A little way beyond the northern limits of the Potteries, just off the Congleton road, Biddulph Grange Garden is one of those places where each season has something to offer. It is this special changing of interest and variation of plants looking their best which draws us back, time after time. This year our visit coincided with the dahlias at their flamboyant best, but while admiring them we discovered a hidden secret in the history surrounding their position in this unique garden.
Biddulph Grange Garden was created in 27years from 1842-1868 by James Bateman, a local businessman and his wife Maria, together with Edward Cooke, a marine artist friend. The garden was dug out of the side of a valley that flows down to the River Trent and by constructing ‘compartments’, microclimates were created to make homes for the trees and shrubs collected by famous plant explorers commissioned by Bateman. With differing areas created by the microclimates, the garden was divided into small, inter-connected zones, some warm, others damp and cool and sometimes almost shadeless. Each ‘compartment’ became home for magnificent trees, shrubs like rhododendrons, azaleas and ferns as they settled into a copy of their original environments. In this way it is possible to walk from country to country without travelling more than say, half a mile. Within the space of a few yards inter-connected rocky paths lead from Italy, to Asia, then onwards to a Scottish glen. Beyond a rocky tunnel the garden explorer will find themselves inside the tranquillity of a Chinese temple complete with tinkling bells and a bamboo shaded pond full of golden carp; a Willow Pattern bridge completes the effect of being on the other side of the world.
Passing beneath the gaze of a magnificently gilded buffalo, the path climbs past a short section of the ‘Great Wall of China’, by way of a ‘stumpery’, inverted trees roots, to arrive at a half-timbered Cheshire cottage. Beyond the ‘cottage’ Egypt is described from the imagination of some Victorian sculptor who, it must be said had obviously never been to that ancient country. Round the corner from the rather strange reproductions of the sphynx and the ape god, Thoth, is the long double-sided avenue lined with Deodar Cedars, backed by Red Horse Chestnuts. Although still known by its original title of the Wellingtonia Avenue, there are no specimens of this most ancient of trees. They were removed by Robert Heath, a later owner of Biddulph Grange who possibly could not wait until the Giant Sequoias, Californian Redwoods, mature in 3,500 years.
The beds where the dahlias we had come to see are grown, disappeared beneath a mountain of rubble during a less prosperous time for the garden. Throughout its life, Biddulph Grange and its garden has had several owners, many of whom could not afford, or be interested in its upkeep. Almost from the start, Bateman almost bankrupted himself with the cost of developing such an imaginative project. Other owners did not have quite the drive or interest as he had and to cap it all, the house was almost totally destroyed by fire in 1896.
With the passing of time, two wars and sundry recessions, Biddulph Grange Garden became a vandalised wilderness. In 1923 the house was turned into a cottage hospital, then in the 1960s the NHS took over the hospital, but with the inevitable demands on finance the NHS could only afford to pay one gardener to care for the 15acre garden. Vandalism and neglect took its toll and it was at this time that the Dahlia Walk as it is called, was filled to the brim with rubble from building work on the hospital. What had been one of James Bateman’s pride and joys simply disappeared.
When the National Trust took over the garden in April 1988, it embarked on its most ambitious restoration project: to return Biddulph to the glory of its Victorian heyday. Fortunately the garden despite its neglect was resilient and over the intervening years James and Maria’s vision came back to life.
One of the major projects was to open up the Dahlia Walk, rediscovered in 1988, and this meant removing the tons of rubble and junk dumped there by builders. Beds making up the ‘Walk’ follow a gentle slope rising to the east towards the vantage point of the Shelter House. A series of neatly clipped yew hedges create small interlinking beds, each filled with what is possibly the most exotic plant to flower in British gardens. Dahlias similar to now extinct cultivars that were popular in Victorian times, together with herbaceous plants of which Mrs Bateman was especially fond make a pleasing spectacle in late summer, almost until the first frosts. Tight-headed pompoms vie with flamboyant larger flowered varieties, all in the brightest of colours bring the ‘Walk’ to life. This would surely have met with the Bateman’s approval, especially if the stroll leads up to the Shelter House, another result of the National Trust’s successful knack of restoring something for which only plans and old photographs remain.
When the dahlias finish in autumn, the garden has one last explosion of colour as leaves on the deciduous trees turn to different shades of reds and yellow.