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Lea Gardens, near Holloway

PUBLISHED: 11:53 22 May 2013 | UPDATED: 15:39 29 May 2013

Lea Gardens

Lea Gardens

robert falconer

Robert Falconer visits the colourful and vibrant Lea Gardens

On a hillside deep in the heart of Derbyshire, hidden by trees, is a spectacular colourful oasis, which lasts for just a few months of the year. Bright pinks, yellows, oranges, whites and reds form a fantastical patchwork of colour created by a rare collection of rhododendrons, azaleas, kalmias and alpines. This has not happened by accident, nor is it a natural phenomenon, it is due to one man – John B Marsden-Smedley.

John Bertram Marsden-Smedley was born in 1867 and lived most of his life in the village of Lea. His father had inherited the high quality knitwear manufacturing company John Smedley Ltd, based at Lea, from his third cousin in 1875 and J B Marsden-Smedley was in turn left the company when his father died. In 1895 he bought the large farmhouse at Lea Green, which dated back to 1761, and began extending the main house into a grand building. Bought by Derbyshire County Council in 1960, it is now a learning and development centre.

Marsden-Smedley was a keen gardener. He created walled gardens and hothouses to grow fruits and flowers and the prolific greenery of the local area owes a lot to his planting of trees. Following in the footsteps of the golden Victorian era of plant collecting, botanical plant hunters were still bringing back new species and one of the most popular was rhododendrons. Marsden-Smedley made extensive plantings in different parts around the village to find the site best suited to grow them – some of these test plantings can still be found in the surrounding woods today. The most successful area proved to be the south-west facing slope of an old millstone quarry where established Scots pine, yew, sycamore, chestnut, oak and silver birch trees provided the wind protection and partial shade the plants needed to thrive. Suitable soil conditions and rocky outcrops completed the ideal habitat.

In 1935, inspired by visits to Bodnant and Exbury, Marsden-Smedley began work on the rhododendron garden. Skilled craftsmen from his estate used local stone to build paths and verandas. Extra soil was also added and even ash from the furnaces of the woollen mill were used as part of the topping-up process. The collection of rhododendrons and azaleas began, and records show that plants were bought from leading growers of the 1930s. He even established less hardy varieties with great success in this sheltered two-acre site. By the time of his death at the age of 92 in 1959 there were up to 350 cultivars of rhododendrons and azaleas.

On his death the estate was divided and sold and the rhododendron gardens were acquired by Peter and Nancy Tye. A year later they were joined by John Marsden-Smedley’s estate manager, Joyce Colyer, whose expertise and knowledge of the gardens was invaluable. It soon became clear that Nancy had an artistic flair for rockery and garden design, creating new alpine screes. The Tyes stamped their mark on what Marsden-Smedley had begun, introducing new plants, rock screes, ornamental shrubs and trees. Lea Gardens was opened to the public in 1960 and the house here was built in 1967.

In 1980 Peter and Nancy’s son, Jonathan, and his wife Jenny, took over the running of the gardens. They made even more improvements, one of which was to open a teashop, extending and developing the gardens to cover an area of around four acres. They also added another 200 varieties of rhododendrons and azaleas to the collection and became more involved in plant propagation and sales.

Entering the gardens through a clematis-covered stone archway your first view is of the alpine scree with its background of massed rhododendrons and azaleas under the canopy of Scots pine and birch trees. Artfully positioned rocks and dwarf conifers give structure to a packed array of plants that in early spring features dwarf daffodils and specie tulips, giving way to aubretia, double arabis, dianthus, phlox and saxifrage. A colourful planting in front of the house attracts attention with varieties of Acer palmatum, conifers, kalmias and dwarf rhododendrons, while in the distance your eyes are drawn to the magnificent view of the Pennine hills.

From here you follow a series of pathways and walks around the garden with plant ‘gems’ that are too numerous to mention. The huge variety of species, segregated by height rather than colour, means that as one block of colour fades another bursts into life and visitors often return as the weeks pass to see favourite plants in flower. In recent years interplanting with species such as ornamental trees and herbaceous plants like gunneras, celmisias and Meconopsis betonicifolia has added even greater interest. A continuous programme of replanting and careful maintenance keeps Lea Gardens constantly at its best.

The gardens have now been passed on to the next generation with Jon and Jenny’s son, Peter, taking on the post of managing director. An enlarged tea shop, opened in 2007, has proved a popular attraction in its own right, serving everything from ice-creams to cream teas, sandwiches to a full lunch and proudly proclaiming use of local suppliers, produce and home baking. Plant sales, which include specimens from the rare collection, have also proved successful, and advice is always at hand for anyone keen to start their own collection.

Lea Gardens are situated on Long Lane in Lea, off the A6 just three miles south of Matlock, clearly route marked with brown and white tourist signs. The gardens and Tea Garden Café are open daily from 10am to 5pm until Sunday 30th June. The Tea Garden Café then remains open daily until 31st August and at weekends only throughout September. The rhododendrons and azaleas are at their best from May to June.

The Tye family’s top six Rhododendrons to look out for

(in ascending order of size):

• Dwarf rhododendron ‘Ginny Gee’, pinky white

• Dwarf rhododendron williamsianum, pink to white

• Rhododendron luteum, highly scented yellow, good autumn leaf colour

• Rhododendron ‘Birthday Girl’, deep pink buds to large clear pink flowers

• Rhododendron ‘Lea Rainbow’, named for Lea Gardens, lovely pink edged, yellow flowers

• Rhododendron Loderi, large, scented white flowers

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