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Downham Hall gardens to open their gates to public

PUBLISHED: 00:00 21 March 2014 | UPDATED: 22:42 09 October 2015

Downham Hall

Downham Hall

Linda Viney

Linda Viney is given an exclusive tour of the Downham Hall gardens which open for charity this summer

Looking across towards Downham Hall by fuchsia hedge and cosmosLooking across towards Downham Hall by fuchsia hedge and cosmos

Now spring is here, it is time to start planning. That’s true for the passionate gardener as much as the dedicated visitor of other people’s gardens. Those who open their garden gates for charity will be starting to check the calendar, wondering if the weather will be kind, while potential visitors log dates in their diaries.

One not to be missed is Downham Hall where Olivia and the Hon Ralph Assheton have been opening their gardens for good causes.

They moved into the hall, home to the Asshetons since 1558, when Ralph’s parents decided it was starting to be too much to manage. I visited Ralph and Olivia last year to find out what was involved in managing this garden which covers five acres of the 3,500 acre estate and has wonderful views towards the hills.

Working as a team, Ralph is restoring the rock garden which leads down to a stream at the far end as well as an area known as ‘Nutters’ next to the tennis court. He planted it with shrubs well over 20 years ago and so it needs some regeneration. There are also plans to create a woodland walk. By contrast, Olivia’s loves are the borders and vegetable garden.

Mixed herbaceous border by path alongside tennis courtMixed herbaceous border by path alongside tennis court

Virginia creeper and wisteria are trained up the otherwise bare but majestic walls of the hall, and stately planters are used to add colour. The lawn surrounding the house opens out into the main garden which is divided into different areas. Moving away we go through an ornamental gate into the rose garden.

There is a delightful arbour which makes a great place to relax or entertain friends although, as a listed building, they are unable to extend it as they would like. An old sundial stands in the axis of the parterre.

‘We would like to install a water feature, but budget restraints will mean it will have to be put on hold as there are more pressing things at the moment,’ Olivia explained.

In spring the parterres are planted with red and yellow tulips whilst roses, like Apple Dawn and Rambling Rector fill the air with scent and clematis blend in and are trained up a wall.

For the main flower borders she has called in the expertise of a good friend from her days at university, garden designer Charles Harman, for ways to reduce mowing and the use of annuals. He is splitting his iris collection and these will be planted along one wall. Clematis will be added to those already there, alliums do well and these will be added too. In the large herbaceous border they are going to enrich the soft hues by adding rich, hot reds, oranges and yellows. In fact, they sowed some cosmos last year which should have been orange but came up pink.

The hardy fuchsia hedge is well established and will stay. This is at the top of stone steps leading down to another level where again herbaceous and shrubs provide interest. In the long border by the kitchen garden bee friendly plants are being introduced as they are planning to have hives and keep the native black bee.

Within the walled garden a very productive vegetable garden is quite stunning and very organised. Surplus produce goes to the Lancashire Life award-winning village pub, the Assheton Arms, and when I was there a friend was gathering a profusion of green tomatoes to make preserves sold at Burnley market. Entering the glasshouse where cucumbers hang from the wall, Olivia was picking aubergines. ‘We have a lot of produce which is used to make ratatouille for the shoots held on the estate. I have found Seeds of Italy always give a good return,’ added Olivia.

‘I adore gooseberries as do the children and I have added another six bushes as well as a morello cherry. These together with black and redcurrants as well as raspberries give a good yield for making preserves. If there is a glut of apples they are sent off to make cider. There is no waste here. Sadly, the mice got to the strawberries before we had a chance to harvest them.’

She found that peonies look stunning when in full bloom and are good for cutting but once they have flowered the foliage is very messy, so despite being warned they wouldn’t survive moving she replanted them into the walled garden and they have thrived. Nasturtiums have a double benefit as not only do they add colour but are planted to keep the bugs off the runner beans. Dahlias were in full bloom when I visited and again added a lovely splash of colour. Wallflowers are grown from seed in preparation for the following year when they are planted in the flower beds.

There is a large variety of tomatoes, huge onions red and white, globe artichokes, peas, beans and brassicas - I don’t think I have ever seen such a prolific vegetable garden.

‘If the Assheton Arms request a particular vegetable we do try and grow it for them,’ Olivia said. ‘We have found a climbing pea is great as my parents-in-law can pick the top, children the bottom and me the middle!’

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