The grandeur of Gibside, in the Derwent Valley
PUBLISHED: 11:42 22 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:49 20 February 2013
Gibside's grand but forgotten gardens are slowly being returned to their full 18th century glory
Its like being involved in a big, never-ending adventure, one that is always changing and evolving. So says Keith Blundell of working at the National Trusts Gibside estate near Rowlands Gill.
He joined the landscape gardening team at the 400 acre property in the heart of the Derwent Valley, three years ago. Its a dream job for the Cheshire born plantsman, helping restore, maintain and develop for future generations one of the North Easts greatest manmade landscapes.
Its a story that begins nearly 300 years ago with one mans vision to transform the wooded eastern slopes of the Derwent Valley into a landscape garden on a truly heroic scale.
The tale has taken many twists and turns over the years, from fiery-tempered, music-loving coal baron George Bowes initial breathtaking creation to the savage cutting down of much of the mature woodland to pay
for one mans gambling debts, to Gibsides slow, sad decline at the end
of the 19th century when the founding family transferred its affections and money elsewhere.
But after decades of neglect, and thanks to the National Trust, George Bowes peaceful woodlands, riverside walks and formal pleasure grounds, can be enjoyed once more.
Its a work in progress. The National Trust took over the care of Gibside in 1974 after nearly a century of neglect and abuse which saw many of the estates native trees cut down and replaced with fast growing varieties of pine and larch.
The formal garden features had been abandoned - ponds and paths had become overgrown and buildings were empty shells.
Much has been achieved over the last 36 years, but with 400 acres to tidy up, returning Gibside to the grandeur and magnificence of its Georgian heyday is, as Keith points out, akin to painting the Forth Bridge: a continuous job.
But for all the work that still has to
be done there is much to please and delight visitors.
The joy of Gibside is that it is an any time of year place. It was designed as a sumptuous pleasure landscape, somewhere the Bowes family (later to take the name Bowes-Lyon) could ride, walk, enjoy sweeping views of the surrounding Durham and Northumberland countryside and get close to nature.
Ironically, it was Gibsides virtual 90 year abandonment that has seen much of the estate designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Nature flourished and thrived without too much interference from people, and now red squirrels, red kites, three species of newts, bats, grass snakes, otters, deer, and many wild flowers proliferate.
On a spring day Gibside comes into its own, as the countryside again wakes up following its winter slumber.
It offers something for everyone with ten miles of walks, family-friendly trails, the walled garden and green house, stunning domed Georgian chapel which stands serenely at the head of the broad half mile Long Walk - an avenue flanked by stately oak and sycamore trees that dramatically bisects the open pasture of the park as it rushes steeply down towards the river - and the ongoing restoration of the Victorian Shrubbery.
Its a place to spend all day exploring, as Keith says an increasing number are.
The Column of Liberty - celebrating George Bowes loyalty to the political ideals of the Whig party - stands at the north end of the Long Walk and rises spectacularly over 40m above the canopy of the trees.
It is here red kites and buzzards enjoy gliding gracefully through the skies on the thermal currents. With panoramic views over the estate, it is no wonder this is another popular place for visitors to relax and refuel.
Its easy to step out on your own and lose the crowds, but many stray no further than the so-called inner pleasure grounds, a compact area taking in the walled garden, green house, ice house, ruined hall, chapel and Long Walk.
It would be fair to say it is at this lower level that Gibside retains most of its original charms. The path rises to skirt tall cliffs and ends at the delightfully sequestered site of the small Palladian Bath House, which collapsed in the late 19th century and of which only the partially excavated foundations now remain.
The National Trust has worked hard - with help from scores of volunteers - to try and return this area to a semblance of its former glory.
The kitchen garden was, by all accounts, a massive undertaking when work started in 1734. Enclosing an area of just over three acres, the walls took two years to complete, with the bricks being made on the estate. Keith has found documents showing the bricks cost 6s 6d per 1,000. The coping stones were quarried from the Derwent Valley, he adds, and cost 8 per yard, which
was a phenomenal amount of money in those days.
It took several years to build the walled garden, but no expense seems to have been spared. There were hot beds, deep pits filled with bark and manure which were used for forcing plants. Later a series of glasshouses were built to provide the big house with fruit and fresh produce out of season.
Work is now underway to restore the enclosure. An apple orchard has been planted, the dwarf trees pink and white blossom filling the garden with scent as a light spring breeze gently rustles the new, emerging petals.
Many of the vegetable plots have also been re-instated. But the National Trust is not bringing back a carbon copy of the garden as it would have been in George Bowes days. Gibside is very much a community estate, and strong links have been established with the nearby villages of Burnopfield and Rowlands Gill.
Community allotments have been set-up - feeding into the Trusts Food Glorious Food campaign which aims to inspire people from all walks of life to plant, nurture, grow, harvest and eat their own seasonal produce.
Four local primary schools, a care charity and individuals now have well tended plots.
Volunteers have been instrumental in creating the Victorian Shrubbery. Starting from the main car park which would once have been a woodland glade, you continue through the walled garden with its broad grass path into an area planted with lime trees.
It was designed as an intimate walk with scented plants such as lilac, honeysuckle, lily of the valley and roses.
Its a beautiful early spring day, the pale blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds, the sun warming the back as Keith acts as guide on this magical journey.
A brief stop at the green house to drink in the sight of sheep grazing far below on the lush green water meadows by the Derwent, and Keith is striding out again. The walk through the remaining shrubbery becomes darker, with light green laurel and dark green ruscus giving a tiered effect, before the path drops down to the shadowy
The walk then borders the light of
the Green Close before arriving at the hall. Here the lawns are a swathe of yellow daffodils, their trumpets nodding in the breeze.
As the manmade landscape is slowly being reclaimed, more and more tantalising hints of how Gibside would have looked in its prime are emerging.
It is a constant source of delight and amazement for Keith. One of the
things that is apparent is how much this garden has evolved over the past 300 years. It was at the beginning of the landscape movement as we know it now - what we like to think of as the modern garden era.
Theres a wonderful quote from the author H.E Bates that says: The garden that is finished is dead. Gibside grew, went into decline and is now evolving again and will continue to do so for hopefully centuries to come.
The stuff we are still finding out about this landscape as areas are cleared is amazing. I liken it to working on a giant jigsaw.
Many of the plants at Gibside can trace their origins back to George Bowes daughter, Mary Eleanor, herself
a keen botanist. Born in 1749, she grew up in what Keith calls the era of plant introductions, with South Africa, America and Australia being opened
up by explorers and settlers.
Keith has found letters from Mary written in 1780 requesting that seeds coming from Australia and destined for Gibside, be germinated at St Pauls Walden Bury in Hertfordshire - owned by the Bowes-Lyon family since 1725 and the birthplace and childhood home of the Queen Mother.
The house may now be a shadow of its former self; roofless and windowless. But both the inner and outer pleasure grounds can still be enjoyed.
A year of garden highlights
March: Daffodils, snowdrops, Scilia, crocus, Chinodoxa (Glory of the snow), Daphne, Mahonia Aquifolium (Oregon Grape), Box, Norway Maple, wild garlic, Hazel catkins, Pussy Willow, Larch, Rhododendron Nobleanum.
Apple border: Pulmonaria, Bergenia and Simphytum
April: Apple blossom, Tulips, Daffodils, Scilia, Crocus, Violets, Primroses, Trees coming into leaf, Wallflowers , Cherry blossom
May: Rhododendron, Lilac, Wild orchids, Dahlias, Chrysanthemum, Cornflowers, Gladioli, Vegetables in the walled garden
June: Roses in the Victorian Shrubbery, Wild roses, Honeysuckle , Poppies, buttercups and margarites in Parkfields and Lady Haugh, Geraniums, Hollyhocks, Aruncus
July: Sweetpeas, Dahlias, Scabious, Geraniums, Aruncus, pink meadow sweet, Clematis, Cosmos, Betony, Orchids
August: Japanese anemone, Michaelmas daisy, Geraniums, Salvias, Roses, Agapanthus
September: Montbretia, Vegetables at their best in the walled garden, Apples , Autumn crocus (naked lady), First of the autumn leaves
October: Harvesting of the fruit, Holly berries, Autumn leaves, Mountain Ash, Rosehips
November: Autumn leaves at their finest on the 400 acre estate
December: Landscape garden in winter - often the best time to see Gibside's abundant wildlife from roe deer to red squirrels
January: Landscape garden in winter
February: Snowdrops, first of the crocus. Aconites
Gardening tips for March by Linda Viney
1. After the severe weather of winter we can at last look forward to spring and despite being frozen, bulbs are appearing to cheer us up. You are likely to have lost at least one or two plants with the cold, but don't be disheartened nature often finds a way of opening up an area so you can introduce a new plant. Get out to your local garden centre or nursery and see what tempts you. Containers might also have got damaged, so when replacing, spend a bit more and buy one that is guaranteed frost proof.
2. Why is it when everything else slows down in the cold, weeds appear like magic? By keeping vigilant and arming yourself with a hoe you can remove them before they have a chance to seed. If you managed to dig over the borders before winter the frost will have worked wonders breaking down the soil to a fine tilth. Dig in well rotted manure and it will pay dividends later on - this should be done in the herbaceous border before the new shoots start appearing.
3. The soil in the vegetable garden needs to warm up before sowing the seed - laying black polythene or horticultural fleece over the bed will speed it up. If you are lucky enough to have a greenhouse, peas and leeks can be sown in pots ready for planting out when the soil is warmer and drier. Once potatoes have been planted keep earthing up as new leaves begin to show.
4. Even if you pruned your roses in autumn they will need doing again, though avoid doing it in frosty weather. Remove all dead wood and any stems that cross through or rub against another. All cuts should be made just above a bud and slant away from it. Bush roses flower on two year old wood so be careful not to remove these stems. Climbing roses make an attractive feature whether trained over an arch, against a fence or wall - however two years ago I allowed one to trail through a tree which added to the interest and extended the season.
5. In the herbaceous border you may have left the seed heads to overwinter. If so remove them and if the birds have left any seeds, try sowing them in compost in trays for they will almost certainly germinate giving you more plants. You can also divide them. The easiest way is to put two garden forks back to back in the centre of the plant and pull apart.
6. However enthusiastic you may be try not to rush things for you will only have to start again later. You may delight in the thought of sowing annuals, but put on the brakes and wait, for they will quickly become leggy while you are waiting for it to warm up and if placed outside the frost will surely bite.
Gibside, Rowlands Gill, near Burnopfield, NE16 6BG, (01207) 541 820, www.nationaltrust.org.uk. Gibsides grounds are open 10am-4pm every day until March 8 and after that from 10am-6pm. The chapel reopens on March 8 from 11am-4pm. The stables are open daily from 10am-5pm and the shop and tea room are open weekdays 11am-5pm (close 4pm until March 8) and weekends 11am-5pm.