York Gate: Much In Little
Andrew Liddle, Features Writer
When Ben Preston became Head Gardener of a one-acre plot in a leafy suburb of Leeds he had a hard act to follow. It was August, 2017, and York Gate, tucked away in a quiet corner of Adel, had just been listed as the seventh best garden to visit in the UK - by no less an authority than The Times newspaper. This was some honour bearing in mind the number of green arcadias that Yorkshire alone can boast, never mind all those in the rest of the kingdom, and almost all of them very much bigger and better known.
A native of Boston Spa, he’d just turned thirty, was burning with energy and enthusiasm and was bringing with him the skills and experience acquired studying Horticulture at Nottingham-Trent University and as Head Gardener at Goldsborough Hall, near Knaresborough. The owners, the charitable organisation, Perennial, simply wanted him to take the garden forward and maintain the traditions of the Spencer family who had first begun work on it in the early-1950s.
When he first took up his post he reasoned there was room for improvement in almost everything in life so why not here. ‘I’m an ideas man,’ he says, a sweep of his hand taking in the pastures just opened at the rear of the formal gardens, his idea for more than doubling the overall acreage. ‘We are in the process of creating a wild flower meadow here – a traditional hay meadow, in fact.’ He explains in detail his plans in Autumn to sow Yellow Rattle, attractive in itself and good at suppressing other grasses which in turn will add to plant diversity. ‘In time, it will be a riot of colour, overflowing with ox-eye daisies, hop clover, meadow cranesbill and the occasional orchid.’ He can see it in his mind’s eye.
We sit down in the well-appointed tea rooms in the grand old Gothic-style house and he outlines how already, his ideas have started to bear fruit. The Snowdrop Week, held in February this year for the first time, attracted a footfall of 1400 and is something clearly destined to become an annual event. ‘Every week the number of visitors has increased and we are setting new records all the time,’ he says with a broad smile of satisfaction. ‘I love to see the garden full and so many people sharing the pleasure we take in our own work.’ He is keen to acknowledge the priceless contribution of Jack Ogg and also more than 70 volunteers. ‘We are extending the season, using successional planting so we can offer colour from April to late October, and there’s never a moment to waste. It’s high maintenance’
Soon it will be possible to take tea outside, on the lawn, as well as in the café and there are plans, eventually, to build a carpark and to add other amenities. Yet Ben is acutely aware of the need to avoid any taint of over-commercialisation and to preserve the spirit of the gardens - as they were when laid out by Robin Spencer, assuming control after the death of his father, Frederick, in 1963. Robin always acknowledged the influence of Hidcote Manor, the magnificent garden near Chipping Camden. Clearly, both owe a good deal to the Arts and Crafts Movement and are designed to maximise a relatively small space and to merge in with the surrounding countryside. After Robin’s premature death at the age of 47, his mother, Sybil, worked tirelessly to carry on his project and planted very many of the species we see today.
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Walking with the shades of Sylvia and Robin, we sit on her seats in her favourite spots, marvelling at the eccentricity of the ornaments he salvaged from antique fairs and demolition sites - a Victorian urn, for example, a pump, a sundial, Doric pillars and, not least, an incredible Dolphin Water Mask spouting a jet of water into a long raised canal where lily pads float. (This is a replica, the original having been stolen.) In the Kitchen garden we find statuesque pigs, rather less startling than the wild-eyed fish-faced gargoyle which had earlier popped out of a stray millstone or the grey griffin leaning menacingly against an old sink.
There’s a surprise round every corner, in fact, amazing topiary sculptures, a pond, flowery arbours, leafy bowers. At one stage we are among alpine plants and conifers; later we will rest in the shade of a summer house that could have been transported from the Mediterranean. Along the path from the Orchard to the Herb Garden, there are six pyramid-shaped Yew Tree ‘sails’ photographed so much that they that have assumed iconic status. In the Pinetum, we dawdle alongside a sixty-foot cedar that Sybil trained to grow length-ways. Everything is delightfully eccentric in a very English way and no inch of space has been wasted anywhere. There will be colour all the year round from the trees and bushes long after the flowers have gone.
In 1994 Sybil bequeathed her garden to the then Gardeners’ Royal Benevolent Society, now Perennial, and it has been in their care ever since. In 2016, they received a grant from the National Lottery heritage Fund, which enabled them with the help of volunteers to create a permanent archive telling the story of the making of the garden so that it might be preserved for posterity. The garden is in safe hands with Ben. ‘I’m just the keeper of the keys at the moment’, he says. ‘Everything I do is for the future but in sympathy with the past.’
He is currently writing a conservation plan to protect the garden’s history and heritage whilst working on its present. He came hoping to make the garden better than it’s ever been. With skill, flair and no little hard work he is obviously succeeding.
York Gate: Much In Little, 9th November 2018, 15:08 PM