posted 6 Jul 2012
It was a typical July afternoon in Cumbria, damp, misty and cold! We dropped in to visit Askham Hall Gardens as the rain had subsided and we felt in need of somewhere new to stretch our legs. With no great expectations we pushed the incongruous, ultra modern, glass plate door, stepped out of the ubiquitous tea room and entered… another world.
The first uplifting impression was made by the staggering number of birds, on the lawns, in the trees, in the air. Young Blackbirds and Robins loudly demanding more food from over worked parents, chattering Nuthatches just feet above us performing their gravity defying, upside down ‘ trunk walking’. Chiffchaffs repetitively pronouncing their clear definite notes as though it were still the first day of Spring. The Buzzards evocative mewing above made the soundscape complete, ” It was worth coming just for this!”
Further on the slightly well worn formality of the Hosta quadrants, a study in green artistry, belied the romance of the timeless herbaceous beds stretching away before us at the top of the steps.
The roses struggled to put on a show after the deluge they had endured, but the sheer number of blooms created the desired effect, one could imagine them blooming forever, a seeming permanence but which with experience and reflection we know is so fleeting. Their perfume so rich one is lost for lifetime in just one sniff.
Billowing repeats of Alchemilla led us on past lazy ‘Red Hot Pokers’, Geraniums, Nepeta and Stachys byzantia, classic combinations, difficult to beat. The delicate white frothy inflorescence of Crambe cordifolia dancing above its pleasingly robust foliage united the layers, the herbaceous and the roses. The sharp Iris leaves, the soft pincushion Astrantias and the Echinops thistle joined in, texture in mounds. Then the dark leaved Lysimaichia delighted and heightened it all. The Day Lilies shone their single trumpets and the ‘gardeners gaiters’ sang out to help the giant Scabious fit in. A few oriental poppies hung on, though past their best, as though anxious to pass on the baton to the Delphiniums, who themselves were craving some sunlight, please!
On down through the woodland /shade beds fittingly lush and thickly planted, to the postern gate almost hidden, almost forgotten, distressed by time and proud of it!
Along the hidden woody path, glimpses of the splendidly ancient Hall were gained through irregular gaps that also let in shafts of welcome light. Even more welcome on a dull day such as this, dispelling the irrational, imaginary, spooky spirits whose stillness we had disturbed with our footsteps no matter how softly we trod. Back across the grass, the boundaries of which had been left uncut, which we were glad to see, where the Goldfinches foraged, flitting around with bouncing flashes of bright yellow.
Meandering beside the lower herbaceous border, backed with more soft, solid, red sandstone walls, more roses, geraniums and Stachys macrantha! No amount of rain could flatten this stoic stalwart. The Bumblebees were safe on here, though they were barely warm enough to move, but nectar and pollen not far away and easy to get at to.
The wonderfully moody Campanula had it’s back turned against the flamboyant fieriness of the Euphorbia griffithii, but whatever the interloping pink geranium thought it was doing between them, I don’t know, but it was doing nothing for me.
Running into a small grove of Crataegus and Whitebeam made an easy transition on re entry to the canopy of greater, older trees.
Looking up at the towering hall two phalanxes of comical topiary, and a pair of solid, rotund, green laughing policemen at the top of the steps guarded the entrance to the formal lawns that implicitly ground the old building. Gazing out over the river Lowther from the wall that retains this flat expanse of grass on the Eastern side, I wondered how many had done the same. Had they found the church on the hill comforting, had they espied approaching visitors with fear, or had they, like me, just wondered at the view? Here and in many other quiet corners of the grounds I could feel the presence of the gardeners of old, their work gnarled hands shaped to the handles of tools even when at rest. Their long days of toil led them to know every inch of soil, each stubborn nettle root never completely eradicated from the base of the walls, each bird, each butterfly, every requirement for the plants they grew. This garden is theirs, a testament to their skill and knowledge, a tribute to their labours. Are they lying in the graveyard on the hill so visible from here, no more than half a mile as the beautiful black Raven flies, or even closer, by the river at St Peters? I like to think they are at peace here and I know they are grateful for the rest.
In contrast to the lawns at the front the gardens at the back of the Hall were much more alive. A formal parterre with box edging, its secondary, productive, function usurped by a modern equivalent elsewhere so each compartment overflows with unused herbs. This space is defined by yew hedges and four magnificent spreading flowering cherries demanding a revisit in Spring!
Walk past the swimming pool, it’s changing pavilion elegantly ageing and distressed enough to make a‘Country Living’ readers’ heart stop, then reach for their cheque book, they would buy it if they could, but it’s no more than a shed!
Then we came to the vegetable/nursery garden seemingly generative, the bare sections perhaps indicative of a late start to the season. The well established pleached fruit trees, so full of promise stood out, impressive but stark with a green desert behind them.
The beautiful buildings must also have an unimaginable amount of stories to tell, the succession of building phases compliment one another with great charm, satisfying and strangely familiar, reasonable and rational. The stone work, the stone gryphons! the leaded, mullioned windows, so serene, this truly is England.
Magical, fragile, wildly romantic, atmospheric. Shabby chic with delicate, beautiful decay at the edges. Irreplaceable!
There are obvious, successive stages to garden and Hall and the history is tangible and solid, but …. My advice is to visit as soon as you can; it is imperative to experience it now. I feel the times they are a changing, and the approach of more hard nosed modern times. Its spirit, no matter how strong, I fear may not survive, untainted, the possible violence this time around.