A look ahead to the The 20th Arley Garden Festival

Arley Hall Gardens

Arley Hall Gardens - Credit: Archant

Lord and Lady Ashbrook give Jacqui Brocklehurst a tour of their stunning gardens at Arley Hall

Arley Hall Gardens

Arley Hall Gardens - Credit: Archant

Here in Cheshire we have a selection of gardens that are so delightful they have each earned the title ‘Garden of distinction’. As you can imagine they have to be pretty special to be awarded this accolade. Among my favourites are the gardens of Arley Hall, part of the Arley estate that lies in the heart of Cheshire’s countryside, near Northwich, and is home to Lord and Lady Ashbrook.

Arley Hall Gardens

Arley Hall Gardens - Credit: Archant

I first discovered these magnificent gardens in 2010 when I attended the Arley Garden Festival. I had enjoyed a fabulous day selling herbs and edible plants to visitors and, instead of heading home, I decided to hop over the fence and explore the gardens.

Arley Hall Gardens

Arley Hall Gardens - Credit: Archant

My first port of call was to be the tea house, a gorgeous little black and white cottage nestled among a collection of heavenly scented roses. Drawn in by the intoxicating fragrance of petals warmed by the sun, I peeped into the teahouse and was enchanted by what lay within. There, tucked away in the eaves, was a little swift’s nest and, popping out of the top, chirping away, were three baby chicks waiting for their parents to tuck them in for the night. This was one of those picture perfect moments that continues to make me smile whenever I think of it.

Lord and Lady Ashbrook with Jacqui Brocklehurst at Arley Hall Gardens

Lord and Lady Ashbrook with Jacqui Brocklehurst at Arley Hall Gardens - Credit: Archant

After a quick look at the infamous herbaceous borders, beautiful and surreal in the fading light, I decided it was time to go and hopped back over the gate determined to return at a more acceptable time.

So imagine my delight when I was given the opportunity to revisit these glorious gardens in the company of Lord and Lady Ashbrook. This time I would be entering the gardens through the front gate and could explore with two people who perhaps know it most intimately. I even wore my posh new wellies!

We didn’t quite make it through the front gate, instead we nipped round the back of the estate office and emerged in the kitchen garden. I honestly can’t think of a better place to emerge. Like all good kitchen gardens this one is as beautiful as it is productive. Vast borders filled with an array of colourful tulips, muscari and peonies flank the gravel paths that lead to an ornate arbour. This centrepiece, Lord Ashbrook tells me, was rescued from his father’s ancestral home, Castle Durrow in County Laois, Ireland.

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Behind the tall hedges I spy several gardeners on their hands and knees. Closer inspection reveals they are planting onions and shallots. I ask Lady Ashbrook if she uses the produce in her kitchen. ‘Oh yes,’ she replies. ‘I like to cook and I do use what we grow in the garden.’

We head on through the walled garden and Lord and Lady Ashbrook point out the statues around the pond and explain how they were once part of the original house. A beautiful water lily fountain, deigned as a memorial for the late Elizabeth Ashbrook, is a fantastic focal point where the four pathways join. Beyond the walled gardens are the herbaceous borders which celebrity gardener Chris Beardshaw recently described as “one of the finest examples of this horticultural art you are likely to see anywhere in the world”. This garden must have made an impression on him as he is returning as a guest to the garden festival this month. Lord and Lady Ashbrook enjoy the visitors and the festivals. ‘We love having the festivals and the visitors, we love to share, it’s a passion,’ Lord Ashbrook said.

Beyond the herbaceous borders is the tea house built by the then owner Rowland Egerton-Warburton in the 1800s. Stepping inside the cool, dim interior Lady Ashbrook draws my attention to the poetry on the walls. ‘Each one was written by Rowland Egerton-Warburton to the ladies of the surrounding stately homes in Cheshire,’ she says. ‘And here is the one he wrote to his wife.’ A wise man!

As we continue to venture through the gardens, Lord Ashbrook snaps away with his camera at some beautiful rhododendrons. As he stops to admire them closely he turns over a leaf to reveal a surprisingly soft, furry texture. ‘When you really get into rhododendrons,’ he smiles, ‘you start to look at the undersides of the leaves. The more interested you get, the more you discover.’

I tell him I have a friend who goes bird watching on the remote Isles of Scilly where he once saw a pair of legs sticking out from under a bush. Somewhat perturbed he gave the feet a nudge and discovered an enthusiastic plant lady who also appreciated the underside of leaves. We leave this conversation in the rootery garden.

Lord and Lady Ashbrook appreciate their garden and are very passionate about sharing it but they like to be on the other side of the fence too, and to visit other country gardens and stately homes: ‘It’s enormous fun and you learn so much.’

See for yourself

The 20th Arley Garden Festival will take place on the weekend of June 21-22. Television presenter Chris Beardshaw will be among the special guests and Lord Ashbrook will lead tours of the garden with head gardener Gordon Baillie. Jacqui will be selling herbs in the floral marquee and the weekend will feature displays and exhibitions, entertainment for all the family, as well as food, drink, gifts and crafts.

The gates will open at 10am on both days, for more information log on to arleyhallandgardens.com.