Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Dunge Valley Gardens

I went to Dunge Valley Gardens on a sunny afternoon towards the end of May. It's a treasure of a place hiding deep in the beautiful Goyt valley above the Cheshire village of Kettleshulme. I first discovered it soon after we moved here, now seven years ago. Whenever I arrive in a new place I have to go exploring - it's a way of connecting with my new environment and putting my small life into a wider, more meaningful context. But when I followed the small brown signs with the enticing sounding name, like Alice through Wonderland, I truly never expected to find something quite so surprising and alluring on the apparently bare green hillsides around me.

Since that first discovery, I have taken family, friends and French teenagers there and every visit has never failed to delight. I am filled with a sense of wellbeing every time I visit - but I have always chosen my days and timings carefully.

The best time to go is towards the end of a sunny day in May when the rhododendrons and azaleas, for which it is particularly renowned, are at their blooming best. By arriving a little later in the day you are more likely to have have the place relatively to yourself. Or you could sit and have a cup of tea on the terrace above the lawn and wait for the other visitors to drift away before you plunge yourself into the lushness.

It had been a few years since I'd last been, but having carved out some time from my own heavy gardening schedule, I grabbed my camera and set off as bright early summer sunshine played hide and seek behind white puffy clouds. The light was sharp, shiny and sublime, the sun hot and the air clean and fresh, yet warm and still.

I drove up through the Goyt Valley hills before turning off down a long descending driveway. I recalled the first time I had done this thinking 'Where on earth is this going? What can possibly be down here of any interest?' Then suddenly you find yourself in a sunlit gravel car park with an attractive long low stone house in the background and a makeshift entrance booth surrounded by pots of rhododendrons and azaleas and other shrubs for sale.

You are greeted by the owner - an unusual character who sometimes gives you the impression he'd rather you weren't troubling him, but I have learned to accept his nature over the years and always attempt some friendly conversation. When you see what he and his wife have created since 1984, you can forgive them any idiosyncracies - even the slightly bossy signs which greet you from time to time telling you to stay on the paths, or not to touch, or some such slightly terse instruction (which are no doubt born out of the tedious business of dealing daily with the general public - which can test the patience of saints, after all).

I always start my visit with a drift around the lawns which stretch below the flagged terrace surrounding the house. In May the grass is acid green and all the generous borders are bursting with fresh new life. A lady in a floppy straw hat and her slightly effete son sit talking on a bench in southern tones while I admire the rich dark blue forget-me-knots, the emerging broad leafed hostas, the sky blue meconopsis.

I then take a short wander along the narrow little paths which weave around and through the wide borders, ducking under specimen trees and brushing past shrubs and roses, with the chink of tea cups and light conversation in the background.

This done, I set off down the pale grey gravelled paths which lead off behind the lawns to the wilder world beyond. They take you down towards the stream where giant gunnera grow, over small wooden troll bridges (thoughtfully covered in chicken wire to avoid slipping on damp days) before climbing up the hill through bright green blades of grass and clumps of green headed hellebores bowing gracefully to the rays of sunshine which illuminate their beauty.

From here I descend the path back towards the lawns, crossing another bridge which takes you across the small boggy pond full of marsh marigolds and irises and other water plants, before another path loops me into the lower end of this narrow hidden valley in which the gardens have been formed.

You duck under, around, past and between a sumptuous array of rhododendrons with their endlessly diverse flowers and foliage.

For dedicated plants people many of these are helpfully labelled. A tiny specimen caught my eye - a 'wren' azalea - and then just after this came a 'giant' rhododendron with leaves over a foot long - so outsized that they twist your perspective and render the other plants out of proportion as very tall people do 'normal' sized people. As I continued up this path on the left hand side of the valley I was struck, as I always am, by the stark juxtaposition of bare sheep-studded hillside with lush valley. It is such an unlikely combination, and yet feels entirely natural. The trees are tall and the canopy high, so you do not feel claustrophobic - there is always a glimpse, a vista, of the world beyond which helps to create the incredibly strong sense of place as you wander through this tiny Himalayan kingdom in the middle of the Peak District.

There are little wooden seats at almost every turn, inviting a moment of contemplation (a game I once had with the girls when first I took them here was to make sure they sat on every one of them). Some are hidden amongst the exotic shrubbery where you can sit and be enveloped in the sweet earthy scents and the watery tunes of the two or three little streams which tinkle down through the valley to the accompaniment of a wealth of beautiful birdsong. Others are perched at dramatic viewpoints such as at the waterfall or high up at the head of the valley where you can look down on all before you. It was up here, I was told, that two young owls often perched, but I didn't manage to see them. Instead just the green hills behind me and the magical world below me, a moment of peace in which to sit, feel, think, listen and appreciate.

The meandering paths shift from gravel to stone flags, to bare earth and roots and back again. I always find myself madly follwoing every twist and turn, muttering to myself like the White Rabbit at the sheer pleasure of it all.

It is indeed a children's paradise but, as you might expect, there are typical requests from the owners that say children should be seen but not heard. Harsh, perhaps, but an instruction I nonetheless appreciate as this is a peaceful place where only natural sounds should reign.

Having lost myself for an hour in this little slice of an exotic Himalayan kingdom where I draw much inspiration for my own small 'dingly dell' back home, I returned to the house to peruse the plants for sale, enthused by all I had seen.

I found myself a beautiful lemon rhododendron, a blue azalea, a sweet-scented viburnum and a number of those dark blue forget-me-knots and meconopsis. As I was choosing, I fell into conversation with Jenny, the owner (who told me about the owls and the fact that they were nesting in an old tree down near the hosue) and asked why, this year, the gardens are no longer open in July and August. She told me that too many recent wet miserable summers had made them decide to open just from March to June, 'and besides', she added, 'we're getting older'. I suppose it will not be long now before they decide to retire and it is not clear, despite a daughter living with them, that there is anyone in place to continue this labour of love. I fear that one day soon they will just close the gates and keep it to themselves - and it will leave a huge hole in my celebration of early summer as well as being a great loss to the area. So hurry - you don't want to miss it - and I shall republish this post next year, hopefully, in time to remind you to visit.

Meanwhile, I would have loved to stay for a cup of tea and a final few moments of quiet calm, but I had children to meet from school - and a boot full of plants to find a new home for. It was time to say goodbye, for this year at least.


Dunge Valley Rhododendron Gardens, Windgather Rocks, Kettleshulme, High Peak, Cheshire, SK23 7RF.
Tel: 01663 733787

If you spend £12 on plants from their Hardy Plant Nursery then entry to the gardens is free.
'We have one of the largest collections of Rhododendrons and Azaleas in the north of England with Magnolias, trees, shrubs and perennials for sale. Meconopsis Sheldonii (the Blue Poppy), Prunus Serrula, exotic double flowering Hellebores, and Tropaeolum speciosum (the Flame Creeper) bring customers from all over the country.'

Online Catalogue:

[Please note, this is a completely independent review. I just love the place and wanted to share it with you]


Pondside said...

What a beautiful place. I love the idea of lots of places to sit and enjoy the garden.
Have you changed your blog address? I used to get notice when you posted, but I seem to have lost that link. I'll have to figure out how to do this again.........

Deborah said...

Thanks so much for sharing, it is beautiful. I especially loved your picture just below the "White Rabbit" reference. That tree almost looks like it's posing for you!

I live in Colorado, very arid and at a high altitude, so we just don't have the lush gardens you do. I love our high desert landscape but sometimes find myself longing for a place such as this.

Mark said...

'Windgather' reminds me of days climbing on the rocks there - lovely and in a different (bleak) way.


Hi Pondie - no nothing's changed with the blog address. I posted this from France - that is the only thing i can think of that might have affected something, though I don't really see why it should?

Mark - indeed Windgather are just by Dunge Valley gardens. As you say, lovely in their bleakness - and hence Dunge is such an amazing contrast, and so unexpected in that otherwise plain, graphic landscape.

Deborah - I can imagine how striking and photogenic your environment is - I love the simplicity of desert landscapes. But in that heat I imagine somewhere lush and cool can seem very appealing too!

Eileen said...

I am really enjoying your posts. I live in British Columbia, Canada. We have travelled to England twice now for garden tours, as my husband grows ornamental trees.

Thanks for your lovely pictures. Some great ideas for hillside plantings.

Online RSA said...

Ooh I see the Alice effect, it's beautiful :)

Grumpy Old Ken said...

What a lovely post. I am ashamed to say it is not a place I know so thanks for the introduction.

thomas peter said...

I went to Dunge Valley Gardens on a sunny afternoon towards the end of May. It's a treasure of a place hiding deep in the beautiful Goyt valley above the Cheshire village of Kettleshulme.Shrubs For Sale

David Ketley said...

The Owners have now retired but the Gardens are Open in May Weekends and B/H Mondays. Web site now

No Tea Room but owners will happily let you use the facilities for your own picnic.

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