Kirkley Hall - these beautiful gardens near Ponteland are not just about the plants and flowers

PUBLISHED: 00:26 20 May 2013

NEL May garden

NEL May garden

Linda Viney

These beautiful gardens near Ponteland are not just about the plants and flowers, great careers take root here too

It’s not just the national collection of beech trees at Kirkley Hall that are special to gardener Paul Morrison, his family tree is important too. Paul’s great-grandfather was also head gardener at the 17th century mansion on the banks of the River Blyth near Ponteland.

Now the younger generation is leading the gardens, which are surrounded by stunning Northumbrian countryside, through a period of growth and transformation.

Since the end of the Second World War the Grade II listed hall and its grounds have been in the hands of Northumberland City Council and has provided agricultural and land based training as part of the campus of Northumberland College.

The circular bed in front of the clock tower used to house a beautiful Cedar of Lebanon tree which was lost in a storm a few years ago, it has been replaced but will probably be generations before it grows to its full glory. Surrounded by colourful red stems of the dogwood it stands proud.

Paul has been here for 20 years since studying at the college. He is passionate about plants and is always on the look out for new ones coming out. His colleague Daniel Goodwin also studied at the college and became a metalworker before returning as gardener six years ago. They are assisted by another gardener, one apprentice and students, for students studying horticulture or floristry, they are lucky to have the extensive grounds as their classroom enabling them to have hands on experience.

The gardens stretch over four hectares which house one of two National Collections of beech trees with 96 cultivars – the other is held by Prince Charles at Highgrove. There is a Victorian Walled Garden, which once provided the vegetables and cut flowers for the hall with remains of the old fires used to heat the walls where apricots, peaches and cherries were grown. Crows now often nest in the holes.

Kirkley is also home to a large collection of unusual trees and shrubs, large commercial size greenhouses and extensive herbaceous plantings, over 35,000 species are labelled for identification, it is a vast area for just three gardeners to manage.

Every day brings new delights, Paul said as we paused by the dry grass gravel area with bamboos and ornamental grasses wafting in the breeze. Strolling down the path, which meanders past evergreen shrubs and collection of trees, the winter flowering cornus mas Golden Glory and viburnham had both suffered frost damage but still added interest. The white bark of betula jackmanii lit up the area and appeared freshly cleaned.

In the large walled garden, the herbaceous plants were just beginning to shoot through the hard ground and some circular metal structures to support them were made by Daniel. This area is sub-divided by formal trimmed beech hedges which add shelter as well. A large polytunnel was lost by wind and the area has been cleared and planted up with a small orchard of apple, plum and pear trees. Fan trained apple trees against the walls have been there for nearly 50 years but still produce fruit.

‘We benefit from a large variety of plants but many are now outgrowing their space so maintenance is very important,’ Paul said. ‘We are managing to propagate some and we grow many of our own special plants, some are sold in the shop.

‘The small zoo at Kirkley opened two years ago and this has attracted more visitors who will also visit the gardens. The clientele is different so we are also growing bedding type plants to sell when in flower for their pots and hanging baskets for them.’

Plans are afoot for Kirkley Hall to have a farm shop and to that end they are getting a budget to grow vegetables both for that and the cafe. Initially it will be the mainstay potatoes, beans, peas, cabbage and lettuce but who knows if it proves a success more unusual varieties may find their way in.

‘Even after all these years I still love coming to work here and every day is different,’ Paul said.

Through the garden gate

The gardens are open in the school holidays when the students aren’t around and at weekends, in season. The Orangery Tea Rooms and gift shop with plant sales are open seven days a week, 10am-2pm weekdays and weekends and school holidays 10am-5pm. There are events held throughout the year including plant identification workshops and cream tea and garden walks. Garden tours with a maximum of 40 people can also be arranged.

For more information call 01670 841235 or go online to www.kirkleyhall.co.uk.

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