Visits with interesting plants

Thornbridge Hall Gardens, Ashford in the Water, Derbyshire

I had never heard of Thornbridge Hall and came across it by chance in June last year when I was on holiday in the Peak District. We’d been out walking all day and were heading back to Ashford in the Water where we were staying when we passed the gates of the hall and saw the sign about opening times. It seemed like a lucky discovery so we came back when it was open to see the gardens.

The potted history: There’s apparently been a house on this spot since the 12th century, owned by one family until the late 18th century. In 1790 it was finally sold and enlarged, and then in the late 19th century it was sold again and completely rebuilt in Jacobean style. In 1896 a lawyer called George Marples bought it, enlarged it and laid out the gardens.

In the early 1930’s various statues and fountains were brought to Thornbridge Hall from Clumber Park (now a National Trust property) after that house was destroyed by fire, plus it seems that other other statuary and even a folly or two might have been brought from Chatsworth House.

After some time being used as a teacher training college, Thornbridge Hall came back into private ownership around 20 years ago and is now used as a wedding venue and event centre, with the gardens and cafe open to the public on two or three days a week through the summer.

The result of all this history is a Jacobean style house with some more typically Victorian additions, and the bones of a garden that are solidly Victorian in style, including a full compliment of the classical elements that you’d expect to find in a grand Victorian garden.

There are 12 acres of gardens around the house, which were designed to ‘create a vision of 1,000 shades of green’. As I say, the overall design, layout and many of the features of this garden seem typically Victorian. There are large lakes constructed to feed into smaller ponds through waterfalls and streams. There are grottos, temples, terraces, including a very stylish one planted in the Italianate style, there is statuary and there are follies. There are some fantastic large trees and sweeping, green parkland surrounding the formal garden. There’s a lot to admire in all of this and it’s beautifully maintained, although in places it does lead to a slight feeling of deja vu.

So, impressive as the Victorian gardens are, they probably weren’t the aspects of it that really made an impression on me. A few areas of the garden have been quite recently re-developed by the current owner and by the young team of gardeners that work there, and these are the areas that caught my imagination more, and that my mind immediately goes back to when I think of the place.

As you first come in to the garden through the cafe you find yourself on a terrace with gardens on a lower level in front of you and a lovely orangery, a couple of glasshouses and plant sales area to the side. The plant sales area was very impressive. Good quality plants, excellent prices and knowledgeable staff – the gardeners themselves, I think, who seem to play many different roles. Chatting to one of them I got the impression that there are only three of them to maintain the whole garden and propagate plants for sale, so they must all work very hard, and they do a great job.

Dragging yourself away from the plants sales you come into the redeveloped vegetable garden and the scented terrace, two descending terraces filled with colour. Fruits and vegetables are still grown on the first rectangular terrace alongside herbs, and rubbing shoulders with the floral planting of many edible flowers such as borage, marigolds, viola, chives and nasturtiums.

The lower terrace, the scented terrace, has long borders and gravel paths on the outside, filled in at the centre with grass in which sit what I remember as a slightly random layout of beds. To be fair it probably wasn’t random at all, but there were so many plants any formality that might have been aimed at was lost in the nicest possible way. The planting was a rich mix of trees such as Indian bean tree (Catalpa bignonioides) their crowns lifted to allow plenty of underplanting, and an enthusiastic array of mixed bulbs, herbaceous plants, shrubs and grasses.

I visited in June, so there were swathes of bearded irises, alliums, lupins, hostas, stachys, red hot pokers, euphorbia and geraniums in bloom, plus grasses starting to fill out with new growth. There were also many shrub and climbing roses, delphiniums, lilacs and lavender, amongst other things, to carry on the display and provide more scent later in the summer.

What could be more in keeping with the 21st century garden aesthetic than a multi-stemmed acer griseum, crown lifted so the bark is shown off, underplanted with that most modern plant, the heuchera? Possibly only one thing – bowls and pots of succulents.

This wasn’t the only revamped area, though. Further afield was the modern knot garden which had been completely re-planted a couple of years earlier. It was difficult to imagine how this might look in the future because the structural plants – the golden yews, were still so small. Also, as it was only June, the herbaceous plants weren’t fully grown or fully in flower, so some of their impact was lost as well. You could see the overall plan, though, and get an idea of what the intention is. Purple salvias combine with orange geums and whispy Stipa tennuisima in sinuous shapes that are shot through, rather than enclosed by, curved lines of the golden yews. The flowing shapes suited the informality of the herbaceous plants and grasses they’ve used, but was hard to tell how it will mature. I’d love to see it again in a few years time.

The Cascade Garden is another recently redeveloped area, only just laid out and planted in June last year. Stone filled gabions support three terraces on this steeply sloping part of the garden. Hydrangeas, tree ferns, hostas and other damp and shade-loving plants are dotted around the waterfall and pond that both give the garden its name and hark back to the overriding Victorian style of the garden at large. Again, it was very early days for this area but it looked promising and could manage to combine the best of the Victorian and modern styles.

And if I had one criticism of the garden as a whole, it would be that the two styles you find in different parts of the garden sit slightly oddly together. Victorian style is so heavy and formal, so rooted in the classical. It conforms so rigidly to the fashions of the time. The modern areas, on the other hand, have a lightness of touch and modern sensibility that feels completely different – like a breath of fresh air or a light turned on to the dispel some of the dark, gothic Victoriana.

But I loved the exuberance of the re-vamped areas and the enthusiasm with which they’ve been tackled so I certainly don’t think they shouldn’t have done it. In fact, if they’ve got the money to change a few other areas that could start to tip the balance in the right direction. They should leave the Italianate terrace though. That was pretty cool as it is.

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