An oasis of tranquillity at Washington Old Hall, Tyne and Wear
PUBLISHED: 08:35 07 May 2010 | UPDATED: 17:08 20 February 2013
At around 2.5 acres, Washington Old Hall's garden is one of the National Trust's smaller and cosier delights
Amid the maze of roads, concrete flyovers, housing estates and shopping precincts that make up Washington New Town (if a place that was built nearly 50 years ago can still be regarded as new) stands a small but perfectly formed refuge.
It is Washington Old Hall.
The ancestral home of the first president of the United States, George Washington, the picturesque honey coloured stone mansion with its intimate garden, is as peaceful a place as you could hope to find.
Yet its position in Washington Village (as the original settlement was renamed when the new town came into being in 1964), is less than a minutes drive from the modern houses and wide roads that replaced the streets of old miners cottages and pit heaps.
At around 2.5 acres in size, Washington Old Halls garden is one of the National Trusts smaller and cosier. There are no sweeping vistas, winding paths, woods or half hidden ruined buildings to explore.
But while the grounds dont offer the acres of lakes, lawns and wilderness the public has come to expect at other National Trust properties, that doesnt mean a wasted trip. Quite the opposite.
For this is a garden to relax and tarry in, as many locals do. Free to access for all, during the summer months visitors can regularly be found picnicking on the lawns in front of the majestic manor or exploring the nuttery with its grassy paths dissecting a meadow bursting with wild flowers and insects.
The adventure begins as soon as you pass through the great iron gates. To your right as you step into the forecourt is a striking knot garden following a 17th century design, the elaborately clipped box hedges weaving over and under each other like thread on a loom.
A garden feature especially popular in Tudor times, as a middle-aged woman staring in awe and fascination at the intricate spectacle put it: You can almost hear the skirts of Queen Elizabeth I rustling on the gravel.
A short climb up a set of stone steps and you are on the path running in front of the hall. A superb magnolia tree standing 15 feet high hugs the wall, its deep green, waxy leaves appearing even more vibrant when set against the light colour of the huge stone blocks that climb upwards for three storeys to the halls pantiled roof.
Its too early in the year for the magnolias big white flowers to be in bloom - they make their appearance in late June and July - but the buds are there to see. A one-day wonder, the flowers open their petals only to die almost immediately, their short-lived beauty all the more special for it.
Just a few steps on is a very odd pairing - a honeysuckle intertwined with a kiwi, two parasites living off each other. Like the kiwi fruit we have all become familiar with, the stems of this plant trailing up the wall are covered in fine bristles.
Washingtons gardener Tom Todd had thought the kiwi had been successfully killed off when it was cut down and rooted out a few years ago. But he says: It is obviously made of sterner stuff. We didnt see it for about five years and then planted the honeysuckle and next thing we knew it was back.
Its obviously not native and no-one knows where it has come from, but for the time being we have decided to keep it. It seems to be a talking point with visitors. It doesnt have any fruit, but the leaves are interesting as they are large, hairy and heart-shaped.
Washington Old Hall is justifiably famous for its Boston Ivy that clads its south facing walls. In May its leaves are a gorgeous lustrous green, their shallow lobes giving a jagged appearance. Beautiful now, in autumn it really comes into its own, however, turning a fiery purplish red .
The top terrace with its neatly trimmed hedges and lawns ideal for picnics and lazy Sunday afternoons spent idly with a drink in your hand, leads down to a parterre.
A lift has recently been installed giving easier access to this area for wheelchairs and prams. Those able to walk down the steps will pass between a pair of fine English eagles - donated by an American as a bicentennial gift in 1976 - standing guard over the parterre.
An ornamental flower garden with the beds and paths laid out by low growing box hedges to form a pattern, parterres were popular in the 17th century. More intricate than the knot garden, the formal paths edged with evergreen are extremely dramatic.
Eight neat beds are filled with a variety of herbs, the heady scent wafting over the garden on the light spring breeze. Theres lemon balm, mint, oregano, thyme, rosemary, myrtle, lavender and marjoram to name but a few of the scented plants.
Herbs would often be planted near to homes in years gone by not just for medicinal and culinary purposes, but as an ancient air freshener to help revive stale smelling rooms.
Here in the parterre the herbs are at just the right height to softly swish your hands through, releasing their scent into the air and disturbing the odd bee gently going about its work on this pleasantly warm early spring day.
This is a touchy feely garden. Everything about it encourages you to touch and smell, and you are in no danger of anyone jumping out from behind a hedge to chastise you.
Elaborate white painted wooden seats including a huge W in their design for the Washington family, are set in to alcoves over-looking the herb beds. Behind rises a stone wall along which a grape vine and pear trees have been trained, the latters blossom lazily drifting down like snow to lie in small piles on the flower borders.
Here rainbow chard is growing nearly three feet high alongside yet more herbs, day lilies and ladys mantle. The heat reflecting back off the stonework makes this a pleasant place to stop, relax and breathe in the flowery scents.
Gardens like this were once a sign of great wealth due to the high level of maintenance required by teams of gardeners to keep them looking attractive throughout the year. They were also a place the rich could show off fashionable new varieties of flowers imported from abroad.
The parterre at Washington Old Hall is a fairly recent addition, however, only begun in 1994, an interpretation rather than a slavish copy as no records exist of the original garden design.
Tom declares it to still be a work in progress, but it is a part of the garden he is justifiably proud of.
To the bottom of the parterre is an area known as plot to plate where four local primary schools have for the past three years been learning about sowing, growing and cooking their own vegetables planted out in raised beds.
Through an oak gate crowned by a sundial bearing the date 1676 - 100 years before the American War of Independence - and the path takes you into the nuttery, a meadow planted with two varieties of hazel trees, their luminous purple and light green leaves gently wafting in the wind.
On the left is a small pond, in May home to hundreds of tadpoles as well as dragonflies and other insects. A heron has become a regular visitor, no doubt attracted by the easy picking the tadpoles in the pond provide.
There is no sign of the heron today, but there are plenty of other birds; wrens, great tits, tree creepers, finches and even a pheasant trying but failing to hide in the long grass dotted with splashes of purple blue knapweed, wild primroses and white woodruff.
Paths have been cut through the grass and a short walk to the top of an incline rewards you with a glorious view back towards the old hall, the oldest part of which dates back to around 1250, although it is predominantly from 1620.
This is the area where the Washington family settled in around 1180, taking their own name from the small settlement and starting to build the hall 70 years later. It was in turn to go on and give its title to one of the best-known and powerful capital cities in the world. A small piece of the North East in Mid-Atlantic America.
A reminder of the trans-Atlantic link can be seen in the right hand corner of the nuttery: a giant redwood. No-one knows how long it has been growing, but a willow arch leads into a shady den under the branches.
It is impossible to resist running your hands over the furry, red bark.
Back through the parterre, up to the top terrace and turn right and you are in the mead, a small meadow dotted with cowslips and the white of tiny celandine flowers. A cherry tree covered in pink blossom, stands proud in the middle.
Tom says cherry trees were George Washingtons favourite, and he planted them wherever he went.
For Tom - and many thousands of others - this is the perfect garden, a mix of wild and planned. As the only full-time gardener his reward for his labours is hearing and seeing the real pleasure it brings to visitors.
People dont expect it here, he says. The most amazing thing is the number of people who have lived in Washington for years and have never been. Only the other day a lady who had lived in Washington for more than 20 years and had walked past regularly but never came in, brought her grandchildren.
She was flabbergasted that this peaceful oasis existed in the middle of Washington. The last I saw of her she was sitting under a tree in the nuttery reading a book to her grandchildren. Its nice seeing people come here to relax and discover themselves.
Washington Old Hall, The Avenue, Washington Village, Washington, Tyne and Wear, NE38 7LE, (0191) 416-6879, www.nationaltrust.org.uk/northeast. Washington Old Hall and garden are open until October 31 Sunday-Wednesday 10am-5pm (house opens 11am). Admission to the garden is free but normal National Trust charges apply to the house.