Sandy Felton discovers a very special gem in Richmond, Yorkshire, perched high above the River Swale.
The late Christopher Lloyd wrote in his preface to ‘The Well-Tempered Garden’- “There is room for many approaches to gardening and they give us the satisfaction of expressing ourselves. Ours, in its humble way, is an art as well as a craft.”
No garden could more perfectly illustrate Lloyd’s point than the garden at Millgate House, Richmond, for here the visitor will find an absolute glory of perfection, expression and gardening craft that simply takes your breath away. Austin Lynch and Tim Culkin moved to Millgate in 1980 - a Georgian Townhouse which has stood on the site since 1720 – and inherited a garden which slopes down to the River Swale and faces East South East. It is in a sheltered position and was constructed in its present form with steps connecting upper and lower levels in 1930. At the time they moved in, the bottom of the garden was a vegetable plot and the beds in the top garden rectangular.
For the past 25 years they have worked to create much more structure to the garden as well as all year round interest. The amount of planting at Millgate is phenomenal – in fact it is quite astounding what they have managed to plant in a 3 acre site – even the steps leading to the snicket onto the street are festooned with pots.
As you stroll round this really magical garden the sound of the River Swale echoes in the background and your senses are excited by the variety of so many plants. There are varieties of roses and clematis to die for - the deep pink of Rosa Madame Issac Pereire, the apricot of Buff Beauty and the wonderful Rosa Mundi and Albertine. Rosa Helenae boldly climbs up a reinforced iron pergola.
Appropriately we find the Clematis Beauty of Richmond in the lower garden and the delightful Texensis Etoile Rose. Another favourite of mine, Texensis The Princess of Wales and the Duchess of Edinburgh are also featured.
The hostas are enormous and very slug free – I think they have been feeding them with moon dust or something as they are absolutely the largest and the most healthy specimens I have seen in a long while. Sun and Substance (Gold Standard), Abba Dabba Do and Whirlwind strut their stuff with Geranium ‘Brookside’ and Geranium Himalayense ‘Gravetye’ AGM. The Acers are carefully situated to add that extra grace and momentum to the other planting and so we discover Acer Ozakasuki and Acer Palmatum Bloodgood.
Austin will tell you that the important thing about the garden is to stand and SEE and not just look: “It is about the spirit of the place,” he says. “Soaking up the atmosphere ... absorbing the sense of place ... not rushing trying to get notes and names but like with a great picture ... letting it work on YOU. Then and only then will you be lost and more importantly re created by the garden."
The garden has received national recognition – some years ago it was the winner of the Daily Mail/Royal Horticultural Society’s National Garden Competition which was awarded to Millgate because of its wide range of plants, vitality and the dynamism of the garden.
It is also to be found in The Good Gardens Guide and has been the subject of many garden features in prestigious gardening magazines. It is easy to see why. I dare anyone to enter this enchanting place and not feel immediately enfolded by its charms, warmth and variety. At every turn there is something to see, experience and drool over.
I particularly liked the little area of lawn on the top of the garden, discrete and understated yet just perfect for that summer evening drink and the little plaque on the wall with a quote that perfectly encapsulates everything you can say about this garden:
We are a garden wall’d around,
Chosen and made peculiar ground
A little spot enclos’d by grace
Out of the world’s wide wilderness.
Issac Watt 1674 – 1748
This is a lush garden, in fact some might comment that it is too ‘jungly’ but not me. I love the careful compression and exuberance of planting. It is a perfect example of what you can achieve in a relatively small space on a slope. It is also clear that the perfect natural look has been achieved by someone with a design flair and I am not surprised to learn that Tim comes from a design background.
“For me the garden is playing with design,” Tim explains. “Seeing what fits where ... what works with what. The garden is ever changing dynamic - the greatest compliment was when the Good Garden Guide said ‘Immensely stylish’. I really feel this is what we are trying to achieve ... style ... but not something just static and done - something evolving."
They both feel that one of the disadvantages of the site is lack of space and overcrowding and there is the extra hard work because of the slope and steps. The area for working is limited and the soil has been worked for nearly 300 years so it is very tired and needs lots of feeding. However, the advantages of being on a slope with views out into the open countryside more than make up for any drawbacks the garden throws at them.
Certainly one of the strengths of the garden is the fact that you don’t feel too enclosed and the different levels and steps encourage you to walk through the garden. At every turn there is a new vista, whether it is out over the River Swale and the waterfalls or over towards the towering ramparts of Richmond Castle.
The garden is walled and so is very private and quiet despite being right in the middle of town. Because it is free draining many plants are able to survive Yorkshire’s winter damp.
Austin and Tim are happy to give tips to visitors such as the need to feed heavily with Phostrogen and bonemeal from March to June. They also mulch heavily in late winter and they are both ruthless with slugs which is obvious by the condition of the hostas. They start slug hunting in February and I was delighted to learn that they are not averse to using slug pellets – I felt at home!
Tim confirms that positioning and placing need careful thought and being selective about what you buy is important too. They very much go for plants which have achieved an AGM (Awards of Garden Merit) and they are radical – in other words they get rid of things which have outgrown their place or they can’t stand.
Austin and Tim have also produced an excellent booklet which gives full lists of all the plants in the garden, a must if you want to get a specific plant yourself.
When I entered the garden at Millgate House it immediately enfolded me like an old friend. I wanted to stay in it and savour its unique atmosphere – smell, touch and experience the exuberant planting and delight at something new or well remembered. I shall return, in a different season, to experience perhaps a whole host of other emotions – but I shall also treasure that initial excitement and joy at seeing the garden for the first time with fresh eyes.
We wish Austin and Tim well with their garden at Millgate and thank them for sharing it with us. Log onto www.millgatehouse.com for details of the house and garden and Bed and Breakfast. Garden open April to October.
(Reckless Gardener visited Millgate in 2008)