Newby Hall, built in the 1690s by Sir Christopher Wren, was crowned Historic Houses Garden of the Year in 2019. One of Britain's finest Grade 1 listed Adam Houses, Newby Hall, the family home of Mr & Mrs Richard Compton, can be justifiably proud of the award. With much to offer everyone, the Hall and Gardens, set in forty acres alongside the banks of the River Ure near Ripon in North Yorkshire, form part of a 519-acre estate. David Mears was recently invited to meet Newby's newcomer; Head Gardener Phil Cormie - on a day the property was closed to the public - and was afforded full access to the gardens.
Double Herbaceous Border (credit Nicola Stocken)
On a gloriously sunny day, and with Covid-19 restrictions eased allowing outdoor opening and catering, the visit timing was most welcome. As I approached the Hall on the long drive passing a lovely church (more later), sheep with their lambs and geese with their young, the path to normality seemed evident! I met Phil Cormie at the Estate Office and I learned that Newby's award-winning gardens, mostly created in the early 1920s, have evolved over the years making a major contribution to 20th century gardening. Current owners Richard and Lucinda Compton ensure this continues. They are very proud of their double herbaceous border which I looked forward to seeing.
So, as we began our walk around the gardens, Phil told me about himself. First, I need to know about Rock On! (This was a press release that had attracted our attention). Born in Whickham near Newcastle, Phil, now thirty-two, had been appointed eighteen months ago as Head Gardener and to lead a major five-year rock garden restoration project. He joined Newby from the nearby Himalayan Garden & Sculpture Park where he worked for four years and previously had spent some time at Edinburgh Zoo. His studies with the Scottish Rural College and time at the Royal Britannic Gardens led him to a degree with honours. I asked what or who had inspired him to take up horticulture. "My dad" he said. "I was four years old when my mum made him buy an allotment and I loved it; I needed to be outdoors!"
He originally went down the university route taking International Business Studies and French at Aston University in Birmingham. "It just wasn't for me" he said "There was no greenery anywhere!!" Phil pulled out and went to Newcastle College taking a two-year course: National Diploma in Horticulture. The lecturer there, recognising Phil's abilities, persuaded him to take his studies further. "I jumped at it," he said. "I went to Royal Botanic Gardens and obtained a BSc Hons in Horticulture with Plantsmanship. This led to me taking seasonal work for four years at Edinburgh Zoo."
We walked around the Hall and, looking over the lily pond, saw the south front. Then we turned and the famous double herbaceous border was in view. At 172 metres long, Phil said that it is believed to be the longest double herbaceous border in the UK. It certainly is impressive and leads down to the river. It was work in progress at the time of my visit, but Newby kindly provided an image showing it in its full glory.
Head Gardener Phil Cormie
Flowering perennials include Echinacea, Lythrum and Sanguisorba which mingle with insect friendly Eryngium, Echinops and Veronicastrumall. A new, modern colour palette has been incorporated, with plant colour and form carefully chosen by Lucinda Compton, Garden Curator. Softer pastels are strengthened by vibrant lilacs, magenta pink, lime green, claret and silver; all colours reflected in the trees beyond.
After walking the length of this outstanding feature, we came upon the two shell pavilions, one on either side. These were "shelled" inside by Linda Fenwick at the request of Lucinda. Our photo shows the amazing and intricate design in one, with thousands of shells used.
We moved down steps towards the river Ure and crossed a narrow-gauge railway track. Newby has its own miniature railway that operates every day throughout the season along a 1¼ mile track. There's even a splendid miniature steam loco (Royal Scot) that hauls passengers on Sundays and Bank Holidays! Newby caters for all ages and there's an extensive play area too including pedalo boats, rafts and aerial slide.
Back to our tour, we next visited the Water Garden with its man-made stream and a variety of plants. The Bog Arum is one of the first plants to appear around the pond with its paddle-shaped leaves and this is followed, usually early May, with a profusion of a stunning display of Harlow Carr Primulas.
We moved on to the East Rock Garden. Here in early spring, there are Pulmonaria 'Blue Ensign', Brunnera 'Jack Frost' and hundreds of dark 'Havran' Tulips set off against a backdrop of dark earth and white star-shaped Magnolia stellata flowers, and the faintest pink hue of a large Camellia japonica magnolifolia. The dark tulips certainly made impact. Phil said that he liked the colour palette in this garden and that they had retained thirty species.
The Water Garden / Ferry Disaster memorial
We ventured next past the Orchard Garden boasting a line of espalier apple trees (Red Sentinel) giving a nod to the art deco period layout. Phil explained that, when the trees had become more established, the metal framework could be removed. The idea of the espalier was to complete the "walled garden" feel but not to totally enclose it, so hence the "wall" of apple trees!
As we walked on, we met Tom Kenwood who was busy setting up hazel twig support frames for herbaceous border plants and using traditional skills and materials. He explained that they grow hazel for the specific purpose of producing these supports. The next view we came upon was rather strange and seemed out of place. It looked like an ancient jail cell door set in a wall. It was, in fact just that! It came from Newgate Prison and was on the cell that Jack Sheppard escaped from in 1724. It was acquired purely out of interest by a Vyner ancestor of the family and placed here at Newby in the late 19th century!
As we moved on, we caught a glimpse of the River Ure from a tranquil and sunlit corner of the garden; well worth a photo! Next, we happened upon a compact planting of White Birch trees looking splendid against the blue sky. This led us to what Phil told me was the Ferry Disaster Memorial which commemorates those that died. On 4th February 1869, the York and Ainsty Hunt had reached the banks of the River Ure which was swollen after heavy rain. Several members boarded the ferry but one of the horses became tangled in the chains on the side of the ferry, panicked and tipped the boat over. Six men were drowned, including Sir Charles Slingsby, the heir to the estates in Knaresborough and Scriven, Captain Henry Vyner and Edmund Robinson - members of the family of Newby Hall. Clare and Robert Vyner were saved. It was a dramatic event which had a considerable impact on the history of estates in the area.
This has a connection to the beautiful church I passed on the way into the estate; Christ the Consoler. It is a memorial to Clare Vyner's brother Frederick Vyner who, age 23, was captured and murdered by brigands in Greece in 1870 before a ransom could be paid. His mother, a year after the ferry disaster, used the money collected for his ransom to commission British architect William Burges to design this church (built 1871-76) in the grounds of her home at Newby Hall.
The Church of Christ the Consoler / The Rose Pergola
From the memorial we walked through the Curving Pergola, originally designed to make an attractive approach to the Rock Garden, with sandstone pillars and cross beams clad with Laburnum (best viewed when in full bloom late May). We were now in the place where Phil was to work on the mammoth five-year restoration project! When Phil first saw the Rock Garden, he could not believe the state it was in. "It was totally overgrown and had fallen into extreme disrepair," he said. The first job to tackle was clearing tons of soil to reveal the rocks buried beneath! Just one problem; there was no way any mechanical equipment could gain access, let alone be used. So began a very labour intensive dig out; and by hand during lock-down! The first phase has recently been completed (shown here). It's a pity not to be able to show what it was like before, but this transformation is amazing, especially judging by the remaining areas to be tackled.
In their publicity, Newby Hall state: 'This is a fascinating and unique garden, both for what it is now and for its future potential. It was once very overgrown and dark, but now it is an area of allure and mystery with many varied paths criss-crossing.' This does sum it up really well. The Rock Garden as far as is known, as no plans and details survive the period, was completed just before the outbreak of World War One. Work on the garden soon ceased, however, as many of the estate workers "signed up" and went to fight in France. Many, sadly, did not return. This then, is no ordinary rock garden; when we talk about rocks here, we mean huge rocks! It seems that what is hiding below soil level is just as huge as what is visible above ground. Transporting these massive items must have been a Herculean task. They had to be lifted from the River Ure and dragged, and maybe over tree logs, to site for positioning. If you look carefully at some of them, chiselled holes are to be seen. These were made to enable lifting, hauling and manoeuvring.
First phase of the Rock Garden completed / The East Rock Garden
There are two key features in the middle of the Rock Garden: a waterfall and a lovely old stone bridge. This stone bridge acted as an aqueduct for a number of years carrying water to the house. Then, in 1980, and following the waterfall falling into disuse during World War Two, it carried pumped water to feed the refurbished waterfall.
Phil's comments about the project were: 'Transforming and renovating the rock garden is a huge project and causes quite a dilemma as it's obviously important to retain the spirit of the place. The overgrown tree canopy did give the air of a secret garden, but this caused the herbaceous underplanting to be wiped out due to a lack of sunlight. There are no original plans or planting schemes so we are trying to interpret what we believe to be the original vision for the rock garden - huge rocky outcrops with intimate planting pockets for unusual alpines. By removing some of the tree canopy, we have already started to unveil the scale and drama of the rock faces which are spectacular!' It is clear that without drastic action, the Rock Garden would have deteriorated further and would not have been a place to visit.
Edinburgh consultants Kevock Nursery and Garden Design, specialists in this type of work, have been engaged and are working closely with the garden team to ensure that this splendid area is conserved for future generations. Much of the garden has quite a 'woodsy' feel to it, rather than a more typical open free draining rock garden in full sun. Plants such as Arisaema, Trillium and Podophyllum thrive here. It will be most interesting to see the finished job at the end of this five-year project.
Silvia's Garden (credit Newby Hall) / One of the robotic mowers in action
We carried on via the Rose Pergola, which features rambling and climbing roses, to Sylvia's Garden. This was one of the earliest compartmented gardens designed by Major Compton in 1930 and covers the same proportions as an earlier Victorian garden, which it replaced. He named it after his wife, Sylvia Farquharson (later becoming her memorial garden), and it was planted to peak in May (to coincide with York Races). This is such an intimate, romantic and delicate part of the gardens with many feminine colours and hues. "It was designed to reflect that of one of the ceiling plaster panels in the house." Phil says. Providing a perfect backdrop to show off plant colours is a dark yew hedge that is being renovated at present.
As we began our return, I spotted a piece of kit that was quietly going about its business near to the house: A robotic mower. Phil is obviously impressed with these as Newby have three and soon there will be five. As he explains: "It's a great piece of kit, can work at any time of the day or night and are controlled by an App on my mobile phone. The great thing is that they are not as intrusive as motor mowers and are virtually silent; they help enhance the visitor experience." I wondered about re-charging these mowers and Phil explained that, when their cutting programme ends, they simply return to a discreetly placed charging mat and recharge automatically, ready to restart when programmed to do so. From a cutting point of view, it seems that little and often is the programme for these mowers; very impressive and so unobtrusive!
We'd now arrived at the West Front and the original entrance. It was time to cover a few questions. We sat in the sun on a convenient low wall. "So, first, who is in the team?" I asked.
The Team L to R Dan Brown, Nigel Allison, Phil Cormie, Dave Petherbridge and Ed Round (credit Charlotte Graham)
The Gardening Team
Mrs Lucinda Compton took over the curatorship of the gardens from her father-in-law, Robin Compton in 2009. She oversees the vision for the garden and its future along with her talented garden team led by Phil, which comprises:
Edward Round, Senior Gardener. An incredibly talented plantsman, Ed is responsible for Sylvia's Garden, the Cornus Collection and the Heritage Orchards. He's the man to go to if you want to know about plants.
Dave Petherbridge. PGG (Professional Gardeners' Guild) New Gardener of the Year. Used his design skills to produce wonderful maps of the Rock Garden and his artistic flair to maintain the huge double herbaceous border.
Tom Kenwood. Looks after the East Rock Garden, White Garden, Orchard, Water and Tropical Gardens and busy transforming these different garden areas.
Nigel Allison. He's the groundsman with an array of kit who has the job of looking after the trees, grass, hedges and machinery.
Dan Brown. The arboriculturist who, alongside working in the garden, is responsible for looking after Newby's two ornamental woods; Braggett and Icehouse.
Although each team member has areas of responsibility as described above, all can hedge and grass cut, plant, weed etc., i.e. traditional gardening skills. Whilst all the team are trained and ensure H&S and First Aid requirements are met, certain members have specific training and certification for chainsaw work and spraying. At the end of the season (October - April), work will involve bigger groundworks, turf replacement and hedges all cut. There's quite a lot of wear to renovate on certain turfed areas as roughly 140,000 folk visit during six months! There are special events held too: Italian Car and Motorcycle Extravaganza 2021, VW Campersite 2021 (successfully launched during 2020 to encourage visitors and comply with Covid-19 regulations), Historic Vehicle Rally 2021 and, for the first time, the Autumn Harrogate Flower Show which everyone is excited about. Each will bring in much needed revenue along with extra work and maintenance afterwards!
Espalier apple trees in the orchard garden / Double herbaceous border under preparation
There is also a team of ten to twelve volunteers who are involved in a number of significant projects to improve and maintain the gardens at Newby Hall. Volunteers usually work one day a week as a group under the supervision of a member of the Garden Team and enhance their work, e.g. dead-heading. Additionally, "We recently took on Meg for the summer," said Phil. "She had been here on a placement and realised there was an opportunity!"
Extra help for the gardening team isn't often required, but contractors will be brought in for large groundworks; digging out the Swan Pond for example. The soil profile changes across the site: sandy near to the river, otherwise heavy clay. Maintenance techniques involve adding as much organic matter as possible mostly, but striking a happy medium is important.
Presentation ranks very highly at Newby and as Phil said: "It's what the public pay for!"
Budgeting is not a strict affair at Newby for Phil. He is trusted to purchase what he needs to carry out the gardens work on a day-to-day basis. Naturally, if any items of large kit are required, then he needs to submit these to the land agent for approval. The budget for his major rock garden project is not an issue, he told me; "I have a good budget for that!" The Rock garden is Phil's main project, and will be for some time, but the double herbaceous border referred to earlier has been another, involving plant lifting and redesign.
Machinery is usually purchased as required from Ripon Farm Services (RFS); very close by! As Phil said; "They provide us with an excellent service and can keep us going if we have a machine down!" Very little machinery hire is necessary apart from 360 diggers and dumpers from time to time. Newby have a mechanic on site who handles day to day jobs but RFS carry out major servicing. The inevitable question then came: "What item is on your wish list?" "A 90 hp tractor," was Phil's prompt reply!
As for pests and diseases, Phil said that Honey Fungus was their main issue. This affects trees and woody plants. "You can take a diseased tree out but roots remain to cause problems," Phil says. Fortunately, not all trees and plants are affected as many are resistant to this fungus. Those resistant include: bamboo, box, hornbeam, flowering quince, clematis, cotinus, hawthorn, beech, holly, hebe, London plane, oak, false acacia, lime (Tilia), silver and Douglas fir and yew.
A glimpse of the River Ure
Rabbits can be a nuisance and are shot when spotted, moles are trapped. There are not too many problems with other pests. Weed control is undertaken using Glyphosate on footpaths, but biological solutions, such as ladybirds and nematodes, are used elsewhere and in glasshouses mainly. Flora and fauna are highly rated and managed as naturally as possible. This is aided by reduced machine use where practical. Consideration has been given to ecology and the environment too. For example, wildflower planting is ongoing, rainwater is harvested from the glasshouses roofs and certain areas of the grounds are deliberately left as meadows. Environmental legislative compliance includes waste management services and bunded fuel storage. I understand that Phil is looking at a water recycling system for machinery wash-off too.
Covid-19 has affected Newby along with so many others. All the team were furloughed at first lock-down, except Phil, so he needed to prioritise essential work. One important task was to carry on propagation work to ensure plants would become available when needed. As would be expected, some winter work suffered. Gradually, as restrictions started to ease, staff began to return and the team are now up to full strength again. "I think it will be another year before we've properly caught up." said Phil.
I asked if there had been any benefits from the Covid-19 restrictions and lack of visitors. "One of the positives is we were able to carry out much more mulching, and the others were we kept watering and the weeds down!" I heard from Phil, as I often do from others, that folk in this industry feel undervalued and sometimes ill-equipped. "The move to embrace technology has been slow" he says, "the old ways are not always the best!" Good PR helps to raise their profile and Newby's website certainly shows the gardens to good effect too. Securing the Harrogate Flower Show will have advantages also and being voted Historic Houses Garden of the Year in 2019 raised the teams' profile and pride!
South Front looking over the lily pond / Newby Hall East Front from main drive
We returned to the Estate Office where I'd finish my visit with a brief chat with Alex Morrison, Assistant Estate Manager. It had been suggested that I spoke to him about the huge land drainage project which he oversaw, so Phil handed me over and bade farewell. Alex explained that the Victorian land drainage throughout the park had been nearing the end of its life and wasn't performing. Intense use of the main area was presenting many problems as it became totally soaked. So, in order to maintain the grounds and be able to attract more events, the decision had been taken to replace the whole system. Newby used a consultant, Miles Flather of LDC, and a local contractor, Matthew of Hullah Contractors, for the project.
LDC carried out the design and, in the summer of 2019, the work commenced. They were blessed with good weather and all was completed within two months. "The contractor was very efficient" said Alex. "It's working very well and has survived massive downpours; first class! The prospect of holding the Harrogate Flower Show this autumn, helped to push this project up the list!"
We spoke about the garden tour and I mentioned the robotic mowers and automatic recharging. Alex then told me that the electricity to power the recharging is free and comes from Newby's own semi-compact hydroelectric plant! This is located on the River Ure and is an Archimedes Screw design providing a maximum of 99kW. What power is not used on mower charging goes back to the Grid.
Newby Hall is certainly embracing new technology now, ensuring sustainability and with a care for the environment.
Steam loco on Newby Hall Miniature Railway (credit Charlotte Graham)
What's in the shed?
Husqvarna P525D with 155cm mulching deck. 1.5 inch cut height for large formal areas
Stihl iMow RMI 632 - on trial from Ripon Farm Services. Looking to increase the amount of areas cut with robotic mowers to allow groundsman more time to create more fine turf areas in the garden
Weibang 56 Pro roller mower 3.6cm cut height - for small formal areas around borders and main hall
Wessex 145 WFM Flail Mower tractor mounted for orchards and meadow areas.
Stihl FS460 brushcutters
Kubota STW40 with front loader and 3 tonne trailer
Kioti CS2610 compact tractors x 2 with 2 tonne trailers
Stihl BR800 blowers
Billy Goat Debris loader
Stihl MS441 with 20 inch bar
Stihl MS241 with 14 inch bar
Stihl MS161T with 12 inch bar
Stihl HSA94R electric
Stihl HSA94T electric
Stihl HLA85 long reach