The Saving Grace

Is it better to enter a garden, be immediately bowled over by the experience but be disappointed with the garden as the visit progresses or to begin on a low note, feel a little disappointed, but end with an experience of garden beauty that demands you simply sit, look and attempt, even if this is a vain effort, to take in the magnificence and beauty that is presented to you?

Perhaps, it is better to learn from experience to be patient and to be forgiving, to be less demanding and less critical and to give every garden time to tell its story. I must confess to being quick to judgement, to being influenced by the initial impact of a garden and to being slow, reluctant, stubborn even to ameliorate my opinions. It has been suggested in this household that the Victor Meldrew character in the television programme, “One Foot in the Grave” was undoubtedly based on me or certainly presents a reasonably accurate reflection of my behaviour.

I genuinely do not intend nor wish to be harsh or unreasonably judgmental of gardens I visit but can easily feel disappointed, annoyed and even angry when I have paid for admission and find the garden visited is of a poor standard. My friends should be reassured that I do not carry such demands when I visit their gardens – such occasions are for the pleasure of their company and the sharing of gardening chat and the enjoyment of plants and garden.

The impressive approach to Arley Hall through an avenue of pleached lime trees.


A recent visit to Arley Hall (Cheshire, England) was a mixed experience when some areas delighted me and others disappointed. Given that it is an eight acre garden it is not surprising, I suppose, that some areas will appeal while others will not. The entrance is hugely impressive as one walks through a fabulous avenue of pleached lime trees with a view to the clock tower above the Cruck Barn, dating from 1470. It speaks of  a place well established, well settled and comfortable in itself, of generations who have lived, worked and gardened here and promises that the visit will be enjoyed.

A glimpse of the house and the simple and impressive planting of mophead hydrangeas
The Cruck Barn which dates from 1470

The entrance is via what was once the farmyard and the impressive outbuildings still stand proud and in excellent condition. This yard now has three garden areas wrapped around it – The Flag Garden, The Kitchen Garden and The Walled Garden. Each area in turn disappointed; each had the promise and the facility to be excellent but none reached that standard. The Flag Garden was tired and past its best though a Schizophragma hydrangeoides ‘Roseum’ grown on the wall was very attractive. The Kitchen Garden was well organised  but also weedy in places – something which irritates me very much! The Walled Garden was in need of rejuvenation with many plants, mainly shrubs and small trees, in need of replacement – the borders were gappy.

The Flag  Garden, a small garden space planted mainly with roses and lavender 
Schizophragma hydrangeoides on the wall of the Flag Garden
The Kitchen Garden
The glasshouse in the kitchen garden 
The Walled Garden
The Walled Garden

The impressive gates of the walled garden led us to an area which at once surprised, delighted and took one’s breath away. Here was one of those rare gardening experiences where one saw genius and beauty combined to perfect effect. It is without doubt the jewel of the gardens at Arley Hall and would a jewel in any garden in the world. It was quite simply outstanding, a combination of structure provided by the yew hedges and the colour of the herbaceous planting. It was a situation where the overall effect far outweighed the sum of the parts and I reflect now that I did not walk the borders to pick out the various plants included in the planting because the individual plants were only  of significance in that they contributed to an overall picture. The gardens were very quiet – only two others that we say – and we sat for a long time in The Alcove to enjoy this marvel of gardening.

The Alcove situated at one end of the herbaceous borders is the perfect place to sit and enjoy the experience. 
The double herbaceous borders 
Truly, fabulously beautiful! 
The Saving Grace – the double herbaceous borders. 

With my spirits raised I moved along to enjoy the Tea Cottage and its garden, built for the children of a previous generation of the family, and the Fish Garden, a small sunken garden and The Ilex Avenue, an impressive planting of clipped hollies. The Rootree was rather a wilderness and I did not dally  before making my way back to the house along the Furlong Walk, a pleasant straight walk with garden to one side and farmland to the other.

The Tea Cottage and its garden
The Ilex Avenue
The Fish Garden

We made a quick visit to the Plant Nursery – closing time was quickly approaching – and found a few nice plants to bring home. Our final impression of Arley Hall was that of the man  who served us in the Plant Nursery who went to generous lengths to ensure our plants were well packaged so as to travel safely on our return journey to Ireland.

Paddy Tobin

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4 thoughts on “The Saving Grace

  1. I can sometimes be disappointed when visiting gardens too – the main gripe usually being that they could do with more perennials in flower. I was not wildly impressed last time I went to Hidcote, though it seems terrible to write that.

    To counter this, I remind myself of the impossibility of any garden looking its best all year round and the expense and labour involved in getting any garden perfect, in all weathers. Combine this with the relatively few people like us who are prepared to pay to visit many of these places – you mention how quiet the garden was during your visit – my hat is off to gardens for the pleasure they bring us and their labour of love.

    Arley is one of my favourite gardens and so far as I’m aware it’s run independently, without National Trust or RHS funds. I always think the kitchen gardens are prettiest when the peonies and irises are flowering.


    1. We went to visit with great expectations and it wasn’t all good. The double herbaceous borders were fabulous and alone were worth a visit but other areas disappointed. I have heard others pass the same comment as yours re Hidcote. Many thanks for your comment. Paddy

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for some stunning images Paddy.

    I can forgive the let downs if I can see that the garden owner is aware of the problem and is making an effort to pull things back up to the expected standard. My first visit to Mount Stewart many years ago was very disappointing. The bones were good, but it was looking very tired. It still has some areas in need of TLC but if you go today you can see that the problems are being addressed, within the money available, and an enormous effort to build for the future is being made and that is what matters to me.

    There are some lovely gardens on this island, but almost all of the good ones are at the same price point as Arley with less to see. I say almost advisedly. Most of the best private gardens in Ireland are not the most expensive. There seems to be a perception out there that if Helen Dillon or the Blakes can charge x amount it is OK for someone who’s garden doesn’t get a fraction of the work put into it can do the same – or indeed charge more. Sometimes this seems to be because the sheer scale of the garden has defeated the owner, more often the expression brass neck comes to mind. A garden open to the public is a round the clock, round the calendar commitment, and if a garden owner doesn’t want to make that commitment they should simply enjoy it themselves for what it is in the time available to them to work on it, invite their friends round, and maybe open it for charity at the time of year when it is looking at its best.

    I worry about gardens in the care of the state here – the lack of cash seems to lead inevitably to simplification and a gradual slide in quality. I’m thinking particularly of Malahide where I was lucky enough to see it as a private garden. Since those days many of the smaller southern hemisphere plants have disappeared – many went immediately after it fell into public ownership and, I strongly suspect, went to unscrupulous gardeners – and the planting has been greatly simplified. Despite the best attempts of underfunded head gardeners over the years the excitement is gone. I fear for other great gardens that rely on state funding such as Altamont and Mount Congreve as their care is tossed from department to department with a lack of high level funding commitment.


    1. Oh, Kathryn, could we form a choir and sing this chorus together!

      I hope to get to visit Mount Stewart shortly and am looking forward to it as I have heard great reports of Neil’s work there.

      It is two years since I have visited Malahide and I have no desire to return. Altamont is a garden I enjoy very much and feel that Paul Cutler and staff have done a good job there – there is the wonderful advantage that Paul worked with Mrs. North and now continues the garden in line with her ideas. Mount Congreve is not yet in the hands of the state but remains in the control of the trust set up by Ambrose Congreve and the gardens are simply on a standstill at present for lack of finance and lack of drive as those on the trust do not seem to have any desire to improve the gardens and yet have not divested authority to those on the ground to undertake any developments on the garden. It is a garden very close to my heart, very local to me, and it is, in my opinion, one of the most important gardens in the country.

      Your comments on gardeners opening their gardens to the public are ones I agree with so very much. There are many which simply are not good enough to be charging people for admission. However, here in Ireland, despite our reputation as begrudgers, we are very slow to criticise gardens we visit and, generally, criticism is not only not accepted but met with hostility.

      Many thanks for your comment and let’s hope we have many gardens we can still enjoy and good days in which to enjoy them. Paddy


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