As my year away from work on maternity leave was drawing to a close – a time I will always look back on as one of those charmed periods you occasionally get in life – we decided to take ourselves off to the beautiful Lake District for a cheeky mid-weeker. We stayed in Keswick which was the destination for many of my own childhood family holidays and, as my husband observed, a place I tend to drift back to when trying to cope with periods of transition. With the inevitable anxiety about my forthcoming return to work, settling our little boy into nursery, and my husband juggling his own freelance work with increased childcare, a few days away in the breathtaking scenery surrounding Derwentwater was just the ticket. Seeking to stretch the holiday out just a little longer on a glorious September morning we decided to stop off at Holehird Gardens, just outside Windermere, before making the journey home.
Holehird Gardens has been on the list of gardens I’ve wanted to visit for a while. It is situated up a narrow road on a steeply sloped site with stunning views across Windermere and out towards the Western fells. The draw of the gardens related partly to their location which is spectacular, but I imagine also presents some challenging conditions in which to garden both in terms of the incline of the site and the highly variable weather conditions of the Lake District. The gardens are also run entirely by the volunteers of the Lakeland Horticultural Society and, while many public gardens rely heavily on volunteer support, I was curious to see how a garden on this scale would be presented without any paid staff to anchor its development. I have to say the gardens really didn’t disappoint, treating us to a riot of Autumn colour.
The Walled Garden
From the car park, in which a fully functioning handbrake is definitely required, the entry point to the gardens takes you into the Walled Garden. Visitors are invited to make a voluntary donation (recommended at £5) by placing their cash in a collection box which is charmingly unpushy in these days of rampant commerciality. The Walled Garden encompasses a series of mixed borders with planting tailored to their aspect as well as a sequence of island beds. In late September the display was dominated by hot colours with the red and orange of perennials such as Dahlia, Kniphofia, Helenium, and Crocosmia holding court. Always on the look out for features that could be accommodated in a small garden, I was also quite taken with a collection of stone troughs planted up with different alpines separated by fragments of slate. Perhaps the highlight of this area in September though was the absolutely glorious Acer palmatum ‘Sango kaku’ situated right next to the entrance and rising up against a bright blue sky like an inferno of orange and gold.
The Upper Garden
Wrapped around the Walled Garden are the Upper Gardens: a diverse area of planting which tumbles down the fell side slopes and through which weave narrow meandering paths. At the top of this section large, mature trees create areas of deep shade with ferns and woodland ground cover plants nestling in beneath and, as you work your way along, gaps in the trees suddenly open up to frame the lakeland vista beyond. Dropping down to the the middle path a sunnier aspect populated by layered planting of smaller trees and shrubs brought an explosion of Autumnal pinks, reds and golds. On such a bright day the contrast between the deep shade of the upper area and the vividness of the planting below was quite startling.
The lowest tier of planting is given over to an expansive peninsula of Heather: Erica, Calluna, and a National Collection of Daboecia characterised by distinctive bell-shaped flowers in a range of hues from pink, to red to purple. I have to admit I had not come across Daboecia before (or not knowingly anyway) but I found their colourful, nodding heads a captivating form of Heather. Adjacent to the Heathers came a sun-basked rock garden which, with a backdrop of tree canopies and views down the rolling lawns to the Lower Garden and beyond, I feel would be a favourite spot for a sit down and a brew if I were volunteering at Holehird. Those present on the day we visited however were commendably occupied with the their tasks.
A brief detour to a picturesque pool at the top of the Lower Gardens and yet more stunning views out to the surrounding scenery, and lunch beckoned (as it frequently does with a one year old). Seeing the gardens on such a magnificent sunny day obviously enhanced the experience with the exuberant colours of late September coming through in High Definition. However, with the layers of diverse planting maximising the different aspects and varied terrain, I feel sure that Holehird Gardens would deliver something of interest on a visit at any time of the year. Although on an entirely different scale to our own tiny back garden, the sharp contrasts of shade and sun are not dissimilar to those found in smaller enclosed spaces and there is always something to learn from other gardens of any size. I was impressed by the quality of the displays and the standards maintenance executed by the volunteers of the Lakeland Horticultural Society which were certainly on a par with many of the commercially managed gardens I have visited. We’ll definitely be back!