On my return journey to Scotland from our trip to the Cotswolds in September (see my write-ups on Snowshill and Hidcote), I stopped off at Levens Hall in Cumbria on the recommendation of my mother. Levens Hall has the oldest and most extensive topiary garden in the world, and since topiary is my spirit garden style, a coffee and wander around its extraordinary collection of clipped yews made for a magical break in the six-hour journey.
The topiary garden of Levens Hall was laid out in 1694 and completed in 1720, and it is the oldest such surviving garden, having escaped the destruction that its contemporaries suffered when the fashion for informal landscape gardens waxed in the eighteenth century.
Many of the ancient shapes, which are clipped from yew, golden yew and box, have names: Queen Elizabeth and her maids of honour, the Judge’s wig, the Lion, the Jug of Morocco. Summer bedding plants, including masses of heliotropes and verbena, are grown in between the trees, bordered by dwarf box hedges.
Isn’t there something utterly mysterious about a topiary garden? Perhaps it is because of the aloof, animal bulk of the trees, standing like inscrutable statues in a museum (but which surely come alive behind your back); or perhaps because of childhood books like Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse in which an orphan is driven through a moonlit park adorned with topiaried chess pieces: an atmosphere of magical suspense pervades. The wonkiness of the spirals and twirls of Levens’ yew trees, some looking like toppling wedding cakes, others dumpy yet dignified, somehow added to the sense of enigma. Feeling as though I’d stumbled into a convention of eccentric butlers or an eighteenth-century Ent Moot, I wandered like a small intruder among a gloriously claustrophobic crowd of other-worldly presences.
It takes four gardeners about a month to clip all the shapes, and they were undertaking this gargantuan task during my visit, meaning that some of the trees were bowling-green smooth, while others were still fuzzy around the edges. And talking of bowling greens, I wandered further on to find that the topiary thinned out and the rest of the garden came into view. A real bowling green, used by a local croquet club, lay beyond an orchard (particularly boggy underfoot – bring stout boots) and next to a dark and ominous beech alley, which led to a wilder part of the garden that was partly wooded and contained a willow maze with a curious centrepiece.
The fountain garden, containing a large, round, stone pool full of lilies and a modest fountain at its centre, was laid out in 1994 to commemorate 300 years of the gardens at Levens Hall. Returning towards the house was the herb garden, herbaceous borders, and finally the simple but pleasing 17th Century Garden beside the house itself.
Due to life’s continual gyre of obligations, distractions and circumstances, it has taken me over three months to get round to writing this post, and as I was editing the photos of these remarkable 300-year-old trees I recalled that I had not shared my photographs of another magnificent topiary garden that I visited over two years ago: Drummond Castle Gardens in Perthshire. I do hope you will not mind if I indulge my admiration for topiary a little longer and show you this quite different garden.
Drummond Castle Gardens also has a long history, having been restructured several times. Grander in style and scale than Levens Hall, there is less a sense of the whimsical and more of a stylised majesty in the formal parterre, laid out in a St Andrew’s Cross with a seventeenth century sundial at its centre. Topiaried beech and yew trees are solemn stalagmites, politely spaced, and contrasting in height and colour with the collection of gorgeous ruby-red acers nearby.
Drummond is magnificent for autumn colour, and our visit, in October, was at the perfect time to witness the spectacle. Relatively little herbaceous planting exists in this part of the garden, but there is more than enough interest to be found among the many types of trees (two copper beeches were planted by Queen Victoria who visited in 1842), in the disciplined structure of the planting, the elegant statuary, and in the peacocks that waft gracefully about the lawns.
Being Perthshire, there is no shortage of dampness in the air, and many of the trees were adorned with delightful lichen that added to the sense of timelessness. Exploring further on, we stumbled across beds and beds of the most exuberant dahlias, while just below the castle were herbaceous beds rich in late summer colour.
Levens Hall Gardens near Kendal in Cumbria are open from April to October on Sundays to Thursdays, and adult admission is £9.90, or £13.90 to include admission to the house, with lower prices for children and family groups.
Drummond Castle Gardens near Crieff in Perthshire is open on Easter Weekend, and then daily between May and October inclusive. Entry for an adult costs £6.00 with reduced rates for concessions, families and children. The castle itself is not open to the public.