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Nearer God’s heart in a garden

by
01 August 2007

The gardens at Rydal Hall in Cumbria were designed by Thomas Mawson, who believed in the power of the garden to enrich the soul. Last month, the Hall’s £1-million garden restoration project was unveiled. Pat Ashworth investigates

Pleasant prospect: left: Rydal Hall from the croquet lawn

Pleasant prospect: left: Rydal Hall from the croquet lawn

LANDSCAPE-lovers have been waxing lyrical about Rydal Hall for more than 350 years, ever since one of its early inheritors rejoiced over its “pleasant Gardens, Orchards, Walks

. . . with a pleasant prospect over most of ye Vale and over part of Winandermere, ye greatest standing water in all England.”

Walkers know it well. Its tearoom has long been a refreshment stop on the old coffin route from Grasmere, and a diversion on the Fairfield Horseshoe, the great circular walk from Ambleside that undulates over Nab Scar and Heron Pike. The Low Falls — beloved of Wordsworth — tumble down a ferny ravine and are borne away on the beck.

Rydal Hall was bought by the diocese of Carlisle in 1970 as a retreat house and conference centre. Its grounds included a once opulent formal garden designed, in 1909, by Thomas Mawson (1861-1933), a local boy from a poor family who became a pioneer of modern landscape architecture. His seminal work was The Art and Craft of Garden Making, and his legacy lies in many of the spectacular gardens in the Lake District, as well as further afield.

Mawson was a devout Christian, a firm believer in the enriching power of gardens to reach into the soul. The Bishop of Penrith, the Rt Revd James Newcome, reflects: “I think he had a strong sense of working in partnership with God. He was trying, in his garden designs, to create something that would be particularly beautiful, almost as a tribute.”

The formal garden at Rydal Hall had Italianate terraces, unusual in being made of precast concrete from sand quarried in Lake Windermere. It had a fountain and a lily pond, classical urns, arbours, herbaceous borders, and a croquet lawn, all set against a stunning landscape little changed since the house was built in the 16th century.

The formal garden at Rydal Hall had Italianate terraces, unusual in being made of precast concrete from sand quarried in Lake Windermere. It had a fountain and a lily pond, classical urns, arbours, herbaceous borders, and a croquet lawn, all set against a stunning landscape little changed since the house was built in the 16th century.

The retreat centre prospered. But without an army of gardeners, the formal garden inevitably fell into a state of neglect, its structures crumbling to such an extent that the sweeping staircases were declared unsafe. It was, therefore, a happy day when the Cumbria Gardens Trust recognised an urgent need to reverse the decline, and the result was unveiled on 15 July this year.

The project has been led by the 25-year-old head gardener, Tom Attwood, and a team of volunteers. Mr Attwood brought with him three years’ experience at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and another three at Edinburgh. He was educated at Sedbergh School, and was thus immersed for seven years in the beauty of the bordering Yorkshire Dales. “Opportunities like this don’t come very often, especially in Cumbria,” he says.

Before work began in September 2005, thieves took the opportunity of stealing anything that was worth having in the shape of antiquities — a catastrophe only mitigated by the discovery of Mawson’s original moulds in the cellar.

While work proceeded on the balustrading, Mr Attwood turned his attention to the pervasive weeds and impoverished soil. Every inch of soil was cleared and enriched, work he describes as “very basic, very dull, but it gives plants the best possible chance.”

He is the only paid gardener. Students from Newton Rigg College at Penrith, and Myerscough College at Preston, have been keenly involved, along with residents.

The herbaceous borders have exploded into life and glow with colour from locally sourced plants. Mawson’s original yew trees stand in symmetry, coaxed into more elegant forms than the squat shape that features in early pictures. Box hedging frames the geometric beds on the formal lawn. Urns have been recast, and replicas added to the collection of original terracotta pots that contain sturdy palms.

“[The palms are] hardy plants, but we wrap them up in winter so that they don’t flap about,” says Mr Attwood. He is pleased that the layout and choice of materials is “absolutely Mawson”, including the design of new Arts and Crafts oak benches beneath rose-clad pergolas. He loves the whole Edwardian concept because it’s “all so over the top”.

There are other facets to the project, which has attracted more than £1 million of public and private funding, including substantial funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage, Cumbria Vision, and the Lake District National Park Authority. The pièce de résistance of the restoration lies beyond the formal area, through a new Arts and Crafts gate, and down into the naturalistic Quiet Garden, an area once used as grazing, but now stock-proof.

Here, clear pools are fed by waterfalls 100 feet up in the hillside. Boggy soil lends itself to candelabra primula and to big, leafy vegetation that is beginning to flourish now that the trees have been thinned. “There’s nothing documented about this part, and there was no real plan. I’ve had free rein, and it’s been another great place to work with volunteers,” Mr Attwood says with pleasure.

The torrent is roaring in our ears as we approach the beckside “grot” dating from 1669, and the oldest viewing-house in the country. Nothing prepares you for what you see when you open the door of this tiny stone sanctuary. It is like stepping into a Pre-Raphaelite canvas, or entering some portal between earth and heaven. A window, designed to be removed and stored behind the restored oak panelling, frames the waterfall in view like a painting. Nothing intrudes into the picture or breaks the stillness.

The community vegetable garden lies beyond the beautifully enhanced tearooms in the old schoolhouse and up a rugged path past the game-larder and ice house. “Formal gardens are of their time and place: this garden is about having fun,” says Mr Attwood of the vegetable garden, which is ablaze with

poppies and nasturtiums and lush with 20 varieties of northern apple trees.

“This is designed to be a communal garden, where people can see how vegetables can be grown with flowers in a more unconventional way. Work takes place in groups, mostly on Saturdays. It’s been a huge success,” he says. “All the produce goes to people in the group. They’re all genuinely keen, and they’re bringing their kids along.”

The gardens are open free to the public 365 days a year. Jonathon Green, the warden and general manager of Rydal Hall, believes that the garden is a fitting complement to the refurbished house. He marvels at how the money for the restoration has come in. “It’s God’s provision,” he says. “It shows we’re here, that the Church is alive, and that it cares about people and God’s creation.”

For Mr Attwood, the garden is “an armoury of breathtaking spaces. A working, breathing, living example of Lake District gardening at its best.” Bishop Newcome, who chaired the fund-raising committee and who shares his wife, Alison’s, deep interest in the spirituality of gardens, finds his inspiration in the combination of natural landscape and formal garden.

For Mr Attwood, the garden is “an armoury of breathtaking spaces. A working, breathing, living example of Lake District gardening at its best.” Bishop Newcome, who chaired the fund-raising committee and who shares his wife, Alison’s, deep interest in the spirituality of gardens, finds his inspiration in the combination of natural landscape and formal garden.

“It’s something that man has very much created in conjunction with God, with all the beautiful plants, a very formal sort of setting, and this wonderful, much more natural backdrop with trees and lake and hills and sky,” he says. “And green seems to be one of the most therapeutic colours, and simply relaxes people. It’s a place to think and pray and reflect.”

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