Lake District's Levens Hall is ready for business
Work is underway to prepare the Levens Hall gardens for when the gates re-open to visitors
The garden gates at Levens Hall may be closed at the moment but that doesn’t mean the tools have been packed away. Head gardener Chris Crowder and his team are busy clipping, pruning and planting to ensure the gardens are at their peak when the gates re-open next month.
‘This might be a quiet time in most domestic gardens but it’s business as usual for us,’ said Chris.
‘We try to get through a major project each winter, last year it was the willow labyrinth, this year we’re working on re-landscaping the area around the smoke house.
‘We have also clipped all the topiary; we start that in August and it takes about five months to make sure that that when we re-open at Easter they are all really sharply clipped and looking at their best. By summer when the borders are at their best the topiary is starting to look like it needs a haircut.’
Chris has tended the Grade One listed gardens at Levens Hall near Kendal for 25 years and was introduced to gardening on his father’s allotment in Warrington. He took over at Levens as a 23-year-old, having trained at Kew in London and said: ‘The gardens are marvellous, they have been here about 300 years so I am just a small speck in their history.
‘The gardens are pretty much unique in that they still have their original layout; others have been restored and or have been re-designed every century or so to keep up with fashions. The basic framework here has never changed here, the walls and paths are just as they were but each generation of gardeners have added their own touches and their own style to the garden.
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‘We have added a dozen or so topiaries so there are now more than 100 pieces, we have changed the style of planting and the type of plants in the � borders. Fashions change - whether the borders are full or not, the mix of planting, the colours, these things all reflect the times and the trends. We also now have vegetable borders, the herb garden, colour-themed borders - all of those are things that weren’t here 25 years ago. The rose garden has been completely re-planted, there probably isn’t a corner we haven’t touched.
‘We respect the history around us and our place in it. The owners of the hall get the final say but by now I know pretty well what they like and what they don’t like, and what the visitors like to see as well. My job is to keep them all happy and they seem to be most of the time.’
Chris spent three years as the resident gardener for TV show Blue Peter, replacing the legendary Percy Thrower, but while he was kept busy in their garden and in the eight acre grounds at Levens, he does not tend his own patch.
‘I live in the middle of the grounds with my wife, Lydia and our children Emily and Nicholas. We do have a small plot at the house, but my wife looks after that.’
Just over his garden wall, Chris can look out over the topiary that Levens is so famous for and the quarter of a century he has spent there has not dimmed his love of the place. ‘This is a hugely historic garden, that’s part of its appeal. I have been here for a good while now and that continuity is good for a garden. It means I can see things through and develop ideas over time. But it’s not all down to me; there are four other gardeners and volunteers as well. And there have been 300 years of other gardeners, too.’
That history made the gardens ripe for writing about and Chris won the Lakeland Book of the Year award, for his 2006 book which charts the history of the gardens from their design in the 17th century by Guillaume Beaumont, who also helped design Hampton Court Gardens, to the present day, using accounts from past owners and gardeners and also delves into the history of the hall and its owners.
And Chris, who also gives talks about the Levens gardens and topiary around the world, added: ‘It was such hard work to write, it was an effort to squeeze out every word but I have thought about writing a children’s book.
‘It’ll be on a garden theme but I’ve only got as far as writing a few notes. Without a deadline I don’t know if it’ll ever get beyond that. Maybe it’ll be something for when I retire, not that I’ve any plans to do that yet. I’ve done 25 years and I hope to be here for another 25.’