Running A Border from Cool to Tropical: Harewood House

Stately homes often make the front page of glossy magazines, their interiors drip excess, pomp and in many cases, television. For Harewood House is recognisable to many TV viewers as the set for some of the scenes in Daisy Goodwin's hit drama, Victoria. It is also been a set for one of our longest running soaps, Emmerdale and if there isn't enough sex, drugs and scandal in the grounds after that, they can always throw in a murder or two in Death Comes to Pemberley. Yet all these television credits could overshadow the real gem of the house, the grounds. With over one hundred acres, the gardens far exceed the house and its television credits. You may come to see the setting but you'll fall in love with the gardens. Harewood House garden deserves to be on the map every plant hunter, botanist and gardener, amateur and professional alike. We had the fortune to spend the afternoon with the head gardener, Trevor Nicholson, who took us on a tour of some of the gardens. With the amount of space at hand, the keen gardener, botanist and wildlife lover could spend months in these grounds from the ornate hornbeams echoing the palisades of the house to the heat of the borders, and the stonework of the terraces.

Learning symmetry at Harewood House

This mini-Versailles in Yorkshire is a jewel of garden design with mile after mile of box hedging, replaced by Nicholson by a more robust variety as soon as he got a whiff of box blight. We arrived just after the cutting had ended, all of it done by hand. This hands on, machinery off, approach to such a large garden means that wherever you went you came across gardeners and volunteers busy tending the plants. Yet, on the terraces there is something that imposes itself on the landscape, it's arms repeating the straight lines of the terrace balustrade whilst the box echoes the distance undulation and spirals of nature unfettered on the horizon.

A mini Versailles in Yorkshire

Yet, like the statue of Orpheus, it would be a lie to say that this landscape is unfettered. This is a controlled landscape, this is Capability Brown and sure enough as we move away from the attractive and dominating Greek God statue, we see Brown's hand on the landscape.

Orpheus at Harewood House

See that river meandering down into that lake? That's not a real river, that's a Brown river, you can tell by how slowly it moves, how controlled it is to just gently move through the landscape. Brown was notorious for this, and sweeping aside houses, villages and villagers, to get the look he wanted. Not even the old hall survived this changing landscape. You can just make out the foot print of part of the old hall, Gawthorpe Hall, in the photo below which was bulldozed to make way for the new house on the hill. It has to be admitted, the new house has the views. You'd be mistaken though to be lulled in by just those views, there are borders to explore on the terraces, each reveal more startling than the last as you make your way down into the valley. It is like a box of delights, each layer revealing something magical that you take away and this is down to Nicholson and his team of gardeners, exploring what they can do that will compliment the setting but push forward interest for those visiting gardeners.

A Capability Brown landscape but it's what's behind that takes the breath away

The borders at Harewood House start out cool, echoing Gertrude Jekyll designs, the flow and ebb of the herbaceous border, punctuated by repetition of colour, shape and form. The hidden secret of these borders are the stone walls they sit beneath, as tourists pose on the balconies above, getting a quick fix of social media with Brown's landscape as a backdrop, they are missing a trick, they are sitting on a secret. For the walls here act like giant radiators, sucking in the heat during the day and releasing it at night. This makes the borders sumptuous to behold and the plants rage like a foaming sea along its length as Orpheus, calm, balanced, seems to hold the chaos from spreading out into Brown's controlled landscape. This is the underworld vs the living world. The chaos. The calm. The beauty of Jekyll's designs, repetition and punctuating colours.

Gertrude Jekyll inspired borders at Harewood House pushed to the next level

Use of colour is key to garden design

As the pastels and pinks wane on the moving waves across the border, something starts to happen, as we move away along its length, the colours become more wild, the planting more chaotic (I don't mean in the sense that the gardener has lost control) in the sense that something is coming, something quite unexpected.

Using colours in borders to move the eye on

As you descend the final steps of the terraces into Brown's landscape, you look out across the grass gone to seed, the heads lolling in the heat and then turn to see one of the hottest borders I have ever seen in Yorkshire.

Tropical border at Harewood House

An echium towers above us all, freely self seeding across the border, figs weave in and out taking advantage of those heated walls.

Tropical borders in gardening

Hot borders in gardening

This is a far cry from the Jekyll inspired borders by Orpheus, if we have descended into the underworld, than the underworld is a Rio carnival. This is a fun and playful underworld that juxtaposes against the landscape beyond, there is control here but there is a freedom that isn't found in the Brown landscape, this is gardening looking forward, reinterpreting Jekyll, using colour to coax you along its length and the heat, and yes it was a warm day, just seems to bounce around you, as if you have entered the heart of the tropics. Yet, Nicholson isn't just a gardener at heart, these plants are attracting biodiversity into the garden, if the garden was just clipped box and Orpheus's cock staring at you wherever you go (and isn't it nice to see a naked man in the garden who isn't trespassing?), the wildlife and bug life would be scant but here the border brim with bees, butterflies and at one point I see the darting motions of a dragonfly. Yet, there is a part of this garden that could easily be missed and I would advise any gardener visiting a garden to do one thing, dump the map. Large gardens are made to wander around, not to tick off on a map, you miss the point then of such gardens. There is never one path through big gardens, there are just a myriad of vistas and down in the Himalayan garden you find them in the spade full.

Redesigning gardens offer opportunites

Himalayan garden at Harewood House

The Himalayan garden is a garden in flux, under development by Nicholson, it seamlessly blends the rockery and landscape of Brown with a contemporary sinuous paths - more out of necessity as the old steps are both worn and more importantly, steep as they weave through the rockery - so a modern solution for us all has been found and this has afforded Nicholson the chance to find new vistas, new planting across the gardens.

Stepping stones

Every corner brings something new, something that you don't expect. At first you think this is a folly, somehow echoing Brown's follies to pull the eye but this folly is hemmed in by the lush of green foliage. This is a Stupa. For those of you unaware what a Stupa is, it is from the Sanskrit, meaning heap or mound and tends to have the remains of Buddhist monks or nuns in it. This is a holy place. It is sanctified and constructed by Tibetan monks. We are told that we can only walk around it once, three times or seven. The idea is that this is a place of meditation and shows another change of the garden by the seventh Earl who is keen on spiritualism and Buddhism. It would be so easy to dismiss this as a passing fad, like the Chinese gardens of a century before but this Stupa is not repeated around the garden, this is a place of meditation and peace, and that is echoed around the Himalayan garden. This is a private and reflective garden, and has always been a private and reflective garden since the time of Princess Mary, who helped shape its earliest design. It throws in to garden design the idea of gardens as sanctuaries, place of spiritualism and reflection. A place of well being or the road to it.

Spiritualism in the garden

It is a million miles away from the open vistas of Brown's landscapes, or the hot Jekyll inspired borders. There is a sense of balance here, even if on the final photo my own balance is measured by fear of falling in and getting back across the stepping stones.

Andrew Oldham on stepping stones, scared.

In the end, Harewood House is not a garden you can just visit once. It is a garden that you need to come back to, must come back to, time after time because of Nicholson. He has more plans, more planting for the Himalayan garden and then he really catches my interest, he wants to renovate the kitchen garden and has a love of heritage varieties. He really should take my number after I get back across that river without screaming. You can find all the photos from the visit here.


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