Rydal Hall revisited

A restoration project has given a Lake District estate a new lease of life, says Gavin McEwan.

In an idyllic setting at the heart of the Lake District, managers of a historic estate have taken an enlightened view on balancing the demands of the public with the need to preserve the character of its landscape.

Situated mid-way between Windermere and Grasmere, Rydal Hall's star attraction is Thomas Mawson's Edwardian Italianate terraced garden, with its fountain, balustrades, clipped box hedges and sculpted yew trees.

After decades of neglect, a diverse set of funding partners provided the £250,000 to pay for the three-year restoration project. Gardener Tom Attwood was recruited to oversee the work.

Attwood was undaunted by the magnitude of the task. "In its heyday, Rydal Hall would have had three or four gardeners," he says. "Yet expectations of the garden today are just as high."

This shortfall was overcome by using labour from various sources. "For two years we had a core of six volunteers, without whom it would have been very difficult," says Attwood.

These included students on a garden history module at the nearby Newton Rigg campus of the University of Cumbria. "It was fantastic for them, but it worked both ways," Attwood adds. "There are so few opportunities to strip back a garden of this scale to the bare bones."

The borders were intended to be planted with herbaceous plants that are now long gone, he says. "Gardens like this require a good deal of seasonal work, including replanting, but this hadn't been done year on year. We also had very little to go on."

He used the original designer Thomas Mawson's richly illustrated book The Art and Craft of Garden Making, which gave an idea of the designer's style.

One of the terrace's more unusual features is its early use of exposed aggregate precast concrete to form the main elements of the design - such as balustrades, urns and finials - rather than stone; though, in fact, this added to the complexity of the restoration, says Attwood.

Co-funder English Heritage regularly monitored the work to ensure reasonable historical fidelity.

Plants were sourced locally as far as possible, not least for their ability to withstand the Lake District's notably wet climate. "There are some very good, if small, nurseries near here, and it was good to support them," says Attwood. "Familiar plants, such as peonies, phlox, dahlias and hydrangeas predominate," he adds. "I wanted to use modern cultivars similar to those in the original, but which would do better. Mawson himself loved new plants."

Money has been set aside for five years' worth of maintenance of Rydal Hall's terrace. "It's vital that realistic funding continues," says Attwood. "It could so easily slip back. A lot of public money has gone into Rydal Hall, and it has generated so much publicity that people would notice if it wasn't being maintained."

Attwood has since moved on to become head gardener at Gresgarth Hall, Lancashire, home of landscape designer Arabella Lennox-Boyd, though he is aware of what he may be forgoing at Rydal. "This has been the catalyst for other things, such as the community vegetable garden, thanks to the involvement of societies, school groups and the public," he says.

The kitchen garden has also benefited from the restoration funding, which has paid for a new glasshouse. This allowed Attwood and his team to grow on plants from plugs rather than buying in fully grown specimens. But this community resource relies overwhelmingly on volunteers to maintain it.

"It works well together with the terrace," says Attwood. "You have the formality of one balanced against the fun of the other, and it gives you a change of scene."

Now in its first year of full production, it is hoped the garden will furnish the Hall's kitchens with fresh organic produce.

Another aspect of the restoration was the nearby Quiet Garden. Attwood and his team had even less to go on here. "Given the surviving acers, I suspect it was a Japanese garden - Mawson did a lot of them in the Lakes," he says.

Azaleas have been planted in place of self-seeded young trees, while around the pond are Iris, Rheum and Gunnera.

Beyond the cultivated areas lie 14ha of the estate's wooded slopes, surrounded by the Lake District National Park. The estate includes a conference centre, a recently refurbished tea shop, holiday cottage, bunkhouse (currently being developed as an education centre), campsites, adventure playground and a restored 19th-century game larder and ice house.

A public footpath, popular with fell walkers, passes through the heart of the estate, ensuring a steady stream of curious visitors to its attractions.

Estate manager Martin Scrowston says: "We encourage public access to the estate. The terrace gardens are open to the public daily from 10am to 4pm - the only condition being that visitors respect the gardens as a place of tranquillity and reflection."

Adjacent to the formal landscape, and in sharp contrast to it, Rydal Beck gushes through a scenic ravine, which can be viewed from a 17th-century summer house, popular with the Lakes' poets of the romantic era. The estate has plans to install a turbine to generate electricity from the river, while retaining its value as habitat for crayfish and water birds.

The wider estate boasts an 800-year-old sweet chestnut tree, Wellingtonia trees, roe and red deer, red squirrels and badgers - though the latter have tended to damage the croquet lawn on the terrace, highlighting the competing pressures inherent in such a multi-purpose site.

The trees are being surveyed. Scrowston explains: "We didn't have a record of the age and species diversity of our tree stock. We've also had problems with lots of hanging deadwood. As the landlord we are responsible for people staying and passing through."

He admits, though, that neglect has benefited the woodland's wildlife. "Much of the Lakes is over-managed," he says.

All these moves have boosted visitor numbers, he says, although the estate is cautious not to overload its carrying capacity. Car parking, for example, has been kept to a minimum, and is chiefly to allow disabled access. "We haven't actively promoted it," says Scrowson. "We prefer public awareness to be self-generating."


Rydal Hall was built in the 16th century and substantially extended in the 1800s. It remained the principal seat of the Le Fleming family until recent years.

The family commissioned respected garden designer, landscape architect and town planner Thomas Mawson to design the formal, Italianate terraced garden in 1911. It is one of around 20 gardens he designed in the county, which together show the changing fashions of the age.

Mawson went on to become the first president of the Institute of Landscape Architects, now the Landscape Institute, and is credited with coining the term "landscape architect".

The gardens fell into decline after World War Two, and stayed that way until the restoration project began in 2005 - a move that coincided with work on a number of other Mawson-designed gardens, including Boveridge in Dorset, featured in Chris Beardshaw's BBC TV series Hidden Gardens.

This has raised the profile of Mawson - prolific and influential in his day but who, according to his great-grandson Chris Mawson, "after his death, quickly dropped off the radar of gardening history". He had no clearly definable style, suggests the younger Mawson, often being more than willing to listen to his clients' suggestions.

In the 1970s the hall briefly became a hotel before being bought by the Diocese of Carlisle and turned into an ecumenical centre for conferences and retreats.


Architect: Paul Grout Associates

Main contractor: Cox &Allen

Partner: Cumbria Gardens Trust, Cumbria Vision, English Heritage, Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, Friends of the Lake District, Heritage Lottery Fund, Lake District National Park Authority, Living Spaces, Northern Rock Foundation, Northwest Regional Development Agency.

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