We left the house through a door between the Long Gallery and the anteroom of the State Bedchamber. The Gallery looks out over the gardens and across them to the Derbyshire hills, but it was not until we climbed the time-worn steps to the uppermost terrace that we would see the full splendour of the setting of Haddon Hall.
The house overlooks the valley of the River Wye as it meanders through the green hills, extending the vista far beyond the boundaries of the Hall and its grounds. The restoration of the gardens is a work in progress. Like that of the Hall itself, it was begun in the 1920s by John Manners, the 9th Duke of Rutland, who understood the importance of this unique survivor of centuries past.
It was the 9th Duke who created the topiary garden, where meticulously clipped heraldic beasts greet the visitor. The Boar and the Peacock of the Vernon and Manners families still reign at Haddon Hall.
Almost a hundred years after the restoration was begun, his vision is a green and growing delight. Even on a chilly December day, there are flowers, aromatic herbs and berries to give colour. Penstemons and roses brave the winter chill. Yarrow lifts pastel clusters to the sun and fragile fairy thimbles stubbornly defy the seasons.
The gardens are arranged as a series of terraces, following the slope of the hills. From the topmost terrace the views are spectacular, and it is from here that you get the best view of the Bowling Green Terrace where an intricate Elizabethan knot garden has been recreated from plants that would have been familiar four centuries ago. Lavender, germander and rosemary, their leaves aromatic even in December, will flower in soft colours through the summer months.
The Hall engaged the award-winning Arne Maynard as their garden designer and their choice of plants reflects the history of the building. I would have happily lingered all day identifying them by their habits and fragrant leaves.
In spite of the bare patch of liquid mud that currently calls itself my garden, I have always been a gardener. I started to learn about flowers as a child and by my teens I was growing and using herbs for all manner of things, from remedies to making liqueurs. Many of the plants whose sparse crowns find shelter beneath the mellow stone at Haddon Hall are old friends, used for healing and beauty, dyeing and housewifery.
The soft, furry silver of lamb’s ears are one of nature’s antiseptic, antibacterial bandages, absorbing blood from wounds and reducing inflammation. Yarrow, too, is a wound healer and, with peppermint and elderflower, makes and excellent tea for colds and flu. Yarrow was the first herb I ever used medicinally… treating colds in my father’s champion racing pigeons.
The old walls are covered in plants that tumble down the terraces, promising a riot of colour come spring. The walls of the house bear flowering climbers… some of the roses still in bloom in the pale sunshine, but most mere traceries of glories to come.
A fountain sits at the heart of the garden, reflecting the sky and surrounded by shrubs destined for topiary. The green of the lawn, bordered in spring and summer by wildflowers and native orchids, seems to blend into the distant landscape, yet below it, the terraces continue right down to the river bank.
Even in winter, it is beautiful. Like the house itself, there are signs of grandeur. Few of us have that kind of space or setting for our homes and gardens, few of us indulge in knot gardens, grand stone staircases or topiary… and yet, somehow, even here, there is still a sense of the Hall being a home. Perhaps it is the use of so many unpretentious herbs… plants that know how to ‘roll up their sleeves’ and go to work, rather than the showy, overblown beauties used in so many of the famous gardens. Perhaps it is the golden glow of northern stone. I don’t usually go for these great houses… but I admit, I fell in love with Haddon Hall.