Artistry in the Lindisfarne garden
PUBLISHED: 08:31 03 July 2010 | UPDATED: 17:30 20 February 2013
Battered by northeasterly winds, delicate flowers thrive in Lindisfarne Castle's walled garden - one woman's triumph over the elements
Holy Island is a magical place, the sort of location that if it didnt exist would undoubtedly have been invented by a literary heavyweight.
You can imagine Enid Blytons Famous Five or Secret Seven marching off into the distance across the islands grass-covered dunes, backpacks stuffed full of ginger beer, hard boiled eggs and ham sandwiches, for another rollicking adventure.
Or a character straight out of a Dickens novel running away from their tortured past standing alone and defiant on the rocky seashore, the ever present wind whipping their hair as they stare out across the grey sea to the Farne Islands rising like a hump back whale from the waters.
A right turn off the A1 at the Lindisfarne Inn, and the road takes you over the main east coast rail line and up a small but sharp incline. Then suddenly its there in front of you: a never-ending vista of sky and water with Holy Island floating low in the sea and, in the distance, the bulk of Lindisfarne Castle rising up on its craggy volcanic outcrop like a giant carbuncle.
A short drive over the narrow causeway, the rippling mudflats and salt marshes stretching off into the distance either side, and youre on the island proper, with its flat pastureland and neat streets of honey-coloured, terracotta-roofed houses.
Its the height of summer, and the sun is beating down from a hazy blue sky. On the mainland, its shaping up to be a hot July day, but here on Holy Island the breeze threatens to take the edge off the temperature. Even in July there is an edge to the puffs of sea fresh air.
You can see why trees for the most part fail to survive and thrive. For these are the type of winds that desiccate all but the toughest of plants. So it is surprising to learn that Holy Island - or Lindisfarne as it is also known - is home to one of the nations most important, charming and colourful gardens.
It lies to the north of Lindisfarne Castle, shrouded from view by high stone walls. And it is the work of one of our greatest gardeners, Gertrude Jekyll.
Probably one of Gertrudes smallest projects - it covers a mere one-eighth of an acre - it is certainly the tiniest entire garden in the National Trusts portfolio, in whose hands it now resides along with the castle.
It was in 1889 that Gertrude - already an established and famous garden designer - first met the young architect Edwin Lutyens. In 1899 she became friends with Edward Hudson, the founder of Country Life, who persuaded her to contribute to his magazine.
From 1900, Lutyens houses and Gertrudes gardens were proclaimed through the pages of Hudsons glossy periodical.
Hudson had by this time bought Lindisfarne Castle, and he convinced Gertrude and Lutyens to collaborate on work on the 16th century fortress and garden, and report on it in Country Life.
In May 1906 Gertrude stayed at the castle with Lutyens. The initial plan was to develop the valley between the small walled garden and the castle as a very pretty water garden...that might attract a few birds...make a very good centre to the castle gardens.
The old walled garden that had initially been a vegetable plot for the Tudor castle with its commanding views out to sea and north and south along the coast, was to be a tennis and croquet lawn.
These grandiose plans had to be abandoned, however, as the cost of restoring and extending the castle escalated. Hudson admitted: This place has been a much more expensive amusement than I ever anticipated.
Instead attention was turned back to the original walled garden. Lutyens designed the paths and garden walls, which were realigned to create vanishing points. By the spring of 1911 Hudson had spent 43.15.6 on building the walls, trenching the garden, moving and laying paving stones and carting lime.
Many of the plants were sent from Gertrudes own home in Munstead Wood, Surrey.
It cant have been an easy project for the 68-year-old. Creating any garden on Holy Island is a challenge given its difficult climate. But this is not a garden for all seasons - it is a garden for one particular time of year.
It comes into its own in July, August and early September - the very time Hudson used to holiday at his imposing castle perched dramatically on its defiant rocky crag.
Nearly 100 years on, little has changed. Yet the garden as it appears today with its sweet peas, chrysanthemums, cornflowers, clematis flammula and Gladiolus x brenchleyensis - a great favourite of Gertrudes - is only six-years-old.
It was in 2003 that the National Trust decided to restore the walled garden to Gertrudes original 1911 planting plan. There are now over 40 different varieties of plants - the majority all flowering at the same time. The effect could be jarring and garish, but its not.
Gertrude, explains Lindisfarne Castles gardener, Philippa Hodkinson, was an artist, in all senses of the word.
Gertrude was very clever when it came to colour, says Philippa, a great admirer of her predecessor in whose footsteps she now carefully treads. She had an artists eye and she didnt like things to be symmetrical.
Three is a recurring theme in art. Thats why there are only three clematis instead of four, which was one of her many oddities.
In July and August the garden is a mass of colour; a riot if you like. But there is nothing vulgar about it. If you look at the garden from the castle you will see your eyes follow the hot colour. She used it to lead you around the space.
All the colours are just right too. The blue of the cornflowers is a perfect blue, the Calendula the perfect orange. She made sure she used a very beautiful shade of each colour, so it really does look like a painting laid out before you.
The walled garden lies a short trek from the castle, across a grassy expanse grazed by sheep. They are well used to humans and barely bother to move as you pick your way through them.
Swing open the gate and you enter a different world. In the shelter of the walls the breeze suddenly drops and the heady scent of 1,600 sweet pea plants assail the senses. Bumble bees lazily buzz past, a skylark trills its liquid warbling song, while butterflies flit between the flower heads.
There are plenty of blooms to choose from. For such a small space it packs a powerful punch. And on the ground it looks larger than its one-eighth of an acre would suggest.
The best view of Gertrudes little empire is to be found sitting on the Lutyens bench set against the north wall. From here you can cast your eyes over the entire garden set against the hulking backdrop of the castle.
To your right and left are two late flowering clematis flammula, their glossy green leaves tumbling to the ground and set-off by the masses of Calendula Orange King planted to the front.
The clematis with its white scented flowers will come into its own in August.
By the gate blue cornflowers and double white chrysanthemums bob their heads as if reverentially welcoming visitors into their domain. In a bed to the front and to the right, is a huge swathe of sweet peas planted in colour blocks: white, pink, red and then back to pink again.
The use of sweet peas was unusual for Gertrude, and records show the gardener at the time had to venture on to the mainland to buy the necessary hazel sticks needed to support the plants.
The edges of the paths are lined with lambs ear (Stachys byzantine) with their soft fluffy foliage, the thick silvery-felty stems with their knotty buds drawing the eyes downwards.
Ahead is a square planted with wine coloured Sedum under-planted with gladioli in mixed pinks.
As Gertrude intended, vegetables are also grown on the east border: peas, beans, onions, cabbage and glossy red stalked chard, while four heritage apple trees grow against the wall.
Gertrude created an astonishing 400 gardens in her lifetime. Philippa likes to think the Lindisfarne Castle Garden would have had a fond place in her heart, given her close relationship with Hudson and Lutyens.
As gardens of its time go, it is not grand. There are no dramatic plant combinations or outstanding landscaping. And it doesnt take long to walk around. But Philippa sees that as its charm, why so many people fall in love with it and return time and again.
What is so delightful about this garden is that it could be yours. People arent overwhelmed by it and there is a sense of peace and tranquillity here.
Perhaps that is what makes Holy Island such a magical place.
Lindisfarne Castle, Holy Island, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland, TD15 2SH, (01289) 389244, www.nationaltrust.org.uk. The castle is open Tuesday-Sunday. Castle opening times varying according to the tide. Please check tide timetables at www.lindisfarne.org.uk. The National Trust flag flies only when the castle gate is open. The garden is open all year 10am-5pm Tuesday to Sunday.