Gardens of Holker

Last updated on March 14th, 2024 at 11:51 am

Holker, gardens, Cumbria

Holker Hall (say ‘Hoaker’ or ‘Hooker’) 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.

Holker Hall, Summer, Garden

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’.

Holker, Elliptical, Garden

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, fountain, Neptune Cascade
Holker, fountain, Neptune Cascade

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.

Beech arch, Summer garden, Holker

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.

Holker, butterflies, Lake District
Holker, gardens, butterflies
Red Admiral, butterfly, Lake District

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.

Statues, Holker, Neptune, Inigo Jones
Great Holker Lime

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…

Labyrinth, Holker, Lake District
Sundial, Holker, Lake District

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?

Holker Hall, gardens in Cumbria

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.

Holker Hall, restaurant

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.

Holker Hall Gardens

41 thoughts on “Gardens of Holker”

  1. Lovely pictures, and you certainly had a perfect day for it!
    And I think anyone who can spell “weigela” is being a little too humble about their plant-knowledge. I have one growing here, and I still would not have known how to spell it! 🙂

  2. I’m totally enchanted by the gardens of Holker. I’m packed and ready to move. Wish I hadn’t missed my chances at marrying a Cavendish lad. I could think of nothing more wonderful than living in that elegant estate and walking those gardens.

    What really startled me was that only three families have owned this perfectly beautiful estate. However, giving it some thought, I can understand. Once you possessed such heaven, why would you sell it unless you had to.

    Thanks for letting me visit another bit of Britain through your blog. It helps ease my travel fever.

  3. ‘Good grief, is that the time?’ You kill me. 🙂 Looks like Lucy and Tor are doing an admirable job keeping up. I cringe to think how many of those old amazing homes didn’t survive the social and political changes.

  4. Wow – standing stones, a huge old tree, fountain that makes rainbows, and beautiful gardens! Sounds and looks very inviting.

  5. ok you had me very early on there at the mention of sticky date pudding hehe but seriously looks like a lovely place I would spend alot of time at photographing everything.

  6. What a beautiful day! What a perfect spot for afternoon tea, sipping and contemplating how could I get to live here permanently. And becoming a famous gardener! I like the unusual birdbath in the fourth last pic…*wink

  7. Another great place for a great day out which I am most likely never to get round to visiting. At least I can visit it through your blog, so: Thank you!

  8. A fine garden. Thanks for taking us there. The famous topiary in the garden has been featured on several TV gardening programmes. A lot of work for the gardeners!

  9. Sounds like another fascinating place to visit if I’m ever back in the Lake District. Thank you for your excellent descriptions and photographs.

  10. What a responsibility to inherite and have to move forward. When & If we get to move to the North West of England there are some great places to visit. Thanks for the tour. Was there S.T.P. on the menu in the cafe?

  11. artandarchitecturemainly

    If I was driving around the Lake District, I would certainly progress slowly and spend time at Holker. And in summer I would spend even more time in the gorgeous outdoor tea room, reading up on the house history and taking garden photos. But where do people sit when the sun is not shining?

  12. Hi Mike – Nice estate to wander through.
    We had our own Sticky Toffee Pudding experience – in Bath.
    Here’s what I wrote at the time:
    We think of this sort of thing as a cake; but having now eaten it, it’s hard to describe it as anything other than a pudding cake, with a texture that moves back and forth from one to the other in your mouth. We were so seduced that we attempted to make it at home after our trip with no real success; but we were then able to get the recipe by email from the chef at the restaurant. It turned out to be his grandmother’s recipe and includes a few regular ingredients – butter, sugar, flour, eggs, syrup, baking powder – but also some unexpected additions – molasses, dates (lots), tea, and vanilla. It was such a holiday hit that we’re now committed to make it every year !
    So if his grandmother made it, I think it must generally go back quite a ways.

  13. I love all of the details you include in these posts, including the names of the butterflies, since, naturally, the boy asked what type they were and I had no idea. Thanks for taking us on another beautiful tour!

  14. Hi Mike – wonderful … and oh sounds such a glorious place to visit on a warm English summer’s day … and isn’t it wonderful that they’ve managed to restore the gardens and woodland to their best – cheers Hilary

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