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Redesigning an historic garden

Redesigning an historic garden


Photo: Jonathan Ward/Perennial

Head gardener Adam Bowley is working with the charity Perennial to rejuvenate York Gate garden, says Jackie Bennett

Tucked away in a suburb of Leeds is one of the 20th century’s most interesting gardens. Created by the Spencer family, York Gate is a garden that took the principles of the Arts & Crafts movement and adapted them for a one-acre suburban plot. It was bequeathed in 1994 to the charity Perennial.

Recently, it was awarded a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £84,200 for a volunteer-led project to research the garden’s history and create a visitor exhibition. This spring, the gardens will reopen with a replanted and refreshed layout along with a new events centre and classroom. 

Tackling the replanting of a historic site is always challenging, but at York Gate, head gardener Adam Bowley faced the restriction of working within 14 garden ‘rooms’. The rooms were designed by Robin Spencer, a gardener much inspired by visits to Hidcote and his meetings with Christopher Lloyd. The hedges of yew and beech were planted in the 1970s and, 40 years on, had begun to block the views. 

“We needed to bring back scale,” says Adam. “The tree collection is overgrown and we have a five-year plan to remove some and crown-lift others. The problem ones have been Cupressus and poplars, and Abies and Liriodendron have also outgrown their space.” 

As it is in a Conservation Area, tree removal at the garden has needed the backing of Tree Protection officers, but is vital if the site is to have a long life. The first area to be renovated was the Pinetum, which consisted of topiary hollies in front of the espaliered cedar. “The hollies had been planned as sugar cones with flattened tops, but had grown into ‘blobs’,” says Adam. “We will replant using yew which will give us much more control over the shape.” 

Photo: John Whittaker

Each of the rooms will be rejuvenated in order of need. “The bones of this garden are solid,” says Adam, “they didn’t need a total redesign. But the lawns were in poor condition due to the amount of shade cast by the trees.”

Although Robin Spencer was inspired by the Arts & Crafts ideals of high-quality hard landscaping and craftsmanship, he was not, according to Adam, prescriptive about planting. “We will continue his freestyle approach, refreshing the planting to make the best of the small spaces, and using annuals and tender perennials to get a succession of colour.”

The garden is funded by visitor and public donations and happily visitor numbers were up 50% last year. York Gate has always been a well-loved garden, but with new funding, it could take its rightful place among one of the country’s most important late 20th-century gardens. 

York Gate, Back Church Lane, Adel, Leeds LS16 8DW. Open 27 March to 30 September, Sun-Thurs (& BH Mons), 12.30-4.30pm. Tel: 01132 678240. 

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