Grantham, Lincolnshire, NG32 2LS
Grantham is probably best known for two people. Margaret Thatcher whose father owned a corner shop there and was known as Alf Roberts. (Those of a particular generation will remember Alf Roberts in the scorner shop of Coronation Street and those that don’t will think I am mad). More importantly by far in world terms it is the birthplace of Sir Isaac Newton (See Britain Unlimited for more information). If you are coming up the A1 from the Peterborough direction you will go through the town centre to Belton so look out for Newton’s statue outside the Town Hall.
The grounds of Belton House are massive and many families bring their children there to play without going into the formal gardens or house. Seasoned Trust goers will avoid school holidays if they can. The ticket office is in a hut and then you have to go across the main track where cars exit and enter to get to the gardens so keep your wits about you. There is a strategically placed cafe in a new building before you get there so many people fall at the first hurdle. For the topiary enthusiast who has more stamina the entrance to the gardens is past the toilet block.
The formal garden entrance brings you in at the side of the house and then you are transported to a different world. The house has a pleasing symmetry and the stone has weathered to a beautiful browny-grey colour. I often think there is no point building a new house out of local stone as you need to live to to over two hundred years old to appreciate its weathered qualities. For the architecturally aware the house was built between 1685 and 1688 for the lawyer Sir John Brownlow in the Restoration or Carolean style (named after King Charles the Second). There is a grand central path with leads down form the middle of the house which accentuates the symmetry even more.
One of the nice features at Belton is the terrace by the house. This is raised high enough to get at good view down and over the topiary in the Dutch Garden. If you can afford lots of stone an gravel it may be a feature you might want to adopt at home (on a slightly reduced scale!) but I would advise against wooden boarding or decking. Although this was all the rage a few years ago after a certain make-over programme on the television featuring Alan Titchmarsh they can be difficult for two reasons. They can get very slippery during wet weather and many people have found that vermin like to nest in the comfy space underneath. The main focus for the topiary specimens is the Italian Garden to the side of the Dutch Garden. It was de rigour for the aristocracy to go on the Grand Tour during the eighteenth century and seeing the gardens round the ancient sites of Italy inspired formal gardens back at home. This of course was after the Landscape Movement with the likes of Lancelot “Capability” Brown ripping the early topiary out to give the impression of rolling hills. As I have said before on numerous occasions if you wan to see an original topiary garden which survived the landscape “barbarians” then you must travel to Levens Hall in Cumbria. The Italian Garden at Belton consists of fastigiate yew cones and large box balls interspersed with a few standard shapes. In the centre is a grand circular pool with stone urns dotted around at strategic intervals.
Now I’ve seen many an orangery at various houses but the formal palladian style of the one at Belton is magnificent with plenty of glass and topped by finials. Again there is a terrace at the orangery end so that you can look down slightly onto the the Italian Garden to get the full effect. Go inside. It has a variety of succulents, if that is your bag but don’t try and shelter from the hot sunshine, as we did, otherwise you will roast.
There are many yew hedges around the formal gardens and at the extreme edges they have been allowed to grow to a massive extent so that children (or adults) can explore inside to see what tales they have to tell. There are also interesting quirky bits of planting like the flour de lys motif of box which is picked out by white gravel. To the east of the Italian Garden are what are known as the pleasure grounds. (Who knows what those eighteenth century aristocrats got up to away from prying eyes inside the house). There you will find the east lawn and beyond it a new box tree maze which was planted in 2000 after the original one became overgrown.
The flour de lys motif is situated in a glorious walled garden section made of red brick and there is a quintessential english church framed behind. Throughout various parts of the garden there are seasonal plantings in the border which will excite the non topiary enthusiast and make it worthwhile to visit the gardens over several seasons.
Incidentally the guide brochure given out at the ticket office describes the full walk around the pleasure gardens and formal gardens as being 3 kilometres. I have translated this into english for you as 1.85 miles which at a normal walking pace would take 20 minutes. Mind you you never walk in a straight line in gardens so you could easily double that and some people like to stop and stare so the time is immaterial . Give Belton plenty of time or better still go back several times.
All photographs by Anthony Blagg