The Gardens at York Gate – Andrew Mikolajski

IMG_0251The speaker at our June meeting was Andrew Mikolajski on the subject of The Gardens at York Gate, Leeds. Andrew is a gardening author, lecturer and speaker and is currently a horticultural advisor for a new edition of the RHS A–Z Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants which will be published in September. York Gate is a one acre garden at Adel on the outskirts of Leeds and  has been described as one of the most important small gardens in the UK.

Andrew has a unique style of presentation which made his talk entertaining, informative and memorable and in that he is typical of York Gate Garden itself which is also marked by a unique and memorable style. Andrew described it as the most photographed garden of the 20th   Century …

The garden was created in the middle of the last century by the Spencer family ; a well-to –do local family consisting of Frederick and Sybil Spencer and their only son Robin. Sybil was the dominant influence in the creation and maintenance of the garden and Andrew recalled her as a ‘Margot Leadbetter’ figure with her own strong style characterised by broad brimmed hats, chunky jewellery and good living. Frederick died in his early fifties and it was Robin who became the chief influence on the design and style of the garden, although he himself died when he was only 47. For a while Sybil lost interest in the garden but she recovered from her grief and kept the garden going with the help of Brian, a local man whom she trained from a non-horticultural background. Sybil died in 1994 and the garden was bequeathed to Perennial ( formerly the Gardeners Royal Benevolent society) which is dedicated to helping people in horticulture and their families when times get tough. Brian continued as head gardener until recently and the garden is now run by a professional head gardener with a lot of voluntary help.

The garden has been made on a gently undulating site and consists of a number of different areas markedly different in character, including the dell with a stream and moisture-loving plants, the beech walk, the beech tunnel, herb garden and summer house, white garden, vegetable garden and Sybil’s garden, the only professionally designed part of the garden created recently by Alistair Baldwin on a site that Sybil and Brian never quite knew what to do with. These different areas were used by the Spencer family in their bon viveur days to provide a ‘safari’ type of evening entertainment, moving from one area to another for the different stages of a meal.

The unifying design features introduced by Robin which set York Gate apart from most other gardens are the patterned paths made in stone and brick in repeated circular forms, often using mill stones, strongly individualistic topiary and quirky features of architectural salvage discovered cheaply by Robin during his time as a surveyor. Prominent amongst Adel 38the ‘horticultural sculpture’ is a wall trained, twelve – branched  pyracantha described by Andrew as a fantastic triumph of horticultural art, an espalier trained blue cedar and ,seen from all over the garden, a topiary hedge cut into points like a bar of Toblerone. Apart from the white garden, flowers do not feature as prominently as the hard landscaping and topiary; a point made by Andrew through some of his best illustrations taken on a still November day with a blue sky and a warm golden light.

York Gate is open to the public from Sunday to Thursday from April to September, plus evenings in June, and Andrew recommended combining a visit with an outing to the major RHS Garden at Harlow Carr near Harrogate.
Jeremy  Athern

A selection of photo’s from Andrew’s talk:

and, see more of the Gardens at York Gate via this Youtube video

The Next BGA meeting will be our AGM on 19 July with a speaker from the Anglian Air Ambulance service and a summer buffet.  Meetings will resume on 20th September at the new starting time of 7.30pm. The Subject will be Britain’s wonderful wildlife by wildlife photographer Richard Revels.

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