The gardens at Belsay Hall are one of northern England’s best kept secrets, but how does a Mediterranean-inspired idyll thrive in Northumberland? Created by a family of pioneering plantsmen over 138 years, today caring for Belsay’s gardens is still a family affair. Head Gardener Sarah Jo Harrigan was trained by her father – who was previously head gardener for 18 years, and we asked her to show us around.
An exotic haven
To someone who hasn’t visited before, Belsay Hall’s gardens may just seem like any other country house garden. But we’re far from that… Inspired by his travels around southern Europe, Sir Charles Monck began transforming Belsay Hall and its gardens in 1795, creating a haven for rare and exotic plants that wouldn’t usually survive so far north. His grandson, the pioneering plantsman Sir Arthur Middleton built on this – crafting the mysterious oasis you can visit today.
There are over 30 acres of magnificent formal and informal gardens, including Sir Charles’ famous ‘Quarry Garden’ which is based on the ancient quarries of Syracuse in Sicily and has a distinctive microclimate. The garden is listed as one of the finest examples of the Picturesque movement in Britain. What’s more, it’s a true plantsman’s dream, with many rarities including a National Collection of Spuria Iris.
Starting the tour – the formal gardens
Belsay’s most formal gardens are closest to the hall – these include the terraces, Winter Gardens, Rhododendron Garden and croquet lawn. The terraces are especially tempting to stroll around in summer. Old English pinks and musk roses combined with the original magnolias and overflowing herbaceous borders all smell amazing. The colours are spectacular and it really is a feast for the senses.
You can also watch croquet on the sunken lawn, or look out over the spectacular three-acre rhododendron garden. This part of the garden is home to the hybrid collection of rhododendrons, which reach a spectacular peak in June – looking at it from the terrace is Belsay Hall’s most photographed view. They are stunning, and people flock to see them before the petals start to fall in July.
The Winter Garden is where the shapes and textures of plants come to the fore. In the summer there’s a mass of flowers that create a riot of colour – but during the winter when this is all stripped back Belsay’s winter finery, and the underlying backbone of the 30-acre landscape, is revealed.
At that time of year, the beds are pristinely tidied, and forty cubic meters of composted bark mulch covers all the beds giving fewer distractions for the eye. The warm sandstone walls provide contrast to the dark red stems of Salix fargesii and flame red leaves of Parthenocissus quinquefolia, all under planted with winter flowering heathers in pink and white.
Moving into the meadow area
Between the more formal gardens and the Quarry Garden is the meadow area. A planting of large Aralia give colour along the fern walk, opening to the meadow area surrounded by magnificent specimens of Persian Ironwood, Parrotia persica and Cornus kousa. In the late summer and early autumn, the air here is filled with scent of burnt sugar from the coppery-yellow Japanese Katsura tree, Cercidipyllum japonicum.
Exploring the Quarry Garden
Sir Charles’ romantic Quarry Garden was created from where stone was cut for the hall, and extended west by Sir Arthur.
Spring and early summer is when the Quarry Garden is Belsay’s showpiece. It houses the main collection of species rhododendrons, which are in flower from late November right through to August. The first is the Rhododendron arboreum var. roseum, along with various magnolias and a magnificent fern collection.
The planting is luxuriant – a mixture of exotic ferns, spreading perennials, huge Gunnera leaves and shrubs such as tree peony, rhododendrons and the beautiful white flowered eucryphia. Foxgloves and other natives settle in the niches or ledges of the surrounding ‘walls’. Around a bend there are the sudden rising columns that are the entrance to what is known as ‘The Grotto’.
The quarry then narrows and is spanned by the massive stone arch that Sir Charles created after his visit to Siracusa. This is where the Chusan palm is able to grow, a reminder of the Mediterranean, as is a fig tree. The quarry opens out once more with huge rock pinnacles covered in the large leaved creeper, Vitis coignetiae.
Caring for Belsay Hall’s gardens
The informal and formal areas require a different approach to the maintenance – the formal areas are kept immaculate with raked paths and formal beds, while the informal areas are maintained to give a feel of them still being wild and romantic.
To keep the gardens in check involves a very detailed schedule. All the sections of the gardens are divided between the team of gardeners, weekly jobs include keeping the borders weed free, cutting and marking the croquet lawn, edging all the lawns, and raking the miles of paths within the gardens to keep them looking neat. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays are grass cutting days, and it can be quite a labour intensive job! We also have garden volunteers who work in the nursery area, lifting and dividing plants.
As 2016 is the Visit England Year of the Garden, we are also holding some special events where – alongside our usual daily tasks – we’re out and about in the gardens meeting the public, giving special tours, helping out with hands-on seed planting workshops for children and running our very own version of Gardeners Question Time.
All of this hard work is on-top of what we already have to get done, but it’s also really nice sometimes to put the tools down and talk to the public. It’s great to find out what they love about Belsay, explain a little more about how special and unique the plant-life is here. It reminds me why it’s so important that English Heritage is here to protect it.