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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 04 November 2010 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 165. Holehird Gardens.


I have been on my bike in the last few days (no, not literally!). Lectures away are a bit like buses; you wait for months and then three come along in four days! One of the reasons is I think that Groups tend to meet on a certain day during a certain week of the month, and, have you noticed?, it is almost never the fourth week, or the third week, but most usually the first week of the month. I guess it stays in folks' minds a bit better, but it does tend to mean that the dates bunch a trifle.

So last Tuesday I spoke to the Friends of St Andrews Botanic Garden, spending good time with my buddies Bob and Felicity Mitchell, and the night before we drove up to Bowden near St Boswells to talk to the Borders Group, to be royally entertained by the McBeaths and Clarkes. All good for a 'craic', as they say up there, but dark, now that the clocks have changed.

So in a sense the last day of the season was the preceding Saturday when I was asked over to Holehird Garden to give a lecture to the members of the Lakeland Horticultural Society, whose main raison d'etre the garden is. Luckily, it was a glorious day in this season of glorious colour, and I had a super run over the Pennines and down Ullswater both ways, despite occasional heavy showers. Before lunch I was given a most interesting tour of the gardens. It is some time since I was there, and I was vastly impressed, to the extent that I thought I would dedicate this issue to Holehird.

To set the scene, here is the view from the garden entrance back over Windermere to the south-west. Holehird is reached from the A592 as it climbs from Windermere town northwards towards the Kirkstone Pass.



I should have pointed out that the foreground of the last photo shows part of the National Collection of Hydrangeas. This is one of no less than three National Collections the garden holds, the other two being for Astilbe and Polystichum

Running as we do the garden volunteers at the University of Newcastle Botanic Garden, Moorbank, I was particularly interested in the legal and financial status of Holehird, and the way that it is managed and run. Compared to Moorbank, Holehird is on a massive scale, and is I suppose the prime exemplar of a an internationally important volunteer-run garden, at least in the UK. I suspect that such arrangements are much more commonly met with in the US, where I know that superb Botanic Gardens such as that at Portland, Oregon are mostly manned by volunteer labour. 

The Holehird Estate dates back to the 17th Century, but the garden was mostly developed privately by the Groves family from the turn of last century. It was gifted to the then Westmorland County Council in 1945, and leased to the Leonard Cheshire Foundation who still run a Home on the Estate. In 1969, a group of volunteers formed the Lakeland Horticultural Society with the particular aim of restoring and developing the garden and opening to the public, which they have achieved over only 40 years to the extent that I think this is now one of the finest public gardens in the UK. 

Here are some facts and statistics, all of which I find extraordinary. The LHS has 1800 members, who pay a modest subscription, receive a Journal and newsletters and attend meetings. Of these about 250 regularly volunteer at the garden. Some act as 'wardens', attending on a regular basis to oversee and guide. Those who work on the garden, do so in teams which are dedicated to a particular part of the garden. Each is guided by a 'bed holder' who is responsible for planting, maintenance and development in consultation with the Garden Committee. Although there is a President and Chairman, everything seems admirably democratic, and the concept of 'leaders' and followers' seems to have been avoided as much as possible. 

The financial structure is extraordinary. Admittance to the garden is free, although there are boxes for voluntary contributions. Income depends on membership, legacies and donations. They don't seem short of money! All the equipment is modern, expensive and labour saving. The standard of upkeep is exemplary, superb lawns, ledges, tree surgery and so on. Not only must they have a very sound financial footing, but a great deal of horticultural expertise. At times, it is admitted, the garden is open to the public but unmanned. It doesn't seem to be a problem. They receive 40,000 visitors a year! 

Time for another picture. Fairly recently they have completely restored the garden hydrology, so that major streams now rush down the rock garden. What a technical triumph!





For me, perhaps the most extraordinary feature is the legal situation. The garden is owned by the County Council (now Cumbria) and leased to the LHS. As the latter is an entirely Amateur (although far from amateur!) organisation, dependent entirely on volunteers, this seems to have required initially a considerable risk and expression of faith by the County Council, which has clearly paid off with interest. I wonder if any Council today would have taken on this chance, or even the Estate in the first place!

I asked about the future, as so many garden organisations seem to be suffering from an ageing cohort which shows little sign of being replaced. But the LHS has many young, vigorous, keen and knowledgeable volunteers apparently. What a treasure! 

As I said, it is a glorious autumn, and the plantings at Holehird reflected this. Here is a general view of part of the upper garden.

One more general view, this time of the pond, which lies below the access road.  Apparently there was a leak of heating oil which threatened to pollute the pond, and the boom is there to absorb toxins. These things (events dear boy) happen! The great thing is to deal with them effectively, and they think that threats to plants and wildlife have been avoided.

We are alpine gardeners, and although Holehird is a generalist, 'plantsmans' garden, it must have as high a proportion of rock and alpine garden as any public garden. Most old rock gardens suffer from roots, shade, soil improverishment, drought and overmaturity. Holehird has been very clever I think. Although they have gone some way in restoring the old core of the rock garden, they have developed new plantings around its periphery which give a freshness (and diversity) to the whole.

Perhaps the most impressive achievement is the reception area which abuts on to an extensive members room, library, lecture room and kitchen. What a superb facility! Apparently the funds were largely raised by an appeal. It was completed 15 years ago, but it looks as fresh as a daisy, as if it was built yesterday.

The reception area looks out over the walled garden which has impressive island beds and wonderful old shrubs and trees against the walls, including old magnolias. An alpine terrace flanks the lawn, so that the members room looks out onto the terrace.

I guess the Lake District is as good a place as anywhere to come across old stone troughs, but I was green with envy at their collection!

One remarkable and most successful facility is a 'tufa house'. This was originally a Victorian 'pit' house, and I suppose formed a limestone grotto under glass, chiefly for the ferns that were so beloved of our ancestors. It is sunk into the ground much in the manner that many alpine houses have been built in regions with colder winters than hours, for instance Germany and the Czech Republic. Consequently, the central path is well below ground level, and the chest-level beds, built of tufa, are at ground level.

This house was full of one of the most interesting collection of difficult alpines, planted out and mature, that I have seen for some time. Some of our National Botanic Gardens could take a leaf out of Holehird's book here! Here is a general view.

Immaculate planting! A lesson to us all. Notice the ancient Primula marginata, and, top right, part of a venerable Primula forrestii. The latter, from low limestone areas near Lijiang, won't usually survive outside for very long, but will form venerable plants if planted out in the alpine house.

There is also a display alpine house, and a holding house for plants not in flower, but I guess there was little to see this late.

A few notable plants outside. First, an extensive planting of Gentiana sino-ornata, in a limestone rock garden! But this Carboniferous limestone which I guess was originally of local origin, tends to be very hard.

I loved this ancient fir. Like cricketers, dwarf conifers tend to have mutliple handles. This one is Abies procera 'glauca prostrata'. 'A.P.G.Prostrata opened for Bedfordshire and made a tidy 35 before lifting one to mid-off'.

In an autumn such as the one we are enjoying, there are few finer plants than the Acer palmatum 'dissectum atropurpureum' series (another cricketer!). There is a fine collection at Holehird, with differing autumn colours. Here is an old plant by the drive.

A couple of views on the journey to finish with. Here is a steam launch on Ullswater, followed by a couple of atmospheric scenes in Allendale, not far from home.

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