Newby Hall Gardens Brings Fun Back

It’s safe to say that D has been dragged to a few gardens in his time. He had his first major tantrum at Sissinghurst, sulked around Great Dixter and kicked Monty Don at Gardeners’ World Live. That is the problem with many of our gardens, they are not geared up for children; very few kids get excited about colour combinations, design and plants. Give them a mud bath and a spraying hose, and they're caked in seconds, and to hell with any plants they crush in their mad wallowing. Posh gardens have little to do with the visitors; I don't mean to be rude here when I say, 'posh' but let's face it, major gardens are often owned by people who had the money to think big, grow big and plant big. It is a far cry from a two up, two down in Dagenham, Darwen or Dumfries. The only thing they have in common with those small plots behind our terraces or on our balconies is that the green spaces were created to please an individual or a family. We show up with our sandwiches and flasks looking for inspiration to take back home. We scale it down, and then we scale it down some more and then we just plant a pot full of marigolds, swear at the world and go indoors. Posh gardens can be intimidating as they take themselves so seriously. Therefore, there are few gardens that attract families. The idea of any family other than my own stomping around Pig Row leaves me cold. All I can think of is lots of kids asking where the swings are or worst still rolling around in the cottage garden, or getting in the orchard and finding the apples. I think I would go insane listening to them munch our apples and complain. The adults would stand around calling them words, such as, 'sweet' and I would be thinking of other words beginning with S. Then those keen on gardening would start telling me what they would do in my garden - missing the point that it is 'my garden'. This happened at Drovers, someone I didn't know advised me to put in a herb well as if I wanted to travel back to the 1950s. There is nothing like the helpful advising gardener (known as HAGs) who stop a gardener just to give them a piece of their mind. I have heard them do it at Sissinghurst, I have seen them corner the head gardener at Greater Dixter to advise putting in a rose garden (I kid you not) and last year when a shovel load of us descended on Newby Hall Gardens the head gardener there must have thoughts that the HAGs had arrived. For the record, we were polite and did not go down the HAG route because gardeners do not do that to other gardeners. Gardeners talk plants and ideas, they talk sometimes in abstract ways, they imagine a border as it could be, as it was, as it is. They play. Which is why you often wonder why many public gardens alienate children. Newby Hall Gardens is one of the few stately home gardens that seek to embrace all the family including the children who have been dragged in the wake of their plant loving parents. If we are to address the lack of young people interested in gardening, we could learn a lesson or two from Newby Hall Gardens. 


Newby Hall Gardens is a perfect balance between a plant lovers paradise and a children's playground. Refrain from picturing jungle gyms, think more swing boats, pedalos, water fountains and areas to run wild. It's as if the owners of Newby Hall have looked at Chatsworth and said, 'If we owned it, we'd let kids in the lake. They'd have a hoot'. For those who have visited Chatsworth on a hot day and looked at the fountain and the lake, you all know where I am coming from and I suspect many of you have dipped a toe in it too. Well, kids have no internal monologue and would have canon balled into the lake. As gardeners, we have to connect with our inner child and learn that gardening can put fun at the heart of what we do. Newby Hall surrounds the huge play area with a train, fun for the kids and the gardener as the train pootles through the forest and past the herbaceous borders. The restaurant is nestled beside the old walled gardens, including fruit on the walls and an impressive dahlia walk that is just coming into its own. Here, little jam coated fingers delve into scones that are homemade and D was licking the jam out of the jar long after the scone was gone. The gardens throng with families and the delighted screams of children. D asked to take a boat trip on the playground river, a ten minute trip around the river lasted thirty minutes as we realised that D doesn't know his left from his right (see below film). 


His mad cap fun is mixed with a little fear for us, thankfully he can swim and no he didn't fall in, he was just happily exhausted by the time he got back to port. However, thirty minutes later he wanted to go on the boats again. This time he took charge of a ferry and took a group of laughing kids out to sea. Well, actually, out onto the river, about twelve inches out and a several metres up stream and then down stream; as he took full control as Captain. After all, he had at least thirty minutes of sailing experience under his belt and that in kid time is around fifteen years. 


It is the eclectic, fun nature of the Newby Hall Gardens that tickles the senses, that makes you go, 'Ooh, what's that'. It is as if the garden journey has been shrunk down to fit the mind of a child, rather than go to a focal point in a garden landscape the child is drawn to the Teddy Bear Museum and coming out sees the Doll House exhibition. This appealed to all ages and the quality of work on show, and the scale of it was stunning.

Dolls House

These were dolls houses that celebrated the grand pile and the butchers. This was the dolls house as a snapshot of a bygone age, there was humour from the floozy above the chemists to the old couple that moved in their bed for a goodnight kiss. It celebrated the artisan work that goes into completing such models and it was great for kids of all ages.


This echoed the wider landscape beyond the exhibition; the gardens themselves. As we left the dolls houses we went out into the gardens, and because D understood focal points within the play area he now sought them out in the garden. There were calls of, 'Oooh, what's that?' and then a small child vanishing into the undergrowth coming back with cones. There was no sense when he was in the woodland that he was going anywhere he shouldn't be, this was wild gardening for wild children; it gave them a space after the playground to calm down, find peace and let off steam.

Newby Hall

The famous herbaceous borders became something to run along as he spied a sculpture at the end. His eyes are better than our's, though his attempt at replicating the sculpture failed abysmally.


The map to the garden became something that D had to hold, something that he had to use like a treasure map as he took us to hidden gardens.

Newby Hall

At each step he cunningly guided us back to cake. Yet, here lies the secret of Newby Hall, a keen gardener can enjoy the famous herbaceous borders, look at the walks that stretch across the gardens, find childlike joy in popping around a corner and finding something unexpected with children in tow because the play areas of Newby Hall buy into the same design ideas of good gardening; scale, balance, journey, colour and focal points. You can also use the simple application of the bribe, 'let’s look at the borders because that’s the way to the river with the boat on', 'let’s play in the woodland on the way to the restaurant', 'we can look at the rock garden from the train'. The garden is aimed at families, families who may have no interest in gardening but enjoy a good day out, families who love gardening and getting their kids to blow off steam, and the real shame for other gardens across the UK is that they are missing a trick, and should learn from the team at Newby Hall. This is a garden introducing children and adults to gardening, in a way that is not dogmatic but full of pleasure, full of the ideas of play. The gardens surrounding the play area, and the wider gardens buy into this idea, these gardens are a puzzle to be solved, a maze to be trod, a labyrinth to unfold, every corner, every path brings you to new things and it all wraps around a single, simple idea of fun. Which is why throughout the day we came back to cake.


Let's get down to brass tacks about food and costs. Adults visiting the garden pay £12.25 and children £9.25 (prices in 2018, visit the website here for up to date ticket costs). A family of four can go for £40.00. You are welcome to take picnics to Newby Hall but must eat these in a designated area, this is nothing new with gardens and in many family venues; it cuts down on littering. Frankly though, most meals in the restaurant did not go beyond £9 with excellent choice in homemade meals, on the day we where there, there was sea bass and fish pie on the specials menu but there was a wide selection of salads, sandwiches and soups. We opted for the Gardeners salad, which included pork pie, scotch egg, cheese, salad and grapes which easily fed two of us and D had a £5 deal for kids which included five items and he gave it a thumbs up. In total we spent around £18 on lunch; including drinks and water is available for free with great facilities for cleaning up kids after they've eaten. The cost was considerably less than taking him out to any family restaurant in the area. The food was all fresh, most of it local including the cakes. Our total costs came to less than £50 for the visit for a family of three, which for anyone who takes their kids for a day out will understand is a bargain. We left Newby Hall Gardens via their wonderful nursery, 3 plants for the price of 2, exhausted, happy, well fed, and still laughing about D in the pedalo. He will remember the garden for years and for the right reason, because he had fun, and all gardens should have a little of that.

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