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Holker Festival - full of Victorian splendour

PUBLISHED: 16:56 21 May 2010 | UPDATED: 14:43 21 November 2017

Holker is a Victorian gem

Holker is a Victorian gem

Plant lovers from across the north will flock to one of our most magnificent homes this month. Terry Marsh sets the scene

The original hall was destroyed by fireThe original hall was destroyed by fire

An elegance that speaks of another time is the hallmark that identifies Holker Hall as one of the most magnificent stately homes and a gem of British heritage.

What soon becomes obvious is that this is no empty showpiece of architectural interest, a stagnant museum of furniture or an art gallery of stern-faced ancestors.

Holker is, quite evidently, the home of someone who lives there and cares for it; something that has been the case for more than four centuries. There are others, of course - Dalemain and Muncaster, for example. But there is an intimacy about Holker Hall that is endearing. It’s as if Lord or Lady Cavendish might suddenly appear through a door, going about their business, as indeed, they do.

Despite the hall’s ancestry, the building is almost entirely Victorian.

The Neptune cascadeThe Neptune cascade

It was a fire in 1871 that saw much of the original hall destroyed, replaced, by the grandest building of its date in Lancashire.

It was designed by the most outstanding architects of the time, Paley and Austin. What causes a moment’s doubt about the pedigree of the building is the skill that these two craftsmen brought to bear on Holker, producing a building in the Elizabethan style and yet very much with the stamp of Victorian originality. Even to a layman’s eyes, it is quite simply a masterpiece.

If, as they say, an Englishman’s home is his castle, then this particular ‘castle’ is a rather splendid home.

This is still very much a place for today. Open to the public for much of the year, Holker is a vibrant, up-beat and enterprising tourist attraction. Each year sees the hall staging numerous events from popular food producers’ markets to Easter activities and theatrical productions - August 2010, for example, will see productions of Pride and Prejudice and Beauty and the Beast.

The Gloucester bedroomThe Gloucester bedroom

For many visitors, the pinnacle of Holker’s year is the garden festival, held in this month and billed as ‘three days in the middle of summer devoted entirely to indulging the senses’. The occasion is a joyful mélange of horticultural displays and botanical brilliance, with over 400 stalls and exhibitors, including real-food producers, a ‘Made in Cumbria’ tent, alongside arts and crafts, animal displays and children’s activities, with the opportunity to buy beautiful hand-made jewellery, toys and gifts. Round it all off with a glass of champagne or to tuck in to a hearty hog roast.

But many visitors come to Holker not for the hall but for the gardens and grounds which are quite simply spectacular. You do not have to be a botanist to appreciate its splendour.

There is much to see: a sunken garden, a grotto, stone labyrinth and slate sundial as well as an imaginative water cascade that tumbles down from a 17th century statue of Neptune, through stands of rhododendron and oak. But threading everything, holding it all together, is the sensation, for most of the year, of tranquillity, the ability to sit quietly in a sheltered nook and let the essence of Holker wash over you.

The gardens, 25 acres in all, are part woodland, part formal in design, and like the hall, essentially Victorian in character with none of the oppressive formality that often besets gardens from this era. The 200-acre ‘natural’ parkland is actually the result of the late 18th century planting by Lord George Cavendish. In the early 19th century, several new features were added, including an arboretum, a conservatory, balustraded terraces by the house, and a large, walled kitchen garden.

The gardens are a big attractionThe gardens are a big attraction

The present incumbents have been keen to conserve the historic, while simultaneously introducing changes and additions to the gardens that are still being made today with great joie de vivre and self-belief, by Holker’s Head Gardener, Yvonne Cannon. The shelter belt of trees, planted in the last 20 years, for example, gives protection between the park and gardens against all but the most determined winds.

In spite of changes heaped on the hall, and its gardens and parkland over many years, a unity of purpose remains apparent, drawn from the fact that the hall has never been bought or sold, but simply passed down by inheritance through loving generations. It is that fondness, that affection for a remarkable place, that underscores Holker’s place as a much-loved home. And that remarkable quality shines through the moment you step in the place.

Whether you come for the Garden Festival, or visit at a quieter time of year, few leave feeling anything other than comforted by their experience. That’s the essence of Holker.

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