked the curious through days 1 to 6, showcasing wonders dug from the earth and now embedded in the walls. These wonders are being cared for and the gallery renovated at the present time.
Upon leaving this indoor walkway and entering the garden, the visitor arrives at the seventh day: the day of rest. The visitor reaches the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve awoke. Here are all the world’s plants, thriving in one perfect place. Here chaos is kept at bay.
Interestingly, chaos did creep in. The house is not Bateman’s. The main part of the original property burnt down, as did several outbuildings, such as the orangery. Reconstruction was grander and took place in 1897.
In the 1920s the house was sold again and became a hospital. It remained such until 1991, and significant changes occurred. Modern hospital wings were added and the garden fell into ruin. The Geological Gallery was used as storage and even partially removed for development.
Following the hospital closure, a private developer eventually breathed new life into the house, as private apartments. The gardens underwent careful excavation and terraces and plantings were recreated. Wilderness was tamed to return the different areas to their Victorian glory.
The garden’s boundaries conceal Biddulph’s verdant Victorian treasures. They also belie the number of regions you can explore in one small bit of Britain.
You may recall in my post about Villa Marlia that I encouraged sticking to a planned route. Well, forget that here. If you must start somewhere, see the Geological Gallery first and imagine yourself taken back in time, welcomed as the original visitors would have been. Perhaps then take a trip up Wellingtonia Avenue and back down the Woodland Walk. I found this charming on a sunny spring day, yet commonplace. Many gardens around the country have such elements.
From the way in, via the gift shop, you descend through Italy. The balustrades and staircase are magnificent. It’s hard to visualise how a previous house, pre-1800s blaze, could have matched their grandeur. They aren’t large; they’re strong. They make a statement. As does the planting softening the edges of the Italianate section. In April, on my first trip, it was blocks and lines of blush pink tulips accompanied by blue and white Lobularia maritima. By September, Salvia, Senecio cineraria and blousey begonias lined Italy’s steps. Small cypress cones give year-round continuity.
Around 70% of the earth is covered in water. Biddulph isn’t quite as earth-like in this respect as in others, but it does utilise water frequently. From Italy, you can turn left to enjoy the lake. You’ll see ducks and the odd koi. Above all, walking to its far bank, you’ll look back and see the gloriously elevated house with its terrace. In spring and early summer, irises crowd stretches of the banking, introducing colour plus a difference in foliage. Please note that children should be accompanied here: it’s possible to descend some steps from below the house right to the water’s edge.
The parterres can be found below the sun terrace of the house, although I found little thrill in these sadly. They really aren’t the best part of the garden and feel too claustrophobic to work in my opinion.
From the parterres and the lakeside you can make your way up the world-famous Dahlia Walk. I love dahlias for their variety of shapes and massive range of colours. The reason Matt and I returned to Biddulph in September was to make the most of this path. Unfortunately 2017 has not been the year for dahlias here. The gardeners feel it could be a gradual build-up of pests and diseases in the soil as well as a reduction in goodness which contributed to this failure.
Some of the dahlias were flowering wonderfully. A full display would have been a sight to behold. Nonetheless, I’m not a fan of monoculture. Worked into a mixed border I find dahlias add extra interest, extra zing. The Dahlia Walk was more of a country fair tent. That doesn’t stop it being worth the trip though, for ideas on varieties if nothing else.
The far end of the Dahlia Walk passes into the Stumpery – reminiscent of dinosaur fossils arching up over the slopes. You wonder if this was planned by James Bateman decades before, the keen geologist-theologian that he was. From this gloomy area you can climb up to look from the tower over the Dahlia Walk…
…go on into Egypt with its pair of sphinxes and creepy tomb-like tunnel…
…or head right to reach China. You’ll find a vivid red and green bridge. It’s the perfect spot to take in the little pond, adorned with acers, and the Chinese temple ahead of you. Victorian confusion over oriental elements rears its head in this dell, when you notice the gilded cow looking out from the cliffside. Cows are sacred in Hinduism rather than Chinese faiths. As for the sun disc on its head – that’s an Ancient Egyptian thing! Perhaps I’m being cynical, and Bateman was simply blending the cosmopolitan side of his gardens into a single feature.
Ring the bells on the Chinese pagoda, then pass through the dark caverns, keeping an eye out for the ice pit. You’ll return to the light in the Himalayan Glen. Curiously, this is only noted as “the Glen” on the map. This will do little to dispel the myth that it’s a Scottish scene rather than Asian. Planting here is not British. Rhododendrons alone would have brought a sense of the Himalayas to the garden. Nowadays I for one take these plants for granted. The stream running through the Glen really brings that extra “something” to this little nook.
The Pinetum runs parallel to China and the Glen. You can reach it via the tunnel from Egypt which most bizarrely deposits you at a traditional Cheshire Cottage. The Pinetum path is serene. The light is gorgeous as it filters through on a sunny day, just as in April for us.
Apologies if this tour of the garden has felt back-and-forth. As stated earlier, this is intentional. There is no guidance on how to traverse the grounds, nor should there be.
Go wild. Get lost. Wander. A couple of volunteers have told us the aim at Biddulph Grange was to meander and backtrack, and that even they lose their way after years of experience. This is part of the pleasure of the place. Without the backtracking, you’d miss alternative angles of looking. With these different perspectives, you spot points of interest previously overlooked.
I didn’t mention the numerous seats in the previous section, nor did I describe every architectural point. There is an almost Provençal tower close to China. There is a small pagoda summerhouse on top of a slope. Beyond the lake, behind The Americas, you’ll find a tennis lawn clearing.
Part of the joy of Biddulph Grange is how many hours you can spend just weaving in and out on a voyage of discovery. The high hedges and tall trees contribute to this adventure. So too do the stone walls and tunnels. These barriers are your oceans to cross, dividing territories.
The lake amplifies the exquisiteness of the grounds. The house is reflected beautifully on the placid water beneath. In spring, the pinks and reds of the rhododendrons and azaleas are doubled in splendour through this feature. In autumn it’s the turn of the fiery hues to be magnified. In some places I feel a lake is just there because that’s what was expected. I could enjoy many gardens without water features. In Biddulph the body of water is situated perfectly. The various encounters with water in diverse forms around the grounds enhances the lake’s presence.
No garden is complete without focus points. Biddulph contains many. These can be whatever we like, as long as they draw the eye. Think statue, imposing plant, large decorative planter. Think fountain or elaborate mounted mirror. It could even be a bespoke table and chairs in a designated space. If we have the room, we can go for more than one. In this instance, be sure they’re separated enough (in distance or seclusion) so as not to confuse rather than direct the viewer.
An air of mystery and motion is quintessential at Biddulph Grange. What’s through this tunnel? What if I turn right rather than left? What will I see from the top of this tower? We can’t all have follies. We can encourage friends and family to turn corners, peer round bushes or focus through ethereal specimens.
Many of us gardeners know the importance of crop rotation in veg growing. This practice is just as vital for other flora. Dahlias have been grown in the same beds at Biddulph for many years, and iconic as the Dahlia Walk is, now could be the time to let it rest for a while. Remember this at home. Trees and shrubs have their home for life usually. We want perennials to stay put for an indefinite timeframe. However, we should move bulbs and annuals around. Dig up and divide perennials every so often and move them on. Let’s reinvigorate our garden’s look periodically. It brings interest as well as garden health.
What plant inspiration did I glean from Biddulph? Most unexpectedly, while wandering the half-empty Dahlia Walk, I picked up on a large leaved perennial with speckled pink-purple flowers. It’s called Tricyrtis formosana and it grows in sun or dappled shade with moist soil for its rhizomatous roots. It flowers through early autumn. Its coloration reminded me of martagon lilies which I have long loved.
If you’ve ever visited Biddulph Grange gardens, which was your favourite aspect?
Sometimes it’s easy to get swept away in the hustle and bustle, and the excitement of constant activity too. Sometimes it’s soothing just to relax, no plans, no deadlines. How many of us are guilty of forgetting that?
From Friday evening to Sunday night, the only plan Matt and I had were “getting off the grid”. Letting go of being live wires. A weekend in North Yorkshire was on the cards (as were other board games, although I think we only managed a few rounds of Connect Four). Ok, so Friday evening didn’t begin completely chilled. The SatNav took us directly through Leeds and out via Otley. Not the most straightforward route, though thankfully the Leeds roads were quiet.
In a way it added an extra layer of pleasure when we reached our destination finally, as we couldn’t wait just to relax. I cooked up a simple bruschetta with some tomatoes, onion, mushrooms, garlic and basil, plus slices of heated halloumi and dollops of balsamic glaze. We may have washed it down with a couple of bottles of prosecco…
Saturday was where it was at! We’ve had some brilliant days out visiting open gardens and National Trust estates over more recent months, and I would never tire of that. However, both of us love country walks, and that’s certainly what we got. Nothing revives the soul quite like a stroll over hill and dale, admiring the spectacular scenery.
Our walk took us out from Pateley Bridge, up the hill along a stretch of the Nidderdale Way and through small settlements such as Blazefield, Low Laithe and Glasshouses, before we returned to Pateley for a couple of pints at The Royal Oak pub.
Our halfway point, as such, was Brimham Rocks, a National Trust location. It’s all about the landscape. Amongst the trees, heather and wildflowers stand remarkable rock formations, ancient and sometimes mind-boggling in their anti-gravity feats. Check out Idol Rock, for example!
There’s a lovely little gift shop with a gallery space up above, and a small coffee bar in a separate outbuilding.
By the time we returned to our lodgings (for yet more prosecco), we’d walked around 10 miles. I have to say, it felt further, but I put that down to the constancy of our climbs. Unlike our usual walking weather, the sky was good to us, with just the occasional short shower and plenty of warm sunlight.
This clambering clematis, struggling for freedom from its overgrown garden confines, caught my eye…
…as did the spontaneity of being able to hire a llama companion in Nidderdale…
…and how plainly pretty is this row of terrace houses?
After a long day and a late night of, whoops, more boozing, Sunday morning was a welcome lazy lie-in. We followed this up with a steady jaunt across to Grassington for lunch in a quaint little tearoom/bistro called The Retreat. Its staff were absolutely some of the friendliest and most positive ever encountered, and we had the added bonus of chatting briefly in the courtyard with an Australian lady touring Europe and the U.K. with her partner. The food was delicious. I’d ordered a goats cheese and tomato panini with chips and salad, while Matt had a vegetarian lasagne which looked and smelt fantastic. Apparently it tasted just as great! Highly recommended to anybody visiting Grassington.
We followed up our lunch with a quick stop to glance in the unassuming entrance to Stump Cross Caverns, describing itself as a 30-40 minute walk through primordial caverns bedecked with fossilised remains. We had never heard of the place and were tempted to go in, but time was ticking on and we had to get back to Pateley Bridge… for scones! I’m adding the caverns to my wish list for a future adventure.
Where did we eat scones? At The Old Granary, a tearoom which gave you the impression it hadn’t altered in years and years and years. Nor would one want it to. The scones were exquisite too. I loved the fact they had a Gluten Free options – something I’m much more aware of these days as a colleague and her daughter are coeliac and are often on the lookout for suitable eateries.
Sunday evening was, for me, as brilliant a part of the weekend away as the long walk on Saturday afternoon. Why? Because Matt and I had a leisurely drive out towards the moors past Gouthwaite Reservoir, in time to watch the sky meld from pale blue through pink and purple to dusky deep hues. We came across a gorgeous little village called Ramsgill with its stately hotel…
…could see out towards Middlesbrough from one hilltop and gaze on a sea of lavender heathers up there…
…and stopped for a nippy nighttime walk around the lofty village of Middlesmoor.
Such a brilliant weekend, I didn’t want to head to bed on Sunday night, but work beckoned the next day and thus an early early start…
I hope you all had a lovely, relaxed weekend with some “off the grid” time. Now you’re back on it, feel free to subscribe to my blog or follow my social media =D