A peek into the secret gardens

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[Edit, Dec 2019 – Since I wrote this half a decade ago, the estate has updated its website, and there’s now a nice article about the gardens by Lady Normanby, complete with some lovely aerial shots.]

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 fair number of people in and around the village work on the estate or on the tenant farms. Some local families have been here for generations and have a rooted connection to the place that’s quite distinct from my own long-standing love of it.

Mulgrave Castle is still owned and inhabited by the Marquess of Normanby and his family (descendants of the arctic explorer, Constantine Phipps), though the current Lord Normanby lives mainly in London. Occasionally through its long history the whole place has been rented out, and while there was a good deal of curtain-twitching about ten years ago when Arpad Busson and Elle MacPherson spent some time there, 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. (The latter story, alas, appears to be a myth, but it’s a good one all the same.)

Anyway, it’s not all that easy to get a proper look at the castle. You can walk in the woods three days a week, but the gardens and immediate grounds are off-limits most of the time. Fortunately the estate sometimes opens the gardens on summer Sundays to let local charities raise money. Yesterday 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 open grounds 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 generations as if they were a living work of art, shaping the sweep of the woods and fields, exposing the romanticised ruin of the old castle where it floats on its hill in the sea of woodland, and planting the countless thousands of trees which rust into a gorgeous patchwork of reds, browns and purples in the autumn.

The formal gardens were lovely – somehow rather more so for the 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 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 delighted by the squat, carefully-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 closed to casual wanderers, 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 these pots could go 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.’

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