“We were wiped out by the Foot and Mouth Epidemic so we had to do something!” Penny Norton’s stoical explanation as to how the Passionate Lady Gardeners of Northumberland began as a group epitomised, for me, the nature of the people of Northumberland. 

Our tour guide, Judith Edgoose, gave us a brilliant synopsis of the history of The Land of The Prince Bishops and the Border country as we travelled from hotel to garden, garden to garden and back to hotel over the course of the weekend; we were reminded of the turbulent and violent past of this beautiful part of our nation.  From marauding Picts and Celts, raiders and invaders: Viking, Roman and Norman, and their own local Border Reivers (from whom we get the word ‘bereaved’), through the Wars of the Roses and the Civil War, the area is dotted with fortifications ranging from castles to the pele towers of farmsteads and isolated settlements. In more recent years, the people have prospered and lost with the rise and fall of industries such as shipbuilding, steel and coal.

Weather in this part of the country can be extreme – we were told that earlier this year the temperature dropped to -7 overnight – in June!  Deep snow is usual during the winter months, as are storms with torrential rain and strong winds, with resulting flash floods, damaged power lines and structural damage.  And just 2weeks before our visit, the gardens we were visiting had been ravaged by a hurricane – Penny had watched the blooms being torn off the bushes in her rose garden and being blown past her window as the wind cut through leaves, flowers and branches in its path.  You have to be tough, indefatigable and adaptable to survive here, whether you are human, livestock or plant!

Fortunately for us, the weather was beautiful for our visit and although the gardens had been ravaged by hurricane winds, the constant gardeners had been out tidying it all up so that we could enjoy the remaining blooms, and the wonderful designs of planting.

It was a long drive up to Durham on the Friday, but our mini coach was comfortable and we relaxed while our driver, Barry, got us safely and smoothly to our hotel.  Judith was waiting at the door for us and after we had checked in, she took us for a tour of the centre of Durham, and into the Cathedral for the end of Evensong.  The Verger kept the Cathedral open a bit longer for us to see the tomb of the Venerable Bede and the cloisters, then we walked back along the river and back to the hotel for dinner.

The following morning after a hearty breakfast we set off for Newbiggin House.  The gardens had been designed and begun in 1996by Daphne Scott-Harden in the grounds of a large stone house set into the hill at the top of Derwent Reservoir, with views out from the front of the house across the Derwent Valley, with its hills, moors and pastures. Each side of the house had gardens with differing characteristics, from the long lawns and sweeping drive, with ornamental lake at the front, the hill slope with ornamental trees to one side, and tall hedging with wide herbaceous borders on the other, up the stone steps to the sheltered back of the house we were led to the manicured lawns with sundial, obelisks and statues, surrounded by old fashioned roses and clematis, with dahlias, sweet peas, etc, in between, and dotted here and there a clipped ball of box to add some structure to the cascade of colour; there were patio areas with hops and climbing roses, kitchen herbs and lavenders which would fill the summer air as you sat and looked out at the peaceful view. 

We then made our way to Whalton Manor, stopping on the way for lunch in The Old School, Blanchland Village; the entire village has been owned and managed by Lord Crewe’s Charity since 1721 and is well worth visiting.  Whalton Manor was originally 4 separate houses which, over the centuries, were united, culminating in the contribution of Edwin Lutyens’ architectural expertise both in house and garden, and a garden (sadly now gone) designed by Gertrude Jekyll.  Penny is an artist and the garden is an artist’s dream – swathes of colour and height, architectural structures and both formal and ‘natural’ planting.  We came across plants which none of us could name, and one plant in particular even Penny could not name – a lovely Marguerite of some sort, but with strange leaf structure.  ‘Never mind’ laughed Penny, ‘Just ask Ginny when you visit her garden.  I am sure she gave me the cuttings’.  We had a delicious afternoon tea in the renovated Game Larder of the manor house which is full of photographs of the Manor House, gardens and the family.  The house is currently split into 3, with the family retaining the centre part, one wing is let out and the other wing is a holiday let.

Heading back to the hotel, we took a detour to see The Angel of the North – with the sun starting to set, it was a moving experience to stand beside this enormous structure which looks as if he is warding off would-be invaders, and about to launch himself into the sky.  Then it was back to the hotel for a quick swim before dinner.

Sunday morning we set off early to visit the Gardens of Alnwick Castle.  The Duchess of Northumberland is reported to have spent over £10 million in creating a series of gardens in the castle grounds.  The top of the garden has been set out as formal gardens, with high walls for shelter.  Not for the first time we found plants we could not identify, but most of the planting was labelled.  Cascades of fountains lead down to the wide lawns below; to the right is the renowned Poison Garden which you can only see on a guided walk as it is otherwise locked.  Our guide was well versed in the uses of the many plants in this garden, some of which were very familiar to us, but there were some surprise inclusions.  Across the lawns were the rose gardens, a maze and a water garden which comprised a series of ‘rooms’ with architectural structures designed to show the many features of water – how it can ‘hang’ like a curtain, how it can defy gravity, the power of water pressure and the action of a vortex – all fascinating to look at, but which can inspire the curiosity of children into learning more of the science.

After a brief lunch in the cafe and a look round the shop, it was time to explore the ‘tree house’ – a massive structure with rope bridges, cafe, information room and a restaurant.  Then back to the coach for our trip across the remains of Hadrian’s Wall to the very North of Northumberland to Mindrum with the Cheviots as its backdrop. The gardens are, again, on a hillside, with steep banks, a river and stream running along its edges and winding paths.  Ginny Fairfax has lived at Mindrum since 1965, her husband having bought the property in 1953.  The plants, especially on the rock garden, have to be strong to survive the extremes of weather, and Ginny’s huge greenhouse is full of cuttings, house plants and some extraordinary exotic plants – gifts from well-travelled friends.  Round the house were secluded patio areas with delightful pastel coloured borders and tubs with olive trees and sweet peas.  Ginny walked round the garden with us, describing the effects of the floods they had experienced, their challenges with planting, the mistakes they had made and the triumphs they had accomplished.  We finished off the visit with another lovely afternoon tea and Ginny took some cuttings from some of the plants we had been admiring for us to take home (including the mysterious Marguerite).  This was my favourite garden of the trip.

The journey to the hotel took us back through the wonderful countryside with the North Sea in the distance – it was hard to recall that this had been the scene of so much violence through the years. 

Monday, our final day of the trip, took us to Crook Hall on the outskirts of the City.  Judith suggested we set off early so some of us could spend some more time in the Cathedral, this time managing to see the tomb of St Cuthbert in what was once the apse of the cathedral.  The stained glass windows were beautiful, as were the embroideries and sculptures around the building, and the atmosphere was warm and welcoming as well as being very peaceful.  We walked from there to Crook Hall and met up with our coach and those who had chosen not to walk.  Crook Hall has a medieval hall and is designed in a series of gardens, most with stunning views either to the Cathedral in the distance or over pastures with horses grazing.  There were walled gardens which offered seclusion and peace as well as a courtyard garden that was shady and cool.  We had been recommended to try the homemade scones so after wandering at our leisure around the house and grounds, we sat in a sunny spot near the house and tucked in to scones, cream and jam, with our morning coffee.   Delicious!

At last we decided it was time to head home.  We said our farewells to Judith and thanked her for her professional and warm guidance on the trip.  Barry took a weary group of garden buffs home, surrounded by their new plants and cuttings.

The Passionate Lady Gardeners of Northumberland have made a considerable impact on those who have been lucky enough to visit their gardens.  They began at a time of loss and devastation as a result of the Foot and Mouth epidemic to try and encourage people to come back to the countryside and also to diversify from being totally reliant on the farming industry.  They have put all their resources and skills into transforming and enhancing their gardens, not just for their own benefit, but for ours too.  I think we were all impressed with the amount of work and passion they have put into making their gardens so very beautiful.  We all seemed to have our own favourites.  Each had their own characters and styles so it would be unfair to try and compare them.  We saw what can be achieved when millions are spent on creating a spectacular garden from scratch, designed to be open to the public all year round, and what can be achieved by individual gardeners making a garden out of a rugged and sometimes inhospitable landscape.  We can learn and be inspired from all that we saw.