I’ve just come back from a few days visiting family in the north east. It’s unusual to head back there and experience better weather than at home in Wales. It wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination what you could call summery. As Wellyman observed at one point, ‘it’s July, I really shouldn’t be wearing a shirt, jumper AND coat’ but hey, it didn’t rain for 2 whole days, so that was something at least. The sun even popped out occasionally. So making the most of the dry spell we thought we’d visit somewhere that has been on my list for a while now.
Helmsley Walled Garden in North Yorkshire is an incredibly inspiring place, in so many ways. The red brick walls enclose a five acre garden that dates back to 1758 and which lies next to the ruins of the Norman castle. The garden was created to supply the nearby Duncombe House, owned by the wealthy Duncombe family, with food and flowers. It was during the Victorian period that the gardens were in their prime. The abolition of the tax on glass meant that it became so much more affordable and this, coupled with improvements in the production process, allowed large scale glasshouses to built all across the country. At the same time, the burgeoning empire and intrepid plant hunters brought about a demand for interesting and exotic flora from across the globe. Vines, figs and pineapples were all grown at Helmsley. At the peak of their productivity the walled gardens employed 20 gardeners but, as for so many large estates and their gardens, it was the First World War that would bring an end to this idyll. The Duncombe family moved to London and over the subsequent years the garden was used to provide food during the Second World War for the local area and was then run as a market garden but from the early 1980s weeds took over and the glasshouses fell into decline.
Then, along came a remarkable woman, Alice Ticehurst. In 1994 she embarked on a project to restore the space with the idea that it would become a haven for all but especially those who would benefit from the restorative powers of a garden. With a group of friends and volunteers, weeds were cleared, the original paths uncovered and the old dipping well discovered, where gardeners in the past would have dipped their watering cans. Within only two years Helmsley Walled Garden had opened to the public but sadly, Alice died suddenly whilst in the gardens in 1999. However, those at Helmsley shared Alice’s vision and 13 years later it shows the incredible potential of places like this.
The gardens themselves are stunning. The double herbaceous borders stretch for 120 metres down the centre of the garden. They were such an amazing vision of colour with large blocks of flowers such as heleniums, achilleas and salvias, intermingled with grasses and towering spires of Verbascum olympicum. Running off this main path were other smaller gardens such as the white garden and a gravel garden. There’s a physic garden grouping plants together in raised beds depending on the areas of the body there are used for healing. And then, there was the cottage garden, a sheer riot of colour. There were colour combinations there that would probably make some garden designers and arbiters of taste turn pale and have palpitations but I loved it and it’s exuberance. It made me smile.
A couple of areas had been sown with different wildflower mixes and along the entire length of the east wall is Lindsay’s border. Designed and planted by the assistant manager, Lindsay Tait, it is packed full of bulbs for spring and pastel coloured herbaceous perennials throughout the summer.
Unlike so many walled gardens, where the Victorian glasshouses remain unloved and unused, here at Helmsley they are integral to the gardens. Reconstructed using the original iron frameworks, the Vinery is now the location for an excellent vegetarian cafe, with vines still growing inside and the display house contains a collection of tender plants, including succulents, pelargoniums and Brugmansia.
It’s not just the beauty of the plants that makes this such a special place, it’s the ethos of serving the local community and helping those in need that means it has a real sense of purpose. Following Alice Ticehurst’s vision, Helmsley Walled Garden now employs 2 horticultural therapists. It’s become a place where people with disabilities, learning difficulties and those who have been long term unemployed can come to learn new skills, to interact and make friends and ultimately to feel secure and relaxed. I can understand why a walled garden makes such a great place for such an enterprise, with the walls giving a feeling of protection from the outside world, a safe cocoon from the pressures of modern life.
And, if all that wasn’t enough, there is an area of the garden that has been given over to allotments. As part of the Landshare initiative raised beds were created and made available to budding allotmenteers. Surrounded by well established heritage fruit trees, it’s an inspiring place, even in a summer as bad as this one.
I really don’t know what else to say about this place, other than it’s BRILLIANT. The only problem with it, is it’s too far away for me to volunteer there. If you’re in the area or passing by, it’s only 30 minutes from the A1 at Thirsk, please do visit, you won’t be disappointed.
For more information about the gardens at Helmsley.