The Gardens at Renishaw

PUBLISHED: 11:37 25 July 2011 | UPDATED: 19:45 20 February 2013

The Gardens at Renishaw

The Gardens at Renishaw

As Renishaw Hall stages an exhibition on its glorious gardens, Pat Ashworth talks to the head gardener and takes a tour

As Renishaw Hall stages an exhibition on its glorious gardens, Pat Ashworth talks to the head gardener and takes a tour.

David Kesteven, head gardener at Renishaw Hall, confesses that his bluff was called after years of murmuring that a history of the gardens exhibition might look well in the estates stableyard gallery. Go on, then, said Lady Alexandra Hayward, and so here we stand on a sunny early summer morning on a journey in time through the gardens changing fortunes.

An exquisite vellum map drawn in 1776 is evidence of what the original 1625 manor house garden of George Sitwell of Renishaw looked like. Its walled garden, courts and orchards typified the garden of a wealthy gentleman but what privately delights David is that he can see his own house on here as well, tucked away in the south-westerly corner of the map. He has been at Renishaw since 1997, loves the garden and describes the last 13 years as the best in his life.

We pause to see the sweeping changes wrought by the passion for landscaping that came in with the 18th century, an era that did away with the intimacies of walled gardens and orchards and which at Renishaw saw wings added to the manor house to quadruple its size. This was the era of the flamboyant Sitwell Sitwell, who had succeeded to the title in 1792 and about whom much is known not least that he led the only recorded tiger hunt in England. But it was his successor who began to fascinate David and his volunteer researcher for the project, Christine Beevers. She has been an absolute revelation, he says in tribute.

We found out such a lot about the second baronet, George the second, G2 we call him. He was a real horticulturalist, who collected all kinds of plants and flowers. We found this catalogue listing every plant and cultivation, with a cross against every one hes got. Like a trainspotter. Amazing. He confesses that his own exhibition plans had amounted to pictures going round the walls with a bit of commentary underneath but Christines findings as she had delved into the boxes had given it a new dimension.

She extracted some charming glimpses of family life in this era, with the children recorded as making garlands and wreaths from roses and honeysuckle and the trees being hung with cages of turtledoves for a wedding anniversary: Their parents would come to the summerhouse to open the gifts their children had made for them, the commentary records. There were pet lambs, and deer brought down from Balmoral. All we really knew about George before this was 1845 when the whole thing went pear-shaped. Maybe collecting lots and lots of rare plants wasnt the best way to run an estate... David suggests.

Sir George Reresby, who succeeded to Renishaw in 1862, was the father of Osbert, Sacheverell and Edith Sitwell, and had such a passion for the garden that he would get up at 5am each day and walk round surveying his work. His 100-page book, The Making of a Garden, was an acknowledged masterpiece of its day, its principles based on simplicity, restraint and harmony of the landscape. He did the Grand Tour and discovered all these things about Renaissance gardens, David says with enthusiasm. He has been watching the BBC TV series, Monty Dons Italian Gardens, and reflects, I sit there thinking, George Sitwell, Monty Don... youre discovering the same things! But George Sitwell did it 100 years ago.

Pride of place in this section goes to the blueprint of Georges design. Theres a lovely quote here from Osbert about his fathers work, David points out. He comments, Though he was adept at taking the wrong end of a thousand sticks, this is where he took the right end of the stick. There are pictures from Country Life in 1910 before the sculptures arrived in the centre of the garden and before Renishaws famous Flag Walk was laid down. David examines the pictures and with a gardeners eye observes, Already beginning to see a bit of decay on the elm trees...

In the heyday of the garden, between 1900 and 1930, Sir George consulted many of the leading gardeners and designers of his day, including Edward Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll, though few are said to have survived his exacting demands or had their advice accepted. David notes, Lutyens was coming up, throwing his oar in and generally being ignored.

Osbert took on Renishaw in the 1920s, when Sir George and his wife, Lady Ida, retired to live in the Italian villa they had been restoring since 1909, the Castle of Montegufoni. His 44 years there saw the gardens greatest decline, and the Survival section of the exhibition is one of the most intriguing. Osberts heart was in London, where he physically was for most of the time. The staff in the garden went down to two, and the wilderness grew in from the edges, David comments.

He brought all his friends down to what was almost ruins, all dishevelled with weeds and such an atmospheric place. You can just imagine this glittery London set coming up to Chesterfield for the weekend and going to this old haunted hall and opening it up, and Rex Whistler saying that up on the roof was the most exciting place he knew.

The artist, John Piper, also spent a lot of time on the roof. Osbert was his patron, and several of Pipers paintings have been transferred from the Hall for this exhibition, including Entrance to the Wilderness and The Gothic Temple. Theres a quirky photograph of Osbert Sitwell with the Angel of Fame statue he rescued from the Poets Fountain being demolished in Londons Park Lane in 1950 and brought to Renishaw We took it down for Lady Sitwell when she re-gilded her in 2002, David says of this Renishaw visitors favourite.

Survival leads to Revival, the final section of the exhibition: basically from 1965 and the reign of Sir Reresby Sitwell, and the wonderful things they did, David says warmly. When they moved in, the hall was first and the garden second. When you sort the hall, it stays sorted, but the garden needs renewing every year. The main change in the 1980s was the cutting back of all the shapeless yew hedges. The Woodland Garden was created in 2001. The triumph of this era is the featuring of the garden in Country Life in May 1994, when it was the magazines cover picture.

The last word in the exhibition goes to David himself, and to his team: Its hard not to think of the garden as a living thing we look after. When its happy, were happy, when its sad, we work harder. Largely self-taught, he came to Renishaw from a 10-acre private garden in Berkshire and had never worked in a big formal garden before though hed worked out several years earlier that I wanted to spend my life in a historic garden, the happiest of places.

When he finished the Berkshire garden, he went to the job agency, English Country Gardeners. When they asked him whether hed like to be a candidate for Renishaw, he thought it might be a nice day out, but I didnt think for a minute that Id got any chance. Friends in Sheffield bought the guide-book, which he was able to pore over with them the night before the first interview. Hed driven up from London, and when he set foot in the garden the following day, he says simply, It was just the best garden Id been to.

We stroll across the Top Lawn and down to the famous Buttress Border. This is where we stood, he remembers. It was the end of August and these borders were absolutely full of flowers. They said, Right, well, David, what would you do with these borders? I just said, Well, okay, that hebe... thats going over the edge a bit, so Ill cut that back, and that clematis needs tying to the top there... I just looked at it as gardening and sold myself as someone who could do it.

A second interview followed, with Mr Chambers, head gardener. We just talked and talked and talked... Four hours later, we were still in the garden. He kept saying, Do you know this plant? and I kept saying, No... The only thing I remember getting right was recognising that some tiny seedlings he pointed out werent sycamore but the closely related Norway maple, acer platanoides, he remembers. At that point in the day, I learned there was a shortlist of two. I think Mr Chambers put a word in for me.

The garden is always evolving, he says, and its history is always present. We regard with pleasure the pond in the formal garden, and David reflects, I see a lovely bit of Sir George and Lutyens standing here, considering that that shape of the pond didnt sit very well with the eye, and thinking even of making it circular because they didnt like the little angles. Lutyens suggested that the pyramids you can see should have their tops flattened, which he didnt do at the time but it did happen in the 1970s when they got big enough... And they were saying that the yew hedges growing up were going to smother his lovely wall and yes, it has now become obscure and I think maybe we should just take a foot off so we can see the top of the wall. Might be fun.

Obelisks on the Middle Lawn were put in two years ago, echoing the finials and minarets on the hall, and painted a surprising powder blue. The lilacs are in bloom in the last garden added by Sir George in 1935, when Sir Reresby, who died in 2009, was just a toddler. The shelter of the tree canopy radiates heat to produce a microclimate that protected some of the delicate magnolias over the last severe winter, though much was lost here as elsewhere in Derbyshire when temperatures struck minus 16.

Its Bluebell Fortnight and the scent in the Wilderness, Broxhill Wood, is heady. One of David Kestevens favourite gardens is Bodnant, in Wales, where the formal gardens suddenly give way to a dramatic ravine. Hes consequently eyeing the place here where the ground drops down to the Lakes, and like his predecessors before him, has plans for one day, when we have some time left over...

And as no doubt happened with earlier Renishaw gardeners, some things have arrived almost by accident, like the topiary figures David has introduced in the last 10 years without even knowing it. I once gave these shapes to one of our volunteers to trim, he remembers. She came back and said, I started with the bunny rabbit and the deer, but I had a bit of trouble with the squirrel. I said, Thats because its a dove...

Are all gardeners obsessive? I ask him in conclusion. Only the good ones, he says. As we crunch back along the gravel, he suddenly darts off at a tangent and bends to examine some tiny shoots just visible in the soil. Oh, glory be! he exults. Its the crinodendron. It has red lanterns that hang down... This is fantastic. I planted that when I arrived and it was this big, but I was sure it was dead. And its alive! It has made his day, as it would undoubtedly have made the day of his favourite gardening baronet.

Photographs by Andrew Eyley

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