Anticipating the excitement of exploring new landscapes is now tempered with the limitations of age; gardens offer alternative and accessible horizons. I was thus delighted to visit three very different gardens during our recent holiday on the Northumbrian coast. The Gertrude Jekyll garden on Lindisfarne is small, unpretentious, and utterly charming. The walled garden once provided vegetables for the soldiers stationed at Lindisfarne from about 1570 – an outpost of the important fort at Berwick on Tweed where the English defended the town against the Scots for hundreds of years. In 1901 Edward Hudson bought the fort and employed the Arts and Crafts architect, Edwin Lutyens, to convert it to a holiday home – a castle. Hudson was the editor of Country Life, a magazine to which Jekyll contributed. Jekyll was also a friend of Edwin Lutyens with whom she often collaborated when designing gardens. Although she did not usually visit the gardens that she designed in her later life, it is not too surprising that Jekyll and Lutyens travelled together and stayed at the Lindisfarne castle as guests of Hudson in 1906. The garden of Jekyll’s design was completed in 1911 with the help of Lutyens. Nearly a hundred years later, in 2003, the garden was replanted using Jekyll’s original planting scheme.
The weather was mixed on 25 July, mostly wet and blustery with occasional interludes of sunshine. The garden design was just of simple roughly paved paths with beds around a central square bed. There were fruit trees against the walls, heritage vegetables and herbs. The general effect, achieved with cottage garden annuals and perennials, was immediately enticing. As I sat on the bench amongst the flowers catching a drift of the scent of sweet peas, it was easy enough to imagine it as my garden. An unfamiliar plant that scattered its blue (sometimes white) delicate flowers around amidst the sweet peas, cornflowers, nigella and daisies was particularly attractive. Its long blue spur led me to find its name – Consolida regalis – an annual that I was pleased to find in my seed catalogue; this is definitely a plant for me in 2023.
Stachys byzantina, previously S. lanata, known as lambs’ lugs in Scotland, was also much in evidence – another plant I need to have. We know it has long been grown at Crathes because George Elgood painted it growing in the Blue and Pink Border in 1899. Today it grows in a corner of the Trough Garden. Elgood’s painting was published in the book Some English Gardens (1904) with the accompanying text written by Jekyll. However, some of the text is inaccurate, reflecting Jekyll’s reliance on other people for information when she did not visit the place she was writing about.*
Sybil Crozier Smith, Lady Burnett, was said to be much influenced by Gertrude Jekyll’s ideas when she developed her designs at Crathes in the 1930s and the influence is still to be seen especially in the famous June Border developed by her and planted with her beloved cottage garden flowers (see ‘Castle, cottage, and fine design’ 8 June 2020).
Cragside, created out of the Northumbrian moor, is the very antithesis of the Lindisfarne garden. William Armstrong, a Victorian scientist who made a fortune working with hydraulics (London Tower Bridge for example) and manufacturing armaments, purchased a piece of wild rocky moorland near Rothbury in 1863 on which he built a hunting lodge. By 1869 he had decided to build a house that would be his and his wife’s permanent home. Margaret Ramshaw, his wife, was interested in horticulture and between them they created an amazing house and landscape. Of course the hard work was carried out by over 300 estate workers – gardeners, stone-masons and labourers. The house was lit by hydro-electric power with a six mile carriage drive and a whole terrace of heated glasshouses in the formal gardens. In July 2022 we could drive around the carriage way by car and although much was obscured by the reputedly seven million trees planted in the estate there were stopping off places to view various artificial lakes that were essential to the hydraulic functioning of the estate.
The woods had, like Crathes, suffered with Storm Arwen and some paths were still barred to visitors. Whilst the family visited the house – the first in the world to be lit by electricity – I found my way, firstly for a quick look at the massive rock garden that tumbled down from the front of the house, and secondly to the formal gardens.
After climbing innumerable steps I emerged to find the Northumbrian countryside as a backdrop to the three and a half acres of formal terraced gardens – just a little smaller than the walled garden at Crathes.
The highest terrace had a one time been covered in glasshouses, but only a short range remained and that was presently closed for conservation. The National Trust had acquired most of the Cragside estate in 1977, but the formal garden was not in their holding until 1991. The Trust immediately began restoration of the remaining glasshouses, but it has been an ongoing struggle. I peered in through the windows and finally found what I was looking for: the distinctive ironwork of Mackenzie and Moncur (see ‘A Victorian legacy’ 14 April 2022); another glasshouse to add to my collection. An information notice confirmed my suspicions and described the remaining house as the Orchard House, built to grow exotic fruits such as figs and lemons. Each plant was grown in a large earthenware section of a water pipe on a turntable that could be rotated by technology to catch the sun evenly. How I would have loved to look inside.
The rest of the terrace was also fascinating: the remains of a palm house, tropical and temperate ferneries, and a showhouse, all once covered in glass. I recognized Krauss’s clubmoss managing to survive in one of the ferneries. A decorative pool, more flower gardens and beds of annuals completed the terrace. The meadow style planting replaced the previous banks of carpet bedding which was so labour intensive and not so attractive for wildlife. The historical aspect of a garden is important, but not sacrosanct; gardens change and have to adapt to new circumstances. Crathes has been changing for 400 years!
The lowest terrace had originally been planted with tender plants surrounded by glass walls for protection. This terrace was delightful with clematis and sweet peas especially prominent. I sat under an elegant glass covered shelter and recharged my batteries, but fortunately there was a nearby carpark and I did not need to negotiate the hundreds of steps again.
I had been to Alnwick gardens previously, but a chance to return could not be missed. At one time a garden befitting a duke, it had been neglected in the twentieth century and used for allotments and forestry. In 1996 the Duchess of Northumberland began her ambitious development project. Although it has grand ideas and also relies on large engineering input like Cragside, the Duchess was keen to make the garden readily accessible with a strong community aspect – she calls it ‘a contemporary pleasure garden’. It is run by a charity, The Alnwick Garden Trust. We must previously have visited in the spring because although the cherry orchard had lost most of it cherry flowers (Tai–haku) I remembered that it was still a lovely walk with the pink tulips going over and alliums just coming; there was garden full of fascinating water features – much enjoyed by children; the poison garden was kept locked and could only be visited on a tour; an interesting area had been the ornamental garden at the top of the cascade. I wondered how it had evolved.
To reach it we walked up through the shady hornbeam arbour to find the mix of formal pleached malus, low lonicera hedges, medium height hedges of Cornus mas, and water rills. It was planted with hydrangeas, eryngiums, alliums amongst other flowers. With the roses mostly over and the many hedges there was not the exuberance of flowers that we have at Crathes but then there were berries – black and red currants, and raspberries – a visitor was helping herself. I was particularly taken with the profusion of Californian tree poppies, Romneya coulteri, which was a favourite of Lady Burnett and still grows at Crathes.
We just had time to fit in the Alnwick second-hand bookshop where I was pleased to pick up a book on alliums.
I came away from Northumbria thinking about garden designers. Whether Crathes employed professional designers is uncertain, but it is probable that the Fountain Garden is a result of professional design in Victorian times. Lady Burnett in the 1930s was much lauded by professional gardeners like Graham Stuart Thomas and Christopher Lloyd. Head gardeners have often had important input in design with Douglas MacDonald having a good say in the Golden Garden designed in the 1970s. Henry Hudson, head gardener at Cragside in Victorian times was said to have been important in the development of the formal gardens there. More recently, at Crathes, James Hannaford, our present head gardener has designed the Evolution Garden and is largely responsible for the Rose Garden – on which work is about to start.
My own gardens have not so much been designed as altered over time. Limitations of time and money keep most of us in check, but we all can have some sort of creative expression whether it be in pots at the front door or something more grandiose. What I mostly take away from Northumbria is the seascapes, the bloody cranesbill, Geranium sanguineum, growing in the dunes, and the simplicity and loveliness of Gertrude Jekyll’s Lindisfarne garden.
Back at Crathes ‘design’ is highly relevant; there is suddenly progress in the Rose Garden. Visiting on 18 August I found that a hole had been knocked in the east wall so that heavy machinery could have access. The central part of the new design requires a level surface which necessitated major earth moving – it was quite amazing to see and hear such a violation of what is usually a peaceful place. Some of the soil (which was surprisingly sandy) was removed for use elsewhere. Archaeologists have held a watching brief, but nothing was found. Despite the upheaval it is a relief that work has finally started; the Rose Garden has been on hold for some years now. I wonder about the problems faced when the croquet lawn terrace was established with the two sets of steps and holding walls. It would just have been a case of spades, wheelbarrows, pulleys and manpower – no diggers and dumper trucks then. We don’t know when the steps were added although the terrace was probably in place in some form from the seventeenth century.
Another exciting and important development is in full swing just now. I quote from the website: ‘Plant Listing at the National Trust for Scotland (PLANTS) is the biggest horticultural audit project taken by the Trust and aims to celebrate, protect and better understand the flora and vegetation of our gardens and designed landscapes’. Whilst catching up with Rose Garden developments I was able to meet with some of the team working at Crathes: Dr Colin McDowall is Project Manager of the overall PLANTS project and Philippa Holdsworth is Team Manager for the North Region, which covers Aberdeenshire, Angus, the Highlands and Moray. Valeria Soddu and Niki Douglas complete the North team. The mind boggles rather at the thought of doing an inventory on 13 gardens; Crathes is a huge undertaking in itself. This project is led nationally by curator Anna Florence. This project means that Dave and I, who have been puzzling over Hoheria species and other problems will reap great benefits, both as the project progresses and when the results are officially available. You can see more about this project by visiting the NTS website. It also featured on ‘Beechgrove’ episode 20, filmed at Crathes for BBC Scotland and available on I Player.
Identifying the thousands of plants needs a mix of approaches. Experience is essential, but historical records, accession books (where they exist), photographs, books, the internet and local knowledge all help. Although phone apps are not relied on, they may offer options that can be followed up later. Fortunately Crathes has good accession books which help – but again they are not definitive – have you ever bought something from a garden centre that didn’t turn out to tally with the label?
All through June and July I had been expecting the butterflies, only to be disappointed. I looked in vain at the buddleias both here and in Northumbria. Finally in mid-August there was a flutter of them on the white buddleia. I always think that the white buddleia looks rather scruffy when it begins to turn brown, but I take back my criticism when I see the profusion of peacocks and red admirals that gather on the White Border.
Emily has sent me some photos of moths she has seen in the garden – thanks Emily. The silver Y is a common day flying moth attracted to lavender and other sun loving herbs; the magpie will lay it eggs on gooseberries so gardeners beware. I am rather taken with the herald which is new for me.
- It’s hedge cutting time again. This year it has been delayed by a broken cherry picker and Covid: first Steven and then James succumbed although they did not catch it from each other. Steve is now back at work and he and Mike are on the case. It’s good to see that the Fountain Garden hedge is now beginning to sprout after last year’s cutback. We just need to be patient for a decade or more.
- Deadheading makes such a difference to the garden, but often takes up more time than can be spared.
- In the glasshouses James and Joanna are thinking about next year; what to grow? Time to start taking cuttings again. Pelargoniums cuttings in the glasshouse taken last September will be ready for the showhouse next year. Joanna says the fuchsias are tricky to look after.
- The tulip tree outside the east gate has flowered – fortunately at a height that is easily seen.
- The Amaranthus caudatus ‘Coral Fountain’ is now in full flower in the Red Garden.
*For more about Gertrude Jekyll and Crathes see The Gardens and Landscape of Crathes Castle by Susan Bennett (2019)