Trentham Gardens

I think, after Broughton Grange, we were all fairly unanimously agreed that Tom Stuart-Smith was a bona fide genius. But just in case you have any remote, lingering doubt, I bring you…(drum roll)…Trentham Gardens.

A combination of Piet Oudolf and Tom Stuart-Smith. Bliss

A combination of Piet Oudolf and Tom Stuart-Smith at Trentham Gardens. Bliss

To be fair, there has been more than one genius at work at Trentham. Hence, why it was suggested for me to use as a case study for my Masters dissertation. Given that this happened in the last week of September, with the dissertation due before next summer, I thought I’d better drop everything and get up north to see it tout suite.

The white Selinum tenuifolium, whilst from the Himalayas, takes me back to country roads edged with cow parsley

The white Selinum tenuifolium, whilst from the Himalayas, takes me back to the country roads edged with cow parsley of my youth

The sacrifices I make in the name of gardens.

Piet Oudolf's Floral Labyrinth in the afternoon sun

Piet Oudolf’s Floral Labyrinth in the afternoon sun

Some 13,829 steps and 523 photos later, I had that wonderful feeling of emotional exhaustion that the very best gardens induce. I’m sure gardens must have first prompted the expression ‘blown away’. Trentham Estate is an incredible place with incredible history, being described as a ‘Royal Manor’ in the 1086 Domesday Book, with ownership by a plethora of Earls, Dukes, Lords and Sirs before it was abandoned in 1905 as the growing pottery industry caused horrific pollution of its waterways, whereupon Trentham Hall was sold for £500 for recovery of materials. In 1996, investors bought the estate, pouring some £100m into a development programme to create a ‘leisure destination of national significance’.

An older couple share a special moment in the Rivers of Grass at Trentham

An older couple share a special moment in the Rivers of Grass at Trentham

With some 300 acres of landscaped gardens, parkland and woodland, it’s all a bit tricky to know where to start, both arriving on site and in attempting to review it. But perhaps I’ll just outline the key areas today; I told my friend that I’ll need to go back there at least once a week for the rest of my life, so I’m sure there’ll be opportunities to focus in on different areas another time. We’ll start with our friend, Tom.

I wasn't overly taken by the Rose Border, but a sneak peak through to the Italian Garden were enhanced by its soft planting

Looking through the Trellis Walk and David Austin Rose Border to the Italian Garden

1. Tom Stuart-Smith’s Italian Garden
The Tom Stuart-Smith designed Italian Garden at Trentham

The Tom Stuart-Smith designed Italian Garden at Trentham

The Italian Garden was first conceived in the nineteenth century, but after a hundred years of abandonment, probably wasn’t looking too great when Tom arrived. At first sight it looks like a slightly predictable Victorian formal garden, with brightly-coloured bedding plants jumping out at you. But just a few steps on and you see this is a formal garden with a difference.

An up close view of the formal Italian Garden reveals its contemporary edge

A close up view of the formal Italian Garden reveals its contemporary edge

For starters, the detail is exquisite. Look at the intricate (and immaculate) shapes of the beds and the contemporary twists with grasses and Buxus balls. And as you move down through the garden towards the lake, you realise this is anything but old-fashioned and predictable.

The Italian Garden at Trentham

The Italian Garden at Trentham

The planting is absolute exquisite and the scale over which it presides utterly overwhelming. A gardener, spotting me with my mouth wide open, commented, “it’s mind-blowing, the vision that he had”. The signature columnar yews mark it out as a Tom Stuart-Smith garden but the balance of the old and the new has been achieved to perfection. I never thought a formal garden could appeal to me so strongly.

Many of the plants are in clear senescence and yet the composition feels beautifully aged, rather than untidily left

Many of the plants are in clear senescence and yet the composition feels beautifully aged, rather than untidily ignored

2. Piet Oudolf’s Floral Labyrinth and Rivers of Grass
The Floral Labyrinth at Trentham Gardens

The Floral Labyrinth at Trentham Gardens

As if Tom’s design wasn’t enough, the developers thought they’d have a bit of Piet Oudolf as well. Tall, prairie style plantings envelop you as you wander, half-stunned, through winding pathways, dodging over-spilling flowers. The combinations are breath-taking, if entirely beyond my photographic capabilities to capture in spirit. I couldn’t imagine a better time of year to be there: exuberant, soft growth of amazing form and mellow colours catch the low, autumn light in the most evocative way.

Piet Oudolf-designed border in front of Trellis Walk and the David Austin Rose Border at Trentham

Piet Oudolf designed border in front of Trellis Walk

Piet also designed the pair of 120 metre herbaceous borders running down each side of the Italian garden, which connect the formal to the informal planting areas.

Silhouettes of Allium portray Piet Oudolf's love of year round interest

Silhouettes of Allium portray Piet Oudolf’s love of year round interest, in the Floral Labyrinth

3. Nigel Dunnett’s Meadow Schemes
Pink and purple meadow scheme at the edge of Trentham's Capability Brown lake

Pink and purple meadow scheme at the edge of Trentham Lake

Nigel Dunnett is a Professor of Planting Design at the University of Sheffield and one of the key designers of the wildflower meadows at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. He is working on a number of new schemes throughout the estate, bringing life to some of the wilder parts of the garden.

Nigel Dunnett-designed meadow planting at the edge of Lake Trentham

Nigel Dunnett designed meadow planting at the edge of Lake Trentham

Vast swathes of colour can be viewed on banks across the lake, providing fantastic (and very different) impact from afar as well as up close. I’m looking forward to seeing them at different times of the year as they evolve through the seasons.

Enhanced nature, from the eighteenth and twenty first centuries at Trentham

Enhanced nature, from the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries at Trentham. Nigel’s meadow schemes can be seen on both sides of the lake

4. Capability Brown’s Trentham Lake
Many happy swans swim in front of the dandelion sculptures at Trentham Gardens

Many happy swans swim in front of the dandelion sculptures at Trentham Gardens

Yes, you read that correctly. They even brought Capability Brown back to landscape the garden. Or, perhaps more accurately, they retained and restored much of Lancelot Brown’s 21 years (1759-1780) of work at the site. Brown had enlarged the lake and created his signature parkland style around Trentham Hall.

The poses of these sculptures are so life-like you do a double take. Then you realise that each piece has quite complex planting with it. Everything on this estate is done to perfection

The poses of these sculptures are so life-like you do a double take. Then you realise that each piece has quite complex planting within it. Everything on this estate is done to perfection

Whilst the developers have (thankfully) not been slaves to the original design, adding contemporary interest at every corner, huge areas of self-seeded rhododendrons have been removed to re-create the Capability Brown spirit of stately trees cleverly positioned within rolling grassland.

An old tree on the banks of the River Trent gives a feel on longevity to the recent restoration, which began in 2003

An old tree on the bank of the River Trent evokes longevity alongside more recent additions

5. But wait, there’s more…
Fifteen gorgeous fairies, created by Robin Wight, are dotted around the garden where you least expect them

Fifteen gorgeous fairies, created by Robin Wight, are dotted around the garden

Just so much more. From the contemporary sculpture that brings all that history into the modern day, to the oh-so-tasteful fairies which pop up just where you least expect them.

The walk around the lake is some 2.3miles long, traversing through quiet wild wooded areas, enhanced by subtle planting

The walk around the lake traverses quiet, wild, wooded areas, enhanced by subtle planting

Then there are the wild areas along the 2.3 mile pathway circumnavigating Trentham Lake; even these can be walked on the low road, beside the water, or the high road, with panoramic views, and in either direction – clockwise or anti-clockwise – opening up completely new vistas each time. I have so many more visits to make to this place!

* * *

Looking out towards the Floral Labyrinth at Trentham Gardens

Looking out towards the Floral Labyrinth at Trentham Gardens

The wonderful thing about Trentham is that despite its Disneyland development budget, this is no Disneyland garden. This is a garden which is hugely respectful to its history, whilst layering truly world-class, contemporary garden design over the top, maintaining the inherent spirit of the place as it goes.

Lichen covered walls with old-fashioned planting which you could almost believe had been there for hundreds of years

Lichen covered walls with old-fashioned planting in the remains of Trentham Hall emit an air of having been there for hundreds of years

I’m sorry, gardeners, but it can’t be avoided….you’re just going to have to add this one to that ever-increasing list of yours. There is no doubt that this garden has achieved it’s aim of national significance and I, for one, can’t wait to return.

Salmon pink Begonia. I should hate them but I can't think of a better plant for these pots

I don’t like begonias and I’m never sure about ‘salmon’ pink. But I adored – beyond belief – these good–enough–to–eat planters. They were just perfect. This garden truly had me under its spell!

23 thoughts on “Trentham Gardens

  1. rusty duck says:

    I love everything Piet Oudolf does so it’ll have to go on the list won’t it! I’d heard of this garden before but never realised there was quite so much to it. Why isn’t it better known I wonder? Perhaps it is and it’s me who lives under a rock..

    • jannaschreier says:

      Hi Jessica, lovely to hear from you. I thought you’d like the Piet Oudolf plantings! I’d read about the garden in ‘The Garden’ but I hadn’t realised quite how good (or how big) it was either. I think I’d seen the words Stoke-on-Trent and written it off a little; it’s not a part of the world I’m passing very often! But it really is worth the trip. It’s 340 miles there and back for me and I’m already planning my next purely-to-see-this-garden day trip!

  2. Adriana Fraser says:

    Oh no – I had almost finished my list of gardens to visit (as we plan our driving tour of England for next June) and then you pop this one in Janna! I think Ian would love it – he did say “please just include some Capability Brown gardens!” Aha this one can go on the ‘Capability Brown’ list (wink!). I love, love, love this (and I am still to see it in real life). From the first time I read your descriptions of gardens in assignments and thought “wow what a talent” your writing never disappoints: “I couldn’t imagine a better time of year to be there: exuberant, soft growth of amazing form and mellow colours catch the low, autumn light in the most evocative way”. Great imagery. Great Garden.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Wowee! You’re coming to England. That is super exciting. Hope you are planning late June as everything is so much slower here; the herbaceous borders have lots of gaps in early June and very little flowering (Chelsea has a lot to answer for!). As far as Trentham goes, obviously in Ian’s interests, you have to make the effort for him. It’s just not fair to only see the gardens you are interested in! Perhaps you could go up to the Lake District whilst you are in that general direction; you’d absolutely adore it.
      Thanks so much for your kind words about my writing. I do so enjoy it. Thank you for all your encouragement over the years; it is hugely appreciated.

    • jannaschreier says:

      I wanted to include so many photos of fairies, Diana! Maybe I’ll do a fairy post one time. All were adorable and all looked completely at home; there were even flying versions!

  3. Suzanne says:

    I have so much I would like to make comment on but I can’t get past WOW! I had to google Trentham’s location and so found out more about the gardens and fairies. They are exquisite. I love the way the sculptures are woven into the gardens to be discovered, not at all ‘in your face’. What a wonderful way to connect children [as well as adults] to the gardens. As for the gardens, I think I’ll stay with WOW!

    • jannaschreier says:

      You can understand my mouth-open expression for most of my visit, then?! The sculptures are indeed woven into the gardens with huge skill; they all have that ‘sense of place’, as if they had always been there. It’s such a complex skill to get just the right thing and place it just the right way but this garden excels at it: there wasn’t a single sculpture looking out of place. It’s so exciting to see a garden so vast where every single aspect has been created with immense skill and thought and effort. Divine!
      Oh, and I’m so pleased you’ve been looking up directions from Western Australia. Will we tempt you back for another trip?! Surely your grandchildren ‘need’ to see the fairies!

  4. germac4 says:

    Wonderful tour of the garden, I hope you can go back and do it all again one bit at a time. I love the photo of Floral Labyrinth, especially, but it is all inspiring.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Thank you. I am glad I managed to capture a little bit of the garden’s atmosphere. The Floral Labyrinth was incredible to get lost in but remarkably difficult to replicate in 2D!

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