Sometimes I want to say something about a garden but I grapple with it, try and pin it down, think I’ve got it beat, only to find it is pulling me towards a dead end; and then in resignation I have to give up and let it settle in my mind. Holker Hall (pronounced ‘Hooker’) was a case in point. Months later the deliciously Mary Poppins-like word ‘disconbobulated’ (meaning confused and all mixed up) came to mind and I knew I was back on track.
Holker Hall is a very good garden but I find that having an architectural training has its benefits and its drawbacks. On one hand, the wonderful, almost uptight attention to detail is exciting and delightful, as is the quality of its disparate parts, but at the same time the disconnectedness and user-unfriendly layout drives me mad. A great garden layout is one that leads you effortlessly from one part and one enticing feature to the next and if, as at Holker, you are always consulting the map to find where you are, and where you want to go next, something is wrong.
It all started so well, entering the Elliptical Garden from one side of the grand turreted and gabled house, substantially enlarged and rebuilt in the late 19th century Jacobean Revival Style for the Cavendish family. This garden was originally set out in a formal Italianate style by the great early 20th century designer, Thomas Mawson, and although the garden was redesigned in 1993 the good bones and fine detail still shine through. For example, I found a gently curving smooth slate bench, placed on small stone balls and elegantly detailed stone piers set over a curved pebble path much more interesting than the transient planting.
From here, steps lead down into the Summer Garden built on the site of the old tennis court. As a nation, we have a talent for fine herbaceous borders, and Holker is no exception, but it is the extraordinary detail of the garden that captures your attention – rings of box around clipped trees, cubes of box around planted urns, fine classical sculpture confined in alcoves in the surrounding yew and hornbeam hedges, lawns cut diagonally in two directions to give a precise diamond pattern and such a thoughtful and skilful use of materials – gravel, hoggin, sawn stone and inset pebbles.
I follow the main axis of the Summer Garden towards the Slate Sundial but find my attention is drawn sideways to the grass Labyrinth set with Cumbrian stone monoliths. The view here is of fine open park landscape to the distant hills which works well with both monoliths and the Labyrinth, but there is no connecting path to the Slate Sundial. Rather than go back the way I came I sheepishly make a new path through the wild flower meadow to this stylish and fascinating garden feature.
Consulting the map, none of the paths seem to go where I want to go, and with excitement and anticipation I cut through the woods to the Pagan Grove. I knew this to be the work of the renowned sculptural landform architect, Kim Wilkie, whose projects have fascinated me in other gardens. Remodelled in 2011 as an oval amphitheatre planted with spring and autumn bulbs, I was disappointed there is no reference to its name, no sacrificial altar or statues of Saxon gods, or perhaps more appropriately for Wilkie, a focal point such as a dark, mysterious pond or sink hole at the bottom of this upturned half cone.
Where next? Following the path across the hillside I find I am half way down the Cascade. Whereas going down the hillside there is a broad central path with delightful and beautifully detailed narrow water staircases to each side, taking me back to the Summer Garden, going up there is no path to the fine 17th century Italian statue of Neptune. But I want to take a closer look at Neptune, and so I track up the muddy hill to one side of the Cascade, slipping, sliding and feeling foolish because it turns out to be much steeper than I realised.
Having seen Neptune, I head off across the field to the Sunken Garden and curved Pergola, also by Mawson, but redesigned in the 1990s as a completely forgettable garden of exotic tender plants that benefits from Holker’s location close to the sea and the Gulf Stream.
The warm, wet maritime climate and acid soils also provide perfect growing conditions for rhododendrons, azaleas. magnolias, stewartias and the National Collection of the genus styracaceae, along with many unusual and seldom-grown plants. This botanical collection can be found on the walks to the northern part of the garden along with mass plantings of spring bulbs. Here there was much recent replanting with lots of bare soil, and my September visit didn’t show the garden area at its best, but I see from the website that it is a riot of colour in the springtime (as only rhododendrons and azaleas can be). Slightly disappointed, I make my way back to the Cascade and follow the water staircases down to the stunning setting surrounding the pond and fountain and then back to the Summer Garden.
I found the visit to Holker Hall both enjoyable and frustrating, but it is an evolving garden with many fine features added in the last thirty years, and the Cavendishs are clearly keen gardeners. My hope, going forward, is that they will now concentrate on making this wonderful garden more joined up, more focused, and more visitor-friendly.
16 March 2018 ***
Where: Holker Estate, Grange-over-Sands, Cumbria LA11 7PL
|Setting||7/10||Interest for Children||5/10|