Levens Hall reopened to the public on 7 April 2019 after its annual winter break. As one of the more than twenty volunteer gardeners helping out at Levens Hall, I love nothing more than to get into the garden when it’s closed to help get it ready for the spring. There’s certainly plenty to do – pulling up plants at the end of autumn for composting, pruning back the pleached lime trees in the frosty air and warming up in the potting shed when sowing seeds for the spring bedding plants.
The gardening team is led by Chris Crowder, head gardener at Levens Hall for over 30 years, and only the 10th gardener to date for a house that has seen gardeners come and stay – not go – for more than 300 years. Five professional part-time gardeners help Chris to keep the garden beautiful, assisted in their task by the occasional international intern and a team of volunteers that includes retirees, a recent horticultural college graduate, a postman, two paramedics and a number of people already working as professional gardeners. We all revel in the joy of being allowed to work and play in this earthly paradise. Roy’s favourite task: edging the lawns to “make everything clean and sharp”. Jackie’s least liked task: “Raking up leaves on a windy day”. Best question from a visitor: “How much do you pay to work here?”
At just eight acres, the gardens at Levens Hall are famous for their unique topiary, the oldest in the world. The topiary was planted in the 1690s in the heyday of the formal garden style by Monsieur Guillaume Beaumont, trained under Le Notre at Versailles. Other topiaries were rudely uprooted when the English landscape garden first came into vogue in the early 18th century. Somehow, Levens’ topiary survived the cull – delighting visitors to the house today with its vivacity, cheek and the sheer tenacity of its being.
Grown primarily from box and ancient yew – a tree species that can live for thousands of years – Levens’ topiary doesn’t look this good by accident. When the gardeners begin trimming the topiary into shape in September, they are starting a task that will take them to March to complete. Japanese gardeners preparing to trim back pine trees and bonsai are said to ask themselves first what the tree wills itself to be before starting to clip. Eccentric trees at Levens, then, to have willed themselves to be crowns fit for a Queen, top hats, lions and umbrellas. The outcome is a fantastic parade of the exotic and the mundane – transformed by their nature or the gardener’s art into witty and ironic shapes that are all things to all comers.
Of course, there’s more to Levens Hall garden than just the topiary. The Levens Hall gardening calendar features periods of seed sowing and “pricking out” when the tiny seedlings are teased out for replanting in trays in batches of up to 35 plants. Next comes “planting out”, when the gardeners descend en masse on flower beds to plant them up with as many as 850 plants per bed. Annually, some 30,000 lovingly reared plants are planted at Levens Hall using compost made on site from organic garden waste, spent mushroom compost and dead leaves. April sees beds ablaze with pansies in shades of lemon, true blue, and lavender alongside beds sporting white and red double daisies or bellis. At the end of May, the spring bedding plants make way for a second colour dash led by purple and dark pink Verbena, lemon Antirrhinums (snapdragons), blue Lavendula and sapphire blue Fairy Queen Salvia farinacea.
Pastel, red and yellow borders offer baby blue and white clematis, red and orange cannas and ruby-red rosa rugosa and white Himalayan lilies respectively. There’s a willow labyrinth, bowling green, lily pond encircled by pleached lime trees, herb garden and rose garden. There’s also a ha ha comprised by a sunken wall and a ditch – the first example of its kind to be recorded in England – offering up a wonderful borrowed landscape with a view to the southern hills of the Lake District.
My personal favourite is the orchard, best enjoyed in April and May when the white apple and pear blossoms create a firmament above scarlet tulips in the waving grass beneath, flanked by fragrant smelling wild garlic. I also love the two-mile long graceful avenue of ancient oak trees that once led guests by horse and carriage from the Levens Hall estate’s gates right up to the house. Here visitors can stroll through the undulating green fields of the Levens Estate, through which run the River Kent, Levens Hall’s famed Bagot goats and black fallow deer.
Watching over it all is the somberly beautiful Levens Hall itself. The oldest part of the house still standing is a Pele tower built in 1250 to 1300 to guard the crossing over the river Kent and protect the house from raiders. In continuous family ownership since 1590, the house comes complete with a ghost and glorious new tearoom and restaurant in addition to all the furniture, clocks and paintings that chart the romantic and sometimes violent passage of time through the life of just one family. A great story to be told another time. Today’s too nice a day to spend indoors.
Photos courtesy of Paul Atherton, PAZoot Photography