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!
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.”
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.
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 …