Serendipity at Newport House, Almeley, Herefordshire

Newport House and land art created by Kate Raggett

Newport House and land art created by Kate Raggett for the Out of Nature sculpture exhibition

Last weekend we experienced an exciting serendipity in garden visiting. Though knowing it would be a three and a half hour slog in the car and that we would probably pay for it with exhausted children by the end of the following week, we took a deep breath and trekked half way across the country this to visit the Out of Nature sculpture exhibition at Newport House in the deepest depths of Herefordshire. It never occurred to me that I might want to blog about it – I still have a backlog of sites visited in the summer to write about – but it was such a rewarding experience for the children that I felt compelled to allow it to leap the queue. We were drawn by the art rather than the garden, and it was also a very social trip – seeing three lots of friends – so I didn’t really have my garden head on, but the landscape stimulated in unexpected ways.

The kitchen garden at Newport House

The restored gardener’s cottage in the kitchen garden at Newport House

Newport House is a pretty, doll’s house sort of a place. It was built around 1718 and originally set in a typical formal early 18th century landscape with a square pool in front of the house and avenues through the park. What one sees today though owes more to the Victorian period when it was given an Italianate make-over by the designer W.A. Nesfield, who also designed part of the gardens at Castle Howard and was responsible for the mammoth fountain at Witley Court in Worcestershire, (which was apparently once coveted by Bing Crosby, but was too gargantuan to be moved to Hollywood). His efforts at Newport were slightly more modest though.

The present owners of Newport House are putting their estate to excellent use, co-running a project called The Cartshed which allows a wide variety of people, of very different backgrounds, to experience the therapeutic effects of interacting with the natural world, mainly through teaching traditional coppicing and green woodcraft skills, and working in the walled garden. As part of the fundraising to keep the project going, an eclectic exhibition of exciting nature-inspired art is being hosted in the garden and the pub next to the main house until 26th October.

The hot house at Newport House

Children inspecting the new tropical plants in the hot house

out of nature drawing by Kate Raggett

The land drawing by Kate Raggett (and us!) from above

Once kitted out against the grim weather, the children enjoyed zooming up and down paths, as ever; experiencing the contrasting senses of space a historic garden often gives. In places the juxtaposition of art and garden stopped them in their tracks and there were not-quite-smooth marble balls to stroke and pieces described by the three year old as like a stone skateboard to stop and look at, as well as a wacky construction with multicoloured paddles which reminded me of a rowing team up a scaffold tower. But best of all, there was art we could help make. On the lawn in the centre of the main vista between the house and lake, (which would not have been my first choice of location, though I can see why it was chosen), artist Kate Raggett invited visitors to help her create a vibrant, surprisingly colourful piece of land art. We grabbed large flower pots and filled them with our choices of a variety of different seasonal natural materials: slices of wood, pine cones, conkers, orange marigolds, multicoloured gourds, brilliant pink chard stalks, apples, potatoes, purple-grey sage and created our own patterns within sections of a flower shape sketched out by Kate and outlined with sheeps wool to create white(ish) lines. The children were engrossed and the result was stunning. At the end of the day a photo was taken from a cherry-picker and it was a great pleasure to open my email the next morning to find out what it had ended up looking like.

As well as the fun of discovering the garden and making land art, there is – set in a massive sweet chestnut which is probably contemporary with the house – a great tree house, complete with rope swings and a near vertical slide. Though there is very little time left to see the Out of Nature sculpture exhibition, I have a feeling it won’t be the last such event, and the garden is also open under the National Garden Scheme (this year in June and October).


Hackfall, near Ripon, Yorkshire

Garden Adventurers on the path into the valley at Hackfall, the eye-catcher Mowbray Castle in the trees on the left

Garden Adventurers on the path into the valley at Hackfall, the eye-catcher Mowbray Castle in the trees on the left

A visit to Hackfall is a true adventure. It is a journey of discovery, best attempted with well rested children and a backpack full of eatable goodies. There is no tea room. There is no shop. There are no loos. (And there is no entrance fee!) It is a Great Garden; a designed landscape hidden in a wood, deep in a ravine, with waterfalls, lost buildings and fountains to discover.

Hackfall was the creation of William Aislabie, who wasn’t satisfied with already having one pretty spectacular garden 13 miles away at Studley Royal and decided he wanted another one. This one wasn’t even surrounding or adjoining a house; there is no house at Hackfall – and never has been. But it was such a ravishingly beautiful valley, he couldn’t help himself. So he took what nature had already given him: sheer cliffs, a dashing river and streams with waterfalls, cut paths through the wood and peppered it with ornamental buildings, in a variety of different guises giving the visitor a variety of landscape experiences from each. The banqueting house, known as Mowbray Point or The Ruin, teeters on the brink of a precipice, another – the octagonal Fisher’s Hall – gave 360 degree views from its windows. He started work in 1749 and continued tinkering with his creation for the next 18 years. Aislabie’s guests arrived at the banqueting house, were ushered inside the beautifully decorated main room, then the shutters were thrown open and they realised, thrillingly, they were dining on the edge of a sheer drop. Then, when they were refreshed, they would set out to discover the delights of the garden in the wood.

Mowbray Point, or The Ruin, which was used as a banqueting house

Mowbray Point, or The Ruin, which was used as a banqueting house

The walks at Hackfall go on for several miles and one can hike in on a public footpath which runs through the whole site from Mickley one way and Masham the other, or there is also a path from Grewelthorpe, but we used the small car park on the Masham road out of Grewelthorpe. Here you can pick up a leaflet produced by the Woodland Trust, who now owns the site, showing you the options for routes. There is also one you can download from the web, but neither is brilliantly detailed. We didn’t follow any of the suggestions exactly and had a short-ish walk taking in the central features and it took us perhaps an hour and a half to two hours, with stops to paddle and picnic. From the car park we walked along the top path to Mowbray Point, which belongs now to the Landmark Trust and is let as a holiday cottage. It is also known as The Ruin because from the valley side it has the appearance of something which might just have been excavated from ancient Rome. Between 11am and 3pm you can walk across the terrace and look down at the sheer drop with a vista to the Fisher’s Hall and Fountain Pond and distant views to the North York Moors and Roseberry Topping 30 miles away.

The stepping stones with the Alum Spring behind

The stepping stones with the Alum Spring falling over the mossy rocks behind

We then headed downhill to the Alum Spring. The path is steep and narrow, and can be slippery when it has been wet. But on our trip it was generally dry underfoot and the children were spurred forward on their adventure by promises of waterfalls and the hope of seeing a kingfisher or traces of an otter. There is something of a Rivendell feeling as one travels deeper into the wood and you almost expect a Tolkein-ish elf to step out from behind a tree in front of you. We didn’t see any elves (or otters or kingfishers sadly), but we hardly saw any people either, which gives you the feeling of being in a secret place that hardly anyone else knows about. This relative silence belies the fact that for over a century and a half from its creation, Hackfall was a tourist attraction. There were plenty of visitors in Aislabie’s day and by the end of the Victorian era there were tea huts in the woods to cater for the day-trippers.

Discovering Fisher's Hall

Discovering Fisher’s Hall

At the Alum Spring, little rivulets of water trickle over a mossy rock and into a little pool in one of the streams which flow through the woods to meet the River Ure. The pool is perfect for paddling (with or without wellies) and there are stepping stones too. After not quite managing to fall into the stream or pool fully clothed, we played a little en route hide and seek as we headed onwards. The place is perfect for playing find the lost garden building too and there were prizes for the first to spot a lost structure hiding amongst the general verdure of the wood. We managed to find the Fisher’s Hall, Aislabie’s first banqueting house, for which he built a little kitchen in a hut nearby, though no trace now remains. This was a perfect place for our picnic and, as we munched our less-than-romantic packets of crisps, we tried to imagine we were posh Georgians eating cold chicken and venison pasties, waited on by the odd discreet servant. The noise of the rushing river below us must be almost exactly the sound that Aislabie and his chums would have heard, but we were frustrated that one cannot see much of the river in summer from any of the windows, when really there should be views of it. The Woodland Trust and their partners have done a grand job of rescuing this wonderful landscape which was under threat of commercial development in the late 1980s and opening it, but I fear that they cannot see the wood for the trees. There is evidence of tree planting where it really isn’t needed, like around the kitchen block for Mowbray Point (a rare and important building), and the density of tree cover is greater than it would have been in the 18th century – William Aislabie’s father bought Hackfall to exploit its timber and minerals long before the idea of a design here. Some vistas have been opened – you can see Mowbray Point from Fisher’s Hall and vice versa, but the cut through the wood is very narrow and un-natural looking.

Our re-fuelling stop - the Fisher's Hall

Our re-fuelling stop – the Fisher’s Hall

At Fisher’s Hall the boys enjoyed trying to find evidence of shards of glass embedded in the walls of the interior which it was originally decorated with, and which, if used at night, would have made them twinkle charmingly in the candle light. Our picnic was rounded off with wild raspberries picked from around the building. We then started to head gently up hill passing the remains of the Grotto, now roofless, and stopped at the Fountain Pool. Here we sat for a rest before the steep climb back up, watching dragonflies and waiting for the 30 foot jet of water to go off periodically. Restored in the recent project, this is now working again for the first time since the end of the 18th century. The slog back up hill is strenuous for little legs, but was lightened slightly by more wild raspberries. The trip was rounded off with well-deserved ice creams in Masham – the promise of which had also helped on the last leg of the trip back up to the car.

The 30 foot jet in the Fountain Pool

The 30 foot jet in the Fountain Pool

Burghley House and its Garden of Surprises, Lincolnshire

Looking up the rill to the Water House

Looking up the rill to the Water House

Squeals of thrilled laughter and cries of surprise skip and hop over the top of the yew and hornbeam hedges, accompanied by a variety of sounds of water: the squirt, the jet and the pitter-patter as it hits the paving; hints of the delights awaiting us before we see them.

The Garden of Surprises at Burghley was conceived as a modern take on the Renaissance garden, and was inspired by descriptions of the original Lord Burghley’s (advisor to Elizabeth I) famous garden at Theobalds in Hertfordshire, which included concealed water tricks (known at the time as giochi d’acqua), mazes, statues, obelisks, a sundial and a grotto. The modern garden was created to add something for families and it certainly does that. Country houses can be stuffy places for kids; gardens are the natural vent to the energies than can get pent up inside grand state rooms, and this garden is the ultimate vent. Creating a garden to cater for this need is so much more original – and far more relevant – than investing in an adventure playground, as so many places do. To the garden historian it may be Renaissance–Lite, but it isn’t intended as a slavish copy and I don’t want to be too stuffy about it, because there are interesting modern references to Elizabethan garden devices, so there are gentle lessons in historic gardens to be learned here – and it really is also a lot of fun.

Making a dash through the shower-gateways

Making a dash through the shower-gateways

The garden is set in a rectangular plot and is sub-divided into compartments either side of a central rill, which steps gradually down a gentle slope and runs between the Water House and the Grotto. The Water House contains furniture seemingly made of water; the sort of clever trick the Elizabethans would have loved. The Grotto at the lower end of the garden has a statue of Neptune and is decorated with a few shells stuck on the walls (to me a bit of a disappointment). As one enters the garden you come immediately into an area with three jets which shoot up from the paving. Unlike some of their Elizabethan counterparts, which were set off to soak the unexpecting visitor, these seemed to be going all the time, so they were not really a surprise. As my children started by splashing each other and escalated to running through them, I realised that there was no way they were going to get just-a-little-bit wet.

Playing in the jets in the circular yew compartments

Playing in the jets in the circular yew compartments

After this one reaches an area in the centre at the top of the garden which is a complex of fences with gateways through them. Periodically the gateways turn into showers. But you would have to visit the garden on a very quiet day and be pretty unobservant to be caught by them unintentionally, so they are not much of a surprise either. By this point my kids were completely saturated and I understood why other people’s children were in wet suits.

The boys loved the round yew compartments with the single jet in the centre which they could run through or sit on, or direct with a carefully placed foot, even more than the area they call the Paddling Pool. This isn’t really a pool, but a grid of 15 jets set in a paved area with benches for the grown ups to sit back and watch the further saturation. No historic references here, just pure soaking-wet fun.

One of the Heads of the Roman Emperors

One of the Heads of the Roman Emperors

Beyond the paddling pool area is a compartment containing the longitudinal sun dial surrounded by exuberant herbaceous planting around busts of the Roman Emperors, some of which rotate slowly on their bases. These are a specific reference to Burghley’s garden at Theobalds and it makes me wonder if they were all meant to turn and why each of the Emperors was thought worthy of inclusion here. There are small information boards at most of the features, but I would have liked a bit more interpretation to read, possibly in the form of a short book, perhaps with some detail about what was here before and about the design and construction process. After the Ceasars one comes to the small but rather effective mirror maze. It is a bit claustrophobic in there, which I thought might worry the boys, but didn’t. There is just enough thrill and not too much maze to negotiate. Mummies beware though it is a bit like the 360 degree mirror box Trinny and Susannah used to shove their victims into on What not To Wear a few years ago.

Looking into the mirror maze... or is it looking out?

Looking into the mirror maze… or is it looking out?

I also liked the Dark Moss House, a small rustic domed building which you discover after passing through a steaming, misty, rocky arch. Both the arch and the building felt more Georgian than Elizabethan to me. But I don’t want to be precious about it, yet more gentle lessons in garden history. Another reference to historic garden devices is to be found to the right of the entrance to the garden where there is a quieter area, which I suspect most kids just run right past. Here in a rectangular pool is a copper dripping tree, which is a very historic device – there is a very famous 17th century one at Chatsworth.

dark moss house burghley

The steamy Dark Moss House

The problem with a garden this intensive is that you have to keep the tricks and novelties coming and I felt that by the end of the visitor route it had run out of steam. The penultimate compartment of the garden contains four ‘Transforming Obelisks’, which supposedly represent earth, wind, fire and water, and change their appearance at the press of a switch. For me they didn’t work at all, but were rather clumsy. After this one can play a giant version of a Tudor board game before one last surprise – but I shan’t ruin that one for you!

The climbing tree in the parkland

The climbing tree in the parkland

The Garden of Surprises sits in a landscape of many historic layers.  The great master of design Capability Brown worked here for over 20 years building on and adapting the work of previous generations and the parkland is well worth a stroll. If you are lucky you may encounter the herd of fallow deer. We picnicked by a fallen tree trunk into which the estate have helpfully cut steps for the shorter legged members of the party to climb up; nearby are some of the oldest and most magnificent hawthorns I have ever seen and they are very good for climbing too. Adjoining the Garden of Surprises is the Sculpture Garden which contains an eclectic mix of pieces, some of which the children really enjoyed.

peter randall page labyrinth

The Labyrinth by Peter Randall Page in the Sculpture Garden

But for kids it’s the Garden of Surprises which will always be the highlight. For all my purist garden historian reservations I defy anyone to dislike this garden. Watching other people, it seemed to amuse every generation – old ladies were in giggles as they dipped a toe into a jet of water and they beamed at the drenched children. Go for a whole day. Take a picnic. And take lots of changes of clothes – they won’t get just-a-little-bit wet.

A Visit to 1559: Kentwell Hall, Suffolk

Despite the hint of a link with a famous designer (Humphry Repton – great East Anglian and contemporary of Jane Austen – may have worked here), the grounds at Kentwell are not what one might class as a Great Garden in the same way as Stowe or Kew, or to get nearer the period, Hampton Court; there are no grand design gestures here. But they do provide a perfect setting and backdrop for the red brick, moated Tudor manor house. What Kentwell doesn’t have in grandeur, it makes up for with variety: of forms, of textures and of age. Elements from every period right up to the present day are clear to spot; the late medieval service wing and ancient ponds next to Pottery Wood, the Tudor house, the Stuart canals which form the outer moat, the Regency cedars, and the Victorian shrubbery sit alongside modern elements.kentwell hall from lawns

What is wonderful about the gardens at Kentwell is the way that the present owners, (who rescued the hall and its setting from dereliction in the 1970s), have added idiosyncratic details entirely in-keeping with the more than five hundred years of garden history embodied in this site. To say it is whimsy at its best, is certainly not intended to be disparaging. Many features such as the carved cedar inspired by the Tower of Babel and the yew castle are indeed whims of Peter Philips, the owner. Perhaps my favourite contemporary feature is the Pied Piper topiary, created by his wife, Judith. I suspect it is unique and it works brilliantly when reflected in the moat. The gardens were in fine form when we visited at the end of June, at their best in fact. The inner moat, which entirely surrounds the house, and the outer moat that encompasses much of the rest of the garden, ensures that there is water almost everywhere one looks; and as the Georgians knew, water always ‘lends enchantment to the view’.pied piper topiary

My children would have been happy merely running around exploring the gardens, diving down little paths, impatient to see what delights and surprises awaited them around the next corner, following the cry of the peacock to track him down at last. But on this visit Kentwell provided more than a trip to an interesting and attractive place to explore, it gave us the opportunity to be Time Travellers.little path kentwell

I may be wrong, but Living History just did not exist when I was a kid back in the 70s and 80s and the Philips family at Kentwell were pioneers of this sort of experience. I must have been around ten when I first visited, which would make it early 1980s. It was captivating then, I think it is even more so now. The Kentwell Re-creations are so much more than a tableau vivant. With over 250 re-creators living out every element of Tudor life, from every strata of society, over a wide area, you can immerse yourself. You get to interact with Tudor life in all five senses and nothing is so evocative as smells and tastes. For me it was so powerfully real that I had no difficulty in slipping into Tudor English and the experience was so intense that I dreamt about it vividly that night. The children were captivated too. The seven year old enjoyed learning sword fighting skills and was entranced for far longer than I would have expected by the discourse of one of the archers on the different sorts of arrows and their uses. Both he and his younger brother loved the school room and interacting with the child re-creators. The multi-generational aspect is a truly authentic detail and I was charmed by four year old Alfie of the Cot, who was having some trouble remembering he was living in 1559 not 2013 and told me the best bit of the day was having chocolate for breakfast!kentwell butter making

I adore the elements added since I last visited in my teens. The fact that you must exchange your modern money for Tudor pennies and groats which you can spend with the peddlars selling plums, biscuits and marchpaine (marzipan) scattered around the grounds, as well as in the Turk’s Head ale house. This year the children were delighted to be able to play simple Tudor pub games chalked onto the tables, while munching their hot coffins (like pasties), or excellent bread and cheese and quaffing their apple juice, (ale for the grown ups). The ale house is part of a series of modern buildings, erected in recent years in a Tudor style by the Philips family as a back drop for the re-creations. As well as barns, hovels and cartsheds, the complex includes a cot, complete with 16th century cottage garden, which is probably more authentically Tudor than that around the house.

garden of the cotThis is the second year I have taken my second generation of Kentwell appreciators there. It is a very long trek for us, but it definitely has the makings of an annual pilgrimage.

Children Always Love a Labyrinth: School Trip to Arundel Castle

I’ve written about the wonderful Collector Earl’s Garden at Arundel before, and my children love it, so it I was extremely interested to witness the reaction of 23 other kids to it.

Having been round the castle, which was the real reason for the trip, as they had been studying knights and castles this term, they were taken into the garden before heading home. Our guide (provided by the castle), sadly didn’t consider the garden worth explaining to the children, or perhaps that the children would be capable of appreciating it. So, this – in fact – very interested group of 6 and 7 year olds, were given no historical context, and not told that this wasn’t actually medieval; which would have been a reasonable assumption as more or less everything else they had seen so far that day was. As they stood at one of the fountains, asking the very sensible question of why the water coming out of it was green, the guide walked fountain

Left to our own devices the children enjoyed guessing the date of the garden: ‘900 years old’ said one, ‘500’ said another, ‘Ha, ha’ said I ‘actually just five’, which amused and intrigued them. I explained that it had been a car park (much nicer like this they thought), and that the design was inspired by a glimpse of the London garden of the Collector Earl in the corner of a portrait of his wife, which sadly our guide wouldn’t let us see – not even the copy which hangs in the public restaurant. I am still not entirely sure why the water is green, but I think it may have something to do with the dream-like quality of the garden, which is referenced by the centre piece pavilion, known as Oberon’s Palace. The garden is not quite historic, not exactly modern, and has a quirkiness given by its jungly planting and elements such as the green water and the ducal coronet which bobs on top of a fountain in the stumpery arundel

After a loop round the rest of the old kitchen garden, and a chance to walk through the new stumpery, which has the makings of something rather wonderful, they were let loose on the labyrinth, which is mowed into the turf square in front of Oberon’s Palace. The animation in the pictures here, expresses their enthusiasm well. When talking on the train on the way home, we chatted about what they liked best and a surprising number of them liked the garden, and especially the maze.

running round labyrinth

Kew Gardens – from the perspective of a six year old

Kew is a historic garden where time certainly hasn’t stood still. Formed out of two separate, royal, designed landscapes – Kew Palace and neighbouring Richmond Lodge – there are historic features from four centuries to discover along with exciting 21st century innovations.kew tree top walk

For ages I have been wanting to visit when Queen Charlotte’s Cottage is open. Originally smaller than today, it was designed as a place for the royal family to go to have picnics and the picnic room is still intact. It is exquisitely decorated with a trellis of trailing plants, which might have been painted by King George III and Queen Charlotte’s third daughter, Princess Elizabeth. The cottage is tucked away at the far end of the site and only open at weekends and bank holidays from April to September, so is something of a hidden gem. It is close to the badger’s sett, so gives grown-ups added persuasion value when young legs start to flag. The other thing I am keen to see is far newer – the Xstrata tree-top walkway. At 18 m high, it gives you a whole new perspective on trees and I love the way that the supports echo the shapes of the trees so elegantly. I was therefore quite envious when my son announced that they were going to Kew on a school trip.

As I couldn’t go with them, and as I am waiting for a fine Spring Sunday to visit, here are the thoughts of a six year old on what inspired him at Kew, in his own words:

‘The best thing was the Princess of Wales conservatory because there were animals in there. I liked the poison dart frogs best. They were cute. There were turtles too. Oh and I have to say the Venus fly trap. I saw one with a fly in its ‘mouth’. The tree top walk was cool because you saw parakeets and you could run. School let us go round triple times. The worst thing was that it was a long way between things, so you had to walk a long way.’ kew venus fly trap

Now I am even more keen to go back. What will he like when allowed to be a bit more free-range than he could on a school trip? What will his two and a half year old brother (small, but with strong opinions on subjects) like? How will their experiences be different in Spring as opposed to the last days of winter? And maybe this time we will see the lizards Nanna promised him were in the Princess of Wales house.

Arundel Castle, West Sussex – or ‘But WHEN can we go Mummy?’

‘Why isn’t it open now?’ Is the refrain from my boys (two and six) in the back of the car every time we drive through Arundel. I explain that the castle is closed for the winter. They can’t wait for it to be open again. I love their enthusiasm.

central canal, Collector Earl's Garden, Arundel

Arundel Castle is our ‘local’, as castles go. We usually visit when they have their medieval encampment weekends, and while both boys love watching the knights in action, they always insist on trekking up to the top of the site to visit the Collector Earl’s garden. Hours fly by, and what I had expected to be a morning out, turns into all day. (I have even been known to have to go and move the car as my ticket had expired!)

The Collector Earl’s Garden is modern, opened in 2008, but inspired by a tantalising glimpse of an early 17th century garden in the background of a portrait of the 14th Earl of Arundel’s wife. The Earl was a great collector, especially of antique sculpture, and he visited Italy with Inigo Jones, the great architect of the day; hence the Collector Earl’s garden.

antler summerhouse, Arundel

The garden was designed by Julian and Isabel Bannerman, who are best known for the stumpery they created at Highgrove for Prince Charles. At Arundel rustic details reminiscent of the stumpery, such as the antlers decorating the summerhouses and the hairy men flanking the central fountain, combine with Italiante features, such as canals, pergolas and fountains. The centre piece of the garden is the building known as Oberon’s Palace, based on a design by Inigo Jones for a court entertainment. It is a sort of grotto inside, with a central jet of water which keeps aloft a ducal coronet. The boys always stop to wonder at the little gold crown bobbing on top of the fountain. Below is a turf plat into which the gardeners mow a simple maze. We all love a good labyrinth in my family.hairy men and tulips, Arundel Castle

Strange, jungly planting that juxtaposes with the Renaissance inspired buildings gives the garden a dream-like edginess and suggests all sorts of adventures. This section of the garden blends seamlessly into the more productive parts of the garden. It too has been recently re-created. It had been the castle’s kitchen garden, but was desecrated by tarmac in the second half of the 20th century. So now one passes from the fantasy of the Collector Earl’s garden, through a flower garden, with a network of hedges and paths and intimate spaces great for hiding, and into the vegetable garden, which is just as well maintained and attractive as the other sections. From here it is downhill all the way back to the car, which is just as well, since we are usually all played out by this point. willow seat, Arundel Castle

So roll on Easter weekend. This is where we will be.