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The History of the Gardens at Skipwith Hall

Skipwith Hall started life as a Jacobean farmhouse.  It took shape as a Queen Anne ‘manor house’ for the parish of Skipwith around 1700 when the medieval moated manor opposite the church fell into disuse.

The mulberry tree at the front is thought to have been planted at the time the ground and first floor of the front elevation were built, around 1703.  The second storey, to provide staff accommodation, was added during the time of prosperity in the 1770s following the Agricultural Revolution.

Skipwith Hall was the centre of a working estate as described by a Miss Elizabeth Shackleton when she came to visit the then owners, Mr and Mrs Walton, in 1772.  She writes on Tuesday 25 July, “Mr Walton took me into all his stables, barns, coach-house, and outbuildings – into all the gardens, stoves, hot houses, and hot walls, which are most large and handsome and well stock’d with all kinds of various sorts of good fruits – we never sat down, but after dinner had ten different sorts of grapes – one of Pines, pears, plumbs, currens and gooseberries.”  The hot walls run the length of the south facing wall from the walnut tree down to the bottom of the garden.  There used to be two ‘hot houses’, with a fire at each end of the wall.

The years rolled on and Skipwith remained in something of a timewarp until the estate was sold to Beilby, 3rd Baron Wenlock of neighbouring Escrick Park in 1898.  He found, rather amazingly, the land was still farmed on the medieval three field system, with various grazing rights being excercised on the ‘Common’.  Lord Wenlock started modernising the parish and it  was one of the last in England to be enclosed, by an Act of Parliament in 1899.  The Hall was occupied by the agent and then two little old ladies until the major upheaval of 1929 when Lord Wenlock’s only child, The Hon Irene Forbes Adam (nee Lawley) downsized from Escrick Park.

Irene set about fashioning the house and garden to her taste with great energy.  Two wings were added to the east and west and to the north an extension.  She was very close to one her cousins, the Contessa Iris d’Origo, who had employed the ‘underrated’ (Sunday Telegraph 26.8.12) English architect and gardener, Cecil Pinsent (1884-1963), to transform her house and garden in southern Tuscany at La Foce.   From 1914 Irene was in close correspondence with Cecil too.  Cecil, whilst not offering a grand design for the garden at Skipwith, was a regular visitor and in particular is known to have helped with removing the main entrance from around the mulberry tree to the rear of the house, with the Italian Garden, and with the designing of Richard’s Garden in 1952.  Irene also corresponded with Vita Sackville-West.

The Victorian greenhouse, built by the renowned Darlington firm of Richardson’s, was brought from Escrick Park.  The double beech hedge was planted to create the kitchen garden to one side and the orchard to the other.  An apple walk ran from the potting shed to the greenhouse.  The herbaceous borders were placed along the west facing orchard wall, and there was an area full of iris where the swimming pool is now, with a border of shrub roses nearby.  Irene’s detailed notebooks are full of sketches and varieties of bulbs and seeds which she and her gardener, Brown, would grow.  The tulip tree was planted in 1962.

In 1966, Irene’s son Nigel arrived and took on developing the garden, in particular the trees.  He took out some overbearing copper beech near the house and planted a mini arboretum of Acer, Davidia, Halesia, Cornus, Hamamelis and other specimen trees.  The aged apple trees in the kitchen garden were replaced with a rose walk, and Nigel carried out a fabulous replanting of the Italian Garden with roses, peonies, dianthus and Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’.  Dalton Hatfield, the gardener, retired in 1987 after working for the family for over 45 years.

The current generation arrived in 2002 and enlisted the help of a clothes designer turned garden designer, Miranda Holland-Cooper.  The herbaceous borders were taken out of the orchard and mixed borders planted against a yew hedge to border the main lawn.  The terrace was relaid with borders of lavender and Rosa ‘Ferdinand Pichard’, as well as a bed of herbs within box.  In 2003 another parterre was laid out in the courtyard to distance the cars from the house, and a ‘wall’ of Rosa ‘Mme Alfred Carriere’ was set round the swimming pool.

The re-design of the kitchen garden was undertaken in 2005 with a brief of a maze and some water.  The result is a central pool surrounded by a circular maze of herbs of varying heights and paths of cockle shells, veg and cutting beds and espaliered Malus ‘Red Sentinel’.   When the roots of a rogue sycamore cracked open the wall in the north east corner an archway was included in the rebuilding and Pear Walk was created with ‘Humbug’ pears and wild strawberry and Pyrus calleryana ‘Chanticleer’.  The orchard has seen dying trees replaced with crabs, honeysuckles and a tapestry of pathways cut through the grass with a Malus transitoria as its centrepiece.  Espaliered and fan-trained fruit including apricot, peach, nectarine, fig and almond have been tended on the walls by gardener Adrian Palmer who took on the challenge in 2007.

Over the last decade the mini-arboretum has progressed with a walk of buddleia along the west boundary wall and a spring walk including Staphylea, Corylopsis and Hoheria planted in the lea of the south westerlies.  Other species including elm, Magnolia, Acer, Stewartia, Viburnum, Eucryphia, and Euonymous have been added.

Last year the border in front of the house was replanted with yew and Rosa moyesii ‘Geranium’.  The Italian Garden, which has been languishing for the past few years (and renamed the ‘Credit Crunch Garden’), is at last in the process of being restored.  The surrounding walls have been repointed, the drainage relaid, and the collapsed dry stone walls and semi-circular steps originally laid out by Irene and Cecil Pinsent in the 1930s are being rebuilt by Neil Beasley who was part of the team that won a Chelsea gold this year for the Arthritis Research UK Garden.

The summer house at the back of the wood has been transformed by local artist Linda Fenwick, using sustainably sourced shells into a shell loggia.

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