Tuesday 27 August 2013

Visit to Howick Hall Gardens

I took advantage of the good weather on yesterday’s Bank Holiday Monday and took a trip with my parents up to Howick Hall Gardens and Arboretum in Northumberland. Howick Hall is notable for being the former home of Charles, the second Earl Grey, and creator of the famous Earl Grey tea. The tea was specially blended by a Chinese mandarin since the water at Howick is flavoured strongly by the lime rock in the area, and bergamot was added to alter the flavour. Lady Grey began serving it during her trips to London, and it became so popular that Twinings began marketing it. Unfortunately they didn’t register the trade mark and they’ve never made a penny from the sales.

The second Earl Grey is probably the best known member of the family, and he became Prime Minister in 1830. Two years later he introduced the Great Reform Bill, which set Great Britain on the path towards our modern form of parliamentary democracy (much to the chagrin of the Duke of Wellington). His statue currently stands at the top of Grey’s Monument, at the top of Grey Street in Newcastle, and he gave his name to Grey College in Durham University.

Howick Hall itself is only partially open to the public, with a new visitor centre located in the entrance hall of the main building, and a tea room in one of the wings. Originally built in 1782 by the Newcastle architect, William Newton, the house was enlarged in 1809 when the entrance was moved from the south side to the north, and a terrace was constructed on the south side (seen in the photo on the left). There are beautiful views from the terrace, with a plethora of agapanthus providing food for the many bumblebees and butterflies that visit the gardens. Sadly the main house was gutted in 1926 by fire, and it was rebuilt in 1928. The family moved out shortly after the death of the fifth Earl Grey in 1963, and in 1973 the present Lord Howick converted the West Wing into the family home. The small visitor centre is very welcoming, giving information on the various plant species that can be seen around the gardens, but there are further plans to restore the whole ground floor. It would certainly be a good addition to what is already on offer, particularly to provide somewhere to go if the weather takes a turn for the worse!

The main attraction to Howick Hall is the gardens and the vast arboretum. The gardens are primarily the work of the fifth Earl Grey, as they adopted an informal, natural style of gardening, and they boast some wonderful plants brought from various parts of the world that have managed to thrive in the somewhat alien Northumberland landscape. There is the wild Bog Garden around a small pond which was created in 1991, which features plants from China, India, Japan, New Zealand, North America and Europe. There are also the borders around the Hall itself, which only date to 2005, a rockery (behind me in the photo on the right), various woodland gardens, the meadows around the large pond, and the arboretum itself. The rockery concentrates on alpine plants and shrubs, and features many species that flower in summer to compensate for the spring-flowering plants elsewhere in the gardens. The Arboretum covers some 65 acres of woodland walks with over 11,000 trees and shrubs planted from 1988.

There is also a small church on the site, St Michael and all Angels. Howick as a parish dates to 1158, and the original Norman church was replaced by an Ionic temple in the mid eighteenth century. It was destroyed by fire, and the present building was built in 1849. The church is still in use, celebrating a parish communion every second and fourth Sunday in the month. The tomb of the second Earl Grey is inside the south wall, while the small stone gargoyles on the outside north wall were all carved by the third Countess Grey, Maria. It's a beautiful little church, with a rambling graveyard, and boasts the sort of peaceful atmosphere that you only seem to find in those small, out-of-the-way places.

Howick Hall Gardens and Arboretum doesn't boast some of the amenities enjoyed by other attractions, but it has toilets, a tea room, and plenty of quiet woodland to enjoy. It's probably not well suited to children, unless they like wildlife and being out in the open air, and the rambling nature of the paths make it unsuitable for wheelchairs. If you're in the area, it's quiet and peaceful, and makes a wonderful change from the fast pace of city life.


Tony Noland said...

Sounds like a great place. I'd love to see it sometime.

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