Renishaw Hall’s award-winning gardens remain open in autumn for the first time
- Credit: Archant
As Renishaw Hall opens its splendid gardens in autumn for the first time, Joy Hales takes a walking tour with head gardener David Kesteven
Meeting head gardener David Kesteven under the stately trees by the entrance to the Stables in front of Renishaw’s north façade, it’s obvious that visitors to the garden this autumn will be greeted with a glorious blaze of leafy colour.
David, who will have been working at Renishaw for 19 years on 1st November, immediately points to an elegant oak tree, which although not large is shapely and somehow fits in perfectly with its surroundings: ‘I planted that tree when I first got here, when it was knee high, and it looks beautiful in autumn. It’s a Quercus cerris and turns absolutely scarlet; it’s one you see in New England in the Fall. I’d heard there used to be a big elm here, so it was missing a big tree. Trees choose themselves for a certain space and it likes it there.’
The philosophy of careful thought and structure underpinning a passionate desire to refine and improve on what is already beautiful seems to lie behind the success of this garden, whose place as one of the country’s finest treasures was confirmed when it won the Historic Houses Association’s Garden of the Year Award in 2015 – voted for by members. An increase of 32 per cent in visitor numbers that year has been maintained in 2016.
Our journey into the garden continues past a tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), which turns bright yellow in autumn, through a tunnel of hydrangeas and past what is probably the garden’s most famous tree: the Waterloo Oak planted in 1815 to commemorate the Battle of Waterloo. David mentions that it reached middle age early and started shedding limbs, resulting in a slight re-think of the garden to protect its roots from the heavy footfall of visitors. Another tulip tree, a Gingko biloba and a dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) – all promising displays of spectacular colour for autumn visitors – lead us towards the famous Lime Avenue. Set in the 1670s, these are the oldest trees in the park. Some leaves have already settled beneath the elegant ride with glimpses of delicate autumn crocuses hiding beneath, but catch these trees at the right time – before a frost brings it all tumbling down – and you will be given a display of shining yellow.
The thought that this is very much the garden of the family home of the Sitwells is never far away and David recalls that in the first volume of his autobiography, Left Hand, Right Hand!, published in 1943, Sir Osbert Sitwell wrote of sitting at his window looking out at the golden yellow of the avenue. We pause for a moment to look up at the balconied room that was his and imagine him sitting there enjoying the view in its autumn finery. As David remarks, ‘It makes you realise you are just on loan to this place. We all have a little bit of time but this garden is a lot more constant than we are.’
As we stand and look across the garden I begin to realise that we must have interrupted him at his busiest time of year. Autumn visitors will better be able to appreciate ‘the bones of the garden’ as it was laid out by Sir George Sitwell in 1885, which relies on the geometrical precision of the cutting of the amazing yew hedging that separates the different parts of the garden. David and his team of three (Dave, Paul, James, plus on Fridays Mr Whitlee, ‘who is brilliant, in his 70s and has been coming to help for years’), begin hedge-cutting after August Bank Holiday and aim to finish by Bonfire Night. I’m not sure what length of hedging this amounts to, but apparently there are about 50 pyramids. When asked, Dave thinks his record is six in a day.
‘You’re creating a sculpture that renews itself every year. The yew stops growing in August, so when we cut it in autumn it doesn’t grow again until May. When I started work here the estate’s agent at the time said that in the summer the garden looked like a painting but in winter it’s like a technical drawing. I don’t mind admitting that we are obsessive about straight lines. When I took over these pyramids they were lumpy. They are not perfect now by any means, they’re all different sizes and the tops aren’t quite level and the sides are sort of twisted, but they’re not lumpy any more. The eye is such a fine instrument – I get down and look along the hedge and see that it’s gone up an inch, and that’s over the course of 50 feet. I like it to be perfect. Of course, power tools have made our lives a lot easier and I could wax lyrical about tripod step ladders for a long time!’
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I wonder if all gardeners are perfectionists. ‘Well, we have a gardeners’ day out every year and we use it to go and look at other gardens – in fact next week we’re going to Barnsdale, created by Geoff Hamilton in the 1980s. We like to look around and see how straight the hedges are,’ he adds with a smile.
‘We try to get the garden finished for Christmas – all the hedges cut and all the borders cut down. Any plants moved that need moving and then put a big mulch of organic matter over everything. So by Christmas you can just see the bones of the garden, exactly as it was laid out by Sir George. All the borders will be empty. And then we leave it alone for a couple of months. January and February we’ll be working in the woods, round the lake, perhaps in the vineyard and then in March we come back to the garden and I’ll be in the greenhouses.’
Having neatly dealt with the garden year, it’s time to get back on our garden tour. The sun is starting to scatter the early drizzle, birds are singing and you feel as if you are in a glorious place out of time. We walk past a border which earlier in summer held delphiniums but now has a delicate airy swathe of late summer cosmos, cleomes and perennial sunflowers (Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’), intermingled with a few tender ginger lilies (Hedychium gardnerianum or Kahili ginger). These will last well into the autumn and be allowed to collapse gently in a sort of ‘romantic decay’.
In the Swimming Pool Garden a major re-think has seen new box hedges, balls and buttresses and clematis pyramids giving a symmetrical structure and a replanting with broad sweeps of colour ranging from soft pinks to blues, purples, red, white, cerise and apricot. ‘I love it when you get exactly the same colour in different flowers – you have to look at the form and texture of the different plants then. We’ll have to take cuttings before the frosts. The salvias will be gone by early November and we’ll start to see some of the structure. It’s a repeating design that we took time to plan carefully,’ says David.
The Fishpond is another glorious area, with a pure structure, impressive Magnolia macrophyllas – big-leaved magnolias native to North America – and a view that cuts back through to the fountain in the Swimming Pool Garden. Then we reach the Bottom Terrace, a three-season border and the hottest, driest part of the garden. In spring there were tulips and forget-me-nots, in early summer peonies, oriental poppies and lupins followed by the tender perennials such as cannas and aeoniums produced from the greenhouses. At the time of my visit the exotics are coming into their own: gingers, bananas (which will double in size every couple of days), dahlias and crinum lilies.
A slight detour takes us past the white garden, Secret Garden, Stone Tank Garden (I’ll leave you to discover these), and towards a camellia-lined walkway leading to a temple. Then we head into the Wilderness, or Broxhill Wood, which dates back to 1637. Amongst the beautiful beech trees and sycamores is a fantastic flourish of flowers high in a tree that makes us pause. It’s a Euodia, David tells me, adding, ‘I’ve never seen them anywhere else and I’ve never seen it flower before.’ There is also a wonderful array of magnolias – an incentive to return in April – some of which are hybrids that David has been growing from seed, so are unique to Renishaw. He admits to a long term plan to clear scrub from the woods to create a view down to the lake and eventually to have a wood filled with spring magnolias on the lines of one of his favourite gardens, Bodnant: ‘It will take 25 years to look decent so when I’m 75 I can pop back and see how the young head gardener is getting on and have a look at my trees!’ With the spring theme in mind, an area cleared of rhododendrons has also been turned into a bluebell wood. ‘It flowered last year and was very special.’
We return to the house to look at the garden from the top terrace in front of the south façade – perhaps the vista that Sir George Sitwell would have wanted us to view as it shows the perfect symmetry of the garden merging into the wilder area around the lake. Sir George’s classic masterpiece of its day, On the Making of Gardens, put the view ‘that we must subordinate the house to the landscape, not the landscape to the house.’ He would certainly be proud of what has been achieved, a house and garden that perfectly complement each other.
The sun is now definitely about to shine and it’s time to let David return to cutting hedges. He concludes, ‘We’re not doing anything special for autumn, but people will be able to see it at a time of year they haven’t before and that’s special in itself. I’ve only ever gardened for the family so it’s always been an all-year-round garden. It’s just that this year we’re letting people see more of what the family sees.’ And aren’t we fortunate to have this opportunity!
The Gardens at Renishaw Hall will be open on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays until 27th November. There are longer walks for those keen to stretch their legs through the old Broxhill Wood, around the bottom garden and around the lake. For details go to www.renishaw-hall.co.uk