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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 10 December 2008 by John Richards

Some rarities from yesteryear at Kilbryde. Special Centenary Edition.

Kilbryde. A great garden of yesteryear.

To celebrate the hundredth edition of this diary, I thought I would feature another Northumberland garden, Kilbryde, which was situated on Prospect Hill, south of Corbridge, about three miles from where I live. As will be clear from the ensuing narrative, Kilbryde played an important part in my education as a fledgling alpine gardener.

Kilbryde was the creation of Randle (R B) Cooke, of Meconopsis x cookei, Rhododendron cookeanum and Cassiope 'Randle Cooke' fame. Cooke was born to a wealthy trading family in 1880 and died in 1973. As soon as he was able, he retired, aged 40, and gardened full-time for 53 years (!). The two-acre garden he developed became world-famous, and such luminaries of the time as Sir George Taylor, David Livingstone and Sid Lilley were visitors. Cooke was a batchelor, looked after by a housekeeper. When he died he had no living relatives and the house and garden were left to the University of Newcastle.

I was then in my early '30s, living in Hexham, with a very young family. When it appeared that no-one else was showing much interest, I took it upon myself to obtain funding to maintain the garden, using the Job Creation Scheme developed by the Callaghan Government.

As can be seen from the above photo, Kilbryde was a notable Rhododendron garden, and when we took it over, about 130 species were grown there.

After about six years, the Job Creation funding ran out, in 1981. Although considerable progress had been made in restoring the garden, it received few visitors, being rather out of the way, and was very overmature. Eventually, we decided to sell the house and garden, using part of the proceeds to move many plants to the Moorbank Botanic Garden at Newcastle, and develop a further two acres there to house them. We also funded a scholarship. Today, many famous plants of Kilbryde origin grace Moorbank. Some of these have become noted garden plants, with RHS awards, for instance the FCC form of Rhododendron forrestii, and Bergenia ciliata 'Patricia Furness'. Here is the former, at Kilbryde in 1975.

The back walk that featured in the first photograph proved a particularly successful location for growing difficult subjects, many of which thrived for decades, but would not grow elsewhere. The raised wall was north-facing, had excellent frost drainage, remained cool in summer, and was backed by a spring line. Next to the rhododendron grew a superb Shortia uniflora 'rosea'.

To my certain knowledge, colonies of Primula griffithii and Omphalogramma souliei prospered for two decades.

This may be the only place that Rhododendron pronum has ever flowered in the British Isles. This occurred several years after Cooke's death, when we discovered that part of the considerable plant was dying back. This revealed a hen pheasant, tight-set on her eggs! The next year, a single twig appeared in the gap so created, bearing a flower bud. Now you know how to flower Rh. pronum!

However, the MOST celebrated rhodo there was what was probably the best Rh. ludlowii ever grown in Britain. Of course, this is a justly renowned parent of wonderful hybrids such as 'Chikor'and 'Curlew', raised by Peter Cox. But Peter acknowledges that they never grew the difficult species as well as Cooke.

By the way, the primula leaves to the right of the last photo are P. griffithii!

One of the legacies we acquired were a set of Dufaycolor lantern slides made by Cooke between 1928 and 1934. Unfortunately, by the time I was 'allowed' to see these (by a colleague, long since dead, who had befriended Cooke), these had deteriorated severely, and many had to be discarded. The remainder were immediately copied, professionally. This winter I have been scanning many onto disk, where I have been able to restore many to some extent, using Nero Photoshop, I am finishing with a selection of wonderful things Cooke grew 80 or so years ago, and which we rarely if ever seen today. There is indeed very little new under the sun, in the world of alpines!

First, Meconopsis bella, Briggsia aurantiaca and Gentiana hexaphylla.

Here is a selection of Himalayan primulas: P. aliciae (named for George Taylor's wife); P. chumbiensis; P. rockii and P. sandemaniana.

Finally, here is one of the most significant Kilbryde plants, the fabulous Cassiope wardii, for it was here that great crosses such as 'George Taylor' were raised.

Let me know if you want to see any more some time. There are hundreds!

This will be my last contribution this year. Happy Christmas to you all!

John Richards

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