Mountain gardens take estate visitors to dizzy heights

Harewood's head gardener Trevor Nicholson explains about the importance of the estate's Himalayan Garden and its royal connection.

Thursday, 23rd June 2016, 11:11 pm
Himalayan Garden, Harewood House,Yorkshire, UK. Early Summer, June 2015.

The Himalayan Garden is one of Harewood’s must-see attractions at this time of year. There are many things that go into making it a very special place to be. Not least, the naturalistic style and character of the garden with its carefully considered planting schemes. These combine to evoke a sense of being immersed in a far-away place.

In essence, the subtle, Oriental overtones of the garden chime with its exotic planting to instantly transport you to a Nepalese mountainside, a Chinese river valley, or a Bhutanese forest. Rhododendrons, primulas, cobra lilies and blue poppies are wonderful in spring and early summer. Their bright colours contrast with the beautiful, fresh green leaves which vary so dramatically at this time of year.

The garden overflows with natural beauty everywhere you look. It’s a haven of peace and tranquillity where you can sit and contemplate beside a reflective pond, become refreshed by the energy of the cascade, or simply take a leisurely stroll through the thick planting. From the rocky slopes of the gorge bejewelled with alpine plants which cling to crevices and stones, through damp open meadows with a crescendo of tall pink and yellow candelabra primulas, to lush shady forest groves containing bamboos, bananas and rhododendrons, the garden creates unexpected views not often found in a country house garden.

The garden originally began life in the early 1930s when Her Royal Highness Princess Mary, along with her husband, Henry, the 6th Earl of Harewood, set out to create a garden that reflected their interests in plants from China and the Himalayas – rhododendrons and Asiatic primulas in particular.

With expert advice and plant material provided by the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh the garden, designed for private, family use, began to take shape. Progress was halted and the garden fell into neglect during Second World War when the focus on the Estate switched to large-scale food production as part of the war effort.

It was in 1999 that I began a project to rejuvenate this space and develop it for use by today’s visitors. It began with study trips to China and the Himalayas, along with research into the original despatch registers and correspondence from the Royal Botanic Gardens. This helped inform plans to restore and sensitively redevelopment the garden incorporating new plant collections and improved access, with new paths and a bridge across the beck. This called for a great deal of hard work, skills and labour resources from across the Estate, involving gardeners, builders, masons and joiners. Nowhere is this clearer than in the creation of the gorge which used over 200 tonnes of stone and took three months to complete.

Significantly, as part of the redevelopment of the garden, the Harewood Stupa was created in 2004 by Yorkshire craftsmen, supervised by Lama Sonam Chopel – a master Stupa-builder from Bhutan. A stupa is a Buddhist structure containing relics which is used as a place of meditation. The Harewood Stupa is built to very precise specifications and is unique among gardens in Europe. It blends perfectly into the landscaped surroundings of the Himalayan Garden and is the defining feature of the space.

The redeveloped garden was officially opened in 2009 although the development programme has not stopped! The plant collection, added in stages over a period of twenty years, is burgeoning around the Stupa and along the main path which meanders around the garden: trees and shrubs grown from seed sown between 1997 and 2003 are making their lofty presence felt, and some, like magnolias flowering for the first time this year are turning heads. All the complex elements of this garden have harmonised over time.

This year, new plants produced for the rock garden and gorge are being prepared for their new homes. The primula glades will also be refurbished in stages over the next three years, which will bring stunning results.

At this time of year, the garden is at its peak. With bright rhododendrons in bloom and stunning primulas towering above unfolding ferns, the garden is a wonderful place to immerse yourself in and explore. A direct contrast to the formality of the Terraces, the Himalayan Garden is a special garden, a soulful place where you can escape from the chaos of modern life; a place in which to re-charge your batteries and breathe-in the special kind of beauty that the Himalayan Garden uniquely holds.