First off though, a bit of history. The site that RHS Bridgewater sits on began life as Worsley New Hall – a stately home constructed in the early 19th century (an upgrade to the nearby Worsley Old Hall owned by the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater – see what they’ve done there?). It was used for all sorts of stately home-like things for many years, with Queen Victoria even having a poke around once or twice. That’s until WW1, when it was handed over to the British Red Cross, and again in WW2 when it was requisitioned by the war office. Between the two wars it became dilapidated, and the then-owner (the 4th Earl of Ellesmere, who else) started selling bits of it off before, in 1943 there was a fire. The Hall didn’t last long after that with the entire building demolished by 1950. The site had more or less been left to its own devices since.
And what about the gardens? Well, the gardens suffered a similar fate, and were left abandoned as well until they were taken on by the RHS years later. After significant renovation and investment, the newly transformed, community-minded gardens were opened to the public in 2021. The vast space features walled gardens within the original walls of the Hall, spruced-up outbuildings, restored greenhouses abounding with arid plants, wildflower meadows bursting with life, ornamental gardens of all shapes, sizes and colours, serene lakes, gentle streams, shady woodland, and, of course, a large visitor centre, shop and cafe. There’s plenty of both fun and educational things for children to do too.
A lot of what we saw at RHS Bridgewater very clearly had nature and a healthy eco-system in mind too which is the theme that runs through the items below but, with so much to choose from though in this varied and exciting garden, it was a challenge narrowing down some of the things we really enjoyed – especially when thinking about things that can be applied to domestic gardens, terraces, and balconies… We’ve given it a good go though.
Like all excellent gardens, there are clear sightlines throughout Bridgewater. Like many extremely good gardens, in our opinion, these lines are often interrupted with overflowing planting. We loved the way the lines of these pathways were broken by tall late-summer growth – creating a sense of mystery and invitation. In a small space, this can be achieved with techniques as simple as planting trailing plants over the edge of a pot or window box, or creating a winding pathway amongst collections of pots, prompting you to explore or take a closer look.
Wires for climbers
We have always loved wire supports for wall climbing plants. In place of a trellis, they can provide unobtrusive yet sturdy supports for even the heaviest of climbing plants. They’re very smart too. It was great to see them used to great effect on many of the walls here at Bridgewater. If you’re thinking of installing these, make sure to get the tension right to ensure that they don’t sag.
We’re sure there are plenty of horticultural reasons why you might sink a pot into the ground – perhaps to make it easier to change things up in a bed, or maybe to enable you to plant something that might not otherwise survive in the surrounding soil. We’re including this though mainly because we think it looks great – particularly in a gravel garden with arid and succulent plants. For a smaller space, you could consider sinking a pot into the soil of larger pot to allow for unusual combinations, or to create a tiered effect.
Paths and verges
Okay, so this one is, admittedly, slightly tricky if you don’t have any grass but we loved the paths and verges mown into otherwise overflowing wildflower and grassy meadows that had been left to their own devices. These habitats will be havens for wildlife, from insects to small mammals, birds and maybe even the odd reptile and amphibian too. By carving beautiful curved paths into these meadows you’re again invited to interact with them organically, which we think would be very easy to achieve on a garden lawn of almost any size. We also liked the neatness of the mown verges separating the meadow from the path – proving that safe havens can be provided for nature without sacrificing a nod to the ornamental approach to gardening as well.
A log pile is never a bad idea. They’re fantastic habitats for insects and can be very attractive too amidst woodland plants and rich green grasses. If you have a small garden or terrace, you can tuck one away in a quiet shady corner, and, if you have a balcony, then perhaps consider shrinking the log pile idea down to a bug hotel. The important thing is that we’re providing a habitat.
One of the truly fantastic things about Bridgewater is the way that it prioritises nature, without sacrificing beauty. The way that these water features below carve through the walled garden, all leading to a central pond, almost highlights the central importance of nature to the garden and how vital water is for wildlife. Apart from anything else though, it was a reminder that water is a beautiful, calming thing to have in a garden in any form. Whether it’s an ornamental fountain, a sunken washing up bowl for frogs, or a small balcony water feature, the local wildlife will thank you as much as you thank yourself.
That’s all from RHS Bridgewater. It’s well worth a visit and, if the above hasn’t convinced you here are a few more morsels, and also some incredible photos of the garden before the RHS began this monumental project: https://www.rhs.org.uk/gardens/bridgewater/before-work-started
Images c. Ed Maitland Smith