Levens Hall, Cumbria

My first visit to this outstanding UK garden was in the 1980s as it’s not too far from where friends lived in Lancashire so when we found ourselves more or less passing right by it in 2018, we decided it really was worth seeing again.

The site of Levens Hall has been occupied as a family home since 1170, and the land around the home has been developed as several types of garden but most visitors will be here because of the topiary which dates back to the 17th century, making it the oldest in the world!

Topiary at Levens Hall. Photo: Sandra Simpson

It’s rather mad topiary though, in that most of the more than 100 pieces are just whatever shape a gardener, at some point in time, has decided to clip. It gives that part of the garden something of an Alice in Wonderland vibe (for me, anyway).

Some of the trees and bushes are 300 years old and the guidebook reveals that the layout of this garden has changed little since its planting in the 1690s. “Then it was really fashionable to have a garden in the Dutch style with clipped greens set in a pattern of formal box-edged flower beds. Fashions changed by the 1730s, however, and most similar gardens were ripped out to make way for the new trend of natural landscaping. Amazingly, this garden survived that purge, was enhanced in the 19th century, and continued through even the economic pressures of the 20th century.”

Many of the topiary are yew, both Taxus baccata (green) and Taxus baccata ‘Aurea’ (golden yew) and various forms of box.

A gardener told me they’d had box blight in their little edging hedges so had pulled out 1.7km of them, replacing with Japanese holly. But then that developed rot in the fine feeding roots so they researched blight-resistant box and have come up with the ‘John Baldwin’ cultivar (apparently available in New Zealand) which they’re taking thousands of cuttings from. They also mulch the ground, believing it provides an infection barrier when it rains.

A view along the topiary walk. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The parterre gardens beneath some of the topiary are changed twice a year with more than 15,000 annual bedding plants, all grown on site, used each time. The topiary itself takes months to trim but is done only once a year, starting in September (late summer-early autumn).

I said there were other gardens here too …

The Main Borders between the orchard (to the right) and the bowling green (left) are always planted in pastel shades, while the borders beyond the Beech Circle are planted with stronger colours. The 300-year-old bowling green is one of the oldest in Britain and is still used by a local croquet club. It’s flanked on another side by a ‘grey border’ but at the end of a record hot, dry summer it was pretty well finished. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Nasturtium ‘Alaska’ in flower in the Herb Garden. In the background on the far left are golden hops, Humulus lupus ‘Aureus’. Photo: Sandra Simpson
The Vegetable Borders were great fun. On the wigwams are the Italian Pole Bean ‘Viola Cornetti’ which produces purple pods (sadly, turning green when cooked) and cardoons (artichoke thistles). Other borders featured good-looking rhubarb, seakale, asparagus, beetroot and courgettes. Photo: Sandra Simpson
The answer to the question you didn’t know you had … what does the inside of an ancient beech hedge look like? Approximately 500m long, the hedge, as well as having long straight lengths, also forms a circle around a fountain pond. It takes two people many months to clip each year. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Megan Wraight, 1962-2020

She may not have been a household name but Megan Wraight achieved some groundbreaking moments during her career in landscape design, including in 2013 being the first landscape architect to be named as an Arts Foundation Laureate.

Wraight, who died on Monday, is being remembered for her influence on several of the Wellington’s landmark public spaces, and her tenacious, collaborative attitude towards design. Read more here.

Her many awards, listed on her company’s website, also include being honoured in the 2006 International Federation of Landscape Architects awards.

Wraight was a pioneer in the creation of dynamic public space: designing spaces that boldly balance the restoration of environment and heritage with the need for people of all ages and backgrounds to explore and creatively play.

Among her designs are the visitor centre at Waitomo Caves and the 6ha urban Waitangi Park on the Wellington waterfront.

Waitangi Park with the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa in the background. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The Wellington City Council has a fascinating glimpse into the history of this land: Waitangi Stream once fed an extensive wetland used for centuries by Māori for food-gathering, as a source of fresh water, and as a place to launch waka. European settler plans to turn the stream into a canal ended when the 1855 earthquake lifted the land by 1.5m. After land reclamation, the stream became part of an underground stormwater system. Over the last century the park has been a number of things including the site of a morgue, a bus park and a huge incinerator.

Today, the park park has a large grassed area, skateboard park and an innovative playground, but its most distinctive feature is the re-created wetland – the vegetation and gravels are designed to filter and cleanse the Waitangi Stream, which has been released from its pipe.

Boardwalks cross the wetland plantings in Waitangi Park. Photo: Sandra Simpson

On the other side of Te Papa is the well-known Taranaki Jump Platform (named for the old Taranaki Wharf), an award-design by Wraight + Associates that has given so much joy to both jumpers and spectators.

A jumper gets fancy on the Wellington waterfront. Photo: Sandra Simpson