English Heritage and the work to preserve the gardens of Yorkshire
- Credit: Joan Russell
Digging into the past is preserving some of Yorkshire’s oldest gardens for the future, as Terry Fletcher discovers
IT’S some years since Alan Titchmarsh and his instant makeover pals showed us how to knock up a brand new garden in half an hour of prime time TV, so it may seem strange to think of lawns and bedding plants as part of England’s long term national fabric. Castles and abbeys stand seemingly unchanged for centuries but can something apparently so transient as their gardens, at the whim of fashion and the weather, really be part of our history?
English Heritage, which has the job of preserving the best bits of our physical history from Stonehenge to a Cold War bunker, has no doubt that they are and has the man to prove it. Michael Klemperer is its recently-appointed senior gardens advisor for the north, an archaeologist and Kew-trained gardener who has been sinking his spade into some of Yorkshire’s most important plots for years. He says that gardens, from pocket handkerchief-sized plots to the huge landscapes of our stately homes, can tell us a lot about how our ancestors lived and what was important to them.
‘There’s an awful lot of history in gardens,’ he says. ‘And we’ve quite a spread of it here in Yorkshire.’ His point is illustrated by two of the main properties under his care. At Mount Grace Priory near Northallerton, there are reconstructions of the simple cloister gardens the monks tended, each by their own individual cell. In them they grew herbs for medicine and foods as well as using them as places for prayer and contemplation. By contrast the huge ornamental gardens at Brodsworth Hall near Doncaster represent the heyday of vast landscaping and formal layout.
In mediaeval times gardens were practical places, living larders and medicine chests, but from Elizabethan times they began to take on a more decorative role, at least for the wealthier in society. ‘As time went on they became very elaborate. They became extensions of high culture, places where you showed off your taste and good breeding, just as you did in the furniture you chose or the works of art. In fact the gardens were often featured in the paintings a family owned. They were also included in books of gardens. Owners loved to be in those because it showed they had arrived.’
Some of those books have proved a huge help in restoring and recreating lost gardens with the research being a mixture of digging around in archives and the genuine spadework of painstaking archaeology among the weeds. ‘Luckily we have a wide mix of talents at English Heritage. We have people who can dig around in gardens and find the relic features still in the ground. But we can also draw on texts, written at the time which help us to build up the picture of what was there. Sometimes they are old records but others are accounts and letters written by visitors to the gardens. At a really old garden like Mount Grace we have to do a lot of research but at Brodsworth, which is our biggest garden, we have very detailed records to go on,’ says Michael.
‘There was a quite extensive garden here before the present one but what we have now is very elaborate with a series of interesting features and planting on a large scale which simply overwrote whatever was there before. They ripped out the earlier features and created this brand new garden on what was essentially a clear site. When they had finished they had a new garden with a croquet lawn, a quarry garden and grotto and even an archery garden and the family kept it broadly like that for 100 years.’
After that the layout of the garden was preserved, ironically by the same problems that befell many other big houses – it simply became impossible to afford the staff the maintain it. The result was Brodsworth’s original layout was never seriously tampered with by later generations.
Once English Heritage acquired the property it became a question of restoring it, much as they would a piece of furniture or painting. The estate records were a huge help but even they threw up problems. Michael’s job is to present the garden in as close to the original form as possible, including the actual plants used. That can be difficult when old varieties have been phased out in favour of newer strains bred to be more resistant to pests and disease or even just to be bigger and brighter.
‘If we have the old plants we will propagate those and we put a lot of effort into tracking down old varieties, searching long and hard to find them. Using these varieties can look a bit odd to modern eyes but our job is to be as authentic as possible,’ he says.
And at the end of it all there is still the need for the last ingredient, the one the TV makeovers never have – time. Michael and his team know they will probably never see the outcome of some long term planting, but that, he says, is all part of preserving gardens for future generations to admire. w
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