Chris Myers and I were chuffed to bits by the turn of events at The RHS Chatsworth Flower Show last week. We both had good reason. After a slow start (the judges’ Silver Medal theoretically rated it worst in show), the garden he’d designed was validated by the popular vote, being named the one the public loved most. Me? I’d been rooting for it!
Naturalistic plantings were a theme of this year’s show, but his garden was a hymn in praise of wildflowers (or more of a folksong). I enjoyed lingering awhile, listening to the sighs of pleasure as people glimpsed Hay Time In The Dales for the first time and felt its emotional pull. I knew this garden would haunt me, and it already is.
I thought of it when our evening walk took us past a flower-rich hay meadow between Edgworth and the Wayoh Reservoir. Around its peak now, the wildflowers include buttercups, yellow rattle, meadow vetchling, red clover, wild blue lupins, and a blend of grasses. A public information sign beside the meadow explains this patch of land represents what is now one of the rarest habitats in the UK.
It all seems so normal, and that’s part of the problem.
Those of us who grew up when this landscape was common can hardly believe it is endangered. Over 97% of our wildflower filled hay meadows have sneakily vanished since the 1930s, part due to construction, part to modern farming methods. Grasses love fertilisers but as we make them thrive they squeeze out the more vulnerable flowering plants that had quietly evolved over centuries. The wildlife that was part of the ancient ecosystem is vanishing too.
My early years were spent playing in fields much like the one at Edgworth. Never fertilised other than by nature’s decay, a huge diversity of plants and wildlife lived side by side. Romping through a meadow seemed natural back then: a healthy way to tire out children.
We climbed trees, looked for sticklebacks in streams and rolled in barrels down a stony hill. There seemed no reason that we should not (other than the risk of bashing our heads or dirtying our clothes). Even then we were warned not to pick wildflowers, although daisy-chain necklaces and dandelion clocks were allowed.
During my lifetime, much of this land has been paved over for estates of houses, including one of my favourite fields. The old familiarity means I can still walk through it in my mind – following the way pointed out by an old white snag (‘the lightning tree’) along a path through broad swathes of wildflowers. We would play on a tree with a fraying rope for a swing, and jump across the stream at its feet. Further on was a small pond, thickly edged with yellow flag irises.
A little woodland survives on the fringes of interlocking housing estates today, with yellow flag irises to remind me of what was, but generations of British girls and boys will have few similar memories to draw on. Many will never see a flower meadow of the same age and complexity as the meadow at Edgworth. Those who do will be expected to treat it with the utmost respect, as if it was a hundred years old relative, too frail and precious to jump on.
The message of Hay Time In The Dales is that it is not too late: action now can help to reverse the process. Sponsors Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust are re-seeding diminished land with excess material carefully harvested from the ancient fields that remain.
The show garden itself helps celebrate a time almost gone by, raising awareness and perhaps even planting memories in the people who saw it. The design had two complementary sections: the hay meadow and the cottage garden.
It’s not easy to create an impression of age and wildness in a show garden – I examined it closely and could see no flaw, unless you’d count nature’s imperfections. The hay meadow must have been planted from the back forwards to create a patchwork of wild flowers. Some of the twiggier growth around the edges looked fragile and tangled – testimony to the gentle touch of the set builders who managed their natural material so well, without seeming to tame it.
In the meadow, Geranium sylvaticum, foxgloves, ox-eye daisies and ragged robin stood out amongst the buttercups, pink clover and grasses. Native broadleaved trees were used as a backdrop: birch, rowan, sessile oak, field maple and holly.
There were orchids too: the star of the show was Anacamptis pyramidalis (pyramid orchid) which stood as a gatekeeper, marking the smooth transition from meadow to cottage garden.
It was a stately specimen with tall stems, elegant flowers and purple splashed leaves. Apparently, these will self seed if you know how to keep them happy, though I doubt they are common. We know where to find wild orchids on our local walks, but I’d not seen such a grand one before.
A path of stone slabs with rough gravel and low-growing, creeping plants led through a small cottage garden to the front door of a weathered stone house. Made by dry stone waller Gordon Simpson from Nidderdale, it was modelled on the many tumble-down barns converted to cottages. In the garden, catmint, pink astrantia, forget-me-nots, alchemilla, Geranium phaeum ‘Album’ and violas mingled with meadow escapees, such as buttercups and clover.
I could imagine the same plants being used to make a different style of garden in less skilful hands. These plants were comporting together, rather than growing in their prescribed clumps.
Tall spires of flowering dock helped raise the level towards the back of the design. Ferns piled on the softness and a slender trail of ivy clambered around the eaves of the house.
Chris explained that it had taken some time to build the subtle sag, redolent of age, into the slate roof. Clumps of moss recreated the effect naturally caused when passing birds let beaksful of moss (or bottomsful of moss seed) fall on it over time.
The woodwork was thoughtfully done too. There was a traditional log store around the side of the house; a beautiful, curved wood post and rail fence almost submerged in greenery; a gate; and a shin-high wooden fence towards the front of the garden that seemed to serve no purpose other than to be utterly desirable (glimpse it in the following picture; front, centre-right).
A rotary clothes line, plus pair of patterned socks (Chris told us how he chose a neutral colour, so they would blend in) added to the sense of theatre. But then, as the designer observed, Hay Time In The Dales was really more of a vision than a garden.
Slender, arching leafy branches looked like honeysuckle (these presumably replaced the topiary some previews mentioned), but I don’t think they were. I’ve put out a few gentle enquiries and will update the post if an answer materialises.
One difficulty for this style of garden might have been how to blend into the rest of the show. It did that brilliantly, seeming as if it had always been there, and the show gardens had intruded upon it. Metaphorically, at least, that’s true, in the wider UK as much as at the show.
Links and credits
Hay Time At The Dales was a show garden at the RHS Chatsworth Flower Show 2018 designed by Chris Dyers Design. The garden had two aims: to publicise the Hay Time appeal by the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust and to encourage more people to grow wildflowers at home. Dry stone waller Gordon Simpson built the cottage. Plant material was donated by Johnsons of Whixley.
All the pictures show Hay Time In The Dales, except for the yellow flag iris from our evening walk.