Tulips in Fairyland: Part 1

When she was a little girl, my niece, on the drive from Sussex to Hampshire to visit her Granny and Grandad, would look up to the Arundel skyline and call it fairyland. The spires of the cathedral and battlements of the castle still lend the view an other-worldly appearance. On Monday I visited the castle’s gardens and found that those apparently impenetrable walls do indeed shelter an enchanted space. With fellow members of the Garden Media Guild I was there to see the gardens in their spring livery and in particular the thousands of tulips which are planted every year.

Having been divided into small groups, our tour began in the courtyard of the Collector Earl’s Garden with head gardener Martin Duncan, whose enthusiasm and passion for his domain was infectious. The immediate impression is of a historic formal garden decorated with pavilions, pools and fountains. Closer inspection reveals that the pavilions and columns are built of oak rather than stone and Martin explained that this part of the garden was created only 14 years ago, by the design partnership of Isabel and Julian Bannerman. Dozens of pots of brightly coloured tulips stand at the foot of the classically styled ‘Hunting Temple’ which is decorated with deer antlers from the Duke of Norfolk’s estate. Noting from their website that the Bannermans had also designed parts of HRH’s garden at Highgrove, I saw that there too is a rustic temple constructed of green oak.

Thomas Howard the Collector Earl by Peter Paul Rubens

In November Martin and his team planted 180 different named tulip cultivars throughout the gardens: fringed, parrot, lily and peony flowered, Darwin hybrids and many more. Some of the larger pots contain 60-70 tulip bulbs which are treated as annuals and replaced each year.

This section of the garden is a tribute to Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel (1585-1646), known as the ‘Collector Earl’, who when travelling extensively on the continent on diplomatic missions, amassed a huge art collection. On one of his trips he was accompanied by the architect Inigo Jones of whom more later. Between the water garden, which represents the nearby River Arun, and a spectacular labyrinth of Narcissus ‘Thalia’, stands a double wooden pergola clothed in newly emerging hornbeam. Martin explained that in a week or so red Apeldoorn tulips will appear amidst the white Narcissus in the labyrinth.

The curving borders around the labyrinth comprise the Exotic Borders and are dominated with multi-stemmed Trachycarpus fortuneii, which were sourced in Italy. At a lower level, ruby Rheum leaves thrust through the foliage of orange Crown imperials (Fritillaria imperialis) and yet to flower Alliums.

On a raised terrace at the far side of the labyrinth, stands a turreted wooden pavilion topped by a dome. True to the magical atmosphere of the gardens, this is Oberon’s Palace. Inside is a shell grotto, the walls decorated with planted urn images fashioned from navy blue mussel shells with a bubbling fountain in the centre of the space. The plaque states that the building is based on a design by Inigo Jones for a masque first performed in 1611, ‘Oberon the Fairy Prince’. Martin drew our attention to the distinctively shaped planters on either side of the entrance to the temple, which he had commissioned and which resembled lead but were in fact made with distempered steel, and cost a fraction of the price.

From here the exoticism of the labyrinth borders gives way to the symmetry and formality of clipped yew hedges, forming compartments housing the herbaceous borders. Judging by a video tour on the castle’s website, again led by head gardener Martin, these look stunning in the summer months. Martin proudly pointed out that the yew spires which separate this part of the garden from the next, deliberately mimic the spires of the cathedral. Arundel’s Victorian cathedral church of Our Lady and St Philip Howard, dedicated as a cathedral in 1965, forms a spectacular backdrop to this part of the garden.

Hidden by the yew spires is another enchanting area, the Stumpery, which, Martin pointed out, is in an open position and gets more sun than those which are usually built in shadier spots and are planted with ferns and hostas, for instance the stumpery at Highgrove. When I checked later I found that too was designed by the Bannermans. The massive upturned trunks, roots akimbo, are sourced from trees downed in the park during storms. Each stump provides several planting pockets into which are tucked exquisite specimens: a rosy coloured Hellebore, diminutive species tulips, snakehead fritillaries, dainty dog tooth violets (Erythronium), primroses and Thalictrum aquiligifolium. In a corner of this garden stands a willow bower fit for a fairy queen, the fresh new leaves beginning to clothe it in a green mantle.

I should at this stage mention that the long gap between this and my last blog posting is due in part to the online English landscape garden history course that I have just completed. I found it incredibly interesting and absorbing, but the course, a busy period of spring tidying in clients’ gardens and a new web content writing role has left little time for the blog. One of the activities in week 8 of the course, when we studied Victorian gardens, was to dip into the pages of The Gardeners’ Chronicle, a weekly illustrated journal, to which we were given online access. I lighted upon the editions of 3 and 10 July 1875 and amidst advertisements for Calceolaria seeds and lawnmowers, a book review of a ‘Book for Beekeepers’, reports of onion trials in Chiswick, a weather report from Blackheath (29 June fine, but dull and cloudy throughout. Rain in early morning) and want ads for gardeners (wages £1 a week), was a two part article by T.Baines about ‘Arundel Castle: the seat of his Grace the Duke of Norfolk’. Featuring a history of the castle and a beautiful engraving of the castle, the article details a tour of the gardens which at that time consisted of extensive kitchen gardens and an arboretum.

The article describes numerous fruit and plant ‘houses’ for peaches, nectarines, vines (Muscats and Hamburghs), melons, cucumbers as well as flowering plants ‘for decorative purposes’ (presumably for the Duke’s apartments in the castle) such as orchids (Cypripedium and Dendrobium), pelargoniums and nepenthes. The author mentions no less than four ‘pine-pits’, each 45 feet long! Today the castle’s organic kitchen garden is impressive but more modest in scale, though it does have two very fine glasshouses, one a restored Victorian vinery dating from 1853. The garden was restored in the mid 1990s and is based on the design of the gardens at Frogmore House in Windsor Great Park.

We were told that the garden is operated on a four year rotation for growing vegetables, and that there is extensive use of companion planting, with flowers such as Sweet Williams planted to attract pollinators and create a natural barrier to deflect pests like carrot fly. Martin pointed out an elaborate network of ropes almost at eye level along which gourds will be trained later in the season. The beds are edged in box and the walls shelter several fan-trained fruit trees: Morello cherry, plum (protected with a tarpaulin on the day of our visit which was unseasonably cold) and Conference pear among them. An arched frame running through the kitchen garden is trained with old apple varieties including the wonderfully named Peasgood’s Nonsuch. In one of the beds is a pocket meadow to bring in pollinators and there’s also a very fine house for that master slug-slayer, the hedgehog. At the foot of the long glasshouses stand a rank of cold frames all heaving with seedlings ready to be planted out once the risk of frost has passed. We were shown red-veined sorrel and a species sweet pea called ‘Tutankhamen’.

Leaving the kitchen garden, you enter a courtyard where a dense display of tulips in pots is massed beneath a flower-laden cherry tree: another magical touch in this special garden.

Like T Baines in The Gardeners’ Chronicle, I am going to leave you mid tour until next week. But before I go, in the 1875 article, after admiring the manner in which the fruit trees in the orchard were maintained, the author states that ‘here, as in each department of this fine place, are ample evidence of Mr Wilson’s ability as a gardener’. Were T. Baines to visit Arundel Castle’s gardens today I’ve no doubt he could say the same for Martin Gardner, his team of six gardeners and cohort of volunteers.

(Next time: The White Garden, the Rose Garden and the Stew Ponds)

4 thoughts on “Tulips in Fairyland: Part 1

  1. Great post, especially all the background information. I see Arundel Castle every time I visit my Grandmother, and each time we say “Ooh, we must go there!”. I’m even more determined to make the effort now!

    Thanks!

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