The first owner of Holker Hall who is on record as having taken an interest in the garden is Sir Thomas Lowther, a Member of Parliament, a traveller and, obviously, a man of taste. That was in the eighteenth century. Sir Thomas married a daughter of the Duke of Devonshire, and it was through this marriage that the property came into the family of Mr and Mrs Hugh Cavendish, who live at Holker (pronounced ‘Hooker’) today.
Sir Thomas bought statues in Italy and brought them to Cumbria by sea, to within a mile of the house, where they were landed at a small, specially built wharf, now long since disappeared. In those spacious days such complicated and expensive operations were more feasible.
The garden at Holker is still shaded by some of the magnificent oaks, beeches and sycamores which Sir Thomas planted – one of the finest cutbeeches (Fagus sylvatica heterophylla) in the country grows at Holker – and it is these trees which provide the high shade for the rare , azaleas and magnolias which make the beauty of the garden in spring and summer. The trees have lasted longer than the statues, many of which must have succumbed to the occasional cold Cumbrian winter or have been moved to other Cavendish properties, such as Hardwick, or Chatsworth. Mr and Mrs Hugh Cavendish hope, in time, to replace them.
Above: Flower beds massed with phlox under the many-windowed south facade of Holker Hall, built about 1870.
The garden at Holker is large, and it is full of surprises: hidden glades, winding paths, with here and there spreading lawns and mossy banks. There are two small formal gardens, one a rose garden, which the visitor approaches through a pergola laden with wistaria, honeysuckle, roses, vines, jasmines, clematis and two unusual, Abelia floribunda, from Mexico, with dark red in June, and Schizandra chinensis, from China, with pale pink flowers in spring. The other formally laid out garden consists of herbaceous borders and lies to the south of the new wing of the house, added about 1870. These borders fairly blaze away from mid-May until the first frosts.
But the great beauty of the garden at Holker is the rhododendrons, which revel in the acid soil, the usually mild climate and the site itself of the garden, a slope falling gently to the south, beautifully sheltered and drained – ideal conditions for gardening, and for rhododendrons: there are few months at Holker when there are not some in flower.
Perhaps the rarestin the garden is the sweetly scented R. fragrantissimum which flowers there out of doors. It does so in very few English gardens, and even in the benevolent climate of Holker it does not flower every year. First to flower after the very short ‘dead’ season of October is
nobleanum, which shows its blooms above brown-felted throughout the mild spells of winter. Then praecox, with rosy purple flowers, takes over. After that there is a continuity and generosity of flower, dozens of varieties flowering one after the other, or at the same time, reaching their peak in May, and only ending with the shell-pink-flowered auriculatums in late September. Visitors to Holker often say that they seem to ‘see’ rhododendrons there for the first time, so at home do they seem, and so much in their natural setting.
The most spectacular moment in the garden is perhaps in May when the towering Rhododendron arboreum are in crimson flower round the fountain.
These plants, or rather trees, are completely reliable, flowering every year with unfailing regularity and exuberance. They are thought to be over a hundred years old.
Some of the rhododendrons grown at Holker are sweetly scented – Rhododendron cilia turn, especially, with its flowers sometimes showing their rose-red buds through a late fall of snow. In July the Loderi group lays its voluptuous perfume on the air, their pale flowers in sharp contrast with the orange spires of embothrium nearby. Later the flowers of Rhododendron megacalyx scent the air with nutmeg, followed by Rhododendron discolor, one of the hardiest of of the late-flowering rhododendrons from China.
There are many other treats at Holker besides rhododendrons. There is a cherry walk, old mulberry trees, catalpas (Catalpa bignonioides), tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera), good specimens of the seldom-grown yellow wood (Cladrastis lutea), Hoheria lyallii from New Zealand, and the rare winter bark (Drymis winteri). Some of these shrubs, planted in the early nineteenth century, are still growing merrily, such as a centagenarian calico bush (Kalmia latifolia): some still carry their original labels, tribute to how carefully the garden has been maintained throughout the years.
A sensational tree in the garden at Holker – sensational in every sense of the word, as will be seen -is a towering Magnolia Campbellii which shows its pink candles of flowers high above the wall lying between the garden and the Ulverston Road. This has sometimes so forcibly caught the eye of passing motorists, that they brake their cars to have another look. Happily, no serious accident has so far resulted.
Another remarkable tree in the garden, though some may think it more curious than beautiful, is a vast monkey puzzle (arucaria), sole survivor of the first batch grown fromin England by the famous Joseph Paxton, whom we read of elsewhere in connection with the garden at Chatsworth. At the time of the Duke of Devonshire who built a new wing on to the house in the 1870s, this monkey puzzle (already 30 feet high) was blown down and a prize team of shire horses was brought into the garden to heave it into place again: since then it has never looked back. More evidence of how things were easier in those days.
Parts of the garden at Holker may be considered a little informal for some tastes – even a little wild. Wild garlic grows happily among the bluebells, and foxgloves among the rhododendrons. But one guest, many years ago, Lord Robert Cecil, found it very much to his taste, and said it was his idea of the Garden of Eden.
OPEN Easter Sunday – September 30th: daily, except Saturday (special events days excepted) 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.
LOCATION 12 miles from M6 (Exit 36), 4 miles past Grange-over-Sands on B5277 Grange to Newby Bridge road.