Much like a new friendship that clicks, there are certain places that just feel right to me. Like I belong. From the first moment that I stepped into the garden I felt this about Arley Hall in Cheshire, England.
I discovered Arley while studying garden history in England. I was driving through the Cheshire countryside on an especially beautiful spring afternoon when I happened upon directional signs to the gardens at Arley Hall. I remembered the name from one of my classes, so I took the chance that there would be enough time to spend a few minutes in the garden before it closed.
Maybe it was the quality of light that evening, the time of year, or my solitary presence, but I immediately recognized that this place had a different and special feeling.
As I walked through The Grove, an informal shrub and tree garden, I noticed a well-dressed gentleman with a walking stick admiring the plants. We exchanged hellos and struck up a conversation. He mentioned that he would like for me to meet his wife, whom he described as "a very keen gardener".
The next thing I know I am in the estates main house — the gentleman in The Grove was the 10th Viscount Ashbrook and Arley was his home. His wife, Elizabeth Ashbrook, had been out in the gardens, as was her habit, getting her hands dirty. Lady Ashbrook was not at all pleased with her husband for bringing in some American student right at dinner time, but once we began talking we found that we were kindred spirits.
Over the years I stayed in contact with Lady Ashbrook and returned to Arley a number of times - each visit revealed something new to me. I believe this is because Arley is an ever-evolving garden. From its establishment in the early 1700s, members from each generation of occupants have enhanced its beauty by adding their own personal touches. Amid a framework of brick walls, clipped hedges and iron fences each garden room reflected the unique design of the gardener who conceived it.
The Arley gardens occupy over one hundred acres in a two thousand acre estate. The crown jewel, if you will, of Arley is the double herbaceous border, which was constructed in 1846. It is reputed to be the oldest border of its kind in England.
Herbaceous refers to plants that are soft-stemmed, not woody, usually perennials that die back in the fall and return the next spring. A border is simply a garden that runs alongside something.
In the case of the border gardens at Arley, one side is against a brick wall, which was built around 1773, and the other side is backed against an evergreen hedge. A wide tract of turf divides the two beds. Perhaps the most stunning part of this view is that the beds are nearly 125 feet long and are packed with a stunning array of blooming plants.
Arleys herbaceous border is arranged with the taller plants in back and shorter ones in front, but to create that causal, unplanned look, so unique to English gardens an occasional tall plant or grouping is allowed to jump forward so that the bed does not look so structured.
I have emulated these double borders in my own garden on a smaller scale by creating two deep flowerbeds on either side of a narrow rectangular lawn. Because some of the plants grown in England do not do well here in America, I mixed woody shrubs, such as smoke tree and shrub roses, with my perennials and annuals. Not only does this mean I have less to plant each season, but it also helps to maintain a structure to the garden year round.
Elizabeth Ashbrook passed away in 2002, but her creative spirit can still be felt in the gardens. Now the next generation carries on the family tradition. Lady Ashbrooks son and daughter-in-law, Viscount and Viscountess Ashbrook, each have made their own mark on the garden as well as her daughter and her husband, Jane and Charles Foster. More on their beautiful additions to Arley in the future.
Address: Arley Hall and Gardens, Great Budworth, nr Northwich, Cheshire, England, CW9 6NA
Tel: 01565 777353
Fax: 01565 777465
Dates Open: April to End Sept. and Weekends in October
Closed on Mondays
Admission prices are:
Children u16 (u5 free) £2.00
Senior citizens £4.50
Family £12 (two adults and two children)