Although the gardens at Levens Hall, near Kendal, are world-famous for their historic topiary, in my experience it’s a less well known fact just how important the gardens really are. Levens Hall holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s oldest topiary garden, and with over 100 pieces to look after, the gardeners have their work cut out – literally. Cutting and trimming of the topiary begins in September – and doesn’t end until February…
It’s easy to use words such as ‘stunning’ and ‘beautiful’, but on my latest visit these adjectives don’t really do the gardens justice. Despite the fact that Levens Hall is low-lying and some of its grounds were flooded during Storm Desmond in December 2015, the only evidence of this is the marker stone complete with plaque, as you enter the grounds from the car park.
The gardens were pristine, and with some of the roses still in flower and the borders beginning to burst with summer colour, now really is the best time to visit.
Here are a few of the wonderful things you’ll see:
1. The world’s oldest topiary garden
The gardens at Levens Hall date back to 1694, and because such gardens went out of fashion during the 1700s and were replaced with newer trends, the one at Levens has survived to become the oldest example of a topiary garden in the world.
Some of the 100 pieces are named, while others are more abstract in shape. The gardens were designed by Monsieur Guillaume Beaumont, who had been gardener to King James II, and there have been just 10 head gardeners since.
In addition to the topiary garden you’ll find a rose garden, orchard, nuttery, herb garden, beech hedge walk and bowling green, as well as vegetable borders and herbaceous borders.
2. Characterful hedges and features throughout
Leaving the topiary garden, there are a series of tall beech hedges and pergolas, which lead in different directions, including to the beech circle (a grass clearing surrounded by circular hedge) and the fountain garden.
In the brightness of the sun it’s easy to walk through the gaps in the hedges and pay little attention to what’s inside, but having taken the garden tour (ring to check when garden tours are taking place), I learnt that some of the beech trunks rub together and fuse, creating the most enchanting shapes behind the beech foliage. Take a look for yourself – it’s a fascinating world inside the hedges!
3. Beautiful flowering borders
Beyond the formal topiary garden and beech hedges you’ll find long colourful rows of softer border planting – a lovely contrast, and at their best from July onwards.
Veg grows big in this garden – it’s very warm and sheltered, so I can understand why! There’s also a very ornate as well as functional herb garden.
5. Something for every season
Visit in spring and the orchard is full of tulips, which makes a stunning display, and the topiary looks clean cut after its autumn/winter trim.
Visit again in the summer and the topiary’s starting to grow a little bit fuzzy, but you’ll catch the roses, the borders are full to bursting, and you’ll see the Tropaeolum speciosum – otherwise known as the Scottish Flame Flower. This colourful creeper climbs all over the yew topiary, and looks very pretty draped over the yew arches. It’s also apparently a bit of a pest, and needs to be removed every now and again to protect the topiary.
6. Tea outside at the Bellingham Buttery
Levens Hall has its own ‘olde worlde’ tearoom called the Bellingham Buttery, and it’s lovely on a sunny day to sit outside looking at the colourful planting and topiary in the the small courtyard garden there.
7. A living willow maze
I saw this maze when it was originally planted back in 2009, and how it has grown! Navigate your way through the maze to find out what’s in the middle…
8. An adventure playground for children
There’s a lovely little play area for children, with a couple of picnic benches for adults to sit at too. Recently Levens Hall has opened the ‘Smokehouse’ (historically used by the pipe smokers in the household, not for smoking food!) to house interactive displays for children about bugs and creepy crawlies.
9. Beautiful walks through neighbouring parkland
On the opposite side of the road to Levens Hall lies a beautiful parkland walk along the river. You may also spot the Bagot goats, which weren’t around for a photo opportunity when I visited, but I saw them on a previous visit and they were full of fun and character.
10. Steam traction engines (Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays, weather permitting)
I haven’t seen these for myself, but on selected days ‘Little Gem’, a half-size traction engine, is in steam, and you can enjoy a ride for a small charge. ‘Bertha’, the big traction engine is awaiting repair, so isn’t in steam at the moment.
11. A warm welcome and attention to detail
I received a very warm welcome to Levens and was very fortunate that I’d timed my visit to coincide with one of the garden tours. This lasted for over 45 minutes and was a lovely way to learn more about the garden and pick up some tips from one of the gardeners – it’s reassuring to hear how they have to deal with annoying pests and problems too!
Box blight has been a huge problem at Levens Hall, and a staggering 1.7km of low box hedging needed to be ripped out due to the disease, and has since been replaced with a type of ilex. They’re also conducting trials on the best replacement for the original box long-term.
The gardeners also grow 30,000 bedding plants in the greenhouses each year to ensure a constant display throughout the season.
And talking of a warm welcome…
12. A visit to the house itself
And whilst I’ve talked about the gardens here, you can of course also visit Levens Hall itself, an Elizabethan house built around a 13th century Pele Tower (as so many of the Lake District’s historic houses are) and Great Hall. It was a gorgeous day, and so I really just wanted to enjoy the weather in the gardens, but Levens Hall is also well worth a visit if you enjoy historic houses.
Admittance to the gardens is currently £9.90 (£13.50 for the house and gardens), and whilst this is towards the top end of what you’d expect to pay for other local houses and gardens locally, I really felt I’d got excellent value for money because of the attention to detail found around every corner.
For more information, visit Levens Hall online.
Have you visited Levens Hall? What did you think, and have you visited the inside of the house? Let us know by leaving a comment below!