Gardens Illustrated

Chris Crowder on the ancient gardens of Levens hall and why a creative eye keeps them looking picture-perfect

Published: April 21, 2022 at 9:06 am
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The head gardener at Levens Hall on the pull of its world-famous ancient garden, the planting and shaping that make it relevant today, and why a creative eye keeps it looking picture-perfect. Words Claire Masset, photograph Charlie Hopkinson

When Chris Crowder was being interviewed for the job of head gardener at Levens Hall, he was asked how long he envisaged staying in the post. “Forty years,” he said half-jokingly. He’s now just four years away from fulfilling his ambition. Why has Chris never felt the need to move to pastures new? “For me Levens is the ideal garden. It’s an old place but it’s a living place,” he explains. “The owners live here and are supportive, but they’re not driving the garden’s development.”

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When he applied for the job at the age of 23, Chris was drawn to the garden’s heritage. Levens is well known for being the world’s oldest surviving topiary garden. What he didn’t realise is that within its ancient framework, he would be given an entirely free rein. He now understands this is a rare thing: many historic gardens feel the heavy hand of history, their maintenance set by strict conservation management plans.

Like the owners of Levens Hall, Chris lives on site, in the original gardener’s cottage built for Guillaume Beaumont, who designed the garden in 1694. Chris is just the tenth head gardener to reside here. A portrait of Monsieur Beaumont hangs in the main house, a constant reminder of this ancient lineage.

For me Levens is the ideal garden. It’s an old place but it’s a living place

Chris also comes from a family of gardeners. His grandfather was a jobbing gardener. His father, who studied at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, worked as parks superintendent in Warrington, in the North West. “I grew up on this large Victorian estate. It was an amazing childhood. There were greenhouses, hothouses, vineries – all working and heated and filled with plants. I had the run of the garden. We were pretty much self-sufficient. I walked home from school at lunchtime to damp down the tomatoes in the greenhouse. The Good Life was on TV and we were living it.”

Chris admits he wasn’t particularly academic. “I just loved being outside and gardening.” So, at the age of 16, he followed in his father’s footsteps and joined his local parks department, working as an apprentice. Two years later he earned a place on Kew’s three-year diploma course. All the time he was living in London, Chris would feel the constant pull of the hills. “Often on a Friday evening I would stand on the side of the M1 and hitch a lift up north."

After finishing his studies at Kew, Chris fancied a bit of break. He worked as a freelance gardener, living out of his van and spending his free time potholing and caving in the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales. Then the Levens job came up. The fact that the estate was located between Yorkshire and the Lakes was a big draw but so was the ten-acre garden, with its many original 17th-century features.

Visitors tell us they can see somebody is having fun with the garden

Chris loves the fact that Levens is relatively small and made up of different areas. It means he can be creative and hands-on. “Visitors tell us they can see somebody is having fun with the garden.” Levens’s crowning glory is of course its famous topiary. Despite some of the shapes being 300 years old, each piece is reshaped and remade every year. “It’s new this year and yet it’s also 300 years old,” Chris explains. There’s a thrilling tension in this: the sense that the garden is filled with these ancient ‘characters’ that have witnessed so much and yet are still very much alive. Nothing at Levens is set in aspic.

“There are about 100 different shapes,” says Chris. “Some of the yew ones are about ten metres tall. I quite like the small ones myself: the box ones that are about two metres high. Over the years they all change. When I first arrived at Levens, the garden had a bell-shaped topiary. Slowly, we’ve rounded it and we now call it the Henry Moore sculpture.”

The twice-yearly bedding schemes grown under the topiary have also evolved. “Nowadays we go for more of a natural-looking tapestry effect, and my flower choices are a lot more bee-friendly. I wasn’t thinking of this so much 30 years ago, but farming practices have changed. You don’t see flowers on farmland anymore. In a way, the garden used to be controlled because outside the walls was wild. Now outside the walls is not such a wild place, it’s agricultural land. Maybe that’s why gardens today are less about controlling nature and keeping them more natural-looking.

Visitors now see through a camera lens, so I try to present the garden as a series of different pictures, like mini photo opportunities

The way we garden is changing.” The way people enjoy gardens is changing, too. “Many visitors now see through a camera lens, so I try to present the garden as a series of different pictures, like mini photo opportunities. My hope is to make each area as distinct as possible – visually fantastic and full of joy.”

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Chris has recently taken up painting as a hobby. “I feel like I’m looking at everything with new eyes. It’s really developing my eye for seeing.” No doubt this new pastime will affect the way Chris develops the garden in the next few years. There is a lot more joy to come.

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