Gardens Illustrated

Kelmarsh Hall: a quintessential country-house garden

Published: December 14, 2021 at 10:52 am

Discover the garden at Kelmarsh Hall, originally designed by Nancy Lancaster and Norah Lindsay, and meet head gardener Tracey Spokes

Kelmarsh Hall, Northampton, is a brick-built elegant, eighteenth-century country house. Built in 1732, successive owners and influences have left their imprint on this elegant Palladian style home.

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Kelmarsh Hall
Kelmarsh Hall

Kelmarsh Hall Gardens

The hall is surrounded by its working estate, grazing parklands and Grade II* listed gardens, including a distinctive Walled Garden, Sunken Garden, topiary and rose gardens, woodlands, lake and herbaceous borders.

Kelmarsh Hall
Kelmarsh Hall

They were all designed principally by interior tastemaker Nancy Lancaster (of Colefax & Fowler fame) between the wars, and then with garden designer Norah Lindsay and landscape architect Geoffrey Jellicoe in the mid 20th century.

The informal English-country-garden style design laid out by Lancaster is welcoming throughout the year, and the garden is particularly celebrated for a dizzying array of dahlias in late summer.

Kelmarsh Hall
Kelmarsh Hall

Kelmarsh Hall's head gardener

Tracey Spokes
Tracey Spokes. Photo: Andrew Montgomery © Andrew Montgomery

Tracy Spokes is head gardener of Kelmarsh Hall Gardens. We quizzed her on her gardening approach, heroes and advice.

Earliest garden memory?

Lying on the flagstone garden path in the sunshine watching my dad grow his runner beans, roses and sweet peas, while I was drawing pictures of flowers, dragons and castles. I went on to become an illustrator of children’s books.

Horticultural heroes?

All of the unsung ones – all of the allotment holders, the volunteers, the back garden enthusiasts, the gardening club members, the triers and those who simply have a go at it... Gardeners who have no reward or recognition for their toils, they just do it for the absolute love of it.

Worthwhile tips?

Garden with your eyes: look at what needs doing; look at what is working for you and what isn’t. And keep looking.

My second tip, which admittedly is easier said than done, is ‘Don’t worry!’ Your garden is there to make you smile. The countless mental and physical benefits from being active outside in the fresh air will all disappear if you spend your time worrying and stressing about what should be.

Favourite planting style?

I love flowers and plants to find their own way: I’m slightly obsessed with the self-sown, the unkempt and the growing old disgracefully. This makes my position here at Kelmarsh Hall all the more exciting, as the gardens’ heyday is attributed to the American socialite and shabby chic founder Nancy Lancaster and the garden designer Norah Lindsay. Nancy loved the slightly sad and nostalgic, and Norah the romance, and it is my job to bring these gardens back to their former glory.

We only really ever borrow our gardens - we are very privileged caretakers, and should be taking care of what we have been given

Favourite landscape and garden that has influenced you?

As I began my horticultural career, a lot of gardens that are close to my heart are in the county of Herefordshire. Stocktonbury Gardens, Kimbolton are the most beautiful, jam-packed four acres you will ever come across. They are manicured, loved and lived in, going there always brings a smile inside, and a plant wish list that is yards long. Another fabulous garden tucked away on the Welsh/Hereford border is Bryans Ground. Created around 1913, an arts and crafts inspired garden, that is full to bursting with original ideas, intimate and inspirational areas and the most relaxed atmosphere possible.

And I must mention the National Trust walled garden at Coughton Court. What a place! You enter through the unassuming gates in the walls and are almost immediately overwhelmed by the sheer volume and busyness of it all.

Last, but no means least is Wollerton Old Hall, Shropshire. A beautiful, relaxed cottage garden, with hollyhocks greeting you at the front door, roses nodding their heads to you and delphiniums reaching up sky high, all surrounded by clipped hedges and topiary. A cottage garden lover's dream.

Most valuable training?

My most valuable training has to be experience, my own and others. My first professional gardening position was at Hampton Court, Herefordshire and I was extremely lucky to work for a very talented head gardener. Working alongside a knowledgeable and patient professional really does pay dividends; I grew in confidence and found my gardening feet without even realising it.

What principles have guided your attitude to gardening?

We only really ever borrow our gardens, and it is up to us not only to preserve our past, but to welcome the future. We are very privileged caretakers, and should be taking care of what we have been given. Let’s not mess it up.

What about the future?

Horticulture cannot afford to be elitist. Now is not the time. It is a profession for some, a hobby for others, and for some, just a walk in the park, but it touches us all. We would do well to remember that.

What can gardeners do to be more sustainable?

Planting more! There is always room for more, I promise. Adding a few British native plants, such as cow parsley, wild clary, teasels and scabious will attract more birds and wildlife to your garden. Include a few foxgloves, poppies and borage too. If you have space, plant a tree or three.

Change how you mow your lawns, simply mow a path through and let the rest do its stuff, why not add a few flowers into your lawn too? A polyculture is so much more beneficial than a monoculture. Let your flowers go to seed and find their own way, your garden and nature will thank you for it.

Favourite gardening books?

I have collected old gardening books for years. Favourites include a 1905 copy of William Robinson’s The English Flower Garden and Volumes 1 and 2 of Wild Flowers of the British Isles, with the most exquisite watercolour illustrations by H Isabel Adams in 1907. Hours can be lost devouring the gardening folklore of times gone by.

Contact Instagram @flowerstory13

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For up-to-date details of Kelmarsh Hall & Gardens’ opening times, visit kelmarsh.com

Authors

Sorrel Everton is deputy editor of Gardens Illustrated.

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