'A very pretty place...'
An hour or two in an exquisite garden can be as pampering as a spa break, says our expert
I was in York for a few days, staying with friends who have a knack for organising outings that are at the same time action-packed and as de-stressing as any ‘pampering weekend’ at a luxury spa. And so, on a perfect summer’s day we spent two hours being shown around the glorious gardens of Middlethorpe Hall by the head gardener, the talented David Barker, before lunching on the terrace, from which there is the elegant prospect of the south lawn, and beyond it, in seamless continuity thanks to a rather classy ha-ha, the park and a lake.
Middlethorpe Hall is owned by the National Trust, and the house and garden are as manicured as one would expect. It is, in fact, a four-star luxury hotel in the City of York, superbly located, on the edge of the racecourse, and set in 20 acres of gardens and grounds. A beautifully proportioned William and Mary house, built c1699-1701 of mellow red brick with limestone dressings, Middlethorpe Hall was once owned by the 18th-century traveller and diarist Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who pronounced it ‘a very pretty place’.
The property was acquired by Historic House Hotels Ltd in 1980, one of three rundown country houses the company set out to rescue, restore and operate as luxury hotels. In 2008, the company and its properties (the other two are Bodysgallen Hall in North Wales and Hartwell House in the Vale of Aylesbury) were donated to the National Trust.
David Barker was brought in to restore the gardens in 1982. When he arrived, he said, they were pretty much a blank canvas. The walled garden was there, although very overgrown, and the magnificent specimen trees, some of them 180 years old. The trees are still a remarkable feature of the gardens and include a magnificent Cedar of Lebanon on the south lawn, a Wellingtonia, a River Birch, a Dawn Redwood and a Northern Red Oak among others.
As you sit on the terrace, breathing in the tranquillity of the vast expanse of lawn dotted with ancient trees, there is no glimpse as yet of the sequence of small gardens, each made secret by tall yew or holly hedges, rather like a small Hidcote, that await inspection in the eastern part of the garden, in the vicinity of the old walled garden. You enter first the shaded garden, with a huge Spanish Chestnut, a Turkey Oak and masses of bulbs in spring. A curved path leads through an arched opening in a tall yew hedge into the lavender walk, and then a long pool garden, its narrow walls lined with rigorously deadheaded Rosa mundi. There is a white garden with a high holly hedge on one side and the brick wall of the kitchen garden on the other. White wisteria clothes part of this wall, underplanted with Agapanthus campanulatus var. albidus. Here also are asters, such as the small-leaved and tiny-flowered white Aster divaricatus.
Part of the walled kitchen garden is given over to magnificent herbaceous borders, bursting with huge plants of Acanthus mollis (bear’s breeches), cranesbills and great wigwams of Spencer sweet peas. There are espaliered fruit trees everywhere, a cutting bed with flowers for the house, and many unusual plants such as the Azara microphylla on the south wall of the dovecote. In spring, its small yellow flowers fill the air with the scent of vanilla. In the rose garden are some of the magnificent modern shrub roses I love, including ‘Fruhlingsmorgen’, with its pale pink single flowers with yellow centres, and the towering ‘Nevada’.
This is a plantsman’s garden, full of surprises, but restful too. The hotel, of course, does have a spa, but I recommend instead (or as well) an hour or two in the garden, and lunch or tea, while summer lingers, on the handsome terrace.
Middlethorpe Hall and Spa, Bishopsthorpe Road, York YO23 2GB: 01904-641241, www.middlethorpe.com
Among the many delightful touches that made the Olympic Games such a joy, and are now doing the same for the Paralympics, are the gorgeous little bouquets presented to athletes, along with their medals, at the victory ceremonies.
The Victory Bouquet, a modern take on the sweetsmelling nosegay whose name goes back to the 15th century, was designed by Susan Lapworth, the creative director of florists Jane Packer. It consists of four varieties of boldly coloured roses, arranged in quadrants, mirroring the 2012 logo. The roses used are ‘Ilios’, a vibrant yellow, ‘Marie Claire’, a flaming orange, ‘Aqua, pink, and ‘Wimbledon’, a luminous green. English lavender, rosemary, apple mint and wheat mark the sections and contribute to a summery fragrance.
The flowers and herbs are all British grown, and the 4,800 bouquets are made up by floristry students from Writtle College in Essex, Adult Education College Bexley in Kent and Kingston Maurward College in Dorset.
Medal winners have been tossing their bouquets into the ecstatic crowds cheering the victory ceremonies. The flowers will last for five days, so let’s hope the lucky members of the public who catch a nosegay have the presence of mind to take it home and put it in water.
Plant of the week
Aster x frikartii ‘Monch’ is a beautiful late-summer perennial, with lavender/blue daisy-like flowers from August to September. It tends to flop, so needs staking. Best in full sun. Height: 90cm; spread: 40cm. £7.99: www.crocus.co.uk
Daily tip from the lady archive
"DEEPLY-ROOTED is the idea that men are indifferent to dress, while the ladies, God bless them, think of nothing else"The Lady, With Prejudice, 8th January, 1942