Summer is on its way – and hundreds of proud homeowners in Yorkshire towns and villages are opening up their much-loved gardens to the public. Paul Stockburn reports.
JUST like the uplifting appearance of summer’s first swallow or a sea of bluebells, the seasonal sprouting of the “gardens open” roadside sign can set the spirits soaring. It’s time to refresh the mind and cleanse the soul after winter’s drudgery. And how gardeners, especially, need a boost this year.
The winter we’ve just endured seemed to drag on forever. Whereas the reappearance of Gardener’s World on our TV screens normally raises the spirits, that renewed optimism was quickly quashed this year. The reason for the despondency? Monty Don had to ignore the snowflakes as he filmed the first programme in this year’s series. Easter, another launch pad for many gardeners, was equally demoralising: a dispiriting mix of low temperatures, cloud and showers.
It was all a far cry from my first open gardens event many years ago when we were bathed in sunshine at the height of summer. Wimbledon was dominating the TV schedules as I, a reluctant gardener, was dragged away from the screen on a summer’s afternoon to a village near Boroughbridge. It was not quite game, set and match as I became a convert but the seeds of enthusiasm had been sown; nurtured, it must be admitted, by a very tasty afternoon tea in one of the gardens.
It’s not just the teas, or the tennis, that can provide a happy diversion to the horticultural entertainment. Many towns or villages make the gardens part of a bigger summer event designed to pull in the whole family. This year Great Ouseburn has already staged a “spring festival”, designed as a “goodbye to winter and hello to spring.” The April event may have seen lower than ideal temperatures, but, apart from the gardens, it advertised a petting zoo and the presence of meerkats.
At nearby Little Ouseburn, this year’s event listed a vintage car and motorbike display among its attractions. Brian Smyth, an ex-chairman of its Open Gardens committee, says: “We’ve gone away from commercial stalls and had this attraction for the last three years, starting with the MG club and Mercedes club. The open gardens are a major fundraising event for the village and I think the gardens and the vintage vehicles attract like-minded people.”
Last year the event, blessed with good weather, raised a record £6,000 for Little Ouseburn but Smyth stresses the fundraising was very weather dependent. “If it’s fine in the morning people come out, but if it’s wet it could be a disaster.”
Rain or shine, Little Ouseburn seems to have found a winning formula. It has opened its gardens for more than 20 years, says Smyth. So what’s the attraction? “There’s the element of discovering the hidden garden,” he says. “And people enjoy coming out into the country, having a good day out with good food available.”
Proceeds from this year’s event will go towards the village’s 12th century church – a mausoleum will be open on the day – and village hall.
The element of finding the hidden gem is being used to attract visitors to the open gardens at Burley-in-Wharfedale later this month, where organisers are promising the change to explore “some very different gardens”.
Acoustic groups, brass bands and even classical ensembles offering their services are music to the ears of some organisers seeking to boost funds. At Bellerby, near Leyburn, band music provided a carnival atmosphere among the cosmos and crocosmia on my visit a few years ago. Bellerby, boasting “at least” 12 gardens this year for its July 8 event, is also offering scarecrows and teas.
Perhaps to justify the calorific consumption, you could opt for an open gardens event providing the sort of workout we sampled one afternoon in hilly Oswaldkirk, near Helmsley. While contending with several climbs on our weekend stroll, we couldn’t fail to admire the creative cultivation on the sloping sites. It meant there was no excuse not to tackle the weeding in our pancake-flat borders when we got home.
Richmond provided an up and down experience of a different kind during an imaginative Friday evening gardens open. It had seemed a relaxing way to end the week and it certainly was fascinating to glimpse some of the secret spaces in the historic town. But the Yorkshire climate did us no favours on a very cool, damp evening which necessitated a brisk walk rather than a pleasant stroll.
Even the spirited efforts of a stylishly dressed classical music ensemble playing in one garden could not quite erase the disappointment.
The uncomfortable weather there, however, paled into insignificance compared with the downpours at Helperby a few years earlier. Everyone gritted their teeth and sought shelter but the indomitable gardeners’ spirit shone through as the event bounced back a year or two later.
Despite a frequent battle against the elements, people opening their plots to the public are a cheerful bunch. Inspiration and new ideas to try out are available by the barrow-load for you to thin out back home, whether that home is a stately pile or a back-to-back. Brompton-by-Sawdon, for example, will feature a dozen gardens in June, “from manor house to hidden cottages.”
One imagines actress Penelope Keith, who featured Brompton on her Hidden Villages TV series, would be quite at home visiting the former. Perhaps underlining the egalitarian nature of open gardens, the manor house will also be holding plant sales.
Open gardens have bloomed so successfully that the National Gardens Scheme now lists 3,700 private gardens opening for charity, with hundreds more events in towns and villages. The success seems a clear indication that increasing numbers enjoy seeing glorious gardens, even if they are not always keen gardeners themselves.
After enjoying many garden visits over the years, my wife and I decided to try to put something back when our village decided to stage its own event.
We volunteered to look after a plant stall and hoped to get enough donations of flowers and vegetables from green-fingered residents. Everyone was keen to make a good impression as the big day approached but one worried resident decided his garden was not suitable for show. As the tension increased weather forecasts were anxiously examined. There seemed some doubt about what the elements would throw at us.
Our anxiety evaporated, though, when we were blessed with a fine, bright day for the big occasion. And on the plant stall we felt like Black Friday had arrived early as we were besieged by bargain hunters as soon as the village hall doors were opened. One keen shopper demanded three of four plants whose names I’d never heard of.
“Just point to what you want,” I desperately suggested, as the queues lengthened. Clearly the special offers matter as much as the special gardens.
So the next time you see that roadside open gardens sign, why not check out all that’s on offer? It may be as big a surprise as a warm, sunny day.
Packed calendar of events across Yorkshire
More than a dozen open garden events will take place across Yorkshire in the next few weeks.
Next weekend will see events in Shiptonthorpe, Bridlington, Gargave, Hampsthwaite, Kirkby Malzeard, Headingley and Brompton-by-Sawdon.
On Sunday, June 24, residents in Marton-cum-Grafton, Baildon, Welton and Melton, Galphay, Barwick, Roundhay and North Dalton will be among the places across the country that will be participating in the scheme.
On the weekend of June 30 and July 1, events will be held in Fleetham and Fencotes, East Harlsey, Snape and Burley-in-Wharfedale.
For more information or to search for listings of open gardens, visit www.opengardens.co.uk