Meeting report September 2022

Chris Beardshaw 

Mount Grace Priory Gardens

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/mount-grace-priory and

https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/mount-grace-priory/

A packed audience welcomed Chris Beardshaw for a talk on his work in helping to restore the gardens of Mount Grace Priory in North Yorkshire.

    Given the special circumstances on the night of the announcement of the death of Queen Elizabeth II, Chris began his talk with some fond anecdotes of meeting the Queen over the years at the Chelsea Flower Show. He went on to explain how he was approached by English Heritage and the National Trust who are jointly responsible for the house and grounds of Mount Grace in order to restore the gardens there.

    The original house at Mount Grace Manor had been developed under the auspices of Sir Issac Lowthian Bell, who owned and lived in the nearby house of Rounton Grange in the late C19th. He had been asked to take over the stewardship of the manor which he then developed as venue for house parties.

    Unfortunately, there were no surviving records for the gardens which had become decrepit and overgrown with dense wild tree cover. The manor grounds also lacked the basic amenities needed for people to want to visit a garden, i.e. “toilets and cake,” (the latter in the form of a cafe). 

    This did not mean that Chris had a free hand. The original garden must have been influenced by the Arts and Crafts style of the time. Philip Webb who had been the architect who worked on the house was very familiar with the style, while William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, noted proponents of the Arts and Crafts, had both contributed to the development of the site.

    Chris was employed to use his expertise to create a design which brought the Arts and Crafts style of the Manor House out into the garden. He explained that he approached the task by thinking of gardening as theatre. He wanted visitors to experience a sequence of events, each one tempting them further forward. A choreographed approach, part concealment, part timing as new vistas were opened up and new delights were presented.

     He used slides to illustrate the way he had achieved this. The planting was generous. Some 35,000 bulbs were used across the site, planted in drifts. In addition, well chosen plants were added throughout,. These included standards, exotics and natives which were all densely planted tumbling over each other in layers and drifts with dotted highlights. He talked about using swathes of green like a sorbet at a banquet for a calming effect on the eye, and how small flowered plants mix well into the overall design. In this naturalistic style the plants largely look after themselves. The mirroring drifts create patterns that sometimes repeat, sometimes surprise, all ebbing and flowing into the design.

    In conclusion, he related this approach to how it can be used in our own gardens. He suggested creating a calendar of plants so that there is something of interest in every month of the year. The technique he uses to design this is to layer tracing paper with a months worth of planting onto a master plan; then to keep adding layers month by month. He emphasised that you should always choose what effect you are aiming for, formal or informal. He advocated, dense planting, up to 25 plants to a square metre, and purchasing small plants in 9cm pots as these are both substantially cheaper than larger ones and will establish quickly.

    He finished the talk with slides from his RHS Chelsea Garden for the RNLI. He related how the site was designed, and then built, and where he travelled to source the plants from, even giving away one of the tricks of the professional designer. - Sparsely leaved trees and shrubs are given a watering of a weak sugar solution for several days after planting, as well as being regularly sprayed with a seaweed solution.