The Gardens at Park Hall, Chesterfield, Derbyshire
PUBLISHED: 11:08 29 April 2010 | UPDATED: 20:52 23 October 2015
Pat Ashworth visits the Chesterfield garden of Kim and Margaret Staniforth. Photography by Lu Jeffery
Judging by some of the old photographs of Park Hall, on the south side of Chesterfield, the house and gardens have never looked as good as they do now - at least, not in living memory. The former farmhouse dates from around 1660, and some of the inside features make the present owners, Kim and Margaret Staniforth, think that it might originally have been two properties rather than one.
The Hall's chequered recent history has had a fascinating bearing on the layout of the garden. It was the home of the Chesterfield manufacturer, Philip Robinson, from 1911-1937, and a photographic record survives of the major landscaping work he undertook in 1933. Labourers in waistcoats and flat caps hack away at deep trenches, a horse pulls a wooden cart up muddy slopes in images reminiscent of the Somme, and mountains of stone await laying out in terraces. A wire-haired terrier shows a keen interest in the work in progress.
Jump ahead to 1980, however, and the estate that once comprised vast acres of farmland is being broken up for development. The garden becomes considerably reduced and now borders on new houses on two sides, though the Hall's high walls still make it virtually invisible from the main road. Nobody seems to have made much of a go of the house after that: repossessed and sold in auction in 1994, it underwent three years' structural renovation before its new owner put it back on the market.
That's when Kim and Margaret saw it and fell in love with it. 'It was our sort of house but we never thought about the garden. We didn't really know what we'd taken on,' Margaret acknowledges. The couple, who are self-taught gardeners, had seen the 1933 pictures and decided to recreate as faithfully as possible the now much overgrown terrace landscape at the front of the house. It is only now, in 2008, that they think they have finally succeeded. Visitors who come to see the garden on its open days under the National Gardens Scheme will find the winding, ascending Woodland Walk completed, the biggest challenge of all in terms of the sheer hard work it has taken. A jungle of shrubs, giant laurels and hollies had to be hacked through with a machete and the hollies reduced to manageable size, though the laurels serve as a useful screen from the neighbouring property. The laurel leaves are huge and shiny - 'It's by no means my favourite plant, but they look protective here,' Kim observes. The earth path is edged with timber in a pleasantly uneven line, and in due course will be hardened with chippings. A glance backwards from this gentle slope gives a stunning view of the house.
An area of land that formerly housed the kitchen garden and swimming-pool that Robinson introduced was lost in 1980, but the hard landscaping of the terraces remains. Kim and Margaret put in a painted arch to draw the eye and mark the boundary of the garden now. 'It looks lovely but I think it's being a bit obscured now by these tree ferns, which are doing much better than we expected. We wrap them up with fleece in winter,' Kim notes of the feathery occupants of a flourishing green fern bed. Margaret put the tree ferns in simply because she thought they looked lovely. 'Then we just worked our way down from here ...'
Rhododendrons had colonised much of the garden on one side and some of the best of these have been retained in a rejuvenation programme, with the introduction of camellias too. An arbour on the west end of the middle of three terraces sports a quirky, quasi-medieval sculpture, The Chicken Thief, made by a young Hertfordshire sculptress as a test piece for a stone boss.
Land drainage on this sloping site has had to be addressed: the lawn was very boggy when the couple first arrived and a deep sink produces a naturally filling pool. Water naturally runs down a deep ditch that was once even more of a stream. From this hillside is visible a giant sycamore at the back of the house, originally one of a pair: it's not a particularly beautiful tree, Kim observes, and as many trees in the garden carry preservation orders, he admits to a feeling of relief when the twin became diseased and had to be cut down.
But beeches and horse chestnut trees - some 200 years old - still tower above a big grassy area that is a carpet of bulbs in spring. It leads naturally into the original croquet lawn - still occasionally used for the purpose - and to the area where the tennis court was once located. It still sports the remains of an Arts and Crafts-style pavilion with plaster friezes decorating its ceiling. One recent visitor to the garden revealed that he had worked on building it back in the Twenties, and was delighted to find it still standing.
Where the tennis court once stood - 'It was in an awful state. We thought it detracted from the house and we're not tennis players ...' - the couple have created the most stunning and spectacular feature of the whole garden. It is a pleached circle with a small pool at its centre, a sunken garden that evokes a gasp of pleasure. The Staniforths first tried to create it in the year 2000, using non-fruiting pears, but whether the root balls were too small or they planted it too deeply, they reflect, it wasn't a success. They tried again in 2001 using pleached hornbeam, and are delighted with the result.
It looks somehow Shakespearian: the pleached alleys of Much Ado About Nothing, maybe, or just the Elizabethan shape itself. 'Last year, for the first time it really looked as it was meant to look - a hedge in the air. We've never seen a pleached circle anywhere: you tend to see them as rectangles and avenues,' Kim says, pleased. 'It isn't too bad now keeping it going. The idea in this part of the garden was to screen out the new houses, and we did a huge amount of planting around the boundary as well.'
A stone building in the corner was fancifully described in the plans as an ice house, but the couple clearly understand it to be a folly. Stepping out on to the vantage point of its stone rampart reveals a total surprise: a neat development of modern bungalows nestling below.
The hedge which runs along this northern boundary was designed to be a patchwork of holly and beech, in the style of one at Hidcote Manor - 'The beech has done nicely but I'm struggling to get the holly as good. The beech is taking over,' says Kim critically. The felling of a dangerously leaning walnut tree has improved both the light and look of this corner of the garden, where a rockery has been remodelled, together with a crazy paving path that leads to the pleached circle and runs parallel with an azalea Rope Walk.
The blue-stained timbers of the rope supports are echoed in the wood of an arbour which in season is covered with a weeping white wisteria. This is a sheltered part of the garden at the back of the house, where the first daffodils of 2008 boldly appeared on New Year's Eve. The couple have re-positioned closer to the house the imposing wrought iron gate that used to lead out to the fields, and given it its own intimate garden to stand in.
Kim and Margaret spend an average of two days a week working in the garden. They have a gardener, Fran Rhoden one day a week and are proud to have trained her through the WRAG (Women Returners to Amenity Gardening) scheme which places women in approved private gardens in their locality. They work up to 15 hours a week for a year, in return for practical instruction and a small training allowance, and the Staniforths were pleased to have been considered qualified.
A contractor cuts the grass, but the couple do the rest. Kim walks the garden every day - 'It's easy then to spot the weeds and keep them down' - and has a major task in pruning and re-shaping trees and bushes. They have 'gathered together all we know' about gardening; scour The Plant Finder (which lists every nursery in the country and what it grows) for interesting and unusual plants; and do a lot of buying by mail order.
The soil here is acid, constantly enriched with compost from six huge compost bins and from mulch. Margaret is the plantswoman, and among her favourite collections are tree peonies such as Molly the Witch, unusual hellebores, Erithronium, Dicentra and Jeffersonia. But it's the apricot-coloured Atlantic Star roses that she loves the most in a garden she considers to be at its very best between mid-May and mid-July. 'They have lovely, dark, shiny green leaves and they're always remarked upon by everyone who comes when the roses are out. They're glorious,' she says.
Everything in the garden is meticulously labelled, though it's the horticultural clubs rather than the Open Gardens visitors that ask the questions. This is the fourth year the couple have opened up the garden, which visitors can see on Sunday 1st June and Sunday 29th June - proceeds are shared between the Bluebell Wood Hospice for children and garden charities. They can enjoy cucumber sandwiches as well - 'Next year, I think we'll do ploughman's lunches ...' and even visit twice if they want to, since the two dates are sufficiently far apart to make a difference in a garden glowing with summer warmth.