The Lake District in Cumbria is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places in Britain and it has no shortage of wonderful gardens you can visit. If you are holidaying amidst the awe-inspiring scenery, Holehird Gardens is one such garden, but, with a unique tale to tell. It is run entirely by volunteers.
Situated high above Windermere, Holehird has been home to the Lakeland Horticultural Society since 1969. Written records, however, go back to the 17th century when a large part of the area was owned by Thomas Hird and his family.
In 1885 the Manchester industrialist John Macmillan Dunlop laid out formal gardens and had the present Walled Garden built with a range of heated greenhouses against the north wall, where Visitor Reception and LHS Members' Rooms now stand. The Groves family moved to Holehird in 1897 and continued the development of the grounds and garden, designing a rock garden and introducing many water features, including damming streams to form the tarn below the Mansion.
In 1945 Henry Leigh Groves gave the estate to the County Council, to be held in trust 'for the purpose of the better development of the health, education and welfare services of the county of Westmorland'. The estate is now managed by the Holehird Trust who lease the various parts to organisations and individuals. The Mansion has been leased to the Leonard Cheshire Foundation since 1961 and is still run as a home for the disabled.
The Lakeland Horticultural Society was founded in 1969 with the aim of promoting the science, practice and art of horticulture, particularly with regard to the conditions prevailing in the Lake District. After a search for a suitable garden they took on the lease for Holehird and proceeded to work on bringing the garden back to life. And what a wonderful job they have done.
In 1969 the LHS took over the lease for two acres of the overgrown Rock Garden and grassy slopes of the Orchard. The first volunteers cleared the rank vegetation and self-sown saplings, being careful to preserve the mature specimen shrubs and trees which had managed to rise above the willowherb and brambles. Old paths were exposed and new ones created and a garden worthy of being opened to visitors emerged by the end of the 1970s.
Russell Hope-Simpson, a founder member, wrote at the time: “The whole daffodil slope was dotted with apple trees which all had to be grubbed out. Near the larch at the foot of the bank was an immense spruce and a wide-spreading cherry, virtually cutting the garden in two. The spruce was felled and its stump hidden by spreading juniper. The two largest roots were sawn through and a lucky gale did the rest.
Self-sown oaks, sycamores, hollies and rowans, many twenty years old grew up through the rhododendrons and maples and had to be removed by mattock.
The brambles were chicken feed compared with the gaultheria shallon and dwarf bamboo: when their very tough roots were wrenched out, up would come the rocks to the surface, to be wheeled away later.”
A volunteer gets stuck in with a hoe
In 1980 the LHS took over the Walled Garden which at that time was being used as a tree nursery. The derelict glasshouses were cleared and the walls repaired. Internal walls, steps and paths were built and the design of the Walled Garden was agreed.
A Members’ Room and Library were built. In the 1990s this was extended to create a new reception area and outbuildings were renovated for use as potting sheds and propagating areas. The Paddock was acquired to house growing frames and trial beds and the Hydrangea Walk was established.
The last part of Holehird Gardens as we find it today was added in 2001 when they took on a further five acres around the Mansion, thus uniting the original Victorian gardens. The Woodland Walk was constructed, many invasive and potentially disease-ridden Rhododendron ponticum were removed and a new planting programme began. The Cascade and other water features were extensively restored.
Expanding the range
Holehird continues to evolve. 2017 saw the opening of a new Walled Garden Display House which will allow them to expand the range of plants. Other changes are not so immediately obvious but are the result of the effects of climate, the life-cycle of the plants grown and lots of everyday decisions.
The garden can also boast four National Collections: Astilbe, Daboecia, Meconopsis, and Polystichum. Unfortunately they had to relinquish that status for their Hydrangeas after a devastating flood a few years ago.
From the original 200 members, numbers have grown to about 1500, of whom 250 or so are actively involved in one way or another. Although the majority of members and volunteers are from the Cumbria and North Lancashire area, some come
from other areas of the UK, with a few from even further afield.
The library at Holehird is one of the best-stocked horticultural libraries in the north of England, with approximately 2000 books and 20 journals available for members to read and borrow. Additional resources include a range of digital microscopes, as well as computers and a printer for the members.
Members are also invited to join a number of garden tours each year. These range from day trips to longer tours in the UK and abroad. In 2017 members visited West Wales and Yunnan, China.
LHS hosts a series of monthly lectures on a variety of gardening-related topics at the Marchesi Centre in Windermere from October to March each year. These lectures are open to the public but a second series of mini-lectures at Holehird from April to September is offered to LHS members only.
Finally, Holehird runs a range of practical gardening courses for members. Non-members are welcome if places are available.
If you are in The Lake District do find time for a visit. You will not be disappointed.
Dave Oswald, 2018
The Radlett connection
Peter and Shirley Kingsbury
at Holehird in 2008
Many of our members will remember Peter Kingsbury, a long-time committee member before he and his wife Shirley left Radlett for Penrith to be closer to their Edinburgh based daughter.
In 1995 he took a major part in the design, planning and fitting out of the extension to the Store including all the electrical wiring. He carried out the Store maintenance from then on till he left.
Peter also edited the Weeders Digest for some years and started the Plant Sale along with Elizabeth Wackrow. He always helped with the shows and entered many classes, being a very successful competitor winning many prizes over the years.
The Kingsburys had an allotment in Radlett and later enjoyed having one in Penrith.
Peter started to volunteer at Holehird in 2002, with Shirley often joining him. He always enjoyed working there, mainly in the walled garden, particularly looking after the rambling roses.
Our Society visited Holehird during the 2008 Lake District holiday jointly organised by Peter and Peggy Sjoberg.
Peter carried on with his horticultural passion until 2010, the year he sadly died from Motor Neurone Disease.
Students from Newton Rigg College in Penrith seen digging out the rose bed in 1972. Founder member Henry Noblett, was a senior lecturer at the college, whilst current President Shelagh Todd is now the Senior Horticulturalist