Approaching Richmond on the river Swale, with views across to the ruins of 13th century Easby Abbey, nestles historic St Nicholas house, reputedly the oldest house in Richmond. But it was the 20th century history of the gardens which had drawn myself and fellow Society of Garden Designers members to visit it.
St Nicholas is a ‘garden of rooms’ in the Hidcote style and similarly inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement; I was lucky enough to be included in a private tour of the garden earlier this month.
St Nicholas has a long history, being founded as a Benedictine hospital around 1171 by one of the earls of Richmond.
By the 15th century the hospital was enlarged to include a chantry chapel, but then not long afterwards fell prey to the depredations of Henry VIII at the Dissolution of the Monasteries along with nearby Easby Abbey.
In 1813 it was bought by the Marquess of Zetland who owned the neighbouring Aske estate, and came eventually into the ownership of the James family in the late 19th century.
Arts & Crafts
The Hon. Robert ‘Bobbie’ James (1873-1960) laid out the current gardens between about 1905 and 1925. He was friends with several leading horticulturists and garden designers of the day, including Lanning Roper, Lawrence Johnston (of Hidcote fame) and Gertrude Jekyll.
We were told that a number of plants in the garden were originally given to Bobbie by Johnston after his plant-hunting expeditions in the Himalayas and elsewhere. Bobbie’s own services to horticulture were recognised in 1954 when the Royal Horticultural Society awarded him the Victoria Medal of Honour.
Bobbie designed the gardens as a series of rooms in the Hidcote style, with more formal areas near the house subtly softening to landscaping that blends in with the surrounding park and woodland.
The original yew hedges are still there - now an imposing 2-3 m wide and 4 m high in places!
Apparently a whole team is employed to tackle hedge trimming, and nearly a ton of trimmings is sent off to cancer research each year.
Renovating the garden
Since 2001 the house and gardens have been gradually being brought back to life under the ownership of the Schellenberg family. Meeting them on our visit, they are hugely knowledgeable about the history of the garden – showing us some wonderful black and white photographs from a 1930 edition of Country Life - and passionate about reviving it. Their two knowledgeable and passionate horticulturists, Iris and Luke, enthusiastically showed us round the garden. They are systematically tackling areas such as the overgrown rhododendrons and large shrubberies, renovating the apple trees in the orchard, and planting swathes of new herbaceous perennials, undaunted by either the scale of the project or the number of rabbits!
Spirit of St Nicholas
Descendants of many of the original Edwardian plants still survive in the gardens today, giving a sense of time passing, a quality of reflectiveness touched with melancholy.
Some, such as some truly venerable rhododendrons, were in flower at our visit.
Since all of the original garden ‘rooms’ are set in place by yew hedging or stone walls, Iris and Luke have been able to continue to treat each area as separate but interlinked.
Some of them have for many years been laid to grass as a labour- and cost-saving device.
Now these grassy areas are receiving some new touches – for example the meadow orchard has had groups of meadow flowers added around mown grass paths, enabling one to wander in a romantic haze of cow parsley and fritillaries!
Roses from St Nicholas
Highlight of several of the garden spaces are the Old Roses, including two which originated at St Nicholas: Rosa gallica ‘St Nicholas’ is a beautiful semi-double flower in a rich pink, and the musk-scented rambler ‘Bobbie James’, which wasn’t quite in flower at our visit, covers several large walls.
The borders today
Like neighbouring gardens such as Newby Hall – where the James’ were regular visitors – St Nicholas has its own double Long Border. Repetitions of flowering plants such as lupins, shrub roses and irises gave us a glorious sense of fecundity and early summer promise.
These really are long borders – so coming across some seating at the far end was most welcome! The kitchen garden hasn’t missed out on the garden renovation, and is now home not only to rows of lettuces and spires of beans but the most breath-taking spread of Tulipa sprengeri in full flower.
Visiting St Nicholas gardens
If you would like to visit this lovely example of a garden in mid-restoration, you’re in luck as its open to the public four times a year. The next Open Days on 12th July and 9th August this year.
Iris and Luke expect the roses to be in full flower by the first date, and the long border will be in high summer glory for the second! http://stnicholasgardens.co.uk