Renishaw Hall and Gardens

A few weeks ago the attractive gardens and grounds at Renishaw Hall provided a perfect pick-me-up after the drudgery of the Covid-19 lockdown, bringing some much needed colour to our lives.

Renishaw’s bluebell woods, May 2018

As the Covid-19 infection rate falls and the country starts to open up, we decide it’s time to make the most of summer before it morphs into autumn. One of our first day trips is to the gardens at Renishaw Hall, in the far north of our home county of Derbyshire. We’ve been here before, in spring when the bluebell woods are a magnificent sight, but it looks rather different in the height of summer.

Renishaw Hall: Big is not always beautiful

Renishaw Hall was built around 1625 by George Sitwell, who made his money from iron. By the end of the the 17th century the Sitwells were the largest producers of iron nails in the world and their furnaces were producing more than a tenth of England’s entire iron output. 

They made a fortune, which enabled one of George’s descendants to enlarge and extend the Hall between 1793 and 1808. The man commissioning the work was called Sitwell Sitwell. Yes, his father really was so obsessed by the family’s name that he forced his wretched son to endure it both as a forename and a surname. Poor bugger.

In the mid-19th century the Sitwells fell upon hard times. The residents deserted the Hall to live in Germany, where the cost of living was cheaper, and its contents were auctioned off. Renishaw might have suffered the fate of so many grand English homes and crumbled away into dust and obscurity, had it not been for the timely discovery of coal on the estate.

Weathered, classical-style statues, topiary trees and a distant view of the fountain

The north-east corner of Derbyshire is riddled with coal seams, so we should not be too surprised by the Sitwells’ good fortune. However they made the most of the geological generosity with which their estate was blessed: the family’s fortunes were restored, later enabling the development of Renishaw’s outstanding gardens.

Renishaw Hall is an imposing building, but the curtain of climbing plants clinging to its façade can’t disguise the fact- in my humble opinion, anyway – that externally it’s fairly unremarkable, despite its Grade I listing from Historic England. Big is not always beautiful.

The gardens, however, are rather special. Nearly 120 years ago Sir George Sitwell (1860-1943), fourth baronet, created what is today regarded as one of the most important classical Italianate gardens in the UK.

Sir George could think of no good reason to be modest about his horticultural knowledge and skills, and therefore felt moved in 1909 to show them off by writing An essay on the making of gardens : being a study of old Italian gardens, of the nature of beauty, and the principles involved in garden design. Wouldn’t be my choice of bedtime reading, but what do I know?

Garden features at today’s Renishaw include well-trimmed lawns, immaculately clipped topiary, ornamental ponds, a spectacular fountain, a scattering of statues – both classical and quirky – and borders overflowing with blossoms. And beyond the formal gardens can be found handsome lakes and parkland.

Renishaw’s garden enjoys a II* (“two-star”) listing from Historic England, a non-departmental arm of the British Government funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Also, in May 2015, it received the UK Garden of the Year award. The award, organised by the Historic Houses Association and sponsored by Christie’s auctioneers, recognises the importance of some of the country’s most spectacular gardens, gardens that have outstanding horticultural and public appeal.

After months of near-confinement at Platypus Towers, it’s great to get out and about at Renishaw. The flower-beds are ablaze, and a ballet of butterflies flits happily between the blossoms. The statues, including an unexpected elk (for anyone reading this in North America, a Eurasian elk’s just like your moose), look splendid in the warm sunshine, and down at the lake a swan paddles happily amongst the rushes and reeds.

Renishaw Lake

The Sitwell family still live at Renishaw. In the first half of the 20th century it was graced by the famous literary trio, Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell Sitwell, who were all patrons of the arts and played a significant part in the artistic and literary world at that time. Today’s residents have a lower profile, but are pleased for us all to line the family’s pockets by visiting their gardens and, occasionally, the Hall itself. If you’re ever in the area, it’s definitely worth a visit.

Isle of Man highlights – (4) The Manx National Glens

Environmentalists are big fans of national parks, areas of land protected by governments for their beautiful countryside, rich wildlife and cultural heritage. All civilised countries have them, wearing them like badges of honour to demonstrate their commitment to conservation.

The word “park” conjures up the idea of great size, implying huge tracts of land stretching as far as the eye can see. But the Isle of Man is tiny, less than a quarter of the area of the Lake District, England’s foremost national park. A Manx national park is out of the question, but not to be outdone the island’s government has opted for National Glens instead.

A glen is a narrow valley, the word being derived from the Gaelic language, and there’s no doubt the glens are amongst the Isle of Man’s best natural features. They are heavily wooded, featuring rushing streams, tumbling waterfalls, fizzing cascades, deep rock pools and lush vegetation. Scattered here and there along them are the remains of watermills, echoes of a bygone age.

I don’t think you’d describe the National Glens as spectacular – the scale is wrong, too small – but definitely attractive and serene. They’re a perfect getaway from the hurly-burly of 21st century living.

The Manx government has designated no fewer than 18 mountain and coastal National Glens. These are preserved and maintained in a semi-natural state by its Forestry, Amenity and Lands Division, and are freely accessible to locals and tourists alike.

Pocket-sized though they are, the National Glens are a real asset to a little island in the middle of the Irish Sea. These compact and picturesque gems give the Isle of Man an unexpected but distinctive charm. Small really is beautiful.

In my book, few things in the natural world beat the sight and sound of running water amid the myriad greens of a secluded, verdant valley. Take a look at my YouTube video for a sense of the peaceful atmosphere in Silverdale Glen, Glen Maye, Ballaglass Glen and Glen Dhoon:

Bradgate: a deer park for the common people

Any man with social ambition in medieval England wanted his own deer park. Put simply, a deer park was an enclosed area of land designed to keep the noble owner’s deer in and the common people out. Possessing a deer park was a very public proclamation of one’s wealth and privilege: royal permission (a “licence to empark”) was normally required to create one, and the process of enclosure through the digging of ditches, the raising of banks and the erection of palisades was massively expensive.

Fallow deer in the River Lin at Bradgate Park

Deer parks facilitated the aristocratic pastime of hunting, thereby demonstrating the wealth of their owners. And, of course, where there were deer there was also venison. There was no legal way in which the common man could obtain and eat venison. Being able to dine on it and to invite your friends to share in this exclusive bounty was therefore another public declaration of one’s wealth and social status. Put simply, deer parks were the embodiment of medieval one-upmanship.

Stag relaxing in the autumn sunshine at Bradgate Park

However, deer parks were about more than simply the deer and the social status that possessing them conferred. They also enabled the noble owner to supplement his diet through other extravagances, for example by maintaining fishponds and rabbit warrens. And he would never need to feel the cold in winter, with all those trees that he could harvest for fuel. There’s no question that a man who owned a deer park was someone to be reckoned with.

In late September the fallow deer browse on fallen acorns

Although there were a few deer parks in Anglo-Saxon England, it was the Norman Conquest in 1066 that led to their proliferation. Deer parks quickly became a craze among the new nobility, and while the Domesday Book in 1086 only recorded 37, by around 1300 there may have been as many as 3,000. One of them was Bradgate Park.

A male “bugles” in the rutting season, issuing a challenge to other male

Mrs P and I like to visit Bradgate Park at least once a year. It’s situated in the heart of England, close to Leicester in the county of Leicestershire. For readers unfamiliar with peculiarities of English pronunciation, these are pronounced “Lester” and “Lester-shire” respectively.

Bradgate, like other deer parks, is home to some ancient trees

Bradgate Park was enclosed in 1241, and greatly extended in the late 15th century. It now covers an area of 340 hectares (850 acres) of rocky moorland clothed in coarse grass and bracken, and interspersed with several woodland spinneys.

Tranquil waters. It’s difficult to believe that Leicester (population 330,000) is just a few kms away

Running through the park is the River Lin, the shortest river in Leicestershire. A picturesque cascade was created on the river during the Victorian period, to clear silt from the water before it emptied into the nearby Cropston reservoir.

Man-made cascade on the River Lin in Bradgate Park

A significant landmark within the park is the ruined Bradgate House, construction of which began in the 1490s and was largely complete by 1501. Brick was an expensive and high-status building material at this time, and its use here tells us that the commissioner of Bradgate House – Thomas Grey, first Marquis of Dorset – was a man of substance. He must have been relaxed about the state of the nation and his place within it, given that this was one of the first large houses to be built in England without fortifications.

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Bradgate House ruins. IMAGE CREDIT: Astrokid16 [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

The most famous resident of Bradgate House was Lady Jane Grey, grand-daughter of the first Marquis. She was brought up and lived there before her marriage to Lord Guildford Dudley in 1553, the year in which she became the “Nine Days Queen”. In February 1554, and still only a teenager, she and her husband lost their heads, victims of the religious and political factionalism that was rife at the time.

Bradgate House dates from late 15th / very early 16th centuries

Despite the uproar around the supposed misdeeds of Lady Jane, the Greys retained ownership of Bradgate Park and House. With money to burn and too much time on their hands, in the 1780s the family commissioned the building of a Gothic-style folly on the highest point in the park.

Old John Tower, Bradgate Park’s late 18th century folly

During the 19th century Old John Tower was used as a lookout giving good views over a horse-racing practice circuit, laid out by the Greys’ descendant the seventh Earl of Stamford. It’s reassuring to note here yet another example of our great English aristocracy making good use of their wealth, rather than frittering it away on needless fripperies (in case you’re wondering, irony is alive and well at Platypus Towers!)

In Bradgate Park the deer are unconcerned by the presence of people

In fairness to the Grey family, they began allowing limited public access to Bradgate Park in the nineteenth century. In 1928 it was bought by a local philanthropist and given, as a plaque in the park describes, “to be preserved in its natural state for the quiet enjoyment of the people of Leicestershire”.

Relaxing with a coffee at the Bradgate Park café

And enjoy it they most certainly do. Whenever Mrs P and I go there we’re struck by the number and variety of people who’ve also made the journey to Bradgate Park, including countless dog walkers, mums with babes in buggies and toddlers at their heels, power-walkers burning off the calories, and old fogeys like me who want nothing more than gentle stroll followed by a slab of cake at the park café. The peaceful surroundings, the deer and the birdlife make a perfect backdrop for such activities.

Dogwalkers by the dozen enjoy Bradgate Park

There are several hundred deer in the park. The most common, and most easily seen, are fallow deer. These are not native to the UK, but were introduced by William the Conqueror and his cronies. It seems that the Normans, not content with wiping out thousands of native Anglo-Saxons, felt the need to maintain their slaughtering skills by ensuring a regular supply of four-footed victims. But that was long ago, and today in Bradgate Park the fallow deer seem completely unconcerned by the presence of people, whom they tend to ignore.

The pride of Bradgate Park – a magnificent fallow deer stag

Close views of fallow deer are easy. Indeed, they’re somewhat difficult to avoid when their chosen path takes them within a few metres of members of the public. These animals are particularly entertaining during the rutting season, when their hormones send them slightly crazy. The native British red deer can also be seen, but are less easy to find.

Raven at Bradgate Park

Bradgate Park is also home to a variety of bird species. We always have our binoculars to hand when we visit, and as well as the predictable favourites like the mute swans, less common birds put in an appearance from time to time, including green woodpeckers, ravens and even a red kite.

Green Woodpecker at Bradgate Park

Free to enter and now run by the Bradgate Park Trust, the park is a superb resource for locals as well as visitors from further afield. It’s the perfect place to relax, chill out and unwind from the stresses of 21st century life. It may have started life as the private domain of a wealthy elite, but today Bradgate is very much a deer park for the common people.