Public patronage a challenge for Elvaston Castle Country Park

Jane Carleyin Public Places

Balancing the need to preserve the unique features of a historic estate with the demands of free public access to a council-owned country park is a challenge that many grounds managers would find daunting. But for the happy team at Elvaston Castle Country Park in Derbyshire, it is all in a day's work.

The ornamental lake is earmarked for action, requiring dredging and inspection of how it is lined. Dog walkers love to see their dogs go into the lake but this contributes to the erosion of the bank

At the heart of the 130ha estate lies the castle itself, a gothic revival building designed by James Wyatt in the early 1800s for the third Earl of Harrington, and based on the original house which dated back to 1633.

The estate was sold to a quarrying company in 1968, before being purchased by the Derby Corporation the following year, and in 1970 was opened as one of the first country parks in England.

Costs for the upkeep of the elaborately designed house and equally ornate outbuildings - such as a Moorish temple, pump house and kennels (sixteen buildings are Grade II listed), plus the formal gardens and parkland - steadily increased for the local authority, and the property fell into decline.

It is now owned and managed by Derbyshire County Council who, in 2000, announced plans to sell the estate to a hotel company and turn the park into a golf course, which brought vociferous objections from local residents.

Despite the efforts of the parks and ranger team, the decline continued and, in 2009, a study put the total repair bill at £6.4m. From 2013 to 2015, the National Trust was commissioned to develop a plan for the estate in partnership with Derbyshire County Council. A partnership was also established between the council and the newly-formed Elvaston Castle Gardens Trust to manage the gardens and park and, in 2018, a detailed masterplan for renovations and improvements was published.

Park manager Gill Forrester (left) and head gardener Anna Morrison discuss plans for the walled garden within a sensory garden area developed in partnership with the Elvaston Parish Plan Group

"The Elvaston Castle Gardens Trust can access additional sources of funding and, although the council will retain ownership, the long term aim is for the Trust to take the lead on renovations and improvements to the park and gardens," explains Park Manager Gill Forrester.

"Whilst the masterplan considers the whole estate, its main focus - and priority for funding - is the buildings, so a separate maintenance and management plan has been drawn up for the grounds. It has been a lengthy process because there are so many stakeholders, from our existing public, private and voluntary sector partners to visitors who have grown up coming to Elvaston and are passionate about its future."

A significant practical improvement has been to bring the rangers, wardens and gardeners together as one department under Gill.

"This means that we can share resources and work closely together to tackle the workload," she explains.

And it is some workload. The outer reaches of the estate include a local nature reserve and tenanted pasture land. Elvaston Cricket Club also enjoys a bucolic setting in the park, and two large open spaces are used for events and shows.

Approaches to the castle itself are via long, tree-lined grassy avenues, including the historic East Avenue leading to the castle steps, and it is here that one of the major management issues is visible.

The high water table makes flooding an ongoing issue / Elaborate tufa rock grottoes are enjoyed by visitors, but are vulnerable to damage

"We are situated on a flood plain and Capability Brown declared that 'the place was so flat, and there was such a want of 'capability' in it, that he would not meddle with it' when approached to design the gardens," explains Gill.

"When William Barron created his design, it included a series of underground drains, pipes and sluice gates. Many have collapsed over time, but we have no drawings to show exactly where they were, so it's difficult to replace them, although we have recently restored a penstock on the river to control water flow."

The high water table has a significant impact on the trees and lawns, which can be under 30cm of water in winter; the ornamental lake is also earmarked for action.

"It needs dredging as it is fed from the River Derwent and silt has accumulated, with investigations needed on how it is lined. The estate is hugely popular with dog walkers and they love to see their dogs go into the lake, but unfortunately it contributes to the erosion of the bank."

The lake was originally edged with distinctive and now rare tufa rock, but some modern repairs have been made with hard-wearing York stone to help minimise inevitable wear and tear.

Tufa rock is still a major feature of the park, in grottoes, rock arches and the islands on the lake, but protecting them from damage, while allowing unfettered public access, is a fine balance.

"People like to sit or climb on them, and we have to gently explain how fragile they are," comments Gill.

At the heart of the Derbyshire County Council-owned Elvaston Castle Country Park lies the gothic revival Elvaston Castle and its William Barron-designed winter garden

Managing and protecting the topiaries is an important focus.

"Designed as a winter garden, most of the formal areas are evergreen, and largely ancient yew - there is even an Elvastonensis cultivar," she explains. "Staff recently attended a yew symposium to learn about ways to restore and rejuvenate the trees, as they were badly affected by the hard winter and hot summer in 2018."

Remedial action includes letting spring growth persist rather than cutting back into shape and allowing some clippings to remain on the ground and return valuable nutrients to the soil.

"We've had to learn that not everything needs to be pristine but, as we are so public-facing, we use information boards so that visitors can understand the reasons behind our actions."

Formal gardens are compartmentalised into Italian, Alhambra and Parterre (Mon Plaisir) sections, although in the latter topiaries creating seating areas in a decorative star shape were removed and replaced with box in the 1960s.

"We're looking at ways to make the topiary more resilient; clipping into domed rather than flat topped shapes, for example, to stop snow collecting on them and breaking branches."

With the country park attracting 360,000 visitors a year, to landscapes which were only designed to withstand the footfall of the Earl and his family, it's a constant task to maintain, repair and renovate grassed areas and walkways.

Left: The Italian garden in spring - the yew at the centre is probably beyond saving so will be removed and replaced . Right: Ancient cedars are a trademark of English parkland; they suffer from waterlogging and compaction, and aeration equipment to work around their roots is being researched

"Given that, in the early days, there were around eighty gardeners and now we have six - and, just as an example - there are fourteen miles of hedge on the estate - the scale of the work becomes clear!" says Gill.

Tree work is a huge job - William Barron was the inventor of a horse drawn tree transplanter and brought many mature trees to Elvaston when planning the garden, which features many ancient cedars, noble fir, veteran oak and monkey puzzle. After an outbreak of Phytophthora at nearby Kedleston Hall in 2008, a programme of select Rhododendron removal was carried out to protect the trees.

"But where you take out Rhododendrons, they are often replaced with brambles, so we will need cut them back with our tractor mounted flail," she explains.

Self-set silver birch has been tackled in earnest this winter, using a hired-in chipper. Logs are processed with a wood splitter by volunteers, and sold as firewood each year.

"We've felled around the yew and trimmed it back to open up the avenues where vegetation has encroached. Shade-tolerant grass will then be seeded to green up the walkways."

Protecting newly seeded areas is difficult - the layout of the park and gardens was designed to encourage wandering - and rope cordons have proved ineffective.

Some areas lend themselves to being resurfaced with woodchip or limestone dust - old drawings revealed a pathway on the popular walking circuit around the lake, so a new hard surface has been laid.

Newly renovated wall in the Old English Garden - head gardener Anna Morrison has designed a new herbaceous border to replace plantings taken out during its repair

"We have to bear in mind that we are managing the park for a much bigger footfall than originally envisaged, so may have to use different methods," comments Gill.

Walled gardens were originally established to grow fruit and vegetables, with the Earl's pineapples regular prize winners, but the glasshouses which warmed plants on the tall brick walls fell into disrepair and, in the 1970s, the council established an Old English Garden inside the walls, which was a major success. The walls had deteriorated and are gradually being painstakingly repaired.

As repairs are completed, the gardens come back to life - part of the plant nursery has been turfed and fenced off for a wedding reception venue, alongside vegetable beds, tended by voluntary groups, and the gardeners' polytunnels, where young plants are propagated.

Herbaceous borders which were taken out during the wall renovations are to be restored to a new design by head gardener Anna Morrison and, in the coming weeks, it will be sanded, dug, laid out and planted with a flowing scheme.

A central lawned and landscaped section of the walled garden is utilised for civil ceremonies, and pathways and flowerbeds are gradually being reinstated alongside one wall which is a major restoration project, originally being double layer with heating pipes installed to protect tender plants.

"We're leaving the lawns a little longer so that they can withstand the extra footfall from wedding guests and, in the parkland areas, I'm also planning to move from overall close mowing to cutting pathways through longer grass," says Anna.

"We're constantly looking at methods that will also save labour and allow us to focus on restoration work," she explains. "Modern touches include choosing plants and schemes that will cope with the unpredictable seasons that we experience now - the border will feature drought resistant plants, and I'm considering whether wildflowers would work better than the grass that currently separates the box on the parterre."

"It's so much easier now the teams have merged so we can work on projects together," she explained. "We're all chainsaw trained now, for example, so we've been able to get through more tree work this winter."

Originally designed to grow exotic produce, the walled gardens were restyled by the council as Old English Gardens

Anna has seen considerable interest in the ongoing work from regular visitors to the estate, and believes that will lead to increased respect and appreciation for the landscape.

"People can see that we are replacing and repairing important features, but we do have an important job to do in educating them."

With a background in fundraising and community engagement, Gill is keen to get local groups on board, and a partnership with the Elvaston Parish Plan Group has led to the development of a sensory garden within the walls.

"We replaced some of the slippery York stone with gravel paths and ensured it was accessible, and the group raised funds and help with ongoing maintenance. Several community and rehabilitation groups get involved in the work on the estate, from growing vegetables to maintaining the nature reserve," she explains.

Recent investment in machinery

Recent investment in machinery should ease the workload, with pedestrian rotaries replacing cylinders for smaller lawned areas and a triple for the park areas, backed up by tractor-drawn gangs on the showground and games field.

"We've been without a tractor for a while, so having the new utility tractor is a relief," says Anna, "Although accessing a low gate into the nursery garden made the specification tricky! We'll be able to use it with our pto powered leaf collector, and for trailer work such as collecting up the timber from felling."

A new compact will work in tighter areas and could have a deck fitted to increase mowing capacity, whilst the nature reserve has access to an articulated tractor.

"Even simple additions like four-in-one buckets will make us more efficient," she says.

A pair of utility vehicles are described as 'invaluable' for moving materials around the site.

Moving to electric power has also proved a bit of a revelation - battery-powered hedge trimmers are quieter to use in busy park areas and more pleasant for the operators, Anna points out.

"They've been so good we're getting some electric chainsaws which will be convenient for small logging tasks."

Left: Brambles have encroached where Rhododendrons were removed to cut Phytophora risks. Right: Self set silver birch has been tackled over the winter; recent investment in machinery means the logs can be collected and processed

Spraying is carried out early in the morning when few visitors are about; herbicides are kept to a minimum and a weed burner is used near the castle, whilst a weed brush for the surfaced paths is on Anna's wish list.

Aeration is another topic receiving consideration.

"The heavy footfall means that compaction is a serious issue, but while we could use a contractor's machine on the larger areas, we also need to treat around the roots of yews and other trees, and need to avoid services and even the drains which could be damaged by a big machine," says Gill.

Every improvement requires investment and, with council funding squeezed, Gill and the Elvaston Castle Gardens Trust are constantly considering revenue streams.

"Our main income is from the car park, as the park is free at the point of entry on foot. We have concessions such as the ice cream seller and we've made the shop more attractive to our family audience."

"We're creative about income generation and can offer our visitors products ranging from firewood off the estate to herbaceous plants, split and propagated, plus vegetables grown by our volunteers."

"Visitors tell us that they'd like to support us and I'm looking at ways that can be achieved, but in the meantime with our newly united and enthusiastic team, we'll continue looking to make Elvaston Castle work for them while preserving its heritage."