Recreating Mawson’s historic Rydal Hall garden

Date: Thursday 11th March 2010

THE first meeting of the season for the Gardeners of Eden was attended by a good number of the membership on a lovely spring day when they all thought they should be in their gardens!

Tom Attwood had come to speak about his work in restoring the historic gardens at Rydal Hall. He said it was a very exciting time for him, his first “proper” job. The garden was designed in 1909 by Thomas Mawson, the famous Cumbrian landscape architect, but since the 1950s had fallen into a dilapidated state.

In 1909, concrete was commonly used to fashion urns and containers. The damp and cold of the Lake District contributed to the deterioration of these structures and the ruins were lying in the garden when Tom began his work.

Research revealed little in the way of original plans. Mawson left planting plans but they were not very detailed, and there were a few photographs of the family in the garden in the 1920s. While it was possible to be precise about the location in the garden of the photographs, it was not possible to identify the plantings because the photographs were black and white.

There was a snippet from a diary belonging to Stanley Le Fleming, owner of Rydal Hall at the time, giving clues to a financial difficulty with Mawson, but little else.

Before work could start, there was the matter of financing to be discussed and eventually a number of funding bodies helped to create a working sum. There was a meeting with the media to get people involved and excited. The garden is from the Arts and Crafts period and local craftsmen were sought to replicate some of the features, especially the urns. The original moulds were found in the basement of the house and these could be used again.

During its heyday the garden would have been a status symbol and a great source of pride and there would have been four or five gardeners employed. Visitors today expect the garden to be as well kept as it was in the 20s.

When Tom began work, he and the contractors were given 18 months to restore the hard landscape and the stonework. The wooden tops of the pergolas and the urns needed to be replaced. The plantings were overgrown with ferns, montbretia, bindweed, lady’s mantle and buddleia, and ivy festooned the balustrades.

When the garden was originally laid out, there had been no drainage and the beds were more like wetlands. The lawns were overridden with moss and so the first jobs had to be installing some drainage and also spiking and scarifying the lawns, and a small digger had to be lifted into the garden by crane to help in this work.


When these jobs were done, many tons of top soil were delivered over the balustrades and much mulching was dug in to provide a new soil structure for the herbaceous plantings which were planned. All this was laborious work but would reap rewards later. To create a garden in the spirit of Mawson, reference was made to his list of good plants and new cultivars were chosen which would give better growth and be more disease resistant.

Wherever possible, plants were sourced locally but a few, such as roses and tree peonies, have come from other sources in the UK.

The Italianate terrace, which pre-dates the Mawson garden, harmonises well in the surrounding wooded Lakeland landscape. This woodland provides a shelter belt for the garden, which is favourably south-facing. Tom has tidied the existing formal plantings of yew and box, reshaping the yews into a more elegant style.

To do this, he pruned out the centre branches and then strapped and wired the outer branches to create the new shape. Although he referred to Mawson’s text on tree shaping, not everyone was pleased with the outcome!

By the spring of 2006, the garden was a prepared blank canvas ready to be planted. There were new roses on the pergolas, metal edges to the newly revived lawns to save time on trimming, new gravel on the pathways and new deer fencing up along the boundaries. Not only deer, but also rabbit, badger and sheep had been regular grazers of Mawson’s garden!

The summer of 2006 was hot and dry and it was a difficult time in the new garden. The water supply was not yet available, so more mulching had to be done to protect the soil structure and to prevent it drying out. By the winter, the yews had been trimmed, new urns had gone on to the terrace and the new tops were fixed to the pergolas.

In February, another thick layer of mulch was given and by the summer of 2007 the perennials were coming on and looking wonderful. The Magnolia soulangeana had been preserved and a few dahlias were used to fill an odd space. New benches made by local craftsmen to Mawson designs were in place under the pergolas and the herbaceous borders were brimming with phlox, lavender and agapanthus and rudbeckia.

Cordyline australis were used as centrepieces for the urns, which take a quarter of a day to water! The purple easy-to-care-for culinary sage was used inside the box hedges of the formal planting to great effect. The plumbing to the pond was also restored so that the cherub and the fish once again became the centrepiece of the garden. With the new growth on the yew showing, the garden was truly coming back to its former glory.

Following some newspaper publicity, Tom was able to establish a team of eight or nine willing volunteers and students from Newton Rigg campus, Penrith, who had work placements arranged for them, to the benefit of all.

Subsequently, it was possible to afford a greenhouse so that the “head gardener” could overwinter his tender plants! Tom took this project a step further, involving the residents of Ambleside and Windermere to create a community kitchen garden on the site which had been previously used for this purpose, some distance from the main garden.

There were remains of the old range of glasshouses once used to trial new peach varieties. This area and the terrace were cleared and a grand new glasshouse installed. A tank was sunk into the ground in which to collect water from the roof; and the accumulation of ground cover was removed from the planting area to expose the old cultivation where vegetables and flowers are now grown by the community.

Tanalised wood and chippings were used to make pathways and an orchard for old northern varieties of apple was created. Further interest was created with the addition of rare breeds of hens and also some bees. Signage was kindly provided by South Lakeland District Council. Much work is now carried out in the glasshouse, including the propagation of seedlings and over-wintering of tender species.

Latterly, while Tom was still working at Rydal he spent four days in the main garden and Fridays in the community garden. It is no small achievement that the community garden won an outstanding award in Cumbria in Bloom’s neighbourhood awards in 2008. Tom is now establishing his new nurseries at Halecat, Witherslack, which he will open in the spring of 2011.

The next meeting of the Gardeners of Eden will be on 6th April. Any inquiries can be made by phoning Sue Bradley on 017683 72700 or Mary Langley on 017683 72173.