Biddulph Grange: one of the wonders of the Victorian age

Heronswood gardener and Botanica tour leader, Julie Willis, visits a masterpiece rescued by the National Trust UK

There are so many garden styles around the world, it can sometimes be difficult to settle on just one when thinking about a design for your home garden.
When I read about Biddulph Grange, a 15 acre garden in Staffordshire, UK, which combines more than half a dozen very diverse themes on one site, I was intrigued to see how that could work, or if the whole thing would be disjointed and confused.
James Bateman (1811–1897), creator of Biddulph Grange gardens, was always destined to be a gardener. At the age of eight, he fell in love with orchids and they remained a lifelong passion. In 1984, a copy of his illustrated book The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala sold for over $18,000.
In 1842, Bateman married fellow gardener Maria Egerton-Warburton and together with Edward Cooke, whom Bateman met at Kew Gardens, they set to work on the garden at Biddulph. Edward had married into a family that ran one of the leading nurseries of the day and his sister’s husband was Nathaniel Ward, inventor of the Wardian case – an early type of terrarium that enabled foreign plants to be imported into Britain. These family contacts and the advance in science meant that Bateman had access to all the new plant discoveries being made, and he had the acreage to display them.
In 1871 (the same year Heronswood house was completed), James and Maria Bateman sold their family home, along with the garden they had lovingly created over 30 years. Since its sale, the estate has passed through the hands of several owners and, for a time, operated as a hospital. Lack of funds and workforce meant the garden gradually slipped into a state of disrepair. Fortunately, in 1983, The National Trust stepped in and began the long arduous task of bringing the garden back to its former glory.
With so many different styles and geographically diverse areas in the garden, it could run the risk of becoming a theme park. The site has been cleverly designed, with each section of the garden hidden from view of the next, only becoming apparent after passing through a deep gorge or one of the connecting underground tunnels. This creates a feeling of excitement and anticipation as you explore the garden, rather than just wandering around it. To create these distinct areas within the garden, great boulders were brought on site and arranged to create gullies and outcrops to divide up the large space.
Italianate terraced gardens with grand vistas, staircases and large urns flow down from the house to a large informal lake surrounded by ‘The Americans ground’. Here Bateman planted the early introductions of rhododendrons from the USA, and the English parkland style of landscape rolls out beyond.
The Victorians loved to use architectural plants as focal points in their bedding schemes and Bateman chose the Monkey Puzzle, Araucaria araucana. One of the parterre gardens is divided up into quadrants, each with a Monkey Puzzle at its centre. Once they grow too large and become out of scale, they are transplanted to the Pinetum and replaced with new young plants.

This practice continues to this day and Biddulph has a very impressive grove of Monkey Puzzles of varying ages and it’s amazing to see the variations and diversity of growth habits displayed in one collection.
A path only wide enough for one person winds through the Himalayan glen, flanked by rock walls on one side, a waterfall and stream on the other. It’s a perfect example of the many microclimates created within the garden. Plant hunter, Joseph Hooker of Kew, brought back new rhododendrons from Nepal which were initially housed here. They proved not to be hardy, so were gradually replaced with a large collection of ferns, including tree ferns brought from Australia.
Stumperies became fashionable again in the early 1980s when one was installed at Prince Charles’ garden at Highgrove. But Biddulph Grange’s stumpery, created in 1856, was the first and was widely copied by Victorian gardeners. At first glance the gully looks to be created with more of their signature rockwork but, on closer inspection, the soaring walls of the gorge are made from enormous gnarled tree stumps with their tangle 
of antler-like roots protruding skyward to provide homes for trailing and scrambling plants. The whole effect is mesmerising and makes me start to wonder where I could source enough tree stumps to replicate it.
My visit in early June coincides with the planting of their annuals and tender perennials. Having lived on Melbourne’s Mornington Peninsula for over 10 years, I forget that dahlias are tender and need lifting and storing over winter in frost-prone areas. So, the famed dahlia walk only has stakes in place to support the hundreds of dahlias that are to be planted later that week.
The China garden is striking; the pagoda and bridge are painted bright red and an enormous golden sculpture of a sacred water buffalo looks down over the area. Almost 200 plants in this collection are here thanks to the intrepid plant collector Robert Fortune, a Scotsman dispatched to the far east by the RHS to see which Chinese plants or systems of agriculture might be relevant to gardens in Britain.
On then to the Egypt garden, with its clipped yew pyramid and pair of sphinx guarding the entrance to a tomb-like underground room which emerges at the start of the Wellingtonia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) avenue. This leads to Britain’s largest stone garden urn, the size of a four-person jacuzzi.
A woodland walk meanders gently back to the main body of the garden and is home to a charming ‘playground’ of balance beams formed from fallen trees, stepping stones cut from logs and a very wobbly bridge made simply from a log suspended from robust chains. This reinforces the importance of nature in play and encourages children, young and old, to think about how they can engage with their environment and create play rather than it being prescribed by the ubiquitous plastic play equipment usually rolled out.
I love it when I have an expectation of a garden from seeing and reading about it before a visit, then to have that preconception totally overturned in a positive way. This garden is a delight and has a huge sense of fun and exploration.
I know I’ll come back here again to see the dahlia garden in full 
swing and to marvel again at the Monkey Puzzle forest.
Editor’s Note: We recommend the BBC series British Gardens in Time which showcases Great Dixter, Stowe, Nymans and Biddulph Grange.

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