Gresgarth Hall sits at the mouth of a wooded valley, with the brook Artle Beck drawing a sweeping curve as it rushes past the house. Dark yew hedges stamp formality near the house and echo the stone walls etched on the hills beyond.

Creating a country garden at Gresgarth Hall

Over the past 40 years the designer Arabella Lennox-Boyd has turned her own Lancashire garden into magical space. Words Matthew Reese, photographs Jason Ingram.

Deep within the rugged Lancashire countryside is Gresgarth Hall, the country home of the inspirational landscape designer and plant collector, Lady Arabella Lennox-Boyd. Over the past 40 years, Arabella has transformed the land at Gresgarth into a wonderfully romantic garden.

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The garden in brief

What Gresgarth Hall, home to designer Arabella Lennox-Boyd, with formal areas blending into woodland and arboretum. Where Lancashire. Size Ten acres. Soil Acid to neutral, woodland and alluvial soils. Climate Temperate. Hardiness zone USDA 9

This cherry walk is planted with the great white cherry, Prunus ‘Tai-haku’. It has a spreading habit and casts long branches full of pendent white blossom over the patches of predominantly white-flowered daffodils in the meadow. This area of the garden is set back from the house, and nearing the boundary the planting is more relaxed.
This cherry walk is planted with the great white cherry, Prunus ‘Tai-haku’. It has a spreading habit and casts long branches full of pendent white blossom over the patches of predominantly white-flowered daffodils in the meadow.

The property

When she arrived in 1979, there was practically no garden, and the space was neglected and overgrown. Clumsy lumps of sombre evergreen rhododendron and laurel hemmed the house in rather harshly from the surrounding countryside and completely obliterated any views. “It took a bit of time to get used to this garden,” she says.

Having grown up on an Italian hillside she was more accustomed to views that stretched for miles. Trees were felled, evergreens removed, and the woodland was pushed back from the house to make space for a garden, and to open views from the house across the river and into the woods beyond. This necessary clearing did, however, reveal the garden to the prevailing west wind. “It was one of my first concerns,” says Arabella. “How to slow the wind from coming in and hitting the hills, eddying and causing damage to the garden.” So hedges were planted for protection, but these also presented an opportunity to divide the garden up into different spaces. Large borders with clipped trees, beautiful double herbaceous borders and stone terraces were laid out closer to the house where she wanted more formality.

Conifers punctuate the landscape leading the eye through the garden, and create a good foil for the magnolia blossom. Here Magnolia salicifolia and M. stellata are in full flower with Lysichiton americanus and L. camtschatcensis by a stream.
Conifers punctuate the landscape leading the eye through the garden, and create a good foil for the magnolia blossom. Here Magnolia salicifolia and M. stellata are in full flower with Lysichiton americanus and L. camtschatcensis by a stream.

The concept

Yew hedging frames these borders, and the different areas of the garden are linked via intimate paths. Where the paths intersect, small circles of yew have been planted and are draped with wisteria, displays that Arabella describes as “little theatres”. The paths eventually lead to the kitchen garden, working areas, and a Chatsworth-inspired wavy corridor of beech hedging. Arabella has carefully managed the design to take full advantage of an existing lake and a brook, Artle Beck, that runs through the garden and creates a magical atmosphere.

A multi-stemmed Amelanchier x lamarckii creates shade alongside the brook Artle Beck. Its delicate white blossom is much finer in flower than the cherry, and it thrives in the wet acid soils at Gresgarth. It also has very good autumn colour.
A multi-stemmed Amelanchier x lamarckii creates shade alongside the brook Artle Beck. Its delicate white blossom is much finer in flower than the cherry, and it thrives in the wet acid soils at Gresgarth. It also has very good autumn colour.

The garden and lake

The lake was much smaller when she arrived at Gresgarth. “I wanted to create the feeling the river was flooding this area, even though it is actually much lower, so we enlarged it by three to four times the original size,” says Arabella. The still water reaches the house terrace and is a picture of reflections, of the white blossom of a Prunus ‘Shirotae’ that spreads above the water and a weeping katsura tree. The Artle Beck, by contrast, is noisy and playful and the sound reverberates through the garden. Yew buttresses are lined out equidistantly on both banks and gently firm the garden around the brook.

In the spring the different shapes of trees and shrubs stand out, and here they are caught beautifully in the reflection of the lake. The weeping katsura is particularly striking with its coat of new yellow-green foliage, which is as pretty as any flower, and nearby Prunus ‘Shirotae’ is full of white blossom.
In the spring the different shapes of trees and shrubs stand out, and here they are caught beautifully in the reflection of the lake. The weeping katsura is particularly striking with its coat of new yellow-green foliage, which is as pretty as any flower, and nearby Prunus ‘Shirotae’ is full of white blossom.

The planting

The garden continued to grow quite organically, but carefully. Arabella went on to develop a more formal open lawn area that features a very old Robinia pseudoacacia with wonderful fissured bark that acts as a host for different types of epiphytes. This area has a different atmosphere from the more complex plantings nearby and is enclosed by more yew hedging that forms a semi-circular boundary. On the slopes of the valley ascending from the Artle Beck, the garden becomes much more natural, and it is here that Arabella has created a world-class arboretum of rare and special plants, including a thriving collection of 200 magnolias. Drifts of Daphne bholua (grown from seed at Gresgarth), swathes of cherries, and rhododendrons all flourish under her watchful eye. The arboretum is also home to Gresgarth’s National Collection of plants from the Styracaceae family.

Near the house the garden is tailored more formally. Hedges are sharp, shrubs tightly clipped and roses trained over loops. On the terrace, Prunus cerasifera ‘Nigra’, sheared into a tight umbrella shape, is an excellent counterpoint to the conifers.
Near the house the garden is tailored more formally. Hedges are sharp, shrubs tightly clipped and roses trained over loops. On the terrace, Prunus cerasifera ‘Nigra’, sheared into a tight umbrella shape, is an excellent counterpoint to the conifers.

The result

As you draw closer to the countryside beyond the garden, the curved lines of the hedging and the plantings continue to feel more naturalistic and less formal. On the western edge is The Wild Garden, with big borders of trees and shrubs that help to shelter the garden from damaging wind and create a link to the countryside. Despite the extensive work that has gone into creating the garden at Gresgarth, it sits so comfortably with the house and the surrounding landscape that it feels as though it should have always been that way – as if they have grown up together. Arabella has created a truly magnificent garden, and one could quite happily wander for many hours enraptured and captivated by the enchanting atmosphere.

Cradled by the valley, the house is wedded to the garden by the lake. When Arabella arrived at Gresgarth the lake was nothing more than “a little comma shape”, but now it reaches the house terrace and forms a lovely focal point to the garden.
Cradled by the valley, the house is wedded to the garden by the lake. When Arabella arrived at Gresgarth the lake was nothing more than “a little comma shape”, but now it reaches the house terrace and forms a lovely focal point to the garden.