Steven Desmond visits the early-20th-century garden created at Parcevall Hall in Skyreholme, North Yorkshire, by Sir William Milner and now triumphantly restored. Photographs by Richard Bloom.
Parcevall Hall is an unlikely place to find a great garden. It stands on a valley side in a quiet corner of the Yorkshire Dales, tucked away down a lane amid a landscape of moor and fell. The approach from the friendly market town of Skipton leads through deliciously romantic scenery, reaching its climax at the evocative ruin of Barden Tower. Those who are unmoved by such places should stop reading now.
The clue to this desire to live apart from the world lies in the personality of Sir William Milner, whose garden this was. He bought the Parcevall estate in 1927, when he was 34 years old, and made it his life’s work to adapt it to his own enthusiasms and yearnings. When he found it, the ruggedly handsome 17th-century yeoman farmhouse was protected by the usual big tree here and there, but was other-wise exposed to the elements. Although he added thoughtfully to the house, the most dramatic change he made was the sheltered woodland atmosphere around it, which has enabled such beauty to be cultivated here.
Sir William was something of a curiosity. He had private means and applied his spending handsomely to various causes that interested him. Chief among these was the building of a new Shrine Church at Walsingham in Norfolk, which he designed jointly with his partner/architect Romilly Craze. Sir William was himself engaged on a kind of life-long pilgrimage towards an especially High Church Anglican faith, which subtly pervades Parcevall. Although determinedly ascetic, he liked home comforts and was particularly fond of taking breakfast in bed, surrounded by the paraphernalia of his ongoing projects.
Sir William appears always to have been a garden enthusiast and any visitor can see how the taste of the inter-war years is reflected in his personal retreat. The garden in front of the house falls away in the rigour of terraces, buttresses, pools, borders, a giant pergola and shaven hedges, the very stuff of a gentleman’s garden of the most approved sort from the pages of Country Life. He knew the importance of setting, too, and makes the visitor look out across the valley to the height of Simon’s Seat, a noble outcrop on the horizon.
Behind the house, a different atmosphere prevails, beginning with neat geometric compartments and soon loosening out into a simple network of paths exploring rock and woodland gardens, where the abundance of new plants pouring in from the East could be accommodated. The gardener who works in this naturalistic style always wants both light and shade, acid and alkaline soil, water and free drainage, and other such incompatible ideals. At Parcevall, Sir William discovered that half his ground was on the dark-brown acid gritstone and the other half was pale grey alkaline limestone — the rest he could engineer himself.
Although he preferred his own company, Sir William had plenty of useful contacts. He moved easily in polite circles and his sister, Lady Linlithgow, was Vicereine of India at the time. Those hedge-framed borders filled with colour-graded rarities bring to mind his contemporary Bobbie James, who made a comparable garden at St Nicholas, near Richmond, a few Dales away. James’s taste was so fastidious that he considered autumn colour vulgar.
Sir William also invested in some of the major plant-hunting expeditions of the day, including those of the great George Forrest. He wished to spread the word about his style of garden-making and became one of the founding fathers of the then Northern Horticultural Society’s garden at Harlow Carr.
After Sir William’s death in 1960, an atmosphere of uncertainty hung over Parcevall, always a threat to any garden. Fortunately, the right person came along in the form of Jo Makin, whom I remember determinedly bringing order and care back to this distinguished garden in the 1980s. In modern times, that role has been vigorously carried forward by the present head gardener, Phill Nelson, a former Nottinghamshire mining engineer who saw the way things were going and decided horticulture was for him. He was right, and Parcevall is the evidence.
The improvements during Mr Nelson’s tenure are clear to any gardener. Above all, he has brought back clean lines, where before they had become blurred. This is most obvious from the long terrace in front of the house, which looks out over the kind of clean-lined order that Sir William must have gradually achieved in the early days of the garden.
Yew hedges grow luxuriantly in this, their natural habitat, and it takes a steady nerve to begin the task of cutting them back to their intended dimensions once they have bulged out of their corsets. This triumphant exercise is extended to the reinstatement of the hedge-backed borders, with a planting scheme of red-flowered herbaceous perennials, which pushes down the central axis towards the valley.
Working our way up the slope behind the house, we soon come to the rose garden, a separate, and rather private, formal garden to which roses have lately been restored. It is overlooked by a cosy pavilion, the view from which follows a short avenue of cypress-like junipers towards an apparently unassuming cross-walk that, in the 1930s, was heated from below to provide a habitat for some of Sir William’s more tender plant acquisitions. I imagine this idea was abandoned when he saw the cost of such an exercise.
The nearby rock garden is perhaps the best reason of all to explore Parcevall. The modern visitor has become bored with rock gardens, but if the flame of desire is ever to be rekindled, this might be the place. The great authority on such matters was Reginald Farrer, whose famous collection at nearby Ingleborough Hall followed the precepts of using one form of stone and laying the components down in meticulous strata lines. All that care (and prodigious effort) is unnecessary here, as Sir William simply set his men the task of stripping away the surface vegetation down to the bedrock, thus exposing a superb slope of rippling limestone lovelier than any artificial effort.
This rock garden was inevitably the apple of Sir William’s eye, and became filled with the alpine treasures of his imagination. Although it was a scrub-infested mess in the years of decline, it is now back to its best and the happy combination of pale-grey rock, a pool at the foot of the slope and the full panoply of mat-forming alpines and picturesque shrublets forms as fine an example of this format as you will ever see. The many colour forms of Primula japonica spread here and there on the margins of the pool each spring, delighting in these ideal conditions.
The framing shelterbelts all round have a secondary role as an extended woodland garden and, here, the bands of acid soil come into their own as ideal habitat for the many ornamental species of rhododendron and such specialist delights as the great South American flowering shrub Eucryphia Nymansay. Around their feet spread mats of such woodland beauties as trilliums and hostas, which, like most plants, are seen at their best when conditions resemble their native habitats, even if these may be thousands of miles away.
I have no doubt that Sir William was perpetually filled with pleasure in watching these lovely plants gradually colonise his private paradise and discussing their progress with his many gardening friends, who included not only the usual grandees, but also the exemplary Geoffrey Smith, his superintendent at Harlow Carr.
But in the upper garden, we come finally to a quiet scene to which Sir William surely returned often to sit alone and look out over Troller’s Gill, a seemingly private little valley quite on its own. Far below, the occasional walker follows the line of the beck like Richard Hannay in The Three Hostages, as the cry of the curlew flickers out and a kite floats on the air in search of prey. Sir William made his own corner of the rural north country a rich and varied garden paradise, but he understood where to draw the line, and when to let the scenery speak for itself.
Parcevall Hall Gardens, Skyreholme, North Yorkshire — 01756 720311; www.parcevallhallgardens.co.uk
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