More than just topiary at Levens Hall, Cumbria

Though topiary is the main draw at Levens Hall, the rest of the garden contains a mix of well-done features and some questionable bits. First up is one of the nicest double herbaceous borders I've ever seen, all in shades of blue, yellow, white and purple, capped off by a Lutyens bench at one end. I liked the weathered wood tuteurs in that they looked sturdy but naturally pretty and blended well in the border. I also appreciated how the color and texture of the Nepeta reflected the very worn stone walls and urns. Despite being a bit weather-beaten, the Delphinium were doing their magic trick of injecting the ever-elusive true blue into the composition, and Cephalaria gigantea sprinkled its pale yellow stars just above head height. 

The purple, blue and white theme continues near the house with a small foundation planting of HostaNepeta, and climbing vines, including Clematis. The white giant Himalayan lily, Cardiocrinum giganteum, was looking very fine. 

There is a willow (Salix) maze, which looks better in this photo than it did in real life. It was pretty overgrown with grass and weeds, and I think being able to see through the maze "walls" defeats the point of a maze. It was, perhaps, just young and may grow into something more substantial. I could see it being popular with children. 

A large beech (Betula) hedge encircles part of the garden, and one may walk underneath its canopy for great views reminiscent of looking at the sun from under water. The cripples supporting the branches made for some beautiful natural sculpture.  

One of my favorite areas was the old orchard, which in spring is planted with red tulips in square patterns under each tree. That must look great, but I enjoyed the pattern left over once the tulips have been mown off, and I think this is an attractive way to deal with the inevitable messiness that follows a spring-flowering bulb display. Making a feature out of "disorder," or manipulating ephemeral spaces through periods of transition so they still contribute to the overall design, is something I'd like to try in my own garden. 

A pretty substantial network of pleached lime (Tilia)  tunnel arbors impressed me with its horticultural skill. Attempting to get this many living trees to grow at almost 90 degree angles is a challenge, and these were just about perfect. I think the secret lies in the strong timber framework just barely seen in this photo. I imagine that without it in place it would be hard to achieve this precise effect. 

The pleaching and extensive topiary at Levens bring to mind another garden that I really enjoy in pictures, having not yet visited in person: Arne Maynard's Allt-y- bela: 

Image from Town and Country Magazine, with more here. Gardens Illustrated just ran a really great series written by Arne about his garden, which can be read here. Check it out and I think you'll see Levens was a source of inspiration for this newer garden. 

Emerging from one exit of the pleached lime arbor one sees this water feature, which didn't do much for me. Maybe in a sunny, warmer day it would feel refreshingly welcoming, but on a cool, stormy day it left me, well, cold. 

The bowling green/croquet lawn is bordered by masses of Lychnis coronaria with some tall yellow spikes of Verbascum. This combination didn't work for me, and the border's position right next to the beautiful double blue border made it look like Cinderella's ugly stepsister. 

Finally, the herb garden showed off the very flashy golden hops (Humulus lupulus 'Aureus'), one of my favorite climbers. More red Tropaeolum speciosum can be seen climbing through the yew on the left side of the photo. 

That's it from Levens Hall, a fantastic historic garden that is well-worth your time, rain or shine. Up next, the journey continues south to pay homage to one of my horticultural heroes, Joseph Paxton, at Chatsworth. 

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...