[dropcaps]With summer becoming little more than a pleasant memory, Brian Spencer reminiscences about a visit he made while Renishaw’s gardens were at their glorious best.[/dropcaps]
Hardly the size and ducal splendour of Chatsworth, or the medieval fairytale castle of Haddon, Renishaw Hall still manages to fascinate all who visit this gothic pile a few miles outside Chesterfield. As land on which it stands has now recovered from the depredation of open-cast coal mining and heavy industry it now sits as it always did, amidst a tree-lined rural enclave of north-east Derbyshire.
The rambling two-storied flat-roofed house with its pretend battlemented outline has been home to the Sitwell family for around 400 years. Always at the forefront of local life and despite past financial setbacks, the Sitwells were especially caring for their tenants and throughout the centuries the family have looked after the house and its gardens.
Never, it is fair to say, excelling or involving themselves in what could today be called major newsworthy events, it took until four generations ago before any Sitwell could genuinely be said to have reached the halls of fame. This was when not one, but three children born in the late nineteenth century rose to lasting literary fame.
These were Dame Edith (1887-1964), Sir Osbert (1892-1969) and Sir Sacheverell Sitwell (1897-1988). Surrounding themselves with writers and painters of the day, they made Renishaw a haven for the artistic talent of the mid twentieth century. The youngest of the trio, Sir Sacheverell (‘Sachie’), was the only one to marry and it is through him that the Sitwell line of Renishaw’s ownership continues to this day. Although it was the garden that we planned to see, arriving on a day when the house was open to visitors was too much to ignore. Unlike many of the grander houses, its rooms tend to have comparatively low ceilings, but rather than detract from interest of the place, the rooms do have a comfortable feel; somewhere to enjoy everyday life without being overawed by too much magnificence.
This is the sort of place where it is easy to imagine the place filled with the noise of children, or the subdued murmur of some literary genius. Despite the underlying formality it is a family home first and foremost. Everywhere there are little quirky reminders of the family who own Renishaw; one of the guardian statues in the cosy entrance hall is wearing a pair of modern spectacles. Left by a visitor in 1969, they were put there by Sir Reresby the 7th Baronet in the hope that they would be collected, but they never were. Enjoyable though the visit to the inside of the hall might have been, we had to remind ourselves that it was the garden we had come to see. Trees and shrubbery hide the delights of what is in effect two gardens, Italianate and Woodland and so the only way to appreciate their hidden beauties is to wander round on foot. The garden entrance is in a hexagonal kiosk to one side of the house and only a few yards from the car park.
Once through it there is an easy path mostly accessible to wheelchairs and so easy on the feet. Mature trees and a lime avenue screen what was once an aviary but without its glass or mesh it has now been made into the sort of garden feature where you have to get closer to really see what it is, or more precisely was. Basically the formal part of the garden is divided into a series of small yet differing plots. Below the lime avenue the first bed has the first of two stone features euphemistically called ‘Candles’. This like its neighbour stands in the middle of a small lawn surrounded by herbaceous flower beds. Each year the floral pattern of the garden takes on a special theme, sometimes in matching or single colours, or at other times in the genus of plants growing there.
This theme is continued amongst the beds lining the south front of the house and when we visited Renishaw the Himalayan Poppies were in their flamboyantly stately blue magnificence. We couldn’t help but admire the quality of the lawns that seemed almost as carefully manicured as a county cricket field. Commenting on this to one of the gardeners who was hard at it keeping his bit of the lawn up to standard, he just shrugged his shoulders and tried to convince us that there was nothing to it, but as someone who struggles every year trying to keep his own bit of lawn tidy, this didn’t seem in the least bit likely. Beyond the largest, or Middle Lawn and its flower beds, the second ‘candle’ vied for attention and in an irregularly shaped outline, the Secret Garden really has to be searched for.
This quite small but shady arbour is the sort of place to rest as we did, on a hot summer’s day. The garden is effectively on three terraces with the first and closest to the house holding mainly flower and rose beds. Water is a feature of the second terrace with the first of two ponds surrounding shrubbery on a small island.
The water holds a family or whatever one would call them, of massive Koi carp. They must have a regular feeding spot and it was on it that I chose to stand whilst taking a photo. Suddenly I became conscious of lots of splashing sounds made by these hungry dwellers in the Fish Pond. Moving away from these voracious monsters and through a gap in the rose-lined hedge we came to the pond known as the Swimming Pool, but no one was taking advantage of its cool waters, although the fountain offered a gentle spray to anyone downwind of it. The final terrace holds a bed appropriately called the Half Moon. Not all that long ago the view from it would have been one of industrial desecration where the ground beyond Renishaw was torn asunder to recover coal lying close to the surface.
Fortunately this is now a thing of the past and as a result the view is over ground now restored by nature into a pleasant wildlife haven. Paths wander downhill through mature woodland known quirkily as The Wilderness and where classical and gothic statues hide coyly in woodland glades. If you go early enough in the season the Laburnum Tunnel makes an ideal way down to the twin lakes where the Gothic Archway frames a pleasant view across the upper lake towards the main area of woodland belonging to Renishaw’s parkland – there is even an old sawmill to complete the picture of a self supporting mansion.
On our way back from the garden in search of sustenance we almost accidentally came across what must be the strangest feature in Renishaw’s gardens. This is the National Collection of Yuccas, the plants originating from the Arizona desert region. Overlooking the old kitchen gardens and not easily spotted, this small display looks for all the world like a little bit of western desert transposed to rural north-east Derbyshire – it only needs someone like John Wayne to come riding by in order to complete the picture.
We had hoped to get lunch but the restaurant was full, however filling the time while we waited for the rush to die down was no problem. At the far end of the court yard where estate horses were once groomed, the Museum of Sitwell Memorabilia gives an insight into the creative and colourful lives of the literary siblings, Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell.
At the forefront of the ‘new-wave’ in the 1920s they introduced Britain to such artists as Picasso and Matisse. The adjoining Performing Arts and Costume Gallery, together with the artist John Piper Exhibition certainly allowed for the restaurant to calm down and find space for our meal. The food incidentally is excellent and good value, especially when washed down with a very pleasant bottle of Renishaw Estate white, grown more or less around the corner from where we were sitting.