Summer garden tour, Yorkshire

Sunday 4 – Thursday 8 July 2021

At the beginning of July, a group of 40 MPG members gathered at Hazlewood Castle Hotel, near York, a Grade 1 listed fortified house that had been the home of the Vavasour family since the Norman Conquest until the early 20th century. The hotel retains its rural setting and for many it was both a novelty and treat to watch racehorses being exercised from our breakfast tables.

Notably, this was the first MPG residential trip since prior to the Covid pandemic and for many participants the first time they had met other MPG members for over 12 months.

The first morning saw the group split into smaller parties to visit Well House in Marton Cum Grafton and the Old Vicarage at Whixley with change-overs during the course of the morning to comply with the then rules on social distancing and numbers.

Well House is owned and gardened by Glen Garnett. The garden is on a sloping site, nestling into the hills, which she describes as a “happy jungle”, developed over 45 years. It has a strong cottage garden feel with colourful borders and roses, hop and clematis scrambling over one another and a rustic pergola. Steps cut into the slope lead to curved paths lined with brunnera and hostas and delightful views towards the North York Moors scarp.

Well House, Marton Cum Grafton

Well House

The other garden of the morning was the Old Vicarage at Whixley, the home of Biddy and Roger Marshall. They had taken on a near derelict house and garden more than 50 years ago and rebuilt the house and developed a quarter-acre garden. Over time Biddy had taken advice from well-known Yorkshire gardeners and friends including Sybil Spencer of York Gate and Pippa Rakusen. She also undertook a course at Askham Bryan, the local horticultural college.

The Old Vicarage, Whixley

Biddy embarks on a new project every year – her first being the area she calls her “secret garden” close to the house. Much of what she does through the year she described as seasonal “editing”, taking out more than she puts in. Her tip is to layer plants within the borders. The garden is known for its roses, euphorbias, foxgloves, hollyhocks and poppies. Yew and beech hedges form internal and external boundaries.

We then travelled into Wharfedale to reach the 24-acre garden of Parcevall Hall created by Sir William Milner in the 1930s. Milner, also noted as a founder of the northern RHS garden at Harlow Carr, worked on developing the garden for the rest of his life. It was a revelation reaching some 800 feet above sea level in the upper area and ranging in conditions from limestone to shale, naturally creating areas for both lime- and acid-loving plants. After his death in the 1960s, the hall and gardens were gifted to the local Anglican diocese.

In recent years the present head gardener, Phill Nelson, and his small team have begun a substantial restoration including of the lower rose garden which has been renewed with new hedging and shrub roses. As we climbed from there higher up the hillside, the rock garden came into view. Created in the late 1920s by stripping away much of the topsoil, the upper garden is known for trilliums, hostas, ferns and a number of large, mature trees. Arum lilies grow in the damper spots where natural springs run down through the garden. Much of the ground cover is self-seeded and is regularly thinned and managed, however steep the angle.

Descending again we reached the hall, extended in the 1920s, and the terraces below added in 1927 with stupendous views across the valley onto the borrowed landscape of Wharfedale and Simon’s Seat and the lower garden that gently slopes away from the house. The walls of the terrace provide a wonderful backdrop to the likes of Argyrocytisus battandieri (Moroccan broom).

The second day took us to a further three gardens beginning with Stillingfleet Lodge Gardens, close to York. For the last 40 years it has been the home of John and Vanessa Cook. What they had originally developed as a small organic farm in the Good Life tradition has evolved into an organic garden and a nursery business after Vanessa undertook a horticulture course at Askham Bryan.

Vanessa Cook, owner

The garden has developed organically with herbaceous borders, a natural pond and wild-flower meadow with orchids and, more recently, a rill garden. For a number of years, the garden hosted a National Collection of pulmonaria and, although it is no longer the collection holder, the genus is still prevalent throughout the garden.

Vanessa’s most recent project, her rill garden

Later that morning we moved on to Burnby Hall Gardens in Pocklington. These were established by Percy and Katherine Stewart in the early 1900s who travelled extensively in North America and Asia. After they died the house and gardens passed to a trust which runs it for the benefit of the townspeople.

It is a remarkable park with public access dominated by two lakes which house an extensive National Collection of hardy water lilies which the Stewarts began collecting in the 1930s. By the 2000s the upper lake was in poor condition and – aided by lottery funding – was repaired and rejuvenated. It is early days but the water lilies are starting to grow back. A constant management problem is keeping the balance between the spawning fish which cause damage to the lilies and the bulrushes and managing the attraction for family visitors who enjoy both feeding the fish and viewing the water lilies.

The upper ponds

Restored rock gardens

The second major attraction at Burnby is the Rock Garden (1910) created by the once-famous Backhouse Nursery of York. It also has been restored and extensively replanted recently. It was looking exceptionally colourful at the time of our visit.

After lunch in the open-air bandstand, another Covid precaution, we headed towards York and Breezy Knees Gardens in Warthill. It is the creation of Colin Parker, who wanted both a career break and a change, so bought a small local authority-owned farm. The land had been used to grow potatoes and wasn’t promising for a garden. At just 45 feet above sea level, it drains slowly, has cold winds and temperatures that can go down to –19 °C in winter. This limits some planting choices, leading Colin to adapt planting, for instance using hornbeam rather than yew for hedging.

Much of the garden is divided into smaller themed gardens and, along with the more traditional rose and rock gardens, there are also more novel June and September flowering gardens.

On the third and our last full day we began with a drive towards the Hambleton Hills and the edge of the North York Moors to visit Scampston Walled Garden. We were met by the head gardener Andy Karavics who guided us and explained his plans to rejuvenate the gardens to the plan originally established by Piet Oudolf.

The arrival avenue

Head gardener leading our tour

The garden is entered along avenues of pleached limes and high hedges running round the inside walls until reaching a point where they open out. This gives a feeling of entering a maze and finally getting a sense of direction.

It has retained some former features of the kitchen garden. For example, what was once the dipping pool is now a fountain surrounded by perennials from which the garden breaks out into eight compartments – many of which are divided by sharply cut hedging or high grasses that not only shield parts of the garden but also provide movement and a gentle rustling.

The central fountain

After lunch in the restored conservatory some took the opportunity to explore the wider Capability Brown landscape.

Ness House

The afternoon took us to Ness House close to the River Rye. It is the family home of the Murray Wells family and remains a working farm. Three generations of lady gardeners have worked to turn the part of the farm closest to the house together with an old walled garden into a large cottage-style garden. Roses grow throughout the garden together with self-seeded annuals and perennials. There is also a small orchard and woodland area along with a Japanese-style garden. It was a warm afternoon and many of the group enjoyed finding a sunny spot for sitting in the sun.

The woodland garden

The paved garden

After tea we headed to the last garden of the day, Havoc Hall. We were guided round by the owner, David Lis. This is a recently created garden that has been developed since 2008. It is particularly strong on woodland planting – hostas, ferns and heuchera run along paths through wooded areas. Nearer the house, roses and clematis thrive and a knot garden has been developed. As in a number of the gardens we visited, the land was prone to waterlogging and both laurel and yew had been replaced by hornbeam.

Woodland walk

The lower part of the garden is classed as agricultural land and has been devoted to a pond and meadow planted with native plants and wildflowers.

On our final morning we said our farewells to Hazlewood Castle and headed to one last garden, that of Alastair Fitter, who had spoken at both the 2020 and 2021 AGMs. Alastair’s garden is in York and was once a smallholding on a lengthy narrow plot.

The garden, managed organically with a strong ecological ethos, becomes less and less formal away from the house and closer to the river.
Near the house Alastair has a lawn, borders and an alpine house. He inherited a small 90-year-old established orchard area that has since been augmented with additional tree and shrub planting to broaden the base. This leads, first, to a meadow in which orchids thrive which is cut for hay to be fed to his two goats, and then to a recently established wildlife pond close to the River Foss. The bottom part of the garden floods from the river most years.

Wildlife pond at the bottom of the garden

The meadow blooms

After coffee we said our goodbyes and headed home.

The trip had been a huge success and the breadth of gardens a great surprise and delight. Our garden hosts added to our enjoyment in the time they spent with us and the way they shared their gardens.

None of this could have happened but for the work of Geoff and Maddy Hughes in putting together such a good itinerary and seeing it through in this most difficult of years. We are very grateful to them.

Sue Tymon and Mona Abboud reflecting on the trip

Text and images by MG Jones