There’s nothing I like better than a well-made cup of tea – well, actually there are quite a lot of things if I’m honest, but it’s still exciting to have a cup of Earl Grey tea in the family home of Earl Grey himself, Howick Hall. It was the poshest tea room I’ve been in.
Howick Hall Gardens is just on the edge of the Northumberland coast. We’d been walking right by the sea earlier and spotted the Bathing House, completely isolated but amazingly well designed and built so it was perhaps not a surprise to find out later that afternoon that it went with the hall. The ‘teamaker’ was actually the second Earl Grey, and he and his wife, Mary had 15 children. Desperately unhappy at school himself, he’d educated them all at home, at Howick. The Bathing House had been built for them, just one of the innovations to ensure that they flourished in the outdoors, and also perhaps part of a creation of the perfect childhood the Earl must have wished he’d had.
The story of the Earl’s children sums up the charm of the garden for me – it has a very personal and nourishing atmosphere. If I could describe it, I would say it was a ‘slow garden’, but in the best possible way. Although now open to the public, it still very much has a feeling of a family sanctuary. The 65 acres have been developed at different times by different generations. Charles, the Fifth Earl, and his wife Mabel, probably made the most impression, establishing the informal and natural style of gardening you can see now. It’s like a living example of the late 19th century gardening expert, William Robinson, author of the influential The Wild Gardening, and campaigner against Victorian regimented bedding schemes. The resulting garden is a curious mixture of lucky surprise and serious botanical research. For example, the beautiful bog garden began when a pipe burst and it was found that plants seemed to like to grow there.
However many of the other plant and tree specimens in the garden are the result of specific plant finding expeditions over several decades the family ran in conjunction with the Quarryhill Botanical Garden in California. There are over 1,800 different species to be found in the gardens, all grown from seed collected in the wild from expeditions to India and Pakistan, North America, the Southern Hemisphere and Europe amongst other countries. Many of the expeditions to China and Japan were led by The Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, and a full computerised database is planned to be available on the website at some time in the future. So despite the relaxed atmosphere, this isn’t just what my mum used to call ‘a family doing its best’… In fact, seed is still exchanged from Howick with all the major international botanic gardens.
So this is less an arboretum than an encyclopedia, or as the website says: ‘A United Nation of trees and shrubs’.
The most famous Earl Grey was the father of 15 (mentioned above), Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834 and remembered for his work on the reform of Government, possibly the father of British democracy. I don’t know how much time he spent at Howick, but I did read that as a director of the railway company, he had a private halt nearby to make it convenient to get off the train from London! During his time as Prime Minister, his administration also worked to help abolish slavery in the British Empire, and I could easily imagine him walking through his own bit of paradise here in Northumberland as he fought to help others living such a different existence from him.
The family still live there, albeit in a wing rather than the main house, and on the day we went, the current Lady Howick’s private gardens were on show. Not a bad wing…
…although we had to watch out for hares. Actually we did see one earlier, quite magic, but it was too fast to photograph! We also saw a red squirrel. Amazing how animals can make your heart stop for a minute. Probably especially when they are in your carefully maintained flower beds.
It’s hard to imagine the garden looking better than it did in unexpected British sun with the wildflowers in full flower, but I would like to see it in spring too when the tulips are out too – apparently there are drifts so beautiful that Joyce Grenfell (a distant relation to the family by marriage) left money for their upkeep in her will.
And it was touching to walk through the West Arboretum and visit the church to find the grave of the five French sailors who lost their lives when the steam trawler Tadorne was wrecked on the nearby beach. The family rushed down to the sea to help the rescue parties. There really is history everywhere.
But what I can’t stop thinking about is the Long Walk, which leads from the garden down to the beach. Apparently, on the first full moon in July after the tenth birthday of each of the 2nd Earl Grey’s children, they were made to run up the Long Walk at midnight to bring back a flower of the Grass of Parnassus which only grew at one spot on the cliff. Presumably this was designed to build up character.
I couldn’t quite work out whether, for a child, this would be extremely frightening or exciting! It would make a great story though.
So here’s a piece from Wind in the Willows on Mole’s night time adventure in the Wild Woods.
There was nothing to alarm him at first entry. Twigs crackled under his feet, logs tripped him, funguses on stumps resembled caricatures, and startled him for the moment by their likeness to something familiar and far away; but that was all fun, and exciting. It led him on, and he penetrated to where the light was less, and trees crouched nearer and nearer, and holes made ugly mouths at him on either side.
Everything was very still now. The dusk advanced on him steadily, rapidly, gathering in behind and before; and the light seemed to be draining away like flood-water.
Then the faces began.
It was over his shoulder, and indistinctly, that he first thought he saw a face; a little evil wedge-shaped face, looking out at him from a hole. When he turned and confronted it, the thing had vanished.
He quickened his pace, telling himself cheerfully not to begin imagining things, or there would be simply no end to it. He passed another hole, and another, and another; and then–yes!– no!–yes! certainly a little narrow face, with hard eyes, had flashed up for an instant from a hole, and was gone. He hesitated–braced himself up for an effort and strode on. Then suddenly, and as if it had been so all the time, every hole, far and near, and there were hundreds of them, seemed to possess its face, coming and going rapidly, all fixing on him glances of malice and hatred: all hard-eyed and evil and sharp.
If he could only get away from the holes in the banks, he thought, there would be no more faces. He swung off the path and plunged into the untrodden places of the wood.
Then the whistling began.
Very faint and shrill it was, and far behind him, when first he heard it; but somehow it made him hurry forward. Then, still very faint and shrill, it sounded far ahead of him, and made him hesitate and want to go back. As he halted in indecision it broke out on either side, and seemed to be caught up and passed on throughout the whole length of the wood to its farthest limit. They were up and alert and ready, evidently, whoever they were! And he–he was alone, and unarmed, and far from any help; and the night was closing in.
Then the pattering began.
And here’s a poem about the different side of gardening!
Maybe it’s better to go wild than be corseted
in bedding displays, stamped on and bruised
for your smell, deadheaded. No wonder thorns
protect tender buds, sap weeps, tendrils wave,
and was this why Eve took a chance, left paradise
before stagnation seeped into half-starved soil
just as every year, the bravery of the lone tulip
snaps a true gardener’s heart in two?
Garden: Howick Hall Gardens, Alnwick, Northumberland, NE66 3LB – Website here.
Month visited: July 2013.