Generations of genius

Image of Robin Lane Fox
A pathway through the garden at Sleightholmedale Lodge

The British summer has been at its wettest in Yorkshire. My hopes of a happy garden visit looked as if they would drown in the northern deluge on Thirsk’s station. How ever could a delphinium stay upright in such a downpour? Twelve hours later, in sunlight through light cloud, I had the best garden visit of the summer.

The three-acre garden at Sleightholmedale Lodge near Kirkbymoorside has had more than 100 years of planning and cultivation from members of one and the same family. Two of the guiding lights have been females, although the structure of the design owes most to a man. Now in her seventies, the present genius of the place, Rosanna James, took me on her artfully planned “royal route” past superb yellow primulas, still in flower, an ingenious mixture of Venus’s Fishing Rod above silvery Artemisia and a trendy patch of magenta-flowered geraniums in uncut grass. From a visit in early March nearly 35 years ago, I thought I remembered walls and some remarkable runs of trellis. Had they, perhaps, given way to old age? We passed a good clump of variegated dogwood and looked straight up a rising stone path, the first of several. Beside it, roses still run up brick walls and on long wooden trellises, now changed from oak to larchwood. They are flanked by plantings whose soft beauty and informality will be the image by which I now criticise my own.

Rosanna’s grandfather served as a military secretary to the imperious Lord Curzon in India more than a century ago. Somewhere in the cool hill stations he saw a garden of ascending paths and long wooden pergolas that imprinted itself on his mind. From 1907 onwards, after marrying in Yorkshire, he set about realising this remembered vision on the neutral to acid soil of a grassy hillside behind the house that his father-in-law Lord Feversham had given his daughter as a wedding present. Nowadays every designer would terrace the ascent and mark out patterns in nothing but evergreen box. There would be a narrow, fashionable rill of water and, since 1990, a muddle of ornamental grasses. There would never be dozens of delphiniums, propagated from old Edwardian survivors, each of whose spikes of flower is held up by a hand-painted green bamboo cane. The yellow foxgloves of Digitalis ambigua break up the foreground while pink-flowered willow herb and masses of yellow thalictrum sustain the middle to back rows. Big groups of seasonal mainstays keep the uphill vista at its best throughout the year. It has the free self-confidence and originality that only come from a devoted, critical mind.

“I have just won a first-class rosette,” Rosanna told me: how did she guess I had silently given her my own gold medal for the most atmospheric garden of 2012? She did not mean a rosette for the blocks of rare yellow flowered kniphofias and blue eryngiums with which she had replaced her grandmother’s exhausted hybrid tea roses. She had just won first prize for the champion heifer at the Yorkshire Show. Stock raising and the garden have been closely linked for the past 50 years.

Amazingly there is no full time gardener at Sleightholmedale except Rosanna herself. Her husband, Oliver, is a retired professor of medicine and grows neatly lined vegetables under a central area of netting. Rosanna’s horse is stabled on wood shavings and its manure is applied to the garden’s borders each year. She assures me that the wood shavings rot down much better than straw. On and off on weekdays she is helped by William, otherwise the cowman, and elderly Bob Pettitt, who has turned himself from ironworker to propagator in the past 50 years.

We met Bob by the forest of self-sown hollyhocks, which are sprayed against rust from February onwards. Aged 80, he had been acting on Rosanna’s “cuttings list” and was transferring bits of penstemon to the small greenhouse where he raises anything from fine meconopsis poppies to slow-growing species of peony. Rosanna’s talented mother, he recalled, was a plantswoman who disliked any plant out of place. He then showed me the “bible” that guides his work. The Propagation of Trees, Shrubs and Conifers dates from 1965 and its author Wilfrid G. Sheat is described as a “Horticulturist, Ministry of Transport”. Perhaps you know how to score a “good percentage” when layering the Pocket Handkerchief tree rather than sowing its stratified seeds. This remarkable book ought to be revived and taught to every member of the Ministry of Transport who nowadays orders the slashing of wild flowers along our country roads.

Cardiocrinum giganteum

The garden retains original rambler roses, unidentified since 1907. Rosanna praises the vigour of the neglected rose Minnehaha and considers a bush one with pink flowers, Polly, to be her favourite. The garden’s structure of paths and walls remains but the style has changed since the days of Rosanna’s mother, a brilliant grower of alpine plants. “I have loosened it out,” Rosanna explained to me, as we passed a superb green-flowered clump of tall veratrums beside unmown grass. I remembered her own early bible, the book she had shown me the evening before.

As a girl she studied a handbook, The Illustration of the British Flora, published in 1949. By each of the wild flowers she had noted in young handwriting where and when she had found them growing wild in the Yorkshire of her youth. This sensitivity to wild nature has flowered in the plantings of her adult maturity. She has a sense of colour and shape embedded in her mind’s eye but she does not plan contrived colour pairings. She values self-seeded plants, not in rebellion against her orderly mother, but in conformity with her own eye for botany in the field. The “loosening out” is not the result of accidental laissez faire. As we walked past the end of the hollyhocks she observed that two different types of verbascum had seeded too close together and one must come out so as not to detract from a self-seeded thalictrum nearby. I had never even noticed the two plants’ difference.

Informal planting in a formal structure is a famous recipe for a fine garden but it leaves the skilled ingredients to the chef. Rosanna has mastered tall cardiocrinum lilies and has even placed the finest group at the very top of a path, looking up through a wooden arch. The artlessness is only apparent. She keeps a notebook with a heading called Start Again. All the while, she reminds me, a garden of this type is on the move. So many of those modern “structural” gardens of evergreens are trying to inhibit movement and are for people who do not know how to go with the flow. Across 100 years the garden at Sleightholmedale is a rare view through three generations who have held on to a structure but allowed the style within it to evolve. It is not a garden of ones and twos, bought ready-grown from a nursery. It is a garden whose owners have decided what to multiply and have then multiplied it on site.

Apart from acquiring that heifer rosette, does Rosanna think she is changing too? “I walk a bit more slowly,” she replied, and continued dead-heading an intrusive variation on cow parsley as we walked past her peonies and blue campanulas. The garden has been open for the National Gardens Scheme every year since 1947. In my mental notebook I have a file headed Heavenly Places. Her garden has imprinted itself there in the top 10.

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