Restoration of 17th Century Parkland and Walled Garden bears fruit

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Restoration of 17th Century Parkland and Walled Garden bears fruit
Date: 19 March 2004

Following the conversion of their ancestral home into a luxury castle hotel and cookery school, the Cunliffe-Lister family have now set out on a restoration programme of the surrounding 200 acres of parkland, lakes and gardens, and their four acre walled garden.

The grounds were designed and laid out during the 1700’s, most of which still remains today, including an orangery, summer house, druids seats, standing stones and follies. Prior to the family buying back the castle in 2000, the grounds had not been maintained for 25 years, and the first steps taken were to cut back the almost impenetrable undergrowth, revealing some original features lost from sight for years, and replanting where necessary. The original water system has also been reinstated, which runs off the moor and feeds all five lakes and the walled garden through a complex system of underground pipes. The water pressure was also used to power the hydraulic lift in the castle, but this has since been replaced.

The walled garden had not fared any better, and was an abandoned Chrismas tree plantation. Once this had been cleared, the planting programme began in Spring 2003 with four main crops – artichokes, asparagus, autumn fruiting raspberries and blueberries – the aim being to produce something unusual and not readily available for sale, with low maintenance and a long fruiting period. In addition, various other crops have been planted such as squash, courgettes, rhubarb, strawberries, alpine strawberries, Jerusalem artichokes and a very wide range of herbs. Over an acre of the garden has also been planted out with flowers, to be cut fresh for the house and dried, and there are over ten varieties of apple trees. A combination of sheep fleeces and permeable membrane laid over the soil ensures that this is a well fertilized and virtually weed and spray free garden.

2004 is the first year that the garden will be in full production for over 30 years, there is no other hotel in the UK that can rival Swinton Park in terms of the scale of this operation. As well as being aesthetically pleasing, this is an example of a garden that really works – and the produce now regularly features on the hotel and cookery school menus. The challenge facing the family now is how to manage it, as yields increase over the years, and to explore the possibilities of any commercial angle that would help the garden pay for itself and to allow them to plough back any surplus into further restoration work.

The driving force behind the restoration programme is Susan Cunliffe-Lister. Voted Country Life Gardener of the Year 2001, Susan has always been a passionate gardener, with a no nonsense hands on approach. She has been responsible for the transformation of the gardens at Burton Agnes (listed in Simon Jenkin’s Top 20 in his recent publication England’s Thousand Best Homes), which were voted one of the Top Ten Gardens by Gardener’s World viewers in 2003.

The hotel is also committed to supporting the tenant farmers, local producers and cottage industries on the surrounding 20,000 acre family estate, without compromising their high levels of quality of service. Unrivalled quality produce is on offer, including estate trout, venison and game, rowanberries and heather off the moor and free range eggs, beef, lamb, home made jams and preserves, clotted cream and milk all sourced within a few miles of the hotel – including Theakstons and Black Sheep beer! Activities run in conjunction with tenant farmers include an off road driving course, a clay pigeon shooting school and a forty jump UK Chaser horseriding course.