COOLGARDENS ON TOUR (in Northumberland)

Two designers from Coolgardens, Charlotte and Holly, headed to the north this weekend to visit some of Britain’s best known gardens and least known horticultural gems. We will come to Alnwick later- here is a sneak preview…..


We didn’t really think about it until we were in the car, but 5 and a half hours up to Northumberland was quite a commitment for less than two days visit, particularly when we only specifically wanted to visit one garden! This was of course Alnwick, one of Britain’s newest and most ambitious gardens since the Second World War. Having headed out however, we were going to make the most of it and set about looking for where else would be good to visit. We did, after all, have nearly 6 hours in the car to research!

Saturday morning arrived dismal and pouring with rain. Having been promised sun for the following day, we postponed Alnwick for sunshine and headed to The Holy Island of Lindisfarne, admittedly mainly because last year’s trip to Cornwall involved a boat trip to a garden and we wanted to do it again. A causeway was our nearest comparison and it was very exciting! We slipped over before the timetable advised (fine, apart from a few puddles – but please don’t take our word for it if you visit!) and were in the village as it opened. Extremely underdressed for the weather we headed out to the castle (closed) and the Gertrude Jekyll walled garden. After rummaging around through wet fields for 20 minutes we finally realised it was a walled off section of grassland about a quarter of a mile from the castle. This was to set a precedent for the layout of northern castles and country houses I’m yet to get to the bottom of. If you know why, please do tell me!

The garden was a quaint and flourishing stone courtyard full of riotous colour and beautiful perennials. It was lovely but slightly odd in the middle of the bleakness of the Lindisfarne coast! The sweetpea were in flower, the Calendula were an orange mass towards the back and the Stachys were on a mission to overtake the whole space. It was a real pleasure despite the pouring rain and the juxtaposition in its environment made it all the more delightful.

After a stop for some excellent coffee at ‘The Pilgrim Coffee House’ and a mooch about Lindisfarne, Charlotte and I headed back over the, by now very safe, causeway and headed for a much too brief stop at Cragside and ‘the largest rockery in the Britain’. We’d initially dismissed this, since the Victorians are quite famous for their rockeries and these can sometimes be quite distasteful, however this was something else entirely! The steep sides of the valley on which the house is perched have been broken up with enormous boulders that have created meandering paths and streams. These lead from the house down to an enormous iron bridge that crosses the river at the bottom. A huge bank of Rhododendron on the steep slope in front of the house must make the view back to the house absolutely astonishing in the spring.

The walled garden was about a 10-15 minute walk from the house (spot the start of a theme!) and was another delight. The main structure of the garden was formed through a white pergola-like framework which enclosed the garden without shutting any of it off. We weren’t sure about it at first, but the more we wandered around, the more we liked the structure it provided. The beds were mainly herbaceous and although some evergreen shrubs provided some grounding, the white pergola really provided a good backbone for it all.


A lovely surprise was the fernery, tucked away through a gate and leading around to a formal lily pond and then a sunken grotto, open to the air but nonetheless well planted and intricate. A complete delight. The walk between the walled garden and the rockery is a Pinetum, a very Victorian concept and one I’m usually sniffy about, but this was again a really excellent example – some fabulous ancient pine specimens were architecturally magnificent and little details such as the Snake Bark Maple grove were inspiring!

Onwards and we squeezed into a tiny little two acre garden called Bide-a-Wee Cottage an hour before it closed. This had attracted my attention through some lovely cottage garden photographs and the fact that it advertised the on site nursery as containing ‘unusual’ perennials, which is like cat nip for the keen gardener! This is an absolute must if you visit the area! I cannot convey quite how much I loved this garden. It’s an English garden par excellence. Overflowing planting beds reveal tiny narrow paths that lead through and around this garden without revealing your final destination until the last minute. There is the sound of water but you can’t quite see where it’s coming from and then you suddenly stumble across a little rill running alongside the path and then disappearing under the slabs leaving you guessing where it might appear next! The bottom most section of the garden is dominated by a lovely pond surrounded by masses of ferns and a lovely weeping Taxodium. Viewable from nowhere else in the garden but accessible from everywhere this is a tranquil and sweet spot. Working our way through the various paths up to the house, the beds ares full of lovely perennials we either don’t know and want, or recognise and want. Either way, I wanted this garden! The car was considerably fuller when we left!

Finally (yes, that’s right, four in one day. It may be impossible to most but we wanted to make the most of every last minute!) we headed to Wallington House. The garden is a 15 minute walk from the house (was this to get the ladies to exercise or for some other reason?!) through a deciduous woodland complete with fairy doors and several lakes. As a walled garden should be, it was a beautiful contrast to the area through some gorgeous oak and iron gates that give you a glimpse to peak your interest. The top of the garden begins with a formal raised parapet that drops down past an elegant double staircase and a lovely water feature running through lawns and planting beds.image

The parapet gives views over the garden, as well as providing a home to a beautifully kept herbaceous and annual bed and a FABULOUS glasshouse. This is just chocka with tender plants, scented climbers running up the pillars and regular garden plants all squished in together. I’ve never thought to use pelargoniums as climbers but it works!

The garden is a mixture of lawns, lush planting beds and the sort of brick walls that make garden designers swoon. The garden ‘rooms’ were lovely with really nice glimpses through to the next but holding back enough to make us go and explore like 10 year olds!

Now. To the meat of the matter. The following day provided the promised sunshine and we headed over to Alnwick in considerable excitement. I’ve had a picture of the famed cascade on my desk wall now for several years and we were excessively hyperactive in anticipation of the real thing (would you want to employ garden designers who didn’t get overexcited at these things??!). The cascade is indeed magnificent; huge and very impressive. It completely dominates the garden and is a perfect example of why going big in a smaller space can work. It could be argued that the garden is not big enough to justify such enormity but it felt to me like it created a sense of space and grandeur that was not diminished by the surrounding garden.

Having been told it was smaller than the cascade implied, I thought we would get round it in an hour and a half, however Charlotte and I were still being delighted by new things four hours later. One of the highlights of our visit was the tour of the Poison Garden by an incredibly knowledgeable guide, we would definitely recommend this! Who knew Alexander the Great was killed by an overdose of hellebore given to him to treat worms?! We certainly didn’t! The bamboo labyrinth was excellent, we thoroughly enjoyed working our way round the sciencey water features and we were both thrilled with the novel ideas in the walled garden – pleached Malus trees and Malus hedging worked really well.

This garden really is a garden designer’s dream, in the sense that it is very much about structure, layout and use of space, however, the ornamental and rose garden provide more than enough to keep the plants men and women extremely busy and engaged. We can’t wait to have a chance to visit again.


Finally, to squish in as much as we could, passing down the A1 we stopped at Northumberlandia. An amazing landform site designed by Charles Jencks that we only heard about because a couple staying in the same pub told us about their day. A huge scale woman made from the excess from a nearby surface mine and built by enthusiastic miners, this is a PR stunt on a grand scale for how mining can be a boon as well as an eyesore. Essentially it is a large nature reserve, but done beautifully and free to get into. A work of genius most definitely and well worth a visit.

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