The loveliest garden that man hath ever made?

In 1802, William Wordsworth described the garden landscape of Dove Cottage as ‘the loveliest spot that man hath ever found’. However, I believe that the gardens at Levens Hall, in all their variety and styles, together are the loveliest that man has ever made. Indeed, as well as the stunning scenery and the literary heritage, Cumbria has a wealth of historic houses and landscaped gardens to visit.

Levens Hall, Cumbria. Copyright Alexandra Fairclough

Levens Hall is a privately owned historic house located to the south of Kendal close to the English Lake District World Heritage Site. It has remained in the Bagot family for 300 years. The hall is a remarkable Elizabethan stone building and within, there are the remains of an earlier fourteenth century defensive pele tower, erected as a defence against the Scottish raiders. However, the real gem at Levens is hidden behind an unassuming stone wall and through a wooden gate. It is the best secret garden ever! It is a place to sit and contemplate, read your book or to just admire the colourful beauty. There are ten acres of sculptural shrubs and colourful plants, it is breathtaking for both adults and children.

It is the world’s oldest topiary garden. Both the park and garden were laid out by Frenchman Guillaume Beaumont between 1689-1712 and importantly it retains all the essential elements of the completed scheme as seen on the historic maps dated 1730.

The story behind this magical garden relates to a Colonel James Grahme who in 1688 is alleged to have purchased the hall at Levens after the previous owner lost it due to gaming. Colonel James Grahme was Keeper of the Privy Purse to King James II. He moved into Levens Hall following the Glorious Revolution when both he and his colleague, Guillaume Beaumont, Supervisor of the Royal Gardens, found themselves without a job. Beaumont and Grahame began a programme of improvements. Beaumont was experienced as he had already designed gardens at Hampton Court Palace for King James, so they set about creating the fashionable garden.

Beaumont (c1650-c1727) was thought to be a pupil of Andre le Notre, the renowned garden designer of the gardens at the Palace of Versailles before he became gardener to King James II. After his move to Levens Hall, he spent his life nurturing his topiary masterpieces and lived in a small house overlooking the gardens for many years. By 1694 the topiary garden had become established and was a great tourist attraction, as it is today.

Topiary is the horticultural practice of training evergreen plants, trees, and shrubs by clipping them into geometric or fanciful shapes and it dates back to Roman times. It has been described as living sculpture and was very popular in Renaissance Europe forming part of the parterres and terraced gardens of the elite house. It has been revived in many English historic gardens over the centuries. What is remarkable about Levens, is that it is a survival of the original topiary garden of the late seventeenth century. Of course, the topiary has been maintained and added to over the centuries, most notably by Alexander Forbes in the nineteenth century, but incredibly, it remains almost intact in terms of the original design.

‘It is the best secret garden ever!’ Levens Hall. Copyright Alexandra Fairclough

The gardens are laid out to the east and south of the hall. They consist of a central square of four compartmental gardens of roughly equal size and are divided from each other by a hedge called the Beech Walk. The north-east corner of the garden is called the Topiary Garden. It is divided into four rectangular areas by paths ,and these are divided into geometrical shapes defined by low box hedges. The area is planted with over one hundred finely clipped, golden and green yew topiary in a variety of shapes and forms, some create both playful and fantastical abstract or geometric shapes as well as animals and birds.

Many of the Yews have names due to their distinctive shapes including ‘Queen Elizabeth and her Maids of Honour’ as well as the ‘Great Umbrellas’, ‘the Judges Wig’ and ‘the Bellingham Lion’. Other features to see are the wonderful herbaceous borders, a rose garden, an orchard, the herb garden, the giant beech hedges, and beech circle and a pleached lime tunnel.

Topiary art at Levens Hall. Copyright Alexandra Fairclough

World Topiary Day was created in 2020 to celebrate the art of topiary as a highly skilful craft. It falls on 12 May and according to the Levens Hall website, it was created by Levens Hall to be on the same day as a local festival dating back to 1280 which had disappeared in the Victorian period.

So, if you are interested in visiting the world’s oldest display of topiary, visit Levens Hall. If Cumbria is a little too far for a day out, there are wonderful displays at Hampton Court and in many other gardens including Great Dixter Gardens, East Sussex; Hidcote Manor, Gloucestershire; Cliveden, Buckinghamshire; Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire; Stiffkey, Norfolk; Knighshayes Court, Devon; Biddulph Grange, Staffordshire; Owlpen Manor, Glocestershire; Much Wenlock Priory, Salop; Chillingham Castle, Ascott Gardens, Buckinghamshire; Avebury Manor, Bowood, Belton House, Lincolnshire; Antony, Cornwall; Portmeirion, Gwynedd, North Wales and, many more…

Happy World Topiary Day 2024!

 

About the Author

I am Alexandra, a Cumbria Blue Badge Tourist Guide, architectural historian, university lecturer and building conservator with a professional and personal interest in historic buildings and landscapes as well as a familial background in horticulture, I am best placed to provide tours and talks on all aspects of built and landscape heritage. I offer a lecture series on architecture and garden history as well as providing tours of historic houses and gardens in Cumbria and the north-west including the RHS Garden Bridgewater. You can contact Alexandra here