For a few short glorious weeks in early summer, the wooded hillside above the Derwent Valley at Lea is a blaze of colour. This is when Lea Rhododendron Gardens come into their own every year. Brian Spencer tells the story of one man’s vision that has been backed up by three generations of a devoted family.
It was John Marsden-Smedley (1867-1959), owner of the John Smedley manufacturers of quality woollen knitwear who made his residence at Lea, rebuilding the farm house of Lea Green into a house echoing his position as the local squire. Today the house and its immediate grounds are used as a residential and day centre by Derbyshire County Council Education Department as an outdoor activity centre.
Marsden-Smedley was a keen horticulturist, growing flowers, vegetables and fruit trees behind high sheltering walls. As the site was comparatively exposed at an altitude of around 1,000 feet (305m), to aid existing woodland, he planted masses of trees to act as wind-breaks. These trees were to become a useful addition in his soon to follow, love of rhododendrons and azaleas. In order to find the most suitable site for these plants more suited to the high sunny slopes of the Himalayas, Marsden-Smedley tried planting them in various sites around his estate; the remnants of these trials can still be seen dotted around woodland clearings.
In 1935, at the age of sixty-eight and inspired by a visit to Bodnant Gardens in North Wales, together with one to the Rothschild family’s Exbury gardens in Hampshire, he decided to develop his own rhododendron garden. One site in particular provided the ideal locality and became the present site of Lea Gardens. Surrounded by tall Scots pines, sycamore, yew, chestnut, oak and silver birch, some already there and others planted by Marsden-Smedley in order to create wind-breaks and provide shelter. Using a shallow hollow of an ancient quarry on the opposite side of the road surrounding the estate, skilled estate craftsmen used the abundant stone to build retaining walls, paths and beds for the plants which were soon to follow. Soil was brought in from other parts of the estate in order to top up the naturally occurring sandy soil. Coal ash from the furnace at his woollen mill was also used to add to this topping-up process. It was during this work that several Roman quern-stones were discovered (used for hand grinding flour). Apparently the garden is built on the site of a small quarry where a particularly fine-grained layer of grit-stone suitable for these stones can be found.
Records from that time speak of purchases from all the major specialist growers throughout the British Isles. John Marsden-Smedley also decided to try to establish less-hardy varieties normally only successful in sheltered gardens on the west coast. To his delight he found that by careful planting in sheltered parts of the quarry-garden, they could survive the rigours of most Peak District winters. Many of his original specimens still flourish, almost a century after their planting. Together, over 350 varieties of species and hybrid rhododendrons and azaleas were planted by him and had begun to establish themselves in the 2-acre (0.8 ha) site before his death in 1959 at the age of ninety-two.
When the estate was divided and sold, the gardens were bought by Peter and Nancy Tye. They were joined by Joyce Colyer a year later, who came with her expertise as an estate manager for John Marsden-Colyer, also bringing her intimate knowledge of the gardens and their collection of colourful plants.
Nancy Tye had an artistic flair for rockery and garden design and it was she who created the alpine scree garden that complements the entrance to the rhododendron collection. The main garden was expanded under Peter and Nancy’s care by the introduction of new plants, ornamental shrubs and a small water garden. In 1960 the gardens were opened to the public and seven years later they built their attractive house overlooking the garden.
The next generation to care for Lea Rhododendron Garden was Jonathan and Jenny Tye who retired from the Royal Air Force in 1980. Instead of flying Vulcan bombers, Jonathan and Jenny expanded their inbred flair for horticulture and increased the garden with new plantings. They were later joined by their son Peter, who specialises in the growing and marketing of rhododendrons.
As plants begin to exceed their natural lifespan, they are gradually being replaced with new plantings, using the opportunity to bring in unusual varieties. Exciting new hybrids such as the American kalmias below the house, and flamboyantly coloured Japanese yakusimanums collection blooming near the alpine scree garden; almost every colour in a kaleidoscopic spectrum is there, ranging from white, through yellow, orange, pink and bright red; blue is even featured when the exotic Himalayan meconopsis poppy comes into flower in the alpine garden. Backing them is the breath-taking azalea bed which must feature on countless amateur photographs. Paths meander up and down the sloping site, past massive orchid-like flowers of huge rhododendron bushes, where there is colour all around. While the best time to visit Lea Rhododendron Gardens is in mid-May to the end of June and often well into July – there is one variety aptly named Christmas Cheer whose tiny single-petalled flowers come into bloom in late December.
With the opening of a tea room, Lea Gardens has become a popular attraction. Visited by plant lovers or those who simply want to enjoy the eye-catching display, it now covers about 4 acres (1.6 ha), planted with over 550 different varieties of rhododendrons and azaleas. Plant sales on site offer a wide range of the varieties which might have caught your eye as you wander round this idyllic place.