Italian garden restored at Chillingham

PUBLISHED: 01:16 10 October 2011 | UPDATED: 20:07 20 February 2013

Italian garden restored at Chillingham

Italian garden restored at Chillingham

Chillingham is best known for its herd of wild cattle dating back 700 years but, as Linda Viney discovers, the castle garden also offers a glimpse of enduring history

At first a 12th century stronghold, Chillingham became a fully fortified castle in 1344 and is probably the most important survivor of fortified domestic architecture in the country. The castle estate is well known for its history, ghosts and the historic Chillingham Wild Cattle, believed to be the only herd of wild cattle in the world, which have lived here unhindered for 700 years.

Sadly it is thought the escalating running costs led to the castles abandonment in the early 1930s, which led to its decay as roofs caved in, the gardens became a jungle and the lakes became silted up. In World War 11 it had been used as an army barracks and records show wood panelling had been stripped out to keep fires burning in the frozen winters.

However, thanks to the dream of Sir Humphry Wakefield Bt. and his wife Katherine, Chillingham has sprung back to life since they purchased it and surrounding lands 30 years ago. Katherine, is the daughter of the former Lady Mary Grey from nearby Howick Hall and a descendant of the family that established Chillingham.

I went to visit the Italian gardens, set in the original jousting ring. The far wall, which is 15 feet thick, was the grandstand and from here you get a good view over the garden. The garden was designed by Sir Jeffry Wyatville in 1828, fresh from his royal triumphs at Windsor.

The urns which had been presented by King Louis Philippe of France when he visited were the main focus and starting point of the design. Now they are just inexpensive modern composite copies but give the idea of the original plan.

Gardener Daryl Pearce has only been at Chillingham for one year. He trained at Kirkley Hall then went to Howick Hall before moving here. He is solely responsible for the care of this garden but does have help with hedge cutting.

It can be five degrees warmer in the shelter of the walls, but it is also a frost pocket and last winter was the first in which I experienced snow up to my waist, Daryl told me.

When we met up he took me up on to the roof, explaining it was one of the best places to view the garden.

From the roof you can see the parterre shapes with urns in each corner and two adjacent half way along. Topiary balls sit on the clipped hedges and rosa Felicity fill some of the beds. Gravel paths lead through and in the central axis sits a fountain adding to the formality. The two beds at the far end are the rockery area, with a collection of ferns. Another view of the garden can be seen from the top of the wall and the terrace - pause here to take it all in.

All along the wall sits the famous herbaceous border, which is the longest in Northern England and boasts a mass of colour and texture from the perennial planting, the wall making a great backdrop as well as providing shelter.

Sir Humphry knows what he likes and takes an interest while Lady Wakefield loves colour and flowers; she has her own input, Daryl explained. I enjoy meeting visitors who love this area and hope one day to be able to introduce tours of the garden.

There is an arboretum and taking a stroll through the woodland we arrived at what was once a croquet lawn, where the summer house still stands with roses climbing up the posts. There is a cutting garden with sweet peas and sweet williams for the castle and a few vegetables are grown as well. A small greenhouse holds a collection of potted plants.

We move along to the front lawn entered from the Great Hall which opens up into a Capability Brown landscape, bringing in the views of the open countryside beyond and the Ha-Ha stops the animals from invading, though it would be impossible to keep the rabbits and pheasants out. The formal fountain wouldnt have been here originally.

A secluded sun area by the castle has a romantic feel with the small daisy flowers of the erigeron and thyme and it is in this area Daryl will talk to Lady Wakefield about the garden and the development. Stone steps, with plants tumbling over them, lead back down to the main area. The whole project with the restoration of the castle is certainly a labour of love.

Chillingham is open from Easter to the end of October, from noon to 5pm. It is closed on Saturdays.

Tours to see the Chillingham Wild Cattle start at 10am Monday to Friday. There is a cafe for lunches and light refreshments and, of course, Lady Grey tea. Telephone 01668 215359, or email

The print version of this article appeared in the October 2011 issue of North East Life

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