Historic topiary at Levens Hall, Cumbria

A few weeks ago I took a road trip around England with the intent to visit a handful of famous gardens. The trip was originally planned as a reward for finishing a grinding second year of school, and a home-grown study tour to further my understanding of garden history and design. However, after a disastrous Brexit election and deeply disturbing news out of the U.S., the trip quickly became necessary for sensory soothing, escapism, and inspiration for what I'd like to someday achieve in my own garden--all weapons in the battle against state-of-the-world-induced depression.  

The first stop was Levens Hall, which calls itself "the finest, oldest, and most extensive topiary garden in the world." It was in many ways the perfect garden to visit first, as it was so strange it provided a nice, hard break between the reality of life "outside the garden" and that lived within, and set the tone for the trip. After driving through pouring rain down to Cumbria, and having to replace a punctured tire en route, we arrived at Levens just as the rain stopped. 

The manor house has been occupied since 1350 and has been in the Bagot family for more than 400 years. We didn't have time to view the Elizabethan interior, and instead headed straight for the gardens. 

Guillaume Beaumont, a French garden designer who trained under Andre Le Notre at Versailles, laid out the ten-acre garden at Levens Hall in 1694 after working at Hampton Court for King James II. Levens is notable because, in addition to being what the Guinness Book of World Records recognizes as the oldest topiary garden in the world, it's a very rare example of a garden that survived changes in garden fashion and exists today in much the same state as it was created.

Some of the more than 100 pieces of yew (Taxus baccata) and box (Buxus sempervirens) topiary are original plantings, and now more than 300 years old. The gardens were enhanced by Alexander Forbes, head gardener from 1810 to 1862, who added shapes in golden yew (Taxus baccata 'Aurea'). The planting beds are edged in Ilex crenata, and infilled with various bedding plants including purple Verbena bonariensis and yellow Antirrhinum, which were just beginning to flower. 

I really loved one of my favorite plants, the perfectly red Tropaeolum speciosum, twining through the topiary. The effect was almost like needlework, like crimson embroidery. As we were admiring it another visitor came up and huffed, "It's a special plant. From Scotland." My companion and I looked at each other and smirked. Though Tropaeolum is a special plant, I didn't just get a degree from a Scottish botanical garden without knowing it's from about as far from Scotland as one can get--Chile, in fact. I did just learn, though, that its common name is Scottish Flame Flower, which makes it easy to see how she could be confused. 

At Levens, a team of four gardeners clips the topiary once a year, beginning in late August, a process that takes three months and requires lifts and scaffolding. Though I found it difficult to make much sense of the mostly-abstract shapes, some of the topiary is said to represent crowns, chess pieces, peacocks, and royalty. 

The topiary now dominate the garden, but John Anthony, in his "Discovering Period Gardens," suggests this was far from Beaumont's original intent. Indeed, this 1880 image shows that the topiary, though still important, was more in scale with the landscape and house. 

As I've said before, topiary usually isn't my cup of tea. But the outsized, overgrown, and fantastical nature of the ancient topiary at Levens is what makes it interesting to me. I enjoyed the way the different shapes played off each other, shifting and recombining into new views with each step. The emotional effect was even more striking. The largest topiary felt hulking yet playful, and created a strange sensation of otherworldliness, of walking amongst possibly friendly, potentially fanged giants. 

As I walked the garden, which thanks to the late hour and wet weather was mostly empty, I found myself wishing I could have seen it in sun in order to view what must be spectacular shadows. But when the sun did come out for a few minutes I soon realized that the effect of the garden was diminished in bright light as shapes and edges were lost to high contrast. Further proof that viewing, and photographing, gardens is often best done in "less-than-perfect" weather. Which is good, as that's what you're most likely to get in Britain!

Up next, there's much more than just topiary at Levens Hall...