Gardening ace Chris Beardshaw makes Mount Grace Priory his priority
PUBLISHED: 00:00 01 November 2017
English Heritage joins forces with broadcaster on extensive makeover
Its previous monastic inhabitants were not big on outward beauty, but that’s not going to stop Mount Grace Priory from getting a bit of a makeover.
Acclaimed international garden designer, plantsman, broadcaster and author Chris Beardshaw has been tasked by English Heritage with upgrading the south-west facing gardens alongside a new on-site horticultural team.
It’s an unusual site, set against the Cleveland Hills not far from Thirsk and Northallerton. Now cared for by English Heritage, the Carthusian priory is the country’s best-preserved monastic site – made all the more unusual as the ruins cover most of the extensive grounds to the rear of a beautiful Arts & Crafts mansion overlooking terraced gardens.
It’s a real heritage lover’s haven, with its priory ruins, fascinating architecture and a family legacy full of derring-do (the mansion was extended by Sir Lowthian Bell in 1901, the grandfather of Gertrude Bell – intrepid world-traveller, spy, author and photographer).
But, as with all things, time has taken its toll, particularly on the gardens, which have, in recent years, started to look a little tired. So, now plans are very much afoot to bring in one of the country’s foremost garden designers to give this landscape a creative boost to ensure this stunning house has the gardens it deserves by spring 2018.
Chris Beardshaw – the man himself – is working with Mount Grace Priory’s newly-appointed head gardener James Taylor, who also looks after English Heritage’s Richmond Castle and Barnard Castle, and gardener Karen Greenwood on the major overhaul.
He confesses that he was ‘dragged around’ stately homes by his parents as a child, but always remembered the gardens – if nothing else – very fondly, so he’s thrilled to be working with the Mount Grace team. As creative lead, Chris will work with James and Karen, and garden volunteers to horticulturally tell the story of the site.
To do this, he has had to take on the mantle of garden detective. The priory has extensive archives but, unfortunately, they contain little information on the gardens. With only minimal photographic evidence from the early 20th century, Chris has unravelled the narrative using the history of the building and its architectural legacy to develop a new plan commensurate with its rich heritage and visitor expectations. While piecing together elements from archives, account ledgers and invoices, he has also studied the backdrops of family photographs, identifying plants, trees and hedges behind the smiling groups.
Where there were inevitable gaps in the research, Chris has taken inspiration from the Arts & Crafts style of the mansion, adopting a modern take on this period of design to create a tapestry of garden ‘rooms’ that work across the seasons.
‘Chris has visited the gardens throughout the year to ensure he understands what works well and when it all comes together,’ said head gardener James. ‘He has never imposed his ego or decided for himself what he prefers; it has been a major commitment allowing the garden to speak for itself. He will utilise many of our existing plants, but some have inevitably outlived their original purpose and he has identified others that he would prefer moved.
‘We are now planting bulbs for the spring and sorting the borders ahead of winter. Chris is keen that visitors step down through the terraces of the gardens and experience a diversity of plants, scents and views at every turn. The front of the house also incorporates the original monks’ fishponds, which will undergo work to ensure they flow as they would originally have done, providing a suitable habitat for native plant species.’
The new-look gardens will be open for visitors to explore in spring 2018 with new interpretation boards and easier access along paths in the woodland areas, among other exciting plans.
‘With work now underway,’ said James, ‘I feel the garden is beginning to breathe again as it might well have done when the Bell family lived here. It is literally a labour of love for us all and a privilege to be involved.’
Mount Grace Priory is open from 10am to 4pm, weekends only, until the end of March. After that it will be open daily. Visit english-heritage.org.uk for more details.