As my thirtieth year draws to a close, I want to reflect on my top five gardens of 2017. It’s a tough list to compile, and I’ve yet to actually write up reviews of a couple. Fingers crossed I’ll be getting to visit them again […]
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.