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A Week in the Lake District – Part 7 – Holker Hall

I had recently read a book on the original creation and the more recent re-design of the gardens at Holker Hall so I was really looking forward to visiting it to see it for real. The book made mention of many rare and interesting trees being planted which made me extra keen to visit.

We hoped it would reach our expectations as it was the last day of our week in the Lake District. We looked forward to a gentle stroll around a peaceful, atmospheric garden. We were not disappointed in any way! Holker’s gardens were full of variety and surprises, with a careful balance of the formal and informal.

As we entered the garden we were presented with this vista, a vista full of promises to come.

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Taking each pathway off from the central path we discovered beautiful examples of formality, neatly cut grass, hedges carefully clipped and seats neatly tucked into niches.

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But formality cannot work without carefully chosen and well-grown plants.

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As we moved away from the formality of the first section of the garden we found gentle meadows which presented a complete contrast.

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The meadows contained surprises, a stone circle, a maze, seats of single blocks of slate and the most beautiful sundial.




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It was hot wandering out in the open space of the meadows so it felt good to wander around shaded areas and an Italianate water garden.

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One of the reasons to visit Holker Hall is the collection of rare and unusual trees. They were underplanted with meadows of grasses and wildflowers which gave the wooded area the character of a real William Robinson styled wild garden

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We were amazed by the number of interesting trees at Holker and enjoyed discovering several champion trees. There were so many special places throughout the gardens where shrubs and trees were sensitively grouped to set them off in the best light.

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A Garden in December – Trentham – Part One

The final installment in my monthly series looking at how the gardens at Trentham change throughout the year.

The garden has gone full circle passing through the seasons. We began last January when the gardens were in the throes of winter and finish off in December in another winter.

As we crossed the River Trent on the suspension bridge we got a good view of the golden “River of Grasses” through the two trunks of a multi-stemmed Birch, our native Betula pendula. In all or our previous monthly wanders we turned right at the bottom of the bridge into this huge area of grasses. For our December wanderings we turned left partly because we fancied a change but mostly because we spotted a willow word.

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The gravel path took us beneath tall, ancient trees both deciduous and evergreen. Up in one we were surprised again to find a fairy looking down at us watching our every move.2014 12 16_8771 2014 12 16_8772

When we reached the willow NOEL we spotted a row of willow stars further along the path .

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On one old trunk where a large bough had been cut off nature had been at work with her army of fungi to eat away at the rotting wood, and thereby creating a piece of relief sculpture. Can you spot a figure emerging?

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After this little diversion from our usual route we retraced our footsteps to explore Piet Oudolf’s River of Grasses. Here a few seed heads stood against all odds having withstood the ravages of early winter.

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I have enjoyed seeing how the Betula nigra are looking on each of our monthly visits. The texture and colour of their peeling bark catches the light whatever the time of day or time of year.

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By passing through the avenue of Birches we found ourselves in Piet Oudolf’s prairie style borders, where so many different seed heads stood strong and proud.

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We enjoyed seeing how the gardeners had tied up some of the tallest of the old stems. We decided there and then to give it a go in our own patch.

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Where some of the herbaceous plants had been cut back by the gardening team, new growth of the freshest green has burst through and waits patiently for the Spring to come along. The cut down grasses however remain dormant, but without doubt within their sheaths new spears of green are making moves.

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Tiny vestiges of colour remained to surprise us, please us and amaze us.

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Before we left the prairie borders we looked back for the final time in 2014.

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We discovered new things at Trentham even this late in the year – a set of beautifully crafted wooden garden benches complete with meaningful phrases composed by local writers from Stoke-on-Trent’s past alongside a couple from the two great garden designers involved in Trentham Garden’s rebirth, Piet Oudolf and Tom Stuart-Smith.

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Read and enjoy P O’s words of wisdom – words which express the power of these amazing gardens.

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And reflections on the gardens from Tom Stuart-Smith ……….

“What was once a scene of decay is now a breathtaking panorama of beauty.”

There are two phrases from Arnold Bennet, a local 19th Century writer,

“You can turn over a new leaf every hour if you choose.”

“It is easier to go down hill than up but the view is from the top.”

The final two phrases were written much earlier by Capability Brown, 18th Century landscape designer and his contemporary John Bing, Viscount Torrington who owned Trentham at that time. John Bing wrote

“My old friend L Brown is to be traced at every turn……………. and a judicious former of water; the lake, here, is very fine”

Brown himself wrote,

“………. from its edges “quite round, making them everywhere correspond naturally with the ground on each side.”

A new phase of work is just starting to restore some of the early Capability grounds.

The old formal Italianate gardens that link the two main gardens had been replanted with seasonal bedding plants.

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In part two of our posts sharing our December visits to the wonderful gardens at Trentham, we move on to the gardens designed by Tom Stuart-Smith and see how they look as the year ends.


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A Garden in February – Trentham

As promised we made our promised return to the gardens at Trentham, near Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire, right on the edge of The Potteries.

The day promised good weather which would make a welcome change. On our last few visits to this garden we had been subjected to rain and often cold winds. For our February exploration the sky was blue and the car’s dashboard read out told us the temperature was 9 degrees. The aim of this return visit and indeed all the following monthly ones was to see how the garden had progressed, how things had changed, which plants were looking good and which ones were the stars.

As we passed over the gentle arch of the suspension bridge we could see the “River of Grasses” with the golden stubble of the grasses which had been trimmed down low. In contrast the close mown grass areas along the riverside were bright green decorated with strips of sparkling white snowdrops. I realise the life buoy is a safety requirement and realise it has to be red so that it is easily spotted in an emergency but it is really distracting!

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As always the gently curving line of River Birches looked wonderful, with the bark peeling more than when we saw them in January. I liked the meandering line where the dried grass area joins the deep green foliage of the evergreen Euphorbia robbiae with pale green highlights created by their flowering bracts.

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Once beyond the birches the perennial borders designed by Piet Oudolf looked very flat having been trimmed tight to the ground. This was in strong contrast to all the interesting seedheads and stems that decorated it in January. But with the clear view over the area we did spot this lovely wooden seat which we had totally missed in January. The bright green new growth of the Hemerocallis has progressed well since our January visit.

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We enjoyed seeing that the rings of cyclamen were still flowering away happily beneath the Yews. They looked good in the sunshine, their colours seeming richer.

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There was little change to be seen at the Hornbeam arbor but we did notice a few white sparkling Snowdrops around the base of their trunks. The trimmed box alongside is most noticeable at this time of year when such green sculptures become one of the stars of the garden. Some other stars of the Trentham gardens on this visit waited for us close by -Hellobores and Cyclamen in full colourful bloom. The Hellebores impressed with more than the colour range however, for they had really proud upright habit. They lit up the shade beneath an allee of Hornbeam.

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Leaving the Hornbeam allee we entered the old Italian Garden, with its rigidly symmetrical patterns of short cut grass, white chipping and smartly trimmed box edging. The low winter light emphasised this structure. It is not our favourite part of the garden but we always admire the skill taken to keep it looking so neat.

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From here we could look out across the huge Italian Garden, re-designed by Tom Stuart-Smith. Since our last visit the perennials and grasses have been neatly and closely cut ready for the new growth that is sitting just below the soil surface ready to burst out.

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Then after walking through these borders in waiting, we went off into the parkland where mature trees tower above the grassed slopes. Under the trees sits the coffee shop where we stopped for our statutory break. Some slopes appeared a bluer green than others and we discovered that the leaves here were of daffodils already with flower buds fit to burst.

Near the coffee house are areas for children and it was noticeable how busy they were. When here in January this area was deserted but on this visit there were lots of families with young children. It was the school half term holiday.

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On the lake the swan sculptures presented sharp silhouettes taking off over the water.

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Over in the display gardens the low bright light made the colours in foliage, flowers, stem and bark look extra bright.

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We returned through the Tom Stuart-Smith gardens and walked along the rose pergola. The gardeners were busy pruning the roses, weeding and freshening up the soil surface.

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The shrub borders at the end of the rose pergola were showing signs of interesting things happening, the Witch Hazels were shining yellow and the scented but subtle winter flowering honeysuckle sitting along side it looked rather drab. So that finished our February visit to Trentham. The next blog in this monthly series will be in March. Things should be really livening up then.

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A Garden in January – Trentham – Part Two

Welcome back to Trentham in January where we find ourselves in the part of the garden featuring the Italian Garden re-designed by Tom Stuart-Smith.

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From the raised terraces of the Italian Parterre we can see how symmetrical and rigid the structure is. Tom Stuart-Smith has designed a brilliant garden within this structure using grasses and perennials similar to those used by Piet Oudolf. If anything the planting is more varied. The impressive thing about his design is the way soft flowing plant combinations can look so good in a formal setting.

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I always particularly like these corner beds with their plantings of low grasses, sedum, phlomis, marjoram and knautia. The little box edging is a most effective foil for the softness of the planting.

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Our walk around Tom Stuart-Smiths plantings was interrupted by a shower of freezing rain accompanied by cold winds. We sheltered in the loggia conveniently located nearby. This afforded us a good view over much of this area.

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We managed another five minutes exploration of this garden when the heavens opened once again. Conveniently by this time we were close to the coffee shop which is always our half way stopping point so we retreated to enjoy a welcomed beverage and slice of something sweet. The cafe is housed in a beautifully designed modern building based on a semi-circle. It sits snuggly within a clump of trees. The seating fits all around the floor to ceiling windows giving great views over the Tom S-S gardens.

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The wind was moving the grasses around and skewing the water in the fountains. It illustrated how important grasses can be in any garden, as even the slightest breeze sets them waving.

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Within the grasses the seedheads of the perennials were the stars of the show.

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The garden team were busy cutting down the perennials in the beds which had been worst effected by the winter weather. If you look carefully you may spot the one gardener’s amusing headgear! When she bent over it looked as if it was Yogi Bear doing the work!

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We made a diversion into the area beyond the cafe and tall trees where the show gardens are. We found a few new gardens including a “Stumpery” (a favourite garden feature of Mrs Greenbench) and this row of colourful dogwoods, Cornus Midwinter Fire.

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The glass panels in one of the gardens looked brilliant alongside the russet coloured grasses.

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Close to the cafe is an area for children’s play with climbing frames, a maze, a bare foot walk, road ways for sit-on toys and these superb sandpits. Because of the poor weather they were sadly deserted today but they are usually very popular. It is so good to see children absorbed in play that does not involve screens or batteries!

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As we neared the end of our wander we walked beneath the metal archways of the “Trellis Walk” running alongside the David Roses border. Here there were roses still trying to bloom and others with hips on. The gardens are maintained organically so within these borders we found lovely insect shelters and clumps of Phacelia plants both designed to bring in beneficial insects. Four beautiful relief panels were spread out along the border depicting different garden movements  from the past. We could see through the trellis walkway back to the “River of Grasses” and in the ever-darkening late afternoon light the grasses really seemed to glow. We now look forward to re-visiting in February to see what is going on.

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