Homeward Bound

My tree peony had a huge bud on it at the beginning of June but I never saw it bloom. In fact, I missed a lot of things happening in my garden during the first couple of weeks of the month. I didn't see the first rose blossoms or the first water lily flower, things I look forward to with eager anticipation.

I didn't mind at all missing these garden highlights as I was away on a two week garden tour of Northern England. Not a typical organised garden tour, travelling on a luxury coach, staying at five star hotels and dining with Jamie Oliver. Mine was an unorganised tour, more often disorganised. I was mainly visiting family, but found time to do my own tour on foot and in a rental car.

Yorkshire moors, heather in bloom
I made numerous serendipitous discoveries of remarkable gardens simply by leaving my sister's house and wandering around the village. It's located in the Holme Valley, which extends upwards from an old industrial city onto moorland in the heart of the Peak District, Britain's first national park — hilly country where farmland is crisscrossed with dry stone walls. In the numerous villages, older houses are stacked on top of each other,  complete with front yards, some of reasonable size, though often barely large enough for a planter. But if there is room for one, it will be there. Not every front garden is worthy of a magazine feature, but the sheer number and variety of styles is remarkable.

While driving, I frequently turned a corner only to slam on the brakes, astonished at the sight of a garden perched in the strangest of places, while hearing cries of  "Not again Dad" from the back seat. The excitement of discovery was only surpassed by the thrill of driving on the wrong side of narrow, steep, twisty roads that were designed for horses and asses, not motor vehicles, and it's no surprise to find that many asses are now driving cars — often stopping suddenly to leap out for closer looks at front gardens. Stop signs are rare and when yield is occasionally suggested by a rusty sign or couple of dotted lines across the road, it's only a vague concept. When oncoming traffic approaches, it becomes  a matter of squeezing the car against a stone wall on the left while allowing side mirrors to air kiss as they pass.

York Gate
I also travelled beyond the valley to visit two gardens that are open to the public, both of which were worth the whole trip. I first visited York Gate near the city of Leeds. It is a masterpiece, considered by many as one of the best small gardens (one acre) in the world. Created by the Spencer family between 1951 and 1994 on a property that was formerly a farm, the garden is based on the "garden room" concept popularised by Lawrence Johnston's Hidcote. There are fourteen "rooms" with enticing names like Dell, Canal, Nut Walk, Sybil's Garden, Pinetum, Fern Border, and Old Orchard.

Each one is unique, meticulously designed, and yet travelling between them was seamless, even though every garden feature you can possibly imagine has been somehow included. I passed along pathways through a sequence of scenes, each culminating in yet another focal point, be it an eight foot high sundial, a grouping of bonsai, a labyrinth — even a compost heap. Everything, including the potting shed with its collection of vintage garden tools, was perfectly situated. At every turn, I discovered rare and unusual plants, including a favourite — a blue Himalayan poppy — made my day.

The garden wasn't at all crowded with visitors, but at an arch beside the greenhouse, I had to wait my turn to get a closer look at a crinodendron in full bloom. Each scarlet-red flower looks like a tiny, perfect lantern, and the shrub was covered with enough to light a whole street. Across the pathway on the gable of the eighteen century house a Pyrocantha was growing, so dense and perfectly espaliered, it resembled a green brick wall. Around the corner, I bumped into a ceanthus — blooms as blue as blue eyes and buzzing with bees. I have the perfect place for such a shrub in my garden, but alas, like many of the rare plants in this garden it will not survive our climate.

I spent most of an idyllic afternoon exploring, sipping tea in the tearoom and chatting with the volunteers who help out. On Sybil Spencer's death in 1994, York Gate passed into the care of Perennial, Gardeners' Royal Benevolent Society, a charity that will continue to maintain the garden in accordance with Sybil Spencer’s wish that it will continue to attract visitors for both education and pleasure.

The second garden I visited was at Parcevall Hall, a gardener's heaven of thirty acres located on a remote hillside near the village of Appletreewick in the Yorkshire Dales. Like York Gate, it was originally a farm, the farmhouse turned into a country home in 1926 by Sir William Milner and is now run as a private retreat house.

Parcevall Hall
A few hours wasn't enough to explore everything the garden offered, but we tried, galloping up and down the terraces and through a wood with the magical name of Tarn Ghyll, darting between the Camelia Walk and the Chapel Garden. I can't begin to describe the beauty and tranquility of this place. The collection of plants is immense, including many rare ones that have never been marketed, particularly rhododendrons. No runty looking shrubs here. They were the size of large garden sheds covered in blooms in the most amazing colours from yellow through pinks and reds to purples.

From the formal gardens, we followed the meandering woodland pathways upward to emerge at the cliff walk gasping, not so much from the climb but at the reward, a stunning view across the surrounding countryside, of green hills far away, laced together with limestone walls, the deep valley of Trollers Gill below. Sir William chose wisely when he set his garden in an area of such natural beauty, but only by visiting during all four seasons could this paradise be fully appreciated.

I'm home now, pulling the weeds that have taken advantage, deadheading spent blossoms, and happy to see that there's still one unopened bud on my tree peony.


First Published Waterloo Region Record June 18 2004
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