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Holker Hall (say ‘hook-ur’) is one of those places you could easily miss if you didn’t already know about it – which now you do. To those in the know, Holker is a renowned grand estate, house and home; but it is stuck on the fringe of south Cumbria in north-west England, well away from passing trade along the busy M6. It is handy if you are in the Lake District, though, or if you are heading to Barrow-in-Furness and, inexplicably, want to delay your arrival. Follow the brown signs and there is Holker, on an attractive peninsula jutting out into Morecambe Bay, a couple of miles south of the charming village of Cartmel. Which, as everyone knows, is where sticky toffee pudding comes from – but that’s another story.
Actually, Holker’s lands were once owned by the Priory at Cartmel. A house has stood on the same spot since the 16th century, with additions and refurbishments made by each succeeding generation, resulting in the exuberant pile you see today. A serious fire in 1871 destroyed the west wing, which, sadly, caused the loss of several notable pieces of art, including works by Canaletto, Holbein, Kneller and Rubens. It was rebuilt by leading local architects Paley and Austin in what has been called ‘Elizabethan Gothic’ style, but which us normal peasants would probably classify as ‘over the top Victorian’.
Interestingly, Holker Hall has been owned by just three families since being wrested from the church, passing by inheritance from the Prestons to the Lowthers and then, in 1756, to the Cavendishes. It remains the home of the Cavendish family and they still manage the estate, which includes several businesses and some 18,000 acres of land. Holker Hall was first opened to the public in 1950 and visitors continue to be welcomed into the West Wing, as well as parts of the gardens and grounds, today. I am uncomfortable with the cliché of real-life Lord and Lady Crawleys, desperately trying to hang on to a vanished world and battling unfriendly socialist governments. From what I can make out, the current Lord and Lady Cavendish, Hugh and Grania, inherited massive debts and have preserved Holker Hall by embracing change, through a lot of hard work, inspired vision – and listening. Though it is a commercial enterprise, it is only thanks to them that Holker survives as a recognisable stately home – and for public enjoyment. The business is now run by their daughter, Lucy, who lives there with her husband, Tor McLaren.
Holker Hall boasts 25 acres of delightful gardens – some formal, some informal – inside a 200 acre park, framed by Lakeland fells and the grandeur of Morecambe Bay. Though confident that the gardens are impressive at any time of year, I had the good fortune to catch them on one of those rare dry days in this part of England, when summer was morphing into autumn, a day of ridiculously blue skies, and to tag along with a bunch of people who knew their plants; I’m sure they knew quite a bit about other people’s plants too. Plus, there was the promise of coffee and a bun at half-time.
The formal, Elliptical (because that’s its shape) Garden catches the sun outside the West Wing. There’s a bush in it that is a magnet for butterflies. I stood for ages, waving my camera around, vainly trying to capture the beauty of these fragile creatures; but I can’t remember the name of the bush (Donald? Jeremy?) Beyond the Elliptical Gardens, formality continues with the Summer Garden, built on former tennis courts and with a wonderful beech arch which just draws you in. It’s a place that forces you into peaceful, idle, wandering.
The Neptune Cascade, framed by rhododendrons, was allegedly inspired by visits to Rajasthan. Sunlight created a rainbow as the water flowed over local slate. At the top, a 17th century marble statue of Neptune, made by Italian craftsmen. A short distance away, there’s an 18th century statue of the revered 16th century architect Inigo Jones, originally in Chiswick House in West London.
Through woodland with picture-postcard open parkland beyond, you’ll find the Great Holker Lime. Photographs do not do justice to this handsome and astonishing tree. Planted in the early 17th century, it has a girth of almost 26 feet (7.9 metres), but the trunk is far from regular in shape; its growth has formed child-size crevices – folds, almost – which hint at ancient secrets. It is (apparently) one of Britain’s 50 great trees; I hadn’t realised before this visit that there was an official register, had you? But there are lists for most things these days and top 50s are two a penny: 50 Best Classical Tunes – Ever; 50 Best Classical Tunes – Ever, Volume 2…
Adjacent to the Great Lime is the Pagan Grove, an amphitheatre scooped out of the ground, which would be a good place for small theatrical productions or a picnic – perhaps both, but not necessarily side-by-side. Also nearby is the labyrinth, built in 2002, which is more like a charming, but slightly pretentious, work of art than something to get lost in. Beyond that, the curious, but oh-so impressive, sundial, five feet in diameter, carved in blue-grey Kirkby slate by craftsmen employed by the Holker Estate. Good grief – is that the time?
There is more formality in the Sunken Garden, with its lion-head water feature. As one who can barely distinguish a weed from a weigela, the intricacies of gardening are mostly lost on me, though I relished the semi-organised beauty and tranquillity of Holker’s formal gardens. Yet I think my greatest pleasure was wandering through the managed woodland, where even I could spot strange, or unusual, trees, and where clever planting suddenly revealed views that triggered spontaneous smiles of contentment.
And then it was time for tea.
You need to check Holker Hall’s website for details of opening times, and for more information. This will also tell you about the various events held there, including the very popular annual garden festival.