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.
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 sacrifices I make in the name of gardens.
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’.
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.
1. Tom Stuart-Smith’s Italian Garden
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.
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 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.
2. Piet Oudolf’s Floral Labyrinth and Rivers of Grass
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 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.
3. Nigel Dunnett’s Meadow Schemes
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.
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.
4. Capability Brown’s Trentham Lake
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.
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.
5. But wait, there’s more…
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.
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!
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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.
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.