York Gate Garden – Review
By Barney Bardsley
There is a garden, deep in the heart of Adel, in leafy north Leeds, which, when it is described, inevitably has the writer and the publicist reaching for hopeless hyperbole. “Highly original”…”inspirational”…”the gardeners’ garden”…”extraordinary”…”exquisite”… For once, its own publicity does not lie. York Gate Garden is a tiny treasure.
Owned by the horticultural charity PERENNIAL, as its one (and only) flagship garden, York Gate is a single acre in dimension. Yet it fits into this space an astonishing 14 separate outdoor “rooms”, each with their own character and distinction, using a painstaking attention to detail and design. Some gardens draw you out of yourself in awe, with their size and grandeur and show-off planting. This garden does the opposite. It leads you ever inwards, twisting and turning, in a bewildering confusion of perspectives, and an artful mix of the manicured and the wild, the hard and the soft – the green infused with colour, only where appropriate – until you are brought to a satisfying stillness. To contemplation. For this is a garden at ease with itself, and it encourages the same in all its visitors.
“Attention to detail”
A little history sets the scene. York Gate was bought, as house and farmland, by the Spencer family in 1951. The garden then was rolling pasture for horses and cattle. But it did not take long for the lure of cultivation to take hold. Father Frederick was the original architect – laying down the bones of the garden with his professional, surveyor’s eye. When he died, in 1963, his only son, Robin, took over the development and design. It was his brilliance and patient, persistent attention to detail, which made the garden what it is today.
He and his mother Sybil began collecting items – stone troughs, mill stones, pump heads – and using stone masons and joiners, to create a bespoke garden, as full of design references to the Arts and Crafts movement, as it is crammed with plants. Robin, like his father, died young – at 47 – leaving his redoubtable mother Sybil to take on the mantle of garden custodian until her own death in 1994. If Robin was the designer, then she was the plantswoman. She also had the generosity and foresight to bequeath both house and garden to the gardeners’ charity, which has tended it ever since.
“Tiny & obedient”
David Beardall, head gardener now, and for the past ten years, was, it seems, born for the job. “I knew this garden before I was a gardener”, he says, living locally, and an open admirer of its delicacy and style. “It is the embodiment of all things horticultural – on a small scale.” But his job is far from easy: keeping the spirit of the place intact, with painstaking topiary and hedge pruning, whilst administering occasional drastic surgery (of thuggish evergreens) to stop the garden running away with itself. But his love for York Gate is palpable and it is down to his skill – and that of a small army of volunteers – that the garden maintains its vibrancy and charm.
The best way to walk the garden is anti-clockwise. Start at the stone maze in the drive way and turn right into the Old Orchard, with its still pond and island bed of primrose, astilbe and exquisitely fragranced hemerocallis. Then walk across the stepping stones into the Pinetum. What glorious chutzpah, says Beardall, to devote “a small section of a small garden” to such notorious space invaders as these evergreens. How have they done it? By deliberately scaling everything down, with “quirky, dwarf conifers” and a gorgous Blue Atlas Cedar, espalier-trained like a fruit tree, to keep it tiny and obedient. Things get a little wilder down in the Dell, where giant bog plants loom in the overflow from two streams, making the atmosphere lush, damp and dark.
“Space & distance”
The path circles you upwards now, through the Long View, towards Sybil’s Garden, with its shrubs, roses, poppies – ‘Patty’s Plum’ – and architectural alliums, into the more formal spaces of the Kitchen Garden, Canal Walk and Herb Garden. Here, everywhere you turn, there is a different perspective: through the Round Window of the (immaculate) potting shed down the woodlands slope, or up between the topiary and yew hedges of the Herb Garden towards the gracious Summer House.
Ah yes, the Summer House. My favourite. And Robin’s too, it seems. “The perfect spot,” he wrote, “for Sunday luncheon parties with the sun streaming in, even more spectacular for dinner parties, with candles lit as the light fades.” If you sit here, and look to your right, through the Summer House window, your eye takes you down an avenue of beech towards a sundial at the far end and a semi circle wooden seat beyond. The seat was deliberately made to be lower than usual – and the hedges planted and pruned to be narrower around it – to give the illusion both of space and distance. A mini-Versailles!
“Foxes and enchants”
A stroll past the White and Silver border to the house. Then round to the front, with its Paved Garden and formal lawn. It is fringed with exotic purple vine and New Zealand pampas – and your tour is complete. Except it never will be. York Gate is the only public garden that I return to again and again. Each time I see something new. Each time it foxes and enchants me with its tricks and turns. Its sharp corners and interlocking alleys, its curious constructions and tranquil meanderings. “Exquisite”? The word cannot begin to touch the experience. Only your feet on the ground and the evidence of your own eyes will do it.
“A Handful of Earth” by Barney Bardsley is published by John Murray
For information on York Gate, how to get there, and for opening times/special dates/prices, visit the Perennial website perennial.org.uk
Images courtesy of John Whitaker