Seaton Delaval Hall - the Geordie Versailles
PUBLISHED: 08:33 14 October 2010 | UPDATED: 17:57 20 February 2013
Seaton Delaval Hall is the National Trust's latest acquisition, a stately home of truly grand proportions with a garden to match
The road meanders along the coast from Whitley Bay, past St Marys Island and a caravan park before turning briefly inland as you head on to Seaton Sluice.
Through the fishing village, left at a roundabout signposted Seaton Delaval and the road snakes its way inland from the coastline, past a converted farmstead, to a steep left hand bend. Its then, having safely negotiated the curve, that you nearly crash the car.
Because there on the left stands what can only be described as a palace, its mighty arcaded and pedimented wings, towers, balustrades and pinnacles rising into the sky.
It is the grandest of grand stately homes - the Geordie Versailles.
This is Seaton Delaval Hall, the newest jewel in the National Trusts crown, bought for the nation following a multi-million pound appeal, and opened to the public for the first time under its new owners on May 1 this year.
It is a remarkable building, made all the more extraordinary in that it was the last great masterpiece of Sir John Vanbrugh, the man who gave the nation Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard.
As stately home gardens go, those at Seaton Delaval are not massive. The formal garden is under three acres and the immediate hall grounds only amount to another 13.
Seaton Delavals head gardener, Terry Hewison, describes his domain as giving the impression of being grand.
Its an apt description. All the majestic elements are there: a parterre, sweeping views across parkland, manicured lawns, fountains, pools, topiary and statues. This is a grand garden in miniature, a foil for the greatness of the huge baroque pile it surrounds.
It is also, as grand gardens go, fairly modern; one womans mission to create her perfect outdoor room. That woman was the late Lady Hastings, who along with her husband is buried in the small, private graveyard beside the petite Norman Church that stands at the centre of this world.
It was the death of the 22nd Lord Hastings at the age of 95 in 2007 that opened the door for the National Trust to take over one of the nations finest houses. Faced with hefty death duties, their son, the 23rd Lord Hastings, decided to sell the familys ancestral seat.
Terry, who came to Seaton Delaval 24 years ago, worked closely with Lady Hastings in the garden.
Its not the first time the hall and its grounds have been open to the public - Terry says: It used to only be high days and holidays. Now its open four days a week, with the garden proving especially popular with visitors of all ages.
On the horizon a strategically placed obelisk draws the eye outwards over the south paddock and ha-ha to a distant line of mature trees, where horses graze contentedly.
From here you can take two routes around the garden. The first is through the south paddock where a path leads through a small glade and along an avenue of plane trees presented to Lord and Lady Hastings by the actor Donald Sinden, and thence on to the church.
The second path takes you past the glorious herbaceous borders.The pinky purple spikes of Acanthus Mollis - more commonly known as Bears Breeches - vie for your attention alongside the yellow of Lysimachia, whites and purples of sweet peas, wine red lungwort, the blues of hydrangeas and Eupatorium, orange of Rudbeckia, luxuriant green of hostas, and the pinks of impatiens, sidalcea and astilbe, the latters plume-like flowers held high above airy foliage.
This is Terrys favourite part of the garden. I have very informal tastes, he says. I love the herbaceous borders and the comings and goings, the changing nature of the plants.
All are picked for their scent as well as their visual appeal. Terry, like Lady Hastings, says he cant see the point of growing plants that arent a feast for the eyes as well as the nose.
The herbaceous borders form one half of what can only be described as a horticultural roundabout encircled by gravel paths on which stands a truly remarkable tree, a weeping ash reputed to be at least 270 years old. In autumn the leaves turn a stunning gold.
Here you can take a left fork down towards the Norman church of Our Lady, through a shaded woodland glade of lime trees and white beam.
Standing proud amongst the trees and grassy swathes, including a small arboretum planted with amelanchier, various species of sorbus, hazel and birch, all chosen for their bark and foliage, the area around the church has quickly become a favourite resting place for visitors.
The path takes you back to the weeping ash and the second half of the herbaceous border. This time white potentilla, blue delphiniums, sweet peas, pink geranium madarense, globe thistles and the creamy tubular flowers of phygellius, offer up a treat for the eyes.
A carved stone shepherdess - minus hands - guards the entrance to the pond garden. A wrought iron gate bearing the initials CH for Catherine Hastings, opens out into the small grassed space dominated by a goldfish pond with a summer house behind.
This, says Terry, was the late Lady Hastings favourite part of the garden. This was very much her garden, where she could be private and close the gate and shut out the rest of the world.
Seaton Delaval Hall is full of surprises. And the pond gardens entrance is a laburnum arch that suddenly opens up and guides your steps towards the arboretum. In early summer it is a mass of yellow flowers shrouding the arch and in late summer green foliage wraps itself around you. A statue of a boy in Tudor clothes marks the end of the short walk.
The plan is to build a path through the arboretum to allow disabled visitors to properly see the highlight of the formal garden, the parterre. For the
time being, however, you have to retrace your steps.
The parterre is actually only 60 years old, the first large scale work of the famed English garden designer, James Russell. Tired with the derelict rambler rose walk and tennis court full of weeds that was on the site, Lord and Lady Hastings invited Russell to work his magic in the garden.
A fountain and urns - added some years after Russells creation - forms the central point. Tightly clipped hedging encloses planting beds where the spotlight is on foliage rather than flowers. Enclosing it all is a yew screen and an eye-catching green and copper beech hedge.
Back up the steps and you come into the rose garden, created between the two world wars. A border of bay trees and wisteria with irises and peonies adds interest in high summer.
Its easy to see why Terry Hewison has devoted 24 years of his working life to Seaton Delaval Hall. And easier still to understand why he regards the garden
he worked so hard to maintain alongside his horticultural tutor Lady Hastings, as his own.
As he says: It was my first chance to make my own mark. When I came the garden was in a really bad way because the family hadnt been living here and it was really neglected.
It was my first big project, and I really hit it off with Lady Hastings. We had a really good working relationship.
I have never really desired to work anywhere else. It does not feel like going to work.
Seaton Delaval Hall, Avenue Road, Seaton Delaval, Northumberland, NE26 4QR, (0191) 237 9100, www.nationaltrust.org.uk. Open Friday-Monday 11am-5pm until October 31 and 11am-3pm November 1 to December 31. Tours are by appointment only on Tuesday-Thursday.