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UK castles and gardens


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Zak and Gary from Italy on holiday in the UK to visit castles and gardens, June 6 - 16

Day 1, Tuesday 6 June

The drive up from Florence to Bologna was a leisurely cruise along the newly opened scenic mega highway over the Apennines. This trip started well, and with a 10am departure time from Bologna, we had decided to drive up the evening before, stay at a hotel where we can leave our car, and take a taxi to the airport that’s only about 2 km away. At the My One Hotel Bologna, Gianluca, the helpful concierge, told us to drive the car to their underground garage and at 4 Euros per day, this beats any other parking deal at the airport. One last proper Italian dinner at Trattoria del Pontelungo and we were set for the trip. Luckily, the taxi driver knew his way thru the back streets since the highway had become a parking lot in the morning rush hour.

We’d gotten 'cheap' tickets on Ryanair from Bologna to Manchester, but with better seats and luggage, it does add up. It was a full but uneventful flight, only hitch in Manchester is the car rental, you have to take a shuttle bus from the terminal out to the rental lots. We got talked into a little bit of an upgrade with insurance, and off we took with just a few vague directions and a blurry map from Google.

I take my hat off to the city of Manchester, the ring road was new and clean with good signage, as we headed towards our destination in Yorkshire, about 1 and a half hour drive thru Leeds to the old-fashioned spa-town of Harrogate.

The RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) garden next to town was setting up for its first ever big extravaganza garden show on this weekend, and there were tents coming up all over the lawns.


This garden is famous for its beautiful creek-side long garden, and this early in the season, the blue Himalayan poppies were a spectacular sight amongst some pretty sculptures of birds and animals.


There are still lilacs and rhodos in boom with sweet wildflowers filling in the gaps waiting for the summer borders to fully grow in with perennials in the coming weeks. I was actually looking more at the stately trees that shade this creek-side planting scheme, the many birches, maples, ashes and oaks and a multitude of giant conifers. For the home gardener, there’s a sizable area of smaller scale rock gardens featuring dwarf and miniature conifers putting on new shoots in all colors. The subtle statues along the creek and in the adjacent woods are quite marvelous!


The surprise for me here was the vast alpine greenhouse with elevated beds in sand and scree for cushion plans, with beautiful jewel color flowers to gray and green sedums, carnations and hundreds of others.



We made a quick escape thru the huge nursery and gift shop/bookstore, but I went back to take photos on Friday afternoon just before closing when it was quiet.

Driving in the local 5.30pm rush hour up north from Harrogate, we managed to buy a proper street map at a service station and easily found our way to the town of Bedale to pick up groceries on the way to our barn apartment rental in the little village of Carthorpe. The local pub here is the Fox and Hounds, with warm hospitality and very good meals. Many pubs are upgrading their food to appeal to tourists and with a recommendation in every Michelin guide since 2008, this cozy little pub is well on its way.

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Day 2. Wednesday 7 June


The biggest structure we take on this trip is Castle Howard and it's a familiar image from the Brideshead Revisited TV series from the 1980’s and a more recent movie by the same name. This is a huge palace with opulent Gothic architecture, paintings and statues thru the stately interiors, and the extensive sweeping grounds. Castle Howard is a palace in the spirit of Versailles; it was meant to impress.


Lancelot Brown was the head gardener at Stowe for a decade before getting into his business of landscape-designer-for-hire. He would start his sell pitch by telling the owner of the mansion that he had the ‘capability’ to improve their property, which then stuck as his nickname. Before Capability Brown, the prevailing garden style in the UK was the Dutch formal geometric garden contained inside tightly clipped hedges. Brown's ideas were the total opposite. While keeping formal fountains and low hedges near the houses, his trademarks were circular clumps of trees, the grassy meadow in front of the house, the serpentine lake, the enclosing tree belt and the encircling carriage drive. This was landscaping on a huge scale and the beginning of the natural character of English gardens and parks that we know today. This year marks the 300th birthday of Lancelot Capability Brown, and it’s a big ‘do’ in the UK this summer.


When putting together a list of places I wanted to visit, I looked into the many groups that deal with gardens and historical houses in the UK, and realized that the Historic Houses Association has almost the full list in their books. So I applied for memberships and it cost only 75 pounds for 2 adults, which was already half of the ticket cost for 2 at Castle Howard! With lots of HHA places to visit, it would be a good purchase for anyone.


We reached Castle Howard at 10 am and parted at 2.30 pm. You enter the thru the former stables that now house several shops and a café. Their farm-store also has a butcher shop and a deli, showing what a big business this has become. The Castle can be reached by a mile long level walk and they also have a little 'train' to ferry you back and forth.


On the way to the Castle there’s an extensive walled in flower garden and kitchen gardens to explore.



The Castle you can visit at your own pace and there’s a person with expert knowledge in every room who would guide you and answer your questions.


The 2nd place to visit today is Scrampston Hall about 20 minutes east from Castle Howard and another Capability Brown landscape project. Thankfully this is a much smaller scale mansion, and we got there just in time to join the last tour of the day. This house is also still lived in by descendants of the original family and I can see this as a home of a large family, or if you want to have staff tend to all your needs. The house is rendered in concrete color on the outside, and not so pretty, but the interiors are beautiful.


After the house tour we had a good look into the walled garden of 10 'rooms', which is the reason we’re here. The new layout inside the walled garden is by landscaper Piet Oudolf in 1999. He is one of the new gurus of garden design and an advocate for less focus on flowers, and more on the forms of perennials and grasses. Piet Oudolf has many books out to inspire you and I really enjoyed this walk thru the 10 different garden rooms.


Some of these rooms only use clipped topiary and trees to play with space and geometric forms, but several feature large sweeps of flowering plants that were already getting started. Best time to see this garden is probably later in the summer when the taller grasses are starting to color up for autumn. For flowers, you should visit here around the 3rd week of June to see the early summer flowers, such as most peonies, in bloom that now were just budding up.


We stayed on the local roads today and very happy to have done so, the scenery was beautiful with lush green farmland rolling by the windows and I’m still in awe of all these magnificent trees everywhere.


Tonight we went for dinner in our nearest town called Bedale, with no less than 3 Indian restaurants, and we chose the one with the highest points on hygiene (http://ratings.food.gov.uk/) as posted on the restaurant window. Turned out to be a good decision. I often wonder about the level of food handling standards in restaurants, and this seems like a reasonable way to order your dinner with confidence!
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Day 3, Thursday 9 June

Today we don’t have to travel far. Ripon is the next town due south, and with just a few miles west from there we head for the Fountains Abbey & Water Gardens.


This medieval abbey grew big and prosperous until Henry VIII closed it and sold it off. Next door, the new owner built water gardens in the 1700's and also bought the abbey ruins to further impress their guests. I bet they were impressed!


These abbey ruins are connected along the river valley to the water gardens to create several miles of superb walks with a few temples and statues along the way. Having spent 2 hours walking already, we took a ride back to the visitor's center that was kindly offered at the far end of the water garden.


Despite its name, we didn't see any jets of water or fountains of any kind. There were a few sculptures and a waterfall below the walkway a the end of the wide canal into the lower basin lake.


The 2nd stop today, and my favorite garden on this whole trip revealed itself at Newby Hall, a private estate just on the opposite side of Ripon and after 3 centuries, still in family hands. This day turned out to have glorious sunny weather and I got to spend hours in the garden looking into every corner and chatting up with the friendly gardeners.


This garden is actually made of several walled-in garden rooms and distinct areas organized on either side of the central spine from the mansion's side terrace down to the river Ure with a very long perennial border on either side. At 172 meters, these are the longest borders of perennials in the all of the UK.



Completed only last year, plants have already bulked up in the near perfect conditions for them to flourish. A modern palette with plant color and form was chosen by Lucinda Compton, the garden curator. Softer pastels are strengthened by vibrant lilacs, magenta pink, lime green, claret and silver, all colors reflected in the trees beyond. Featuring many tall growing plants such as delphiniums, campanulas, artichokes and giant Scotch thistles, there's an almost invisible black net strung at 1 meter high along all the way to keep these rising spires upright. It's a brilliant solution to combat the effects of wind on this sunny hillside.



The brick-walled garden rooms at the top and nearest to the house include Silvia's memorial garden, the rose garden and an autumn garden. They use formality in structure with sunken levels, steps and terraces, but create soft informality with relaxed plants like peonies, flowering garlics and dahlias to bring color thru-out the season.


This huge property includes a cafe and restaurant, welcome center and gift/book shop, a mini train with a long track and a train station, kids play ground, doll house museum, besides the 3-story mansion itself. You could spend a full day here. This weekend they host a vintage tractor show!
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Day 4, Friday 10 June

The forecast today was for a few showers and cooler temps, so we moved our destinations around and decided to take a half an hour drive thru the hills to couple of less well known places and to enjoy the scenery along the way. First house is Constable Barton Hall, http://www.constableburton.com/ - a clumsy looking edifice with Palladian ideas but no charm, unfortunately. No tours of the house either, and might as well. But the garden was beautiful in the mist.


Location of the garden was to the back and along the hillside down towards the little river below. A canopy of mature trees filtered the increasingly dim light as the high humidity started to bother my camera.


The trees kept us protected from the gentle rain so on we went exploring this primal dense landscape along the paths.


The gardeners hadn't been down here in a while and sticky weed was popping up in a few spots but the place has a mellow peaceful character. Old rhododendrons several meters high were still in bloom.


The track came back up and continued across the wide lawns in front of the house to a hillside ahead with the most majestic avenue of ancient lime trees.


Our second place for the day was an intriguing looking medieval fort called Bolton Castle http://www.boltoncastle.co.uk/ towering over the valley of Wensleydale in northern Yorkshire.


Still owned by the original family from 600 years ago, this place oozes history. Notably, Mary Queen of Scots was captive in this castle for 6 months. Well actually, she took over the living quarters with a staff of 50 people. About 1/4 of the castle is still intact and the rest is a marvelous ruin.


There are descriptions in every room about its use, so you'll learn about life in those 'good-old-days'. And the misty views from the top are spectacular!


On our way back we drove over the river Ure further west to see the cascading Aysgarth Falls.


Every evening meal in Yorkshire, except for the one Indian, we had at our local pub in Carthorpe called Fox & Hounds. Fresh seafood, rack of lamb, poultry and vegetarian meals, and also the local classics like steak & kidney pie and fish & chips! Lots of specials every day, well worth a detour. http://www.foxandhoundscarthorpe.co.uk/
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Day 5, Saturday 11 June


Thorp Perrow Arboretum is just 10 minutes away from our apartment, and makes for a great outdoors walk that took us couple of hours since I insisted on exploring every path.




Cloudy day but no rain and the place was popular for little kids to come and see the eagles, falcons and owls do tricks. This arboretum has a collection of several dozen raptors, and they had a captive audience with all the kids and parents. A bird show is a popular exhibit at many of the castles we've visited, and these birds are captive born, so it's supposedly ethical. Most castles and gardens also have a kids play and adventure area, including games about birds, insects, mushrooms, etc. It brings them to walks in gardens and parks, and that is a good thing! But I felt sorry for these birds, so you don't see any photos of them here ... only this cool sculpture of a heron in the pond.


This arboretum of 100 acres was started in 1930's and is owned by the same family who still live in the mansion. There's an amazing collection of trees and shrubs from tempered climates all over the world, about 2,500 species including many of the oldest of their kind in the UK.


This week the dogwoods are in bloom, also viburnums, lilacs, rowans, hawthorns and elders are in flower. Autumn would be spectacular here, I'd highly recommend coming here in October to see all the changing colors!

The one last place I had planned to see in this area is very different from all the others. This is a large townhouse and a bed & breakfast called Millgate House in the town of Richmond in northern Yorkshire.


The garden is on 2 levels stepping down in the back with thousands of plants. A winner of several awards and subject of gardening programs meant that something wonderful was happening here.


I've never seen so many plants in such concentration, there were paths thru but you really had to watch where you put your foot. And were you to fall over, no-one would ever find you under all that foliage!



We didn't meet anyone from the B&B, since entrance was along a side alley lined on both sides with potted plants, and you paid for entry (just 2,50) into the honor box on the wall. As a whole, it's a vast collection of plants arranged with skill and passion. I do feel that this garden has overgrown since it got the awards, and needed thinning out to make it work better.

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We had wonderful sunny days last week, but this weekend the weather has changed. On the Dorset coast we had a cloudy day Saturday, but the sun came out in the afternoon. Last night there was rain and today, Sunday, it is overcast. I have become very British - obsessed with weather!

I split up your report to be a post for each day. There is a limit of 15 photos for a post and with your trip report in one post, you had hit that limit. Now you can go back and add more photos. Do you have any from Fountains? Great photos!!

Edited to add - the sun just came out (noon)!!


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Day 6, Sunday 12 June

Today we're moving on, from Yorkshire countryside to the Lake District on the west coast. It's only a couple hours drive, but we had 2 scheduled stops along the way. The first was a visit to an Arts & Crafts house in a sheltered mountain valley.


Parcevall Hall http://www.parcevallhallgardens.co.uk/ is a peaceful place of woodland walks and a beautiful terraced hillside garden, with the charming mansion in top.



The mansion is not open to public, it's owned by the Anglican church and used as a conference center. But we got to see it all on the outside, including the well hidden area above the house where a gorgeous rock garden with dwarf conifers was laid out around a small pond.



The second stop was at the private Gresgarth Hall to see the garden of Arabella Lennox-Boyd. She's a well known landscape designer and has her own garden open only on a few days of the year.


With dark clouds on the horizon, hundreds of curious visitors were bravely streaming into this spectacular garden. I heard French and Dutch spoken; this place draws people from afar.


The house and garden come together beautifully with a tranquil lake in the middle, the river running beside, and the kitchen gardens up the hillside.


This garden is the work of a real professional, I see lots of good planning and plant selection everywhere.


It took us about an hour to get thru most of this garden when the little drizzle of rain got annoying enough for us to leave. We were now ahead of schedule and close to our destination. With some time to spare and the improved weather, we decided to make a stop at one of the castles that I had planned to visit in the next few days, especially since it was so conveniently along our route.

Levens Hall is rightly famous for its topiary. http://www.levenshall.co.uk/ We're talking about trees that are over 300 years old and clipped into fantastical shapes.


Alice in Wonderland comes to mind when I see these odd geometric shapes and chest pieces made of ancient slow growing yews. The rest of the garden was made of clipped hedges and trees, with the usual flower borders along the way. And of course, a rose garden.


The Hall was an interesting lesson in history and architecture, they had kept the medieval structure and dressed it up in Elizabethan interiors. This place feels like a time capsule. With not enough money to spend, the family hadn't renovated the old building to later tastes and styles. They still use the Hall for holidays, and have parties like you see in this photos below, after a game of croquet.

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Day 7, Monday 13 June

Staying at a Bed and Breakfast is not Gary's favorite idea for a vacation, but we did well with our choice here. The town is called Bowness-on-Windermere, an old holiday destination with turn-of-the-last-century spas and hotels. At a short 5 minute walk from the town center we chose this sweet looking B&B called Beechwood for our base for the next 3 days. http://www.beechwoodlakes.co.uk/ This house only has 6 bedrooms so it was nice and quiet, and suited us well.

We started with a wonderful scenic drive over the hills and down along the side of Lake Ullswater towards our first destination, the Lowther Castle, http://www.lowthercastle.org/ near the town of Penrith.


This is a very different place to any of the castles we've visited. Lavish lifestyle of the owner in the 1930's ended with the closure of the castle when it became too costly to keep it up. The British army took over the garden to use as a tank training ground during the WW2. In the mothballs and with no money, plus death duties to pay, the next earl in line tried to sell it, but nobody in post-war Britain was interested. Hard reality of ruined finances meant the selling of all furniture and contents of the castle. Then everything except the shell of the structure; floors, doors, windows, and finally the roof came off. Then the vast garden was covered by a tree plantation and a big chicken farm.


70 years later help finally came to this lost castle. The European Union took it on as one of their largest renovation projects in 2011. By today, the heavy lifting is done with the removal of the tree plantation and the chicken farm. The grounds have been recovered to give us a good feel of what once was, a magnificent castle and garden covering 140 acres.


The idea is not to restore to some specific date in history, but to treat this as a romantic ruin and to bring the rediscovered garden to life near the castle with some new and old designs. Further away, the famous rock garden was still visible with its paths and structures, but the Rose Garden and the Scented Garden had been lost with only a few rocky lumps remaining of their dozens of water fountains. Several plantation trees were left to shade the ferns, trilliums and other plants that had survived.


No plans exist currently to restore any of these gardens, but you can admire them in photos of the originals taken a hundred years ago.


Hidden in the woods is a long pond overgrown with flag iris. The little building at the end of the pond is one of several garden houses, charming rustic structures that have been restored.


I want to show you the serious 3 x lawn mover used to trim the grass at the newly planted orchard.


The Lowther family has lived on this location for 800 years. This is a significant project to watch, there's great enthusiasm and hope, even if the scale of this enormous garden is mind-blowing.

The second castle to visit today brought us back to the 'normal pattern' of centuries old families trying to keep the ancient estate going with cafes, gift shops, and daily openings to let the plebs have a look at their finery. Or as Gary says, "To keep the impoverished owners from having to move into council flats!" Sizergh Castle http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sizergh is very similar to the Levens Hall we visited the day before, a medieval manor dressed with 17th century Elizabethan interiors and dark paneling.


This castle had several surprises around the back; first the pretty flower borders and a productive kitchen garden.



The highlight was the a large marvelous sunken garden with ancient Japanese maples. Would be a real pleasure to see this in autumn colors.



On the way back to our B&B, we drove around to the west side of Lake Windermere. I had spotted this country hotel called Cuckoo Brow Inn when looking at favorite places to eat http://www.cuckoobrow.co.uk/. You can fine-dine at half a dozen Michelin starred restaurants in this region, but that didn't interest us as much as getting really good local food. What made this place possible for dinner was the ferry that crosses Lake Windermere at this point, avoiding a half an hour drive around the lake for us to get back to our B&B. We took the ferry (it's actually a punt) across in 5 minutes, both on this evening and also the next. The rustic Cockoo Brow had us enthralled! They welcome guests with wet dogs and muddy boots, and sure enough, there were many people with pups on both evenings. This is the place to eat lamb kidneys in mustard cream sauce and wash them down with the best local beer, the outstanding Bluebird Bitter by Coniston Brewery. It was tasty smooth and easy to drink, and reminded me of the summer spent in Brighton as a 16 year old kid, and why I like bitter over lager beer.
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Day 8, Tuesday 14 June

Our last full day at the Lakes. We've run out of castles and therefore it was time to take the obligatory cruise on the lake. This was our best chance anyway, with no rain in the forecast and maybe even a peek from the sun. Getting to the docks in the morning kept us away from the hoards of tourists lining up on our return.


We took the one of the open-top boats for easy views and had a nice and smooth cruise to the town of Amberdale at the top of Lake Windermere. We walked around for half an hour before catching a bigger boat back. Done!


And we still had one special garden to visit just a 10-minute drive away. This is a garden run by gardeners, with no Lords or Ladies to please! Holehird Gardens http://www.holehirdgardens.org.uk/ take their name from the mansion the gardeners lease these 14 acres from.



Originally part of a private estate that was donated to elder and disabled care, the Lakeland Horticultural society has about 200 active gardeners keeping this paradise looking gorgeous.


I really didn't know how big rhododendrons can grow, but given the perfect conditions they have here, this is what they can look like. And kindly, Gary is under the rhodo demonstrating the human scale.


A notable person who lived in this area by the name of Beatrix Potter is familiar to us from the books she wrote for kids. But what I didn't know was that she was a dedicated conservationist who donated 4,000 acres of land plus 14 farms in the area to the National Trust, to help keep this beautiful place from being ruined.

This afternoon we went for a long drive. We wanted to see as many lakes as possible, and drove a loop due north-west and back to dinner at Cuckoo Brow Inn. We passed by the lakes of Grasmere, Thirlmere, Bassenthwaite, Crummock Water, Buttermere, Derwent Water, and back to the top of lake Windermere and by Eathwaite Water to our favorite Inn for dinner. These long finger-shaped lakes and the river valleys leading to them are absolutely beautiful, carved by the retreating glaciers of the last ice-age.
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Day 9, Wednesday 15 June

We left Lake Windermere this morning, but we had time to spend along the way since we would go to a hotel at Manchester airport for night, for a bright and early 6.40 am flight back to Bologna on Thursday morning.

On the coast just south of the Lakes is a castle with a garden at Holker Hall http://www.holker.co.uk/. This was a nice way to end our tour, the Hall visitors see was built in 1870's after a fire destroyed half of the older building. Done up to the grand Victorian style, the interior was impressive in size and decor, but for me, the garden was even more impressive.



You walk past the well considered circular parterre and a long garden rooms with hedges and borders nearest to the house, to reach the Italian style cascading water feature surrounded by huge rhodos with tree-like trunks .


Beyond this stood a field of majestic ancient trees and more of these massive rhododendrons several stories high, spread out into a natural woodland. Trees like these have a spiritual presence and the owners had named this as the 'Pagan Grove'.


The tree of distinction is the 400 year old 'Great Holker Lime'. If this place doesn't turn you into a tree hugger, nothing will!


We managed to return to Manchester airport in time to drop off the rental car, catch a mediocre dinner at the hotel, sleep a few hours and fly out early in the morning.

Note to travelers: you need to give yourself a lot of time to navigate Britain's airports and motorways; they can be full to capacity and signs are not always where you expect. Don't rely on GPS alone, we had good road maps and when possible, took the older scenic roads.

Cheers and happy travels!
Gary and Zak
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