How new film adaptation of The Secret Garden is showcasing the beauty of North Yorkshire

Since childhood, I’ve had an endless fascination with locked doors, hidden places and areas seemingly off-limits; a niggling desire to make new discoveries and find out what lies beyond.

Mary Lennox in a new film version of The Secret Garden. Picture: PA Photo/Studio Canal..
Mary Lennox in a new film version of The Secret Garden. Picture: PA Photo/Studio Canal..

I know I’m not alone.

But what is it about secret spaces that piques our curiosity so much?

It’s a topic I discuss at length with my partner on a rainy 4.5-hour drive from London to Yorkshire.

Sarah Marshall paid a visit to Helmsley Walled Garden. Picture: PA Photo/Renato Granieri.

According to research from car-sharing club Zipcar UK, three-quarters of us have our most meaningful conversations in cars.

Driving for 73 minutes is key to unlocking the deepest discussions, apparently – which leaves us another 197 minutes to verbally unravel other complex conundrums currently troubling the world.

The spark for our great debate is a new film adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel, The Secret Garden.

Starring Colin Firth, Julie Walters and Dixie Egerickx, the CGI-enhanced spectacular has finally been released in cinemas, following several Covid-related delays.

It tells the story of Mary, a spoiled orphan raised in India, who’s sent to live with her uncle in Yorkshire.

She arrives to find a moribund household tormented by illness and a loss of loved ones.

But the discovery of an abandoned, overgrown garden becomes a place to cultivate a happier future, allowing friendships to blossom and new beginnings to unfurl.

Although shot in various spots around the UK, the film features many locations in Yorkshire; grand manor houses, medieval ruins and majestic landscapes make the region a natural fit.

On a quest to discover what’s on offer, I base myself in Helmsley for the weekend, at the foot of the North York Moors National Park.

A picturesque market town of cosy pubs and cafes with glowing windows, it’s a nostalgic, atmospheric setting, plucked from an author’s imagination.

Occupying one of the historic stone buildings is The Feversham Arms and Verbena Spa, a former coaching inn rebuilt by the Earl of Feversham in 1855 and since transformed into a warren of homely rooms centred around an outdoor heated pool.

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When we arrive too late for restaurant curfews, a table is fully laid next to the window in the living room of our suite; upscale, private in-room dining is one of the few happy consequences of Covid restrictions, I learn.

Another convenience is the hotel’s location – a ten-minute stroll from Helmsley Walled Garden, used as one of the magical garden settings in the film.

By now, many of the summer’s vibrant, cinematic colours have faded; leaves are rusting orange, while slow, swaying grasses are entering their golden years.

But it’s still a place full of life.

“Working with the seasons is very special; time passes in a different way,” says Tricia Harris, who helps to manage the five-acre garden, which largely relies on volunteers for support.

Enclosed by ivy-clad stone walls and sitting in the shadow of 12th century Helmsley Castle, it’s a maze of gravel paths and hidden corners – the essential elements of a secret garden.

It’s also intended as a place to heal and reflect, by harnessing the restorative power of nature – a theme key to the film and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s original book.

Built in 1758 as a kitchen garden for the Feversham family at nearby Duncombe Park – which serves as Mary’s new home, Misselthwaite Manor, in the film – it was abandoned in the 1980s until local woman Alison Ticehurst revived it as a centre for horticultural therapy in 1994.

“If you feel like the world’s on top of you, you can journey through the garden, find somewhere to sit and feel better about things,” says Tricia, who speaks fondly about every patch of the place.

Sitting below big skies, this stretch of North Yorkshire is blessed with epic landscapes, provoking thought and contemplation. It probably explains why an order of Cistercian monks chose to build an abbey a 45-minute drive west, close to Ripon and the Yorkshire Dales.

Although a skeleton of its former glory, Fountains Abbey is still in remarkably good shape, making it England’s best-preserved example of a medieval monastery.

Arching cloisters and partial stairwells invite investigation, while black marble columns soar into a space where a roof would once have been.

Overrun by mosses and climbing plants, it easily earns a place in the 

The site’s role in The Secret Garden is mentioned in the book, National Trust on Screen, published earlier this year.

The East Guest House, part of a small complex that was originally used to accommodate important visitors, was chosen to become one part of the garden in the film.

The production team constructed a series of pools to transform it into an adventure playground for Mary and her friends Dickon and Colin, but it’s still a fantasy land even without the special effects.

The National Trust book features an explanation from the film’s location manager, Tom Howard, about the look the team wanted to achieve.

“The director wanted to get an element of water into the garden and we looked at lots of water gardens and gardens with fountains but nothing was quite right,” he said.

“We also wanted somewhere that looked very old so we started looking at monasteries.

“The East Guest House was ideal as it’s really striking and large enough to fill with water, which would provide some lovely reflections.”

The film crew spent seven days preparing the set for what would be a one-day shoot.

The scale of the estate meant that filming could be done on an open day despite the crew numbering more than 80.

There’s no splashing around during my visit, although the elegant 18th-century Studley Royal Water Garden, which neighbours the World Heritage Site, provides some visual aquatic entertainment.

Instead, I find a place to play at nearby Brimham Rocks, a series of balancing rocks and eroded boulders sculpted over 325 million years.

As the National Trust, which looks after Brimham Rocks, explains: “The rocks, sculpted by 320 million years of movement of entire continents as well as hundreds of thousands of years of ice, rain and wind, have taken on weird and wonderful shapes and with a little imagination, they resemble familiar creatures.”

Plenty of footholds and tunnels make structures a natural climbing frame for visitors of all ages, allowing imaginations to run free.

It’s that sense of liberation earned by conquering the unknown that explains why The Secret Garden has charmed so many readers. In North Yorkshire’s wild spaces, it’s a story that continually unfolds.

The Secret Garden is out in cinemas now.

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James Mitchinson