With most of the hay we need for the next winter already safely harvested, we headed off, relieved, for what passes as a significant break for us in early July, spending 6 nights away travelling up to Northumberland and back.
By chance as we headed back to our accommodation after our supper on a lovely evening, we passed through the special scenery of Manifold valley, where the river Manifold runs underground for much of the year, except when in spate, producing the odd scenery of a completely dry river bed.
Fancying a stroll after all the hours spent in the car, and spotting the huge mouth to Thor’s cave beckoning above us, we parked and followed the valley bottom path, which runs along the route of the old Leek and Manifold Light Railway. Click here for more on the area and its geology. Guessing where to bear off for the cave, we took the right route up unsigned stone steps, studded with coral reef fossils in this predominantly limestone area, laid impressively through the hillside woods.And with amazing luck, we arrived at the main cave entrance just as the sun was dipping over the Western hills.Glorious light shafting through the cave’s side “window”, providing magical illumination of the internal cave floor; irregular, yet polished smooth by millions of hands and feet over thousands of years. When writing this piece, I found that The Verve’s first album cover featured an image created and taken in the cave. Click below to listen to the very appropriately atmospheric “Already There“.
We had the place to ourselves.
A very special moment, made more unique when on the way down at last we met some other visitors – a couple of teenage goths.
Black garb, black hair, black false lashes, heading up, heads and eyes though firmly facing down as we passed, on their way to a planned evening in the cave as dusk fell.
Who knows what happened later, and how many other special moments have taken place here?
The next day’s drive was planned to get us up to Northumberland, but I’d spotted we passed within a few miles of the rose gardens at Wynyard Hall, outside Middlesborough. Click here for more.
What an extraordinary place and possibly, by chance, at its peak when we visited? Is there a more dramatic setting and stunning aesthetic contemporary design for a rose garden in the UK? If so do let me know. (It’s really worthwhile clicking on any images you like, to view them at a larger size, particularly with the garden and meadow views). Only created about 4 years ago, these images give an idea of just how special roses can look, (135 different forms supplied by David Austin Roses), when grown this well, in what’s been a brilliant year for roses here, and when imaginatively combined with perennial plantings. Every turn and angle produced different stunning planting mixes. Every rose is numbered and listed in the garden map, so it’s easy to record any that take your fancy. Needless to say, the scents filling the air were stunning. Even better, the philanthropy of the owner, Sir John Hall, whose vision along with that of his daughter saw the project completed, extends to charging just £4 pp for concession admissions which gains you access for a year. There’s also a lovely contemporary on-site cafe, vegetable growing area and woodland walks too.
So on to the main event, our first ever garden tour “holiday”. Organised by Borderlines, click here, the company provides access to selected private, and quite large gardens not normally, or only occasionally, open to the public. In addition, in most places there was an introduction and chance to chat with the owners and/or gardeners as well as coffee, tea and lunch breaks provided in the gardens, or the houses. 3 consecutive days were planned for this “Northumberland Tour” with 3 or 4 gardens per day. We felt this might overload our senses and stamina, so opted for a day out and about on our own in the middle, which worked well – more later.
In spite of mixed weather, we saw some superb gardens and met some lovely people and enjoyed very warm hospitality. I left my camera in the car, (intentionally) so am indebted to Fiona and her phone for the selection of images below, several taken in poor light. Since this will be another lengthy post, I’m attaching just a few images of each garden to give an overview, and highlight just how wonderful the roses were in this area/climate/year, which probably receives less than half of our annual rainfall.
And also how stunning the garden designs and locations were, most having been created or dramatically reworked over the last few years by the current owners. As is often the case, we came away inspired and with ideas and plant names we might try to work into the garden here in due course.
(Of note above is how the gardener has used staples to weight down and bend the shoots of rambling rose ‘Félicité et Perpétue’ into a weeping standard form, over a metal form, to create a very effective mass of flowers and buds at eye level. Ours is now half way up a tree!)
Would we do this again? Almost certainly, since it allowed us access to an unfamiliar part of the UK, and some inspiring gardens, our favourites being the last two where the standard of plant selection, design and garden maintenance were superb.
Lambshield would possibly shade it as the best, at least in its appeal to us – fantastic design elements, wonderful plant combinations, everything selected and grown of the highest quality and a wonderfully enthusiastic garden owner who does most of the work around the garden (apart from topiary clipping, which one of his near neighbours carries out for him). Only begun in 2010, it’s well worth seeking out, if you’re in this part of the world in midsummer, when the garden opens by arrangement for the NGS. Click here for more.
A feature of haymaking this year has been an incredibly tame robin which has appeared in both our hay meadows, once we get the forks and rakes working. Its keen vision enabling it to spot small caterpillars amongst the drying hay.
I was chatting with a fellow local meadow owner recently about how tricky it is to capture the appearance of a meadow with still images, but I think this year I’ve got a little closer, since the light has often been gorgeous at different times of the day. Although many of the images need enlarging, to really pick up the details.
In addition, thanks to the NGS and also the Coronation Meadows website, our mini break incorporated a couple of visits to wildflower hay meadows that were truly glorious and on a large enough scale to provide real vistas.
First, was the beautiful house gardens and location at Hurdley Hall Gardens, Churchstoke, Montgomery, which we took in on our journey North with a minor detour. Click here for more details. The main meadows were created only 3 years ago by importing green hay from a Coronation Meadow site just a few miles North, and simply scattering it onto the existing pasture, allowing most of the seeds to fall to the ground in their new location. The pictures show just how successful, and fast this technique can be at transforming ordinary pasture into a sea of flowers.
Secondly, I’d found that the named coronation meadow for Northumberland (Barrowburn Farm) was only about 45 minutes from our B&B base at Thistleyhaugh Farm, a very special place with wonderful hospitality from Enid and Janice on the family farm. This has been in the same ownership for over 120 years and is the only organic and pasture for life farm in the whole of the county.
Barrowburn Farm meadows near Alwinton, lie in the stunning Coquet valley in the North West of the county, just a couple of miles from the Scottish border. Click here for more. The land is owned by the MOD, and to the South are the Otterburn ranges, so the frequent red flags and warning signs meant we kept to the footpaths.
The coronation meadow site notes that these meadows are some of the finest, not just in the UK, but the whole of Europe, and so persuaded us to pursue the single track, dead end road required to reach them. Very much off the main tourist track, it felt much like parts of the countryside around us. Beautiful, and ignored by the masses, since there’s very little there, and it’s a long trek to find anywhere that even serves a cup of tea.
There aren’t any identifying information boards at the meadows, or even signage with footpath routes, so it would have been an advantage to have had an OS map with us. But there is some simple information by the nearest car park, at Wedder’s Leap. So called, because local legend recalls a fellow stealing a sheep (wether, or wedder) and trying to cross the nearby swollen stream whilst still clutching the animal. He fell and was dragged away with the sodden woolly beast to his death.
How appropriate that on the way back from the walk we found a stand of Melancholy thistles, Cirsium heterophyllum, growing beside the stream at the site of his demise. So called, because in times past, the prickle free plants were used to treat melancholia, or depression. In Nicholas Culpeper’s herbal of 1653 he wrote “the decoction of the thistle in wine being drank, expels superfluous melancholy out of the body, and makes a man as merry as a cricket; … my opinion is, that it is the best remedy against all melancholy diseases”.
We didn’t make it up into the hills above the farm, but for an idea of how spectacular the scenery is in winter, click here for a brilliant WordPress blog on the 9 mile circuit by “Mart In The Hills”, which you can complete from the same car park. He also records the site of a murder scene in the hills above the farm.
Like all meadows you have to get up amongst the flowers to really appreciate just how beautiful they are, and how like all meadows the plant mix is pretty unique to the site, a significant feature being the beautiful small blue Geranium sylvaticum.
On our way back from the hay meadows site, we’d planned a longer circular walk up into the hills above Alwinton. Click here for the route.
Two and a half hours of glorious walking with no other people seen. We saw hares, herons and even an oystercatcher. Most stunningly, the hillsides and valley bottoms were covered in wildflowers, even where grazed by sheep. The smell of nectar from the white clover and wild thyme filled the air. Pignut, Conopodium majus, and Chimney Sweeper moths, Odezia atrata were in abundance.