The Spencer Legacy: York Gate Garden, Leeds

Andrew got the chance last week to visit several gardens across Yorkshire. Among them was a hidden gem outside of Leeds, a mere 20 minute drive from the city centre. By an old churchyard is York Gate a one-acre garden created by the Spencer family from 1951 to 1994. York Gate was built on the old pasture land and was converted by the family over a forty year period. The family had a love of conifers and in one case had to hire a crane to winch a mature specimen into the garden. They created cool conifer areas within the garden, stone pebbles used as a deep mulch complimenting and highlight the green of the clipped conifers. The ultimate topiary conifer can be found just around the corner from the main courtyard, nestled on the wall of a long ornate pond with it's own stone dolphin (though there was a discussion whether it was a dragon or even a mutated mermaid) an impressive espalier cedar stretching the full length of this part of the garden. You have to see it to believe it; tactile isn't in it and that is the key to York Gate, it is just a garden you want to touch.

Espalier cedar

It was Frederick Spencer who was responsible for laying down most of the hard landscaping but his passion for the garden was cut short in 1963 and the remaining hard landscaping including the use of gravel, sandstone and granite sets fell to his young son, Robin, who also died relatively young in 1982. The garden courtyard sets the tone for the use of natural materials which are echoed and punctuated around this Arts and Crafts garden. There is a brooding sense of romance to this garden that is punctuated by the use of stone. The shade garden underpins this idea of wild nature breaking into the domestic, as a mountainous beech towers over the mid section of the garden and behind the shade garden sits an almost malevolent pinetum; it's as if wolves play in the shadows here but this is counterpointed by a playfulness in the borders with the planting. 

Creating focal points in the herb garden at York Gate


In the herb garden, fennel becomes like bones growing from the oregano, angelica thrusts rudely out across its length and the whole lot is focused on a distant conifer as if to say, 'Nature wins, all forests return, listen to the wolves, here they come'. It's safe to say that after the death of Robin, it was the matriarch of the family, Sybil Spencer who for the next 12 years, until her death, laid the foundations of the planting in this garden and the fierce desire to change, alter and develop the areas within the garden in a no nonsense, practical idea of function, form and need. Even the kitchen garden feeds the gardeners and volunteers. This is a garden that has a sense of use, an intimate space, a space that isn't frozen in time as a homage.

A working kitchen garden

Now, under the reins of Adam Bowley, head gardener, York Gate has been taken to the next level and we were lucky enough to accompany him around the garden. He did not shy away from pointing out areas that he wanted to improve and bring up to date, problems with box blight and the reasons for it. It appears that visitors to the garden love the tactile nature of box and in touching it, in lingering across the top of it spread it across the entire length of the hedge. It's a stark warning and something that many of us will have done and are still doing. We need to stop fondling box. Now the box is gone, yew has taken it's place, still tactile but not prone to blight. For Bowley, this is a garden under development, there are plants to move, take out and change, colours for all seasons and here and there we can see echoes of Sissinghurst but for Bowley this is a garden that is private thrust into the public eye, and that means things have to change, jobs must be done, gardeners must take charge. 

Developing a garden after the original gardener has gone.

There's no surprise about that, this is an Arts and Crafts garden, this is beauty but function, and leaving the garden as a homage to the Spencers' would make it in danger of becoming a Sissinghurst, a museum garden. Yet the ethos of the Arts and Crafts pervades, the new oak bench was built locally only a few years ago by craftsmen. This is not an off the peg garden, this is the Spencers' legacy but also there need to innovate and change in an area that saw the rise of the garden centre as a dominant force for all things off the peg. Bowley embraces this change and admits to cutting down trees, the stump of one hidden beneath a rhubarb forcer, the cut wood stacked in baskets on the herbaceous borders ready for open fires in another year. The reason? Rot, too big, wrong place, or simply...it no longer works. 

When a legacy in a garden can become a museum piece.

There's no escaping that this is a garden on the change and though the Spencers' laid down the foundations it is Adam Bowley and his team that is reinterpreting the garden for a new century. Like any good garden it shouldn't let down its guard or the wolves that brood in the pinetum will get back in. You can see all the photos of York Gate taken on the day here. York Gate is managed by the charity, Perennial, you can find out more about them here and support their wonderful work.

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