Newby Hall: Dreamlike and Playful

In the final of our Garden Media Guild visits to gardens across Yorkshire, we come to one that is utterly unique in the world of gardens. It is garden that pulls together the formal, the classical and wilderness into one wonderful space, welcome to Newby Hall, a garden for all the family.

Visiting Newby Hall garden

It's the kind of garden that real gardeners, those who dream of gardening and those who aspire to gardening come to. There's no surprise that it's a favourite of television presenter and gardener, Alan Titchmarsh. There is an ethereal, dream like quality to the garden where regimented vistas are softened by overflowing beds and a symphony of colours. Each border punches above it's weight (gardens should do this, boxers shouldn't) and does so successfully, as the flowers brim and dance with bees and butterflies. When it comes to being ecologically engaged, Newby Hall, is catering not just for families but for the bees too - though Ian Forbes, the assistant head gardener, who shows us around admits that they have a problem with deers too. Who can blame the deers when the border brim with such delightful edibles for them? Yet, you can see signs around the garden, cleverly hid, that Forbes and his team are protecting the more edible of the delights in a way that is sympathetic and hidden from many a glance. The dahlia border being created by cafe will soon out rival Biddulph Grange in its scope and size, and leads you down to the fun areas for children, include a miniature railway (steam on Sunday), a play area and a wonderful play fountain whose arcs of spiraling water call to us on such a hot summer's day.

172 metres of herbaceous border, the longest in Western Europe

The herbaceous borders are breathtaking, and this feat of gardening craft, spans a 172 metres in length. It is the longest border in Western Europe and you'd think this border had been here for decades but the original border, created back in the 1920s, was revitalised back in 2013, sweeping away tired and exhausted plants for something that just tugs your heart along. You move down the length, or in our case, pop in and out along it's length as we move from west to east, from garden to garden, passing through ho-hos (openings in the hedge) that are reminiscent of Hidcote, to be startled each time as we meet the herbaceous border. That is the word that sums up Newby Hall's herbaceous border, startling. Each time it takes your breath away, as you pass through the hedges you are totally unprepared for what is to come and that is no mean feat in what is 25 acres of formal garden, part of the 40-acre garden. Such large stately home gardens can easily succumb to the Brown effect, large vistas, imposing arboretums, hard lined terraces sweeping out to the hills beyond and maybe it is down the topography of Newby Hall, hemmed in by the river Ure, that makes this stately home garden so intimate.

Pig Row at Newby Hall

It's down to the gardeners here and the volunteers to manage these borders, and we soon realise why such borders fell out of favour - they take a lot of maintenance and planning but this planning, this step by step careful consideration of seasons to come can be seen in the attention to detail in the border. Colours are repeated. Plants are sometimes repeated but the whole lot doesn't become like the backdrop of a Hanna Barbera cartoon, exciting things happen with planting in this border and though reminiscent of Jekkyll, this border owes more to Christopher Lloyd, this is a border playing with hot colours and doing so in a playful way. Swept aside are the more regimented ideas of the herbaceous borders allowing the whole lot to undulate and sweep down to the Ure.

How herbaceous borders can play their part in bringing in pollinators

It is water that defines this garden, a sense of play and wonder. The play and sound of water becomes the focal point, certainly there are statues, follies and derelict objects scattered around the rockery but these merely entice, it is the sound and sight of water that encourages you, almost as if you have become a six year old again hunting for newts and frogs, jam jar and net in hand, to move out through garden after garden from rockery to formal, from wilderness to herbaceous border, from forest glade to fruit garden to seek out the wonder. Sadly, there is no kitchen garden - there is a private one for the family - and you could argue there could be a herb garden in front of the cafe to give a nod towards how this area was once used but you also have to acknowledge that this is a 40 acre garden and that any kitchen garden, especially a walled garden, is more labour intensive than 172 metres of herbaceous border. This is something that Ian Forbes talks about, there simply isn't enough hours in the day or enough people to manage such ideas into reality. Therein lies the problem in many stately homes, hit by the Great War, hit by the decline in staffing during the twentieth century, those that have survived have had to diversify and Newby Hall is a success story in this area. Beside keen gardeners families of all ages throng, adults of all ages along with their kids clamber on the miniature railways; yes, we went on it and yes we yelled, 'We're on a train!' as we passed the station and entered the tunnel. There again is that idea of play punctuated beside the formal past of Newby Hall. The structures may be formal but there is that lingering childlike dream of what a garden should, a maze, an adventure, a riot of colour and hiding places; we may refer to this as intimate gardens but in the end it is still getting a friend to count to ten as you run along the many paths to find somewhere new to hide from the lime walk to laburnum arch. Children, and adults alike, can find the gate of the highwayman and escapologist, Jack Sheppard at Newby Hall, set into the wall of the walled garden, a macabre and wicked sense of play beside the white garden. A nod to Sissinghurst but with something rather wicked at it's heart beside Jack Sheppard's gate. We all want to the romance of playing the highwayman and what better way to dream of it than at Newby Hall?

Water pulls together the design at Newby Hall

At Newby Hall you'll find the national collection of Cornus, a plant that many of us grow for the stems but once you have seen Cornus in flower at Newby Hall you'll chuck those loppers out. Each area of the gardens brings something new, from the formal rose beds; you simply have to see these, you'll smell them before you find them, a lingering scent that sticks to your clothing for hours afterwards so that on the drive home you catch a fleeting glimpse of the garden in your memory as roses fill your senses once more, to the cottage garden planting in the sunken garden just set behind the towering hedges that funnel you from garden to garden. 

The rose walk at Newby Hall

Here in this sunken garden named Sylvia's Garden, named after Sylvia Compton, the formality of the sunken garden creates a heat sink that allows cottage garden stalwarts like delphiniums to dominate and echo the colours of the herbaceous border. It's as if Sylvia's garden is the starter of sumptuous banquet that culminates in those breathtaking borders.

Sylvia's Garden

Dephiniums at Newby Hall

Rich nectar plants

Sanguisorba is awash with bees and hoverflies, even trying to catch them on camera becomes a headache as the insects constantly flit from flower to flower in this garden. Even in this peaceful, reflective space, the local insect population is frantic in it's search for nectar; there's even a bee swarm on the outside on the home itself, the bees collecting around an open window facing a view that sweeps out towards the Dales. It seems a fitting end to a wonderful trip that we all pose by those playful, dreamlike and sumptuous herbaceous borders.

Garden Media Guild trip

On Wednesday, you can watch Ian Forbes talk about the Autumn Garden at Newby Hall, and take a film tour of the Autumn Garden. Until then you can find all the photos of the garden here.

We'd like to thank Lucinda Compton, Ian Forbes and the Garden Media Guild for this trip and the time they spent with us.