Behind the scenes at the grounds of Thornbridge Hall in Ashford-in-the-Water

Thornbridge Hall and lawns

Thornbridge Hall and lawns - Credit: Thornbridge Hall

Over the centuries, Thornbridge Hall has frequently flouted convention. We meet owner Emma Harrison CBE to learn how she’s putting her stamp on its historic grounds  

On the face of it Thornbridge Hall, replete with mock castellated elevations and Coat of Arms, is the epitome of a stately pile.  

Yet never once, since the 12th century, has Thornbridge been the country residence of an aristocratic family.  

Instead, the Hall and its 100-acre-plus estate on the outskirts of Ashford-in-the-Water has passed through the hands of assorted industrialists, business entrepreneurs, and even an early director of Pinewood Studios. Whilst, during the post-war years, Sheffield City Council, installed a teacher training centre. 

With the formal gardens first opening their gates to visitors in the 1930s, much of what survives today reflects the Victorian’s horticultural drive, determination and engineering prowess in manipulating the Peak District’s challenging contours.  

The result? A series of fantastical spaces which mix formality with naturalism, cleverly realised by the famous Blackhouse and Son nursery from York for their then colourful client, George Jobson Marples.  

The planting still evokes Marples’s wish for ‘a thousand shades of green’, from clipped hedges to feathery ferns, and hard landscaping that tempts the curious. 

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A path leads through the mighty rock tunnel drawing the eye (and feet) into the 19th century Italian Garden beyond.  

Elsewhere, stepping-stones navigate a course through the sylvan Water Garden - ingeniously fed by Longstone Edge - which tumbles down the hillside linking a string of shimmering lakes.  

Peak District views beyond the Italian Garden and Koi Lake

Peak District views beyond the Italian Garden and Koi Lake - Credit: Thornbridge Hall

So when in 2002 Emma and Jim Harrison became its latest custodians, unsurprisingly, this marked the start of another reimagining. Although for Emma, who’d first visited Thornbridge as a 15-year-old, there was a sense of serendipity. 

‘I didn’t know places like this existed and was astonished,’ she remembers.  

‘Thornbridge was run down, but in my head I knew I wanted to live somewhere just like this surrounded by friends and family. That’s how we continue to live now, there are 26 of us here.’  

With the Hall painstakingly restored to its arts and crafts-style glory, with parts of the 12 acres having received a makeover too.  

The team of professional gardeners and volunteers has created a productive Kitchen Garden, where once a tennis court stood; the re-glazed Orangery filled once more with the scent of citrus fruits; and the Long Border bursts with colour from spring to autumn.  

As a result, Thornbridge currently holds the accolade of being an RHS partner garden. 

According the Emma, seeing the garden through someone else’s eyes is often one of her greatest pleasures. 

A garden with a thousand shades of green, Thornbridge has been open to the public for over 90 years

A garden with a thousand shades of green, Thornbridge has been open to the public for over 90 years - Credit: Thornbridge Hall

However, with public openings mothballed during lockdown, it was the close-knit resident community who grasped the nettle by taking on the garden’s day-to-day maintenance, until furloughed staff returned. It was, she admits, initially ‘terrifying’, yet also a turning point. 

‘Usually, we would be travelling a lot, working on our various businesses, but the restrictions meant easing up on that side of our lives. It gave us the opportunity to step back and really absorb and enjoy our family home. 

‘I used to leave the garden to the gardeners who would direct me round it by saying things like: ‘Emma if you go towards the Hellebores…’, they might have well said, ‘go to Mars’.  Now I actually know where the Hellebores are!  

‘Because none of us are gardeners our philosophy became do no harm, just do our best. Between us we’d mow the lawns, deal with fallen trees, and I’d go round every day with a bag for a weed and walk. 

‘It was then that I found a bench, which I never knew existed. This garden was never for dashing around, it was intended for sitting awhile and allowing yourself to be amazed by what you might discover. 

‘I like the intimacy, just spending time looking at the shape of a leaf, or smelling the scent of a bush. I enjoy touching things – a garden like this feeds the senses. It’s incredibly serene here. There’s a magical, almost Elysium, feel.’  

The New Knot Garden, created out of necessity when Box Blight took hold four years ago, now sees hundreds of grasses and Golden Yews swaying softly against the backdrop of a stone balustrade. The effect, she says, is magical.  

‘If you go there in the evening, they have a wonderful luminescence,’ explains Emma. 

‘I also like the way the bamboos move against the water. There’s a sense of connection and always something to see if you take the time to look.’  

There’s little doubting the element of surprise that continues to be embraced.  

A classical sculpture sports a glass necklace; wrought iron benches are painted in fluorescent hues; and a raft of rubber ducks swims merrily in the historic Quadrafoil Fountain which Emma, who’s got a degree in engineering, repaired earlier this year. 

Now the gardens have fully reawakened from their enforced slumber, its owner has plans to install an even more significant legacy; one that’s inspired by her Indian wedding day.  

Peak District views beyond the Italian Garden and Koi Lake

Peak District views beyond the Italian Garden and Koi Lake - Credit: Thornbridge Hall

‘Because I’ve had to sort things out in the gardens myself, I now feel there’s something I can contribute to it.  

‘For the first time, I’m designing a garden here. It’s going to be called the Jaipur Garden.  

‘Having walked around the garden in my head, I know how I want it to look. The main colour palette will be pinks and oranges, so it won’t be subtle, yet there will be beautiful spots to sit and to explore. This will be a modern version of a garden room, just as the Victorians designed theirs.’ 

As a novice, Emma’s the first to acknowledge that she’ll need help to achieve her dream. 

‘My new head gardener has already suggested blending the Jaipur Garden with the existing Cascade Garden, by recreating another area of India in between the two.  

‘It has to relate to the rest of the gardens and this is what they can teach me. I know it can be a garden that Jim and I will love.’  

The romance continues with plans for a cut flower area enabling brides-to-be, among others, to pick a bespoke bouquet ahead of their Thornbridge nuptials. Also on the wish list is artisan glass blowing, woodcarving and pottery.  

‘Visitors can already buy one of our plants, which are grown onsite, but I hope people take away something more. Something deeper.   

‘Opening my curtains in the morning, I often pinch myself because I cannot believe I live here. Thornbridge has transformed my life and I’m certain it can transform the lives of others.’  

Thornbridge trivia 

Today, waste hops from the Thornbridge Brewery, run by Emma’s husband Jim Harrison, are used to fertilise the Kitchen Garden. 

Previous owner Charles Boot installed the Quadrafoil (meaning four leaves) Fountain in the early 20th century, having rescued it from Clumber Park. Two tiers remain at another former property: Sydnope Hall in Darley Dale.  

The weighty sculpture of Atlas carrying the Heavens on his shoulders, cost 8 pounds 12 shillings from Chatsworth over 100 years ago. 

An indoor Victorian Winter Garden once created west of the Hall, boasted underground caves, cascades and a miniature lake. Stonework was recently discovered during construction of an access road.