Birmingham gardens: our top ten (and a bonus)
Although Birmingham is better known for its industrial plants, the city boasts a surprising range of green spaces to inspire the mind and refresh the spirit. There are rare survivors from its medieval beginnings to creations of the industrial grandees of the nineteenth century right through to a brand new Science Garden and green spaces which reflect the city’s increasingly diverse community. Many of these gardens are open to be enjoyed all year round.
The first impression of Baddesley Clinton is of a romantic, moated, medieval manor house and water plays a large part in giving its gardens a serene and tranquil beauty at odds with the estate’s dramatic history.
The house was built around 1450 and one of its early owners was a murderer. In 1517, Baddesley Clinton became the home of the Catholic Ferrers family who stayed for twelve generations and almost 500 years. The house still retains the hiding places, including the medieval sewer, where they concealed Catholic priests from persecution during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras.
The moat surrounding the house flows into a series of fish pools and stewponds laid out in the 1400s to provide fresh fish for the house and for sale, and culminates in the Great Pool, which may once have been a millpond. Paths wind around the water and through the surrounding woodland, offering picturesque vistas across the pools and to architectural features such as a bridge and a carved animal seat.
The grounds also include a wild flower meadow planted as early as the 1950s to safeguard the local cowslips, oxlips and primroses, a walled garden and a vegetable garden whose produce can be sampled in the restaurant.
The Birmingham Botanical Gardens and Glasshouses
The Birmingham Botanical Gardens first opened in 1832, as excitement about the rare and exotic specimens being introduced to Britain from all over the world by plant hunters was reaching a peak.
The Gardens remain true to their original intention to combine an extensive scientific collection with an ornamental garden and arboretum – although the bears, monkeys, seals and alligators that were intended to offer an extra incentive to join the society which originally ran the gardens have now gone.
Amongst the most impressive features are the four glasshouses – the Tropical House (built 1852) with its raised circular pool and greedy koi carp; the Subtropical House which has cycad plants that can survive for more than a thousand years; the Mediterranean House; and the Arid House with its melocactus, a plant first introduced to Europe by Christopher Columbus.
Outside the Glasshouses, the Loudon Terrace, named after the gardens’ designer, John Loudon, looks out over sweeping lawns, a Victorian bandstand and the domed Lawn Aviary which includes African love birds, American quaker parakeets and laughing thrushes in its chattering collection. There’s also a rose garden complete with an Analemmatic sundial which allows you to tell the time from the position of your shadow.
The Rock Garden, first created in 1895, has recently been restored. Designed to represent a Himalayan valley, with cascades of water pouring down into a pool, it’s a popular place for picnics and romantic declarations.
Beyond the lawns, there’s a whole series of inspirational smaller gardens, showing designs through history and around the world. There’s everything from a Turkish Meadow to a Bamboo Maze; from the modern Butterfly Border to the Roman Garden. One of the stand-out features, however, is the tiny Japanese Courtyard Garden; at its entrance you are invited to discard all worldly cares and become one with nature. The garden, designed to make best use of limited space, is full of symbolism: a bubbling boulder represents a volcano; the raked gravel – waves and the sea; and the paths represent life with its twists and turns. The garden is summed up in haiku:
Dreams of being a tall tree-
Until the wind blows.”
Around the corner don’t miss the National Bonsai Collection with the 250-year-old Juniperus chinensis.
The grounds of the Hall contain a number of smaller gardens which are full of inspiration for city gardeners. The herb garden, which has an eighteenth century sundial at its centre, is laid out in geometrical beds and each plant has a plaque listing its probable uses by the Smalbrokes and Foliots – the early residents and creators of the Hall. Vervain for example was said to “allayeth swellings and pains of the secret parts.”
Bournville Village and Selly Manor
Bournville Village was created as a garden suburb by the Cadbury family to provide healthy and attractive housing for their workers and others close to their new chocolate factory.
Gardening was encouraged in the Village and apple, plum, cherry and pear trees were planted outside each house. The Village Trust Gardening Department also hired out gardening tools and mowing machines, sold plants and bulbs, loaned gardening books and organised flower and vegetable shows. Gardening competitions are still held.
To find the 14th century half-timbered houses of Minworth Greaves and Selly Manor in the midst of the village is rather unexpected – particularly when you find that these almost-700-year-old houses did not begin life here, but were actually moved wholesale – at some considerable cost -from their original sites by the Cadburys so that they could be rescued from demolition. Minworth Greaves came all the way from the other side of Birmingham.
They were opened as museums in 1917 and 1932 and contain one of the best collections of early furniture in the country in harmony with the authentic Tudor gardens, which now surround them. The gardens contain: clipped bay trees representing a rather plump Henry VIII and his wives; low knot-garden hedging; wood-framed fruit and vegetable patches; a bed of medicinal and culinary herbs; a wildflower garden; espalier fruit trees – and a typical Tudor toilet.
Cannon Hill Park
Cannon Hill is a green space close to the heart of Birmingham and one of its outstanding features is its tree collection, consisting of some 100 different species from around the world, some of which were planted when the park was first laid out 139 years ago. These can be enjoyed close-up on the Park’s Tree Walk.
When Cannon Hill was established there were few public parks; it was created, on land donated by the daughter of a wealthy Birmingham manufacturer, by John Gibson of Castle Bromwich, who trained under Joseph Paxton at Chatsworth, and who was a national influence on parks design.
The Park contains a number of original listed structures including the Ornamental Bridge and Victorian Bandstand. There are also some unusual features such as the ice-age boulder excavated during the construction of the pool and a model landscape of the Elan Valley Reservoir which supplies 365 million litres of water daily to Birmingham from 73 miles away in Wales via an underground aqueduct. There is also a mini -wildlife reserve managed by the RSPB.
Visitors to the Park can also take advantage of the newly restored Midlands Arts Centre, which has a cafe, gallery and theatre, and is celebrating its fiftieth birthday in 2012.
Castle Bromwich Hall Gardens
Incongruously close to the M6 and M42 motorway junctions, these secret gardens are a very rare example of a gardening style made popular by William and Mary.
Having been developed by a powerful aristocratic family in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – by the son and grandson of Sir Orlando Bridgeman, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal to Charles II – the Gardens were neglected and vandalised for a long period, until the Castle Bromwich Garden Trust was formed in 1985 to restore them to their formal splendour.
Having escaped the Capability Brown landscaping revolution, the Gardens include a range of formal features such as avenues, water features and parterres. There is also a maze which is a distorted mirror-image of the one at Hampton Court – its designers, George London and Henry Wise, were advising on the Castle Bromwich Hall Gardens around 1700- although this is a rather pricklier version grown from holly.
The South Kitchen Garden was designed by a gentlemen rejoicing in the name of Batty Langley, author of “New Principles of Gardening” published in 1728 and there is also the salad garden or Salletts, with a planting scheme taken from John Evelyn’s “Acetaria”, published in 1699.
The productive part of the Gardens also includes some rather luxurious features such as the brick-walled Melon Ground and the heated Orangery which dates from 1729 and was a way for gentlemen to display their wealth following the introduction of oranges to this country in the sixteenth century.
A significant collection of plants, which would have been available in 1760, has been obtained from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and specialist nurseries. Plants were grown mainly for their use rather than their beauty at this time- and the plant labels describe the multiplicity of ills to be treated by each of them. It is interesting to note that ladies could whiten their faces with the petals of the Madonna lily and use its pollen as face powder.
Volunteers give a great deal of support in maintaining the garden and provide a warm welcome to visitors.
Four Seasons Garden
Tony and Marie Newton began work on this garden in 1982 and over 30 years have created an astonishing back garden for a suburban house in Walsall. Aptly named the Four Seasons, it is designed for all-year colour and its chief influence seems to be Japanese, both in the plants chosen – many acers, conifers and bamboos – and in the architecture – a running stream extends the length of the garden and there is a pagoda, bridges and ornaments. All of the work in creating the garden they have done themselves. The garden attracts interest from across the world including enquiries from China (particularly about the tiered planters for use in courtyard gardens), and requests for gardening tips from Greece. Garden open days are held throughout the year in aid of charity – more than £28,000 has been raised to date.
Tucked away behind one of Birmingham’s busiest roads, these community gardens are surprisingly extensive and combine a mixture of formal gardens, displaying rare and spectacular plants like the Catalina Ironwood and Colletia cruciata ,with natural environments, such as a pond, hedgerows, wildflower meadows and woodland, which attract a rich variety of wildlife, including a resident pipistrelle bat colony.
Martineau Gardens are looked after by volunteers and people participating in the Therapeutic Horticulture Project and offer a calm space for Birmingham people to connect with nature.
An exotic collection of organic fruit and vegetables grown on the site can be bought year-round –with profits from sales going back into the gardens. This year the gardens have participated in the “Local Food Global Food” project, making links with ethnic minority communities.
Children can also enjoy activities here and can create their own seafaring adventures in the Shipwreck Play Area.
The most remarkable and famous feature of Packwood’s garden is its topiary –its collection of mighty and ancient yews, which represent the Sermon on the Mount.
By climbing a very rare spiral mount at the centre of the Yew Garden, you can stand beneath The Master yew and look out on the towering Apostles and four Evangelists. These are the original yews believed to have been planted in the seventeenth century by John Fetherston, whose family built the house and estate. Beyond these are “The Multitude” of yews planted later -in the nineteenth century.
The survival of the trees is remarkable – particularly given the time now needed for their care. Some of the 100 trees are now over 15 metres high; their annual haircut takes four gardeners two and a half months to complete and requires hydraulically-operated access platforms and long-arm hedge -trimmers.
When the Sermon was created, the view would have been accompanied by the buzzing of bees from 30 bee boles –cavities made in the walling to accommodate the insects then used to pollinate the apple trees in the original orchard.
Other survivors from the original seventeenth-century garden include an unusual, if rather chilly, outdoor plunge bath dating from 1680 and the rather warmer Carolean Garden which housed a fireplace and horizontal flue in one of its gazebos to heat a wall for growing peaches; these features were also introduced to this estate, deep in Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden, by the Fetherstons.
Later features, such as the Sunken Garden came about following the purchase of the estate in 1904 by the Ash family – Birmingham captains of industry – and are particularly due to Graham Baron Ash who devoted himself to restoring the house to its original form and entertained visitors such as Queen Mary, who visited the Yew Garden in 1927, and George Bernard Shaw.
The garden is also notable for its magnificent and highly colourful Victorian –style herbaceous borders – the Yellow Border, the Terrace Walk and now the new Double Herbaceous Borders completed in 2006 by the National Trust. Individual or small groups of plants are repeated along the length and give structure in all seasons.
A recently completed project is the regeneration of the walled vegetable garden dating from 1723 – “a fusion of beauty and commodity”- complete with ingenious devices for scaring birds and moles.
Packwood is also the first National Trust property to install a water-source heat pump to provide heating and hot water for the house.
Thinktank Science Garden at Millennium Point
The Science Garden, the first of its kind in the UK, is a newcomer to the Birmingham scene, having opened in 2012 as part of the Thinktank – Birmingham Science Museum. Shortly it will also form part of the exciting Eastside City Park which is due to open in December 2012. This will be the first public park to be created in Birmingham for 130 years and is part of a regeneration project for this area which includes the development of a terminal for High Speed 2.
The Science Garden is great fun and full of hands-on – indeed body-on – structures designed to give direct experience of scientific principles and features of the Birmingham landscape and history. The Energise Sector demonstrates ways of generating energy with particular reference to Sarehole Mill and the more than 70 other watermills which once powered Birmingham; the Mechanise Sector shows the use of gears and lifting systems and allows you to operate a model of the lock gates on Birmingham’s canal system; and the Mobilise Sector demonstrates the use of wheels and propellers including the technology of the Spitfires constructed in Castle Bromwich in World War 2. The experiments get even the most non-scientific amongst us trying to explain how things work.
Winterbourne House and Garden
Winterbourne House and Garden are rare survivors in Birmingham from the Arts and Crafts period.
The most remarkable feature is the range of gardens within the Garden – reflecting the tastes of its Edwardian creators and subsequent role as Birmingham University Botanic Garden. Notable areas include the crinkle crankle Walled Garden – with mixed vegetable and flower planting; an Orchid House originally built to grow lichen and mosses for the British Antarctic Survey; and the Arid House which displays the nocturnal-flowering Queen of the Night plant which is pollinated by bats.
The Garden owes its creation to the Nettlefold family – then world leaders in wooden screw manufacture. The house owner, John Nettlefold, was one of the pioneers of town-planning, especially garden suburbs. His wife Margaret (nee Chamberlain) was responsible for the design of the Garden, inspired by the books and garden designs of Gertrude Jekyll with their geometric landscaping softened by planting and colour.
Despite its scientific function, the Grade II-listed garden is little altered from Margaret’s original design and retains many of its features. These include the shady retreat provided by the Nut Walk with its domed frame and original plantings from 1903; the Arts and Crafts Pergola edged with climbing roses and catmint; the Sandstone Rock Garden which takes advantage of five natural springs; the colour borders in themes of red, yellow, pink, blue and white; the Top Lawn once used for croquet, tennis and boules and a newly-restored Lime Walk.
Reflecting its scientific role, the Garden contains plants from all over the world – there’s a Mediterranean Bed along with Geographic Beds representing the zones of Europe, China, Japan, Australia and North America.
Winterbourne is also now home to Urban Veg, a new project which aims to encourage city dwellers to grow their own fruit and vegetables by offering classes, workshops and an extensive online library of GYO information.
After a very full tour, visitors can refresh themselves with excellent snacks and lunches – taken on the terrace or in the tea room.