With the wheelbarrows at the ready, Sarah Freeman meets the team at Mount Grace Priory who are about to take on one of English Heritage’s biggest ever planting schemes.
Standing in the grounds of Mount Grace Priory with summer having already given way to autumn, the scale of the task is clear. Between now and the end of the year every single plant and bush will have to be dug out by hand. That means uprooting the rows and rows of box hedging, shifting the geranium beds and moving dozens of irises.
Some will be given a new home, others will be sold off and a few, which have come to the end of their natural lives, are headed for that great big nursery in the sky.
It’s all part of a massive redevelopment of the gardens at the English Heritage property on the edge of the North York Moors, which is aimed at giving people another reason to visit the historic estate.
“We have been working on the plans since May,” says head gardener James Taylor, who worked on a large golf course estate before joining the team at Mount Grace Priory earlier the year. “The aim is transform the grounds so they match the Arts and Crafts look of the main house. That has meant a huge amount of research, but we are now at the stage where we take a deep breath and really get our hands dirty.
“What’s really lovely is that as well as the garden staff we have also recruited a team of 10 volunteers who just love the house and want to be part of creating its future. That’s important to us because we want the people who live near here to feel a sense of ownership.
“It’s a little daunting, but also really exciting as you don’t often get the chance to design a garden from scratch. This is a huge blank canvas and it feels a real privilege to be able to write a new chapter in this lovely property.”
While most associate the site with the ruins of the Carthusian charterhouse – one of the best preserved in the country – this project will centre on the gardens around the Manor House.
Following the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, the medieval property which had previously operated as a monastic guesthouse fared a little better than the main religious buildings next door.
While the latter were ransacked and the treasures inside taken by the Crown, the guesthouse buildings were converted into a private property, which in the later part of the 19th century was bought by the Teesside steel magnate Sir Lowthian Bell.
By then the manor house had seen better days, but it found its saviour in Bell, a leading light of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings who was determined that this was one property that wouldn’t be consigned to history.
A champion of the Arts and Crafts movement, which was an attempt to stave off the impact of mass industrialisation by encouraging skilled craftsmanship, Bell employed the company of renowned designer William Morris to bring his vision to life.
Widely regarded as one of the UK’s finest examples of Arts and Crafts design, the property was given a makeover a few years ago, but the grounds have been a little neglected over the years.
Taking its lead from the terracing at the front of the property, come spring it is hoped the gardens will begin to grow into a much grander affair.
As part of the funding, which includes a grant from the Wolfson Foundation, award-winning designer Chris Beardshaw has been brought into help design the blueprint for the new gardens.
“The real difficulty is that no photographs exist of the gardens from the time of Sir Lowthian Bell,” he says. “However, I have worked on a number of Arts and Craft estates and what we are hoping to do is take the best of them and make it work here.
“The first job was to really absorb a sense of the place. We went through all the historic documentation which does exist. I stared at the corners and the backgrounds of all the old photographs just to get a glimpse of how the gardens might have looked. What I wanted to do was to really unravel the narrative of this house and its grounds. Once you have done that, the rest is easy.”
As is the way with big horticultural projects, the final design remains a work in progress and will grow with the house itself.
“The danger is that you wade in, strip everything out and try to impose your own ego on the place,” says Chris. “However, the most successful gardens are full of subtleties and acknowledge what went before.
“It would be wrong to ignore the imposing walls of the priory itself, so what you have is a huge timeline, stretching from the medieval period to now, and I hope that the new gardens will knit it all together. What I have learned over the years is that the key is patience. You can’t rush a good garden.”
Best known for his appearances on the long-running television show Gardeners’ World and as a regular panel member on BBC Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time, Chris says his love affair with horticulture began as a child.
“My parents dragged me to all sorts of castles and historic houses and we would spend hours wandering through the grounds. I guess that’s where it all started and I never thought of anything else. Watching plants grow and gardens spring into life, still gives me the same joy it did as a kid and working on restoring somewhere like Mount Grace Priory comes with a huge sense of satisfaction. It’s about putting the missing piece of the jigsaw back.”
While some of the initial work was done during the summer, the main work will take place over the winter and one of the biggest projects will involve removing silt to restore the priory’s various water features. The aim is to show how they developed from the site’s monastic origins and additional work will also see the introduction of new trails and information panels to make the grounds more accessible.
“The reason we appointed Chris was because he really understands the layering of a historical landscape and how to create intrigue in a garden throughout the seasons,” says Michael Klemperer, senior gardens adviser at English Heritage. “He has come up with some superb ideas, particularly around celebrating the Arts and Crafts movement with the house and linking this to the outdoors. Our hope is that these gardens become award-winning in their own right, which is no more than this superb site deserves.”
So with the plans in place and the team ready to make good on Beardshaw’s vision, the only thing they need now is for the weather to be on their side.
“We are not even going to think about what happens if we have a terrible winter,” says James. “We keep telling ourselves it’s going to be a mild winter and if we say it enough, the hope is it will come true.”
Mount Grace Priory is open daily from 10am to 6pm until October 31. From November 1, the site is open weekends only. Entry is free to members, check the website for entry prices. english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/mount-grace-priory
MONKS ON THE MOORS
Mount Grace Priory in East Harlsey sits within the North York Moors National Park and is now the best preserved and most accessible of England’s 10 medieval Carthusian houses.
Set in woodlands, it was founded in 1398 by Thomas Holland, 1st Duke of Surrey, and it was the last monastery established in Yorkshire, and one of the few founded anywhere in Britain in the period between the Black Death and the Reformation.
Home to a prior and 23 monks, the priory was closed in 1539 during the dissolution of the monasteries by King Henry VIII.
Mount Grace was valued at £382 5s. In December 1539 the brothers were awarded pensions totalling £195 – £60 plus the house and chapel called the Mount for the prior, £7 for each of eight priests who were still living there.