A peek into the secret gardens

The village I’m living in is an old-fashioned sort of a place. There’s a castle just on the outskirts (actually there are two castles if you count the ruined one perched on a hilltop in the woods, and three if you count the original Saxon site), and even these days a lot of people in and around the village work on the estate or on the tenant farms.

Mulgrave Castle is still owned and inhabited by the Marquess of Normanby and his family (descendants of the arctic explorer, Constantine Phipps), though they mainly live in London and just visit now and then during the holidays. When they’re not at home, the whole place sometimes gets rented out for shooting parties. There was a good deal of curtain-twitching about ten years ago when Elle MacPherson took out the lease for a while, but the most famous temporary resident was Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire. He lived at Mulgrave for a few years from the late 1850s, and there are stories of him hunting with hawks in full Indian regalia, and walking his elephants on the beach*.

Anyway, all this means that it’s not all that easy to get a look at the castle. You can walk in the woods on certain days during the week, but the gardens are off-limits most of the time. Yesterday, though, they were open for a fundraiser in aid of Pannett Park in Whitby, so I went for a nose around.

As with many old estates, the landscaping as you walk down the broad rides in front of the castle is wonderful, and I’m filled with admiration for all those people who’ve worked on these views over the years as if they were a living work of art, shaping the sweep of the woods and fields, exposing the edge of the old castle where it floats on its hill in the sea of woodland, and planting the huge variety of trees which rust into a gorgeous patchwork of reds, browns and purples in the autumn.

The formal gardens were lovely – with pleasing little signs of human enjoyment like sun loungers, a barbecue, a trampoline and a set of goalposts at the edge of one of the lawns – but my favourite bits on this occasion were the glasshouses and the vegetable gardens.

Normally I’ll take aesthetic over function any day, but the vegetable garden with its orchard was a thing to behold. I was always going to be romanced by the border of squat, well-thinned apple trees that lined three sides of the fruit and veg garden, the pears that climbed the walls next to a sun-bleached wooden ladder, and the cages full of soft fruit, but the rows upon rows of vegetables in all their colours and textures were a bit of a joy too. Onions sat bulging out of the surface of the soil next to tiny fennel seedlings swaying in the breeze like delicate underwater creatures, yellow courgettes swelled in the shade of their wide leaves, and among the ranks of brassicas under their netted frames, clumps of cavolo nero stuck up like stiff sheets of dinosaur skin.

The glasshouses were supposedly closed to the public, but a gardener was taking little groups round, and I tagged on the back of one. Inside, he handed out leaves of sharp-smelling lemon verbena (‘the chef uses it to make tea’), and led us past pots full of velvety, strongly-scented foliage, into the fruit houses. At a wide-spreading vine with bunches of dessert grapes hanging from it, he paused to explain how each bunch had to be thinned by hand to make sure they didn’t go bad. Next door, among peaches and citrus trees, someone asked him about a row of smaller vines in pots.

‘Ah. These I’m working on. There was an idea that they’d be able to put these pots on the tables at parties, and people could eat the grapes directly off the vine. I just haven’t managed to get them to fruit enough yet.’

Running the length of the greenhouses was a network of cat flaps, and two glasshouse mousers lounged in the sun under the big grapevine. One of them curled lazily on his back with his belly in the air, the picture of sloth.

‘He looks like that now,’ said the gardener, ‘but trust me he’s a killer.’

*Unfortunately a quick search reveals this latter rumour to be a myth. Shame.

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