For centuries, a pele tower beside the River Kent acted as a fortified place of refuge from marauding Scots. During late Elizabethan times, peace between England and Scotland encouraged the owning Bellingham family to redevelop the tower as a country residence, and today’s imposing Levens Hall was created.
By the 1690s the courtier Colonel Grahme had moved in, bringing with him one Guillaume Beaumont, a landscape designer who had worked at Louis XIV’s remarkable gardens at Versailles.
His visionary style re-invented the medieval deer park as landscaped parkland, well ahead of the famous Capability Brown, but his masterstroke was the creation of a topiary garden beside the Hall. Drawing on the figurative designs originating at Versailles, his plantings have matured into Britain’s finest example of the genre, and is one of the oldest in the world.
Beaumont’s ultimate successor is today’s head gardener Chris Crowder, who has worked at Levens Hall for over 20 years. On his shoulders lie the responsibility for the maintenance and cosseting of the grounds, which are bordered to one side by England’s oldest ha-ha (a barrier ditch created around a formal garden to keep livestock out, but without spoiling the view). With a smile, Chris admits that it’s no laughing matter caring for more than 100 large topiarised bushes and trees, a mixture of box, English and golden yews.
Once the season closes in October, topiary tonsures commence and delicate re-shaping continues right through until April. Some shapes are self-explanatory; birds have their wings clipped while the 9m- (30ft-) high great umbrellas become
a shade lighter. Others have whimsical names; see if you can spot the Judge’s Wig or Queen Elizabeth and her Maids of Honour, while the unmistakeable The Hill rises over a corner of the old potting shed.
Generations of creations
Most of the plantings are Beaumont’s; he created the original shapes that have been brought-on by successive generations of gardeners. Any new plantings take on a shape chosen by the owning Bagot family or head gardener. By tradition, future generations will retain these.
In all, there are 10 gardens in the six-acre plot; in June the rose garden, planted with old-fashioned David Austin bushes, is a veritable perfumery. Winding between and betwixt are venerable beech hedges, modest avenues of stunted grotesques teased into beauty by careful pruning.
Hedge ‘doors’ separate the stunning colour-themed plinth beds (20,000 home-grown plants replaced twice a season), which carpet the ground beneath the topiary. You’ll also find a nuttery (featuring cobnuts), cottage-garden borders, a herb garden, an orchard (estate cider is sold at the shop) and a willow labyrinth for the kids. Time spent exploring here passes easily.
How to get there
Levens Hall is beside the A6 near Heversham, half-way between Carnforth and Kendal (5 miles from Jct. 36 of the M6). Regular daily bus 555 (Lancaster to Windermere) passes the Hall.
Find Out More
Levens Hall & gardens Kendal LA8 0DU
Open 10am-5pm, Sun-Thurs between 10 April-13 October. Levens Hall house is open 12pm-4.30pm, on these same days. Admission to house and gardens: adult £11.50, child £5, family £28. There are disabled toilet facilities, and the gardens are accessible to wheelchair users, but not the house.
Millers Beck Country Guest House, Stainton, Kendal LA8 0DU
A converted, recently refurbished 17th-century cornmill with a mill race in the garden and great countryside views.
The Bellingham Buttery at Levens Hall serves everything from snacks to estate venison dishes; and their own estate beer, too.