I had the pleasure of visiting the Abbeywood Estate Gardens in Cheshire twice in 2017. Both occasions were markedly different in terms of the weather and flora. The first was a warm day in early August with interesting clouds flitting overhead and a great deal […]
My 30 by 30 posts are done and dusted. They took up almost all of my November posts, so it’s time for me to reflect on a noteworthy November. It certainly brought a lot of notable events.
I already published a look at the Bonfire Night weekend, which you can read here, so I’ll start after that Sunday…
Heading south for secrets and surprises
The most significant change of November was my career. First of all, my last working day at the Northern General Hospital was Thursday 2nd. I didn’t have anything concrete to move onto at that point, but had a few ideas and one main hope. After saying my goodbyes to colleagues, it was time for a month or so to kick back and relax.
I spent much of the month at Matt’s across in Lymm. He’d advised me, in a clandestine card, to keep Tuesday 7th November free of any plans. There was a clue, but I’m hopeless at them so figured none of it out. I didn’t even know which direction we were heading in, until the morning when we set off in a southerly direction.
Matt drove us into the car park of the Trentham Estate whose gardens I first heard of earlier in the year. I’ll go into more detail about this in another post, because the grounds need more in-depth discussion. Suffice to say we had a pleasant if chilly wander round. The rejuvenated gardens are sublime, and I can’t wait to see them again in summer.
It wasn’t too long before Matt had us bundled in the car, and we were hitting the road again. He’d told me to dress pretty smartly for the evening. My mind was whirring with possibilities. The SatNav was needed nearer to the end of the journey, but Matt didn’t let me near it.
We went into Coventry – not my favourite place – and passed out the other side. Even more confusing! Finally we arrived at the Warwick University campus. Finding a car parking space was its own side quest. We headed off for something to eat and drink, and then made our way to the venue: Butterworth Hall. The event: Monty Don talking about his latest book Down To Earth and his lifelong gardening exploits.
I was over the moon. Monty is a role model of mine. I think he’s a bit Marmite – you either love him or hate him. For me he’s the epitome of enjoying investing yourself in the earth and cultivating your small patch of this world. He has no professional education in horticulture, yet has learnt so much over the years. His voice is captivating yet soothing at the same time.
Monty’s talk didn’t disappoint. It was inspirational and eye-opening, just seeing what can be achieved. The way he discusses his partnership and compromise with his wife Sarah is an additional lesson for all (you can read more about this in their book The Jewel Garden). There was insight into behind-the-scenes of Gardeners’ World filming, plus elements the BBC would never bother catching on camera. As for those like Matt, with less or no passion for hands-on gardening, Monty’s humour bewitches. He enjoyed the evening almost as much as I.
Wandering around the building after the talk, Matt and I managed to ambush a slightly befuddled Monty as he escaped for home… I even achieved a photo with the great man!
Heading further afield
It wasn’t long before Matt and I ventured even further than the midlands. New York beckoned!
I can’t recall if I mentioned my first ever trip to New York on this site or not. It was June of this year, when I accompanied Matt over there. I’d never had any urge to visit, as large, bustling cities aren’t my cup of tea. It was going to be a flying visit – 36 hours roughly, almost all spent awake!
Managing not to be too subjective about the trip, we fitted in a walk along the High Line, a night bus tour, a meal close to Times Square, Roosevelt Island and the 9/11 memorial site. I never felt truly comfortable; nevertheless, I’m glad to be able to say I went.
Matt convinced me to go again with him in November. He wooed me with how much more appealing it is in winter, wrapped up in warm clothing. I won’t lie: his promise of spending much more time around Central Park also won me over.
This time we had two nights’ stay. Apart from feeling trapped in Central Park at one point – claustrophobia colliding with agoraphobia, bizarrely – we had a lovely time. We spent hours exploring Central Park. The autumnal colours were spectacular. My favourite spot had to be the Bethesda Terrace – stunning architecture – although the Belvedere Castle was fantastic and unexpected. The latter is predominantly a tourist destination with a gift shop and great views, but it’s also the site of the local weather station. I have to say the scale of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis reservoir was also breathtaking. It was a brilliant foreground to the surrounding skylines, with the sun shining above us.
Matt and I managed to get into the extremely educational Museum of the City of New York for free. It normally costs, but we landed lucky. It was free all week. I would urge anyone visiting NYC to call in. We spent a couple of hours perusing the information boards. You could easily pass hours inside, with its different levels and regularly changed exhibitions.
We also made it along the High Line again and, this time, walked over most of the Brooklyn Bridge and back. Yet more wonderful views and astounding architectural feats opened up to us.
On my first visit we never made it up a skyscraper. Second time round and we took the lift to the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building. I’m not usually scared of heights. This was something totally different! I was terrified. As breathtaking as the illuminated city all around was, I couldn’t venture close to the edge. Matt had a good look around though; I’m glad I didn’t hold him back, even though he’s been up before.
All in all I’d say everyone should aim to experience NYC at least once in their life. Hand on heart, I can also say I doubt I’ll go back again soon. We’re back to the subject of Marmite again – you love it or hate it.
We were only back in Blighty for a few days before Matt whisked me off to Barbados. Now this time I confess I loved the destination.
I hadn’t been sure what to expect. I’d never really known anyone who’s experienced the Caribbean. I wondered if we’d end up kidnapped for ransom by drug cartels. My mind had obviously wandered down to the South American rainforests.
First and foremost, the Barbadian people are so friendly and relaxed. Even their driving is a dream. No high speeds, no road rage. However, no road signs either really. When your car hire company fails to provide SatNav, this can be a problem. Armed with a map of the island, we succeeded.
On the first day, we got up extra early to walk down to the beach. Matt had promised me horses. There they were, prime racing horses, taking a dip in the sea before the tourists awoke. Matt and I popped in for an hour or so too, before grabbing the hire car and setting off inland.
Our initial stop was Hunte’s Gardens. I’m sorry folks, but this’ll have to be another separate post. It has to be my favourite foreign garden visited to date. It’s up there with my top gardens full-stop. Anthony Hunte was there – a marvellous host – who’d designed and formed the sunken paradise himself over previous years. It was otherworldly in its perfection. Anyhow, I must stop myself before I say too much here. Stay tuned…
From there we moved on to the Andromeda botanical gardens. These were on the opposite end of the spectrum. More of a showcase, as botanical gardens often are, whereas Hunte’s Gardens was showy and jawdropping. What I enjoyed about the botanical gardens was the information guide you used to navigate the place – especially useful when the specimens before you are so unlike those in Britain. That said, the odd familiar name or shape popped out to say “hello”. We encountered yet more friendly folk here: two UK expats at the welcome desk who chatted with us for ages before we realised we should head back to the hotel. A troop of monkeys also stalked us for a while – a little different to the squirrels experienced in Sheffield Botanical Gardens!
Our second night in Barbados ended with a delicious meal at the simply named Tapas restaurant, and our second morning saw us hitting the beach for sunbathing and swimming. It’s bliss because, as long as you settle away from the hotel fronts, you get the sea and sand to yourself. Just remember to take plenty of drinking water and plenty of suncream! Matt and I laughed so much just messing about in the water like kids. Passers by must have thought we were mad as we launched ourselves into huge waves and tried “washing machines” and forward rolls on the surface.
One word of warning to anyone travelling to Barbados: it’s pretty expensive. Oh, and you’ll struggle to find postcards. Two warnings for you.
As mentioned briefly at the start of this post, I left my job in hospital admin at the start of November. At the end, I began in a new position with Bestall & Co, award-winning garden design firm based at Renishaw Hall.
I’d been doing one day a week’s work experience with founder Lee and his team since summer. I’m over the moon that they felt I’m worthy of being taken on as a paid colleague. My new role is “graduate trainee”, and I’m excited to be undergoing in-house training that has evidently served previous new employees very well. It’s only a small firm, but that’s even more of a bonus. It’s friendly, personal and chances to pitch in are even more readily available.
Another aspect of the job I’m overjoyed about is the variety I’m experiencing. I won’t just be in the office doing administration. I’m spending at least half of my time outdoors, performing practical horticulture. For instance, we just planted over 1000 bulbs in a couple of days in a few gardens. I’ll get to see a range of designed gardens first-hand. When I am in the office, it’s unleashing more creativity than ever before. I’m researching and writing articles, webpages and presentations. Very happy!
It goes to show, life is full of unexpected but utterly amazing twists and turns. You’ve just got to seize the opportunities presented!
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?
How often do you find yourself retracing steps from an earlier part of your life, sometimes without even realising it?
Last weekend I met Matt out in Tideswell where we’d had our very first date. This Saturday I ended up taking Troy for a walk along the same route I’d taken just around the same time as Matt and I had that first date. I clearly recall sending him photos of me and the spaniel walking along the blizzard-blitzed roads and over the snow-blanketed fields, which this time were soaked in sunlight and cloaked in corn.
Saturday – walking from Worrall
This is one of my favourite wanderings to take from home, and much of it is uncongested by other walkers or cyclists.
Beginning in the heart of Worrall, head downhill and round the Butcher’s Corner S-bend as if going to the top end of Oughtibridge. Behind the farm on the bend you have a left hand lane – go up it and it soon becomes a mud/stony path – Boggard Lane. It’s home to one of my favourite tree-vaulted archways. After this you also glimpse Onesacre on the opposite side of the valley (my dad’s grandmother was one of the last to attend its small schoolhouse).
From the far end of Boggard, head up the steep incline of Burnt Hill and carry on until the right hand turn onto Onesmoor Bottom, a windy and gradually increasing rise which offers views back towards Oughtibridge, Worrall and Sheffield city from its heights. You can also look across to the north-east and see one of my other local walks through Greno Woods (more about that in future).
Take a footpath over the fields to your left at the top of the hill (there is an opposite path which descends to Oughtibridge). Crossing through these fields – this summer filled with ripening golden wheat and rustling bronze rape stalks – you’ll pass around the right of the convent and its grounds. Yet another example of beautiful stone walling, albeit more imposing than the usual field dividers!
Passing alongside the convent, you’ll reach a metal gate out onto Kirk Edge Road. Turning right there would lead you on into Bradfield and beyond, but I turned left (lots of lefts, like not ending up lost in a labyrinth). Descend down the straight road over Worrall Moor until reaching the village itself. Troy and I finished off by walking along Top Road and down Towngate towards the post office and Blue Ball, and returning home from there for a well-earned coffee and glass of water. So much for the poor weather!
Sunday – Renishaw Hall specialist plant fair
Such a shame the sunny weather didn’t completely continue through into Sunday; a lot more heavy clouds floating around, and the constant threat of rain – which fortunately never came.
I spent the morning drawing up some plans for my sister’s partial garden re-design, before then dividing some offsets (or “pups”) from the Aloe Vera which Matt bought me earlier in the year. Easy peasy – I now have nine Aloe Vera’s. I don’t expect them all to survive, that said, due to insufficient root systems on the smaller ones as well as a little rot on a couple. Nevertheless, more than one is progress from just the one! I simply tipped the plant from the pot, teased the pups away from the centre (sometimes using my disinfected cuttings knife to slice if necessary), and potted on into gritty compost-filled containers. Simple!
Lunchtime arrived and drove across to Renishaw Hall via my friend Fiona’s house to collect her for an afternoon in the fabulous gardens and mooching round the specialist plant fair. We even went thrifty, taking our own lunches and drinks. More money free for the plants on sale in my case!
I find the gardens at Renishaw utterly beautiful, even if it isn’t the most expansive estate. The major downside from my point-of-view is the woodland walk. It’s not its size, so much as its lack of excitement. There’s very little going on between the trunks or along the ground. Perhaps I just need to make sure I visit in spring; maybe there are bulbs of which I’m unaware.
There’s also a neoclassical statue of a lady attempting to coyly cover her modesty, glancing anxiously to her left. This is the only statue I’ve ever felt sorry and sad for. The reason? She doesn’t have a decent view to gaze at for her eternity in stone. Fiona and I pondered on how her outlook may have appeared when first realised. A clear hillside overlooking rolling hills and scattered thickets?
Renishaw Hall is paradise for its own yew enclaves of immaculate lawns, abundantly planted herbaceous borders and rows of roses, lilies and, in spring, tulips. It even boasts a laburnum arch for earlier in the year.
The plant fair was a little disappointing – I saw very little that took my fancy. Then again, there’s no accounting for taste, and what skips my notice might well stoke someone else’s passion. Do be warned however, that there is a charge of £3 just for adults to enter the separated fair area, or an additional 50p on your £6 adult entry to the gardens if you combine the two activities as we did. We actually got away without paying – I think the ticket people had tootled off home by that time in the afternoon (close to its closing at 16:30; it began at 10:30).
I was beginning to feel that sadness at the prospect of leaving empty handed – like I need more plants! – and then I spotted four Echinacea “White Swan”, and purchased three. Now, where to squeeze them in… I was also pleased to arrive back at my mum and dad’s to see one of the Gladiolus murielae buds has opened up.
And so Sunday night has arrived, I’m typing this up, and just noticing the rain has finally arrived through the window. Good timing.
Have a great week ahead, and don’t forget, you can follow me on social media and subscribe below!