The earliest true gardens in the Yorkshire Dales were probably to be found within the precincts of medieval monasteries. As well a general kitchen garden, each monastery usually had a separate physic garden. It is likely that the Infirmary at Bolton Priory would have had just such a garden nearby although all trace has now gone. This type of garden was tended by the physician or apothecary monk and he would have used the plants combined with other ingredients, often mineral in origin, to treat the sick. The infirmary usually had its own kitchen and the garden or herbarium would also have supplied aromatic herbs to flavour food given to those recovering from illness.
Larger medieval houses might also have had small herb gardens along with orchards and vegetable gardens. Bolton Castle is also likely to have had its own herbarium as well as its productive and pleasure gardens on a grand scale. The earthworks of the latter still remain including a sunken water garden. The present gardens beside the castle are a modern interpretation. Elsewhere, medieval villagers would have cultivated the small croft attached to their houses but here they would mostly have grown food for the family.
With the Dissolution of the Monasteries, physic gardens were superseded by pleasure gardens more to the taste of the wealthy and fashionable. In 1629, John Parkinson wrote in his Paradisus terrestris that “the garden of flowers or of pleasure [is] to be in the sight and full prospect of all the chiefe and choisest rooms of the house”. Barden Tower was turned into a country residence in the late 15th century by Sir Henry Clifford and earthworks in the park around it seem to show that he had well-laid out grounds with terraced formal ornamental gardens. Tudor Rylstone Hall once had an ornamental lake and pleasure grounds. Ravenstonedale Park in the Westmorland Dales began life in the late medieval period. Lord Wharton enlarged his ancestral estate in the mid-16th century, which included purchasing the large manor of Ravenstonedale that was formerly Shap Abbey land in 1547. It appears that the park was never stocked with deer. This seems likely, as Wharton had a deer park at Wharton Hall, so it may have instead been used for cattle-grazing.
Fashions changed and formal styles of garden were gradually replaced by more informal, romantic styles. The culmination of this was the ‘natural’ landscapes of parklands around the great Georgian country houses such as the grounds around Marske Hall. Follies and garden buildings were a feature of such planned landscapes. The Belvedere belonging to Swinithwaite Hall was built in 1792 and had a heated upstairs room with magnificent views over the estate. At Sorrel Sykes, the park was decorated with unique follies, including the Pepper Pot and the Rocket Ship as they are known nowadays.
In Victorian times, the wealthy continued to have gardens and parks created. Akay Lodge in Sedbergh was bought by Charles Taylor, a local Chemist and Druggist, in 1893. The house was rebuilt and the original gardens improved with the addition of ornamental trees; terraces with stone balustrades and a gazebo, which still survives called the Akay Pepper Pot. Not all parks and gardens were built for private use. Queen’s Gardens in Sedbergh were given to the town by Mrs Upton-Cottrell-Dormer of Ingmire Hall in 1906 to commemorate the reign of Queen Victoria.
Productive gardens were the pride and joy of many a Victorian estate gardener and the remains of a fine walled garden can be seen at Taitlands near Stainforth. Hudson House in Reeth was a much more modest dwelling, but it too had a productive walled garden with fruit trees.
The 20th century saw two of the Dales’ finest gardens built. Both were the height of fashion in their day. Aysgarth Rockery was designed and built by the prestigious firm of Backhouse and Sons, York for a local game dealer called Frank Sayer-Graham. On a tiny site, massive limestone boulders were stacked up to create a mini-alpine environment complete with a waterfall and winding gravel paths. Parcevall Hall Gardens were designed from scratch by their new owner, Sir William Milner, one of the founders of Harlow Carr Gardens. He took a windswept, moorland hillside and with an army of labourers transformed it. The result was magnificent with a dramatic terraced garden; a large semi-natural rockery; orchards; water features and woodland walks.
Both these gardens are a credit to their present owners, but others have not been so well cared for. By the 1870s, The Rookery in Bishopdale had become a grand country house with extensive parkland. A walled kitchen garden held four glasshouses and nearby was an orchard. The house had terraced gardens leading down to the surrounding parkland. The estate was sold in 1921 and the house became a farmhouse, a school and a Youth Hostel, before being demolished in 1952. The gardens are long gone but the fine stone entrance gate piers and tree-lined avenue are a sad reminder of former glories.
The harsh winters and short growing season have provided a challenge for generations of gardeners in the Yorkshire Dales. While the wealthy could appoint the best designers and an army of gardeners to tend to their pleasure grounds, up until the 19th century, the rest of the population gardened mostly out of necessity. Today, we are no longer forced to grow our own food, but the fine tradition of allotment gardening continues in many villages and small towns in the Dales. Grassington’s Parish Allotments are a source of much pride and have a long waiting list. Private allotments and also larger domestic gardens have not been so lucky as the pressure for more housing in Dales villages continues.
Moorhouse, Stephen (2003) ‘The anatomy of the Yorkshire Dales: deciphering the medieval landscape’ in Manby, T G et al (eds) (2003) The Archaeology of Yorkshire: an assessment at the beginning of the 21st century Yorkshire Archaeological Society Occasional Paper No 3 pp298-362 [‘parks and gardens’ pp329-332]
Scobie, Joyce (2000) ‘Akay – The Story of An Estate’ Sedbergh Historian Vol 4:3 pp33-39
Wilson, C Anne (1998) ‘Growing Aromatic Herbs and Flowers for Food and Physic’ in Wilson, C Anne (ed) (1998) The Country House Kitchen Garden 1600-1950 Stroud: Sutton pp86-99
www.parcevallhallgardens.co.uk – website devoted to the gardens with information on their history
www.york.ac.uk/depts/arch/landscapes/ukpg/database – UK database of historic parks and gardens