Cultivating a gardening passion at Arley Hall

PUBLISHED: 10:57 08 June 2011 | UPDATED: 11:34 04 July 2017

Cultivating a gardening passion at Arley Hall

Cultivating a gardening passion at Arley Hall

Viscount and Viscountess Ashbrook have upheld a long and proud gardening tradition at Arley Hall WORDS BY EMMA MAYOH PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN COCKS

Chris at garden festivalChris at garden festival

Lord Ashbrook is the first person to admit he hasn't always loved gardening. As a young boy the sum total of his interest was enjoying a quick puff on a woodbine behind the sheds with the team who then tended the estate's extensive grounds.

He recalled: 'I can remember feeling a great thrill every spring as a child and how wonderful I felt when the gardens first came into bloom. But I didn't take a real interest until I was 30.

'When I was a small boy I did like going out and pretending I was helping the gardeners. One of the great fascinations was having a fag behind the shed. They were only boys themselves and they would let me have a puff on their cigarettes. It was very exciting, so you could possibly argue I did kind of take an interest.'

But, after a week of pulling out brambles from an area now known as The Grove, everything changed. It was during this time, on holiday at Arley from his then London home, that Lord Ashbrook discovered his green fingers. He decided to tackle this woodland area after his mother, Elizabeth, suggested it could be beautiful.

Arley Alliums and BorderArley Alliums and Border

Existing trees were joined by more trees and shrubs, rhododendrons, azaleas, acers, maples, daffodils and narcissus. Today, there are more than 300 different varieties of rhododendrons, unusual specimen plants and trees and the area is a riot of colour in the spring and autumn.

Lord Ashbrook said: 'I rather enjoyed clearing those brambles and it got me enthusiastic about gardening. The Grove is my contribution. I wanted to create something really different and more relaxed than the formal garden.

'It's been a real education. I'm constantly finding out about new plants. When I started all I knew was how to plant a few rhododendrons. Now we have several hundred varieties of them and I know many of them. I was very lucky because of my mother's influence. She was in charge but she encouraged me and saved an area for me to work on . It's nice to have my own established part of the garden.'

It was Rowland and Mary Egerton Warburton who formed the gardens into the plan we see today between 1840 and 1860. Since then every subsequent generation, with no exception, has been involved with gardening on the estate and each has made their contribution. This has created the wonderfully varied styles and designs that thousands of visitors flock to see every year, including the herbaceous border which is considered one of the best examples in the country. 

The GroveThe Grove

Like the generations before her, Lord Ashbrook's mother, Elizabeth, had a real passion for the grounds that surrounded her home. During the war the gardens had been maintained and the estate was used for market gardening afterwards. But in the 1960s Elizabeth and her husband decided they wanted to embark on a renovation project.

A herb garden was created, a rubbish heap was transformed into a scented garden and work was done in The Rootery. But the main project was what is now The Walled Garden.

Like her mother-in-law the current Lady Ashbrook has taken to the gardens with vigour. Since she and Lord Ashbrook arrived at Arley in 1977 she has slowly taken on more parts of the garden. They both work with the estate's team, including head gardener Gordon Baillie, and several volunteers help too.

Over the years Lady Ashbrook has worked on several areas of the main gardens including, like her mother-in-law, The Walled Garden, which is the kitchen garden proper. This has an arbour at its centre that has been in the family a long time. There are vegetable beds and Lady Ashbrook has designed other planting areas to last throughout the year. She has also introduced lesser known annuals.

Lord and Lady AshbrookLord and Lady Ashbrook

She said: 'I'm very passionate about the main garden and Arley is a marvellous place. Gardening was something that was done very well by my mother-in-law. I remember her telling me I should go around and look at the gardens as often as I could because they change so much, it's only the owner who can do that.

 'It's been a lovely place for us and our family. When our children were young they would help us clear things up in the garden and we used to have picnics as a family and they were very enjoyable times.'

The couple, who also love tending the garden of their own home nearby, admit to a bit of friendly rivalry to try to out-do each other with their own gardens. But what they have achieved over the years is quite remarkable. As well as keeping the Arley Estate renowned for its gardens, they have left their own legacy deep-rooted in the soil of this wonderful estate.

Lord Ashbrook said: 'The beauty and success of the garden is all down to the design of our forebears who had great vision. They realised what was needed and did it. It is nice being able to carry on the family tradition and we're both very proud to be a part of it.  But the gardens are a team effort and without our team we could never do all of this.

Lord and Lady AshbrookLord and Lady Ashbrook

'I do hope our children will get excited by the gardens. It's very nice to leave a legacy for them. I'm proud of what we have done and I feel it is getting better all the time.'' 

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