Arley Hall and its grand estate and extensive formal gardens lie near Warrington in the North West of England. I am always on the look-out for pleasant stop-offs to break my regular 5-hour journey between Edinburgh and Derbyshire, and Arley being just a few miles from the M6 it seemed like a good place to stretch my legs, buy a cup of tea, and revel in some expert garden design.
While I mention design, I should clarify that Arley’s ancestral family, who have gardened at Arley for the past 250 years, proudly state that their work has been “unassisted by professional designers”, and that each feature of the garden represents the tastes and skill of particular family members across the generations. The current owners, the Viscount and Viscountess Ashbrook, are the latest members of the Egerton-Warburton family to have influenced the garden. A detailed set of panels within the garden explain a great deal of the history of the place and the changes it has gone through over time, as well as describing the extensive year-round tasks that are performed to keep the garden in good shape.
The tour of the garden starts with the inevitable gift shop in a large cobbled stable yard, which is decorated with enormous stone troughs planted with hundreds of violas in solid blocks of velvety colour. Leading to the garden proper is a small gate beside which stands a juvenile Magnolia stellata underplanted with digitalis, pulmonaria, and white dicentra. Once through the gate, one can turn almost immediately off the main, shaded path into the first of many discrete areas, here a sunny walled garden planted in squares and rectangles with more solid blocks of violas, a bed of fresh white tulips, and gossiping over the ancient brick wall another magnolia, magnificent in size and elegance. The garden is indeed a series of “rooms”, large and small, that give a sense of intimacy and surprise. You never know, as you turn a corner or pass through a gate or gap in the hedge, what sort of beautiful view will be before you next.
Glimpses of magnolias are everywhere, along paths, cordoned to walls, behind hedges, and it was just the right season to see them at their very best. Adventuring further into the garden, one reaches a long glasshouse containing cordoned figs and rows of potted nemesia, agapanthus and rhododendrons. Back outside again and you soon become lost in the succession of walled gardens, lawns, herbaceous borders and topiaried walks. I am a sucker for tightly clipped topiary. I adored the imposing Ilex cylinders, and the balls and pompoms and swooping slides. I am also a fan of iron gates in brick walls, cordoned Chaenomeles, enormous Helleborus argutifolus, and pink blossom against a steely sky. All of it was so photogenic, serene, becoming.
At the end of one of the walks you stumble into view of Arley Hall itself, which was not open on this particular day but is clearly worth a visit in its own right. Elsewhere in the garden is the charming little half-timbered Tea Cottage, once used for tea parties and surrounded by rose shrubs.
Huge and spreading though the gardens are, they amply retain the feeling of a quiet family garden that has been added to here and changed there as the years and decades have progressed. There is a strong sense that the garden belongs to a person and not an organisation. The garden is not as slick as, say, a National Trust, or Royal Botanical, or RHS garden. This is, of course, no bad thing. It is a garden that an ordinary gardener can relate to and aspire to. This is not intended as a backhanded compliment; one of the things that most endeared me to Arley was a certain slackness, its slight randomness, the unfinished beds, the singleton pink tulip under a shrub (where were its friends?), some startling colour combinations, a renegade clump of Spanish bluebells amongst the English ones. Arley was inspiring because it was imperfectly beautiful, and therefore friendlier and more approachable, and importantly, attainable, than some of the glossier, somewhat less soulful gardens you can visit elsewhere.
If I had one complaint, it was that labelling of the plants was sparse. Coming across a mile of healthy rhubarb plants, I wanted to know what variety they were but looked in vain for any printed information. I also wanted to know what many of the beautiful trees and shrubs were, and also the spiky thing that looked like a cross between a holly and a sea-urchin. A sea holly, perhaps? And where the labels did appear, they could not always be relied on for accuracy, as I noticed in a bed of Muscari that were, in two separate places, labelled as “Tulipa saxitalis” with nary a tulip in sight. Any gardener duly inspired by the Arley Gardens and wishing to emulate their favourite combinations back at home would be out of luck. Perhaps the owners just don’t have time or the inclination to label everything properly, and I admit I can relate to that too.
Lack of labels aside, I spent a blissful hour and a half wandering at ease among the topiary and herbaceous borders and felt fully refreshed for my onward journey. Best of all, tea was only a pound a cup, the cakes looked homemade, and there is a large nursery where you can stock up on some of the wonderful plants that you have just seen growing in the garden. And since the plants for sale are labelled, you can at last learn some of their names.
As I paid for my purchases, the nursery manager advised me to come back at the end of June: that’s when the garden looks its best. I may well heed his advice if I find myself making this journey along the M6 in a couple of months’ time. I am sure the garden in mid-summer has even more wonderful things to offer.