Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was commissioned by Granville 2nd Lord Gower to carry out improvements at Trentham over 21 years from 1759 to 1780. He enlarged the existing lake which was then fed by the river Trent. Fields were turned to parkland, with the characteristic planting of strategically placed groups of trees. He created a sunken fence (ha-ha) to separate the lawn from the deer park. Due to many subsequent developments, only a partial Brown landscape remains.
Michael Walker, Trentham’s Head of Gardens and Estate guided a visit by the Cheshire Gardens Trust in September. I was lucky enough to tag along. He gave a most riveting overview of the history of the estate, work in hand and proposed exciting developments.
The current plan is for the dramatic renovation of the park and woodland, opening up views across the lake and river Trent from both sides and revealing the historic Kings Wood on the rising ground to the west. This has coincided with an outbreak of Phytophthora ramorum in the rhododendrons which affected the banks of the lake and had spread into the woodland. The only way to stop the infection was complete removal. This had the added benefit of opening up the woodland floor. Larch is also a potential host for Phytophthora and working with the Forestry Commission, the Trentham team have removed all larch trees. There were extensive commercial coniferous plantations on the Trentham estate. These have been completely cleared. No small undertaking, but in the Trentham tradition, nothing is done by halves.
Another Trentham tradition is emerging; that of bringing in top modern landscape designers to take the work of their historic forebears to a new level: This began with the commissioning of the internationally acclaimed designers Tom Stuart-Smith and Piet Oudolf to give their different contributions to the Charles Barry/Nesfield Italian garden and the riverside (see featured image). Now, Michael Walker has brought in Nigel Dunnett to work with the Trentham team under Carol Adams to transform the woodland and lakeside. Professor Nigel Dunnett of Sheffield University Landscape Department has worked for many years developing planting combinations that provide maximum visual impact, ecological gain and low maintenance for public areas. He has recently found fame for his work at the Queen Elizabeth park in London (previously the Olympic Park).
The rhododendron was cut to the ground and the regrowth treated with systemic weedkiller. Once the ground under the trees was cleared, the soil could only be shallowly cultivated due to roots of existing trees. The area was then mulched with green waste (sourced from the Local Authority in Newcastle) which, it is claimed, is weed free. This Spring, the plants went in and many are already in good flowering form.
The woodland features white and blue asters which create a soft mist of colour under the trees. I observed pulmonaria, deschampsia, ferns, bergenia, brunnera, geranium and hellebores. No doubt there are many I missed. Michael told us that they planted 28,000 9cm pots in total. There are a great many native wood anemones, and the aspiration is to plant one million bulbs in the coming years.
In another innovative move, groves of large ornamental shrubs are being planted in the woodland clearings. Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ and the tulip tree Liriodendron tulipifera, have been planted in groups of 20s and 50s. Many more are being grown to order by John Ravenscroft at Cherry Tree Nursery and Arboretum and will be planted over the coming two years. These will go some way to replace the colour lost with the flowering rhododendrons. Some of the felled timber is being put to good use by the creation of stumperys, planted with ferns.
One of the first things you see when you enter, and the last before you leave Trentham Gardens is another example of Nigel Dunnett’s planting, this time a perennial meadow. It creates a pool of soft colours on the pink spectrum from pastels to brights, starting in early summer and lasting all the way through till autumn, when the planting in the Italian Garden reaches its peak.
Trentham has gone from strength to strength under Michael’s stewardship. There were 600,000 visitors last year, a six fold increase in eight years. His aim to educate and entertain a very diverse audience has been wildly successful. This has been achieved by being tremendously innovative and without compromising on design excellence.