As you probably know the Gardens Trust has been running an extensive on-line lecture programme for the last 2 years, including a regular Wednesday evening slot called Unforgettable Gardens. April’s lectures were run in partnership with English Heritage and included a talk on the gardens of Brodsworth Hall, a grand mid-Victorian country house in Yorkshire that has survived as an almost intact example of one man’s dream.
As it happened I’d been to Brodsworth only days before Daniel Hale, the head gardener wowed our audience with an account of the gardens, their history and their restoration over the past twenty years. Dan gave such a bravura performance that I almost decided not to write about my visit – but since normally the blog gets wider and longer-lasting coverage than our lectures I thought I could give an account of what you missed and encourage you to get up to Yorkshire to see it at the first possible opportunity.
There has been a a village, with church, and manor house at Brodsworth since early mediaveal times but in 1713 the estate was sold to the future 8th earl of Kinnoul, who rebuilt the house and renovated the gardens and parkland. Work stopped when he was virtually bankrupted by the crash of the South Sea Bubble. His second son Robert Hay Drummond inherited Brodsworth and went to live there when he was appointed Archbishop of York in 1761.
He had the house remodelled by Robert Adam and it became a great social centre for leading politicians and clerics alike.
After his death his heirs were not terribly interested in Brodsworth so sold it in 1791 to Peter Thellusson, the descendant of Huguenot merchants who had amassed a family fortune in banking and insurance. As some of those who borrowed from him defaulted he acquired plantations and their slaves in Montserrat and Grenada and so became involved in the West Indian sugar trade. This made him even richer.
For more on Brodsworth and slavery see the 2010 report commissioned by English Heritage. There is also currently an exhibition of sculpture in the grounds and information boards explaining Thellusson’s connections and the origins of this part of his wealth.
This would all have been seen by contemporaries as quite normal. However Peter Thellusson did one unusual thing: he wrote a will that caused legal controversy. When he died in 1797 the Brodsworth estate totalled around 4,320 acres and he left about £700,000. However he left his three children a mere fraction of that -£100,000 between them all- just “sufficient to procure them comfort”. The rest was left to accumulate in a trust to be inherited only after the last of his sons or those grandsons who had been born in his lifetime had all died. Despite lengthy legal battles his children failed to overturn the will. Parliament later passed the Accumulations Act 1800 (known also as the “Thellusson Act”) to stop such a case happening again.
The last of the male descendants he had known died in 1856 and there was then yet another lengthy legal dispute over who should inherit the accumulated fortune of what is estimated to have been £14million. By the time the case was settled, as is so often the way, the lawyers had had most of the money. What remained was shared between two of Thellusson’s grandsons, Lord Rendlesham and Charles Sabine Augustus Thellusson, with Brodsworth falling to Charles as part of his share. The case is supposed to be the inspiration for the Jarndyce v Jarndyce case in Dickens’s Bleak House.
Charles had served in the army and already married well. His wife, Georgiana Talbot, was the granddaughter of a wealthy hosiery merchant who had also built up the largest commercial racing stud in Britain. The couple had inherited all that and now received Brodsworth as well, so Charles determined to become a stylish country gentleman.
In 1861 he commissioned a London architect Philip Wilkinson to draw up plans not to refurbish the old hall but to demolish it and build a much larger more stylish house nearby. Materials form the old house were to be re-used and new stone quarried from the estate.The work was completed, and the house then furnished by fashionable London companies using a mix of hand-made and machine-made goods. It only took about 2 years to complete at a cost of £45,000. As the English Heritage guidebook says it was “metropolitan quality with a certain economy.”
Work on the grounds started at the same time, and over the next seven years the park was extended and the estate gradually adapted to become a suitable seat for a gentlemn of sporting disposition.
New grand and fashionable gardens were overseen by Brodsworth’s first head gardener, Samuel Taylor. They had a mix of high maintenance formal beds, dense shrubberies, and some fashionable new features, although much of the old parkland was left largely untouched. The investment paid off socially too and Charles was appointed High Sheriff of the West Riding of Yorkshire in 1865.
Charles died twenty years later in 1885. By then he was a widower and one of his children had also died. The estate was inherited in turn by four sons all of who died childless, the last as late as 1931, but they had not all lived at Brodsworth. It was their sister Constance’s elder son Charles Grant-Dalton to whom the estate then passed. During the Edwardian era and beyond the estate survived the collapse in income caused by agricultural depression and the effects of the Great War by exploiting coal reserves on the estate. This also enabled them to modernise the house and keep the gardens in good shape. Of course this slowly changed as a run of heavy death duties forced cutbacks and sales of land and contents. The number of rooms in use dropped sharply and the walled gardens were let commercially, along with the shooting rights over the estate. The Second World War saw the house requisitioned and afterwards the nationalisation of the coal industry in 1947 reduced income further.
Charles Grant-Dalton died in 1952 leaving the estate in trust to his daughter Pamela, while his widow, Sylvia, continued to live in the hall and tried to maintain it as best she could. Meanwhile Pamela had married the Commissioner of Police for Gibraltar and when he retired they moved to Brodsworth. However rather than living in the mansion they opted instead for the more manageable head gardener’s house. After Sylvia died in 1988 Pamela and her husband negotiated the transfer of the hall and its immediate grounds to English Heritage in 1990 but kept possession of the remainder of the estate.
It was Trojan horse of a gift. Although the hall and grounds were theoretically “free” they required massive amounts of work. Nor were the contents included. The National Heritage Memorial Fund stepped in and bought the collection for £3.36 million and English Heritage spent the same on conserving the building. If I’d been working for EH then I’d have been tearing my hair out wondering where to start on the grounds. They were overgrown to put it mildly but the original underlying framework of the garden was still there so a decision was taken to take it back as far as possible to the 1860s design. After several years of work Brodsworth opened to the public in 1995. I first visited shortly after that and came away thinking it was pretty grim but now, almost 30 years later, the hard work, then and since, has paid off handsomely. The Thellussons would not only recognise the gardens but be pleased with the standard to which it is kept and the way it has developed.
The curved path from the entrance leads through woodland gardens until a turning reveals the first of Brodsworth’s great claim to fame. Formal clipped evergreens. For many this would probably mean topiary figures such as peacocks, elephants or tea pots but here it is just balls of varying sizes and colours, columns of varying heights and colour and the occasional pyramid, standard or fancy shape.
These continue all along the southern boundary of the pleasure grounds next to an immaculately cut yew hedge, an occasional gleaming white statue and elegant iron railings. Glimpses of open parkland planted in the 18thc beyond act as a foil to the geometrical formality of the evergreens.
At the end of the approach the view opens out to show the house – almost plain Italianate in style – sitting atop a wide terrace with three sets of steps down to another grand expanse of lawn.
One thing that might surprise the visitor is that the paths are tarmac. This is not an aberration by English Heritage or just a way of coping with heavy visitor numbers, but authentic because Thellusson was a pioneer of its use. It adds to the feeling that the whole setting is rather austere, by which I don’t meant harsh or unpleasant, but pared back with excess ornamentation and fuss removed.
This simple mix of grass and evergreens continues round the long south side of the hall to the west lawns, which are equally plain and uncluttered. This area was used by the family for bowls, croquet and tennis.
These lawns are backed by a further, almost solid, block of evergreen planting, which also has a surprising WOW factor even if you don’t like Victorian shrubberies.
All the trees and shrubs are meticulously clipped and shaped, and the effect is rather like a box of children’s bricks painted in various shades of green, laid out randomly but tightly packed around a series of statues and two giant cedar trees. A single path runs from the western end of the house through the centre of the planting to the gardens beyond.
What lies beyond the evergreens has another WOW factor. A huge Victorian parterre filled with carpet bedding and “dot” plants in intricate patterns around an ornate central fountain and four large tazzas or shallow urns.
These days the planting is only changed twice a year for spring and summer displays. It takes tens of thousands of plants and about 3 weeks to complete each transformation. This is because its not just a simple case of replacing one scheme with another but of mulching and then mounding the beds to create a raised planting area with a clean outline shape around it.
Much of the work these days is done by volunteers who assist the small team of gardeners and without whom the task would be impossible. The result is impressive both close up but also from a distance, and the view from the house through the clipped evergreens to the parterre is simply stunning. For fans of this lavish and colourful style of gardening Brodsworth can certainly hold its own against the most famous place where it is still famously practiced: Waddesdon.
On the far western side of the parterre more dense clipped evergreens are divided by a laburnum covered pergola that continues the line of the path that crosses the western lawns.
These areas of evergreens required huge amounts of work when Brodsworth passed to English Heritage. Luckily the Heritage Lottery Fund came up with a substantial sum for helping with the reclamation and restoration work. This started with removal of large numbers of self-sown trees and others that were overgrown or simply past their useful lives, and then getting the evergreens back into some sort of shape, removing the worst, hard pruning others and replanting. This included an amazing collection of over 100 varieties of holly.
As you can see from the right and central sections of the view above, up to this point the layout of the gardens has been relatively straightforward and very formal and geometrical. Beyond it, at the far left hand edge of the image, a different style of Victorian gardening emerges, which is firstly more complex and secondly quite surprising in its variety and scale despite its comapratively small size. There are to start with, quite dramatic and unexpected changes in level because the areas furthest from the house were formerly part of a quarry. This means the gardens could be criss-crossed with paths and steps that wind and meander over different levels and with ingenious planting to block views, create the impression of there being more space than there actually is.
The boundary walk ends with a classically inspired summerhouse perched on a man-made outcrop that offers views back towards the house and out over the parkland.
The mound once served as an icehouse, with ice collected from a tank out in the parkland, until the 1930s when ice was delivered from nearby Doncaster. Behind it lies a pet cemetery.
From the steps the visitor also gets a view across some of the rest of the garden which is hidden from the house.
Nearby there is a large rock garden which still uses the original Victorian drainage system and is now in immaculate order and home to over 200 sorts of alpine plants.
Linked to it is a fernery dell, originally laid out as a grotto in the 1860s. When the area was restored it was replanted using the collection of a noted fern enthusiast, with planting done in a series of carefully contrived pockets of rock to mirror the tumbling effect of a nearby small cascade of water running down the face of the “cliff”. At the foot of the slopes an area of plain gravel has been laid to resemble water, and is crossed with stepping stones.
There is a network of pathways bridges and even a tunnel, which run above, round and through them both. One way leads to a high ridge called the spine bank, planted largely with acers, and the other to a surprising long valley that runs along the foot of old quarry face.
At the southern end of this is what might appear at first sight to be a ruined summerhouse but is in fact an eye-catcher designed to be seen along the length of the valley.
The central section of the valley is grassed and is known as the Target Range because it was once used for archery. Along its length there are several well planted areas. One of these, known as the Target Garden is based on a rediscovered pattern of stone paths is usually planted in the summer with single colour blocks rather like a simple stained glass window, with quite stunning effcet.
At the far northern end of the valley is the not quite rustic, not quite classical, Swiss-chalet-like Target House where the equipment was stored and now home to a small exhibition space.
Next to, but just out of immediate sight, of the Target House we begin the return to formality with a massive rose garden centred around a long iron pergola. It too had a massive makeover in the 1990s becoming home to a host of Victorian or earlier varieties. Beyond it is a much more informal rose dell planted with 75 different sorts of species roses and other shrubs.
Both in turn eventually leads back toward the house where there used to be another impeccable lawn but which, during the period of neglect, effectively became a wild flower meadow. Although this is not a very Victorian feature it has been deliberately conserved because it is a rare example of a particular kind of limestone grassland. Its wooded fringe has also been planted with thousands of daffodils.
Divided ownership means that the original layout and route around the site has to be altered substantially. The views from near the rose garden reveal the various estate buildings including the home farm, offices, stable block etc which are not owned by English Heritage. The site of the old hall demolished by Thellusson, the site of the desrted mediaval village and the neighbouring parish church are also inaccessible. It would be wonderful, if one day, English Heritage were able to gain ownership because it would enable the recreation of a great mid-19thc estate and its proper working layout to be carried out.
However one estate building is accessible. It lies in the opposite direction in the middle of the informal shrubbery, beyond the rose dell, and was the garden privy. Its doorway is hidden behind trellis and now surrounded and covered by lovely scented climbers. Its survival is rare, its restoration in 2017 beautifully done and its a good example of how far the idea of interest in history and conservation has come in recent years.
In summary the restoration of Brodsworth should be an example to others. English Heritage and their garden team have set themselves high standards and are living up to them. Go and see it as soon as you can!
For more information the best palce to start is the English Heritage webpages for Brodsworth, and the estate’s Facebook page.