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The Secret Garden filming locations

Dixie Egerickx as orphan Mary Lennox filming at Fountains Abbey for The Secret Garden
Dixie Egerickx as orphan Mary Lennox filming at Fountains Abbey for The Secret Garden | © 2020 Studiocanal SAS, all rights reserved

Based on the classic 1910 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the 2020 Sky Original adaptation of The Secret Garden breathed new life into the tale. From a sunken temple to a canopy of cascading yellow flowers, discover how places in our care proved to be the perfect settings for the retelling of this evergreen children’s classic.

The story of The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden tells the story of recently orphaned Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx), a 10-year-old girl sent to live with her uncle Archibald Craven (Colin Firth), under the watchful eye of Mrs Medlock (Julie Walters). The film is set in 1940s England at Misselthwaite Manor, a remote country estate deep in the Yorkshire moors.

Mary struggles to settle into her new life, until one day while exploring the grounds she stumbles across a hidden door to a neglected garden. As she sets about restoring the garden, helped by her friend Dickon and frail cousin Colin, both the children and the garden begin to blossom.

Filming locations

As this adaptation is set just after the Second World War, the filmmakers decided to steer away from the Edwardian walled garden of the novel. ‘We wanted to create something that you’d find in a child’s imagination, like entering another world,’ said supervising locations manager, Tom Howard.

To achieve this sense of vastness and variety they decided to use five separate gardens: combining gnarled, fantasy-like woods with a subtropical dell and formal gardens strewn with Italianate follies. Adding to the magic were two gardens we look after: Bodnant Garden and Fountains Abbey. The filmmakers also drew inspiration from Osterley Park and Calke Abbey for interior shots.

The Laburnum Arch with its distinctive yellow flowers in early June at Bodnant Garden, in North Wales
The Laburnum Arch in early June at Bodnant Garden | © National Trust Images / Joe Wainwright

Bodnant Garden, Conwy

For two exciting weeks in July 2018, Bodnant was transformed into a movie set, with staff bound to silence about the cameras, wind turbines, drones and trailers that swept into the garden.

Tucked away in the foothills of Snowdonia, Bodnant’s relatively remote setting meant this was the first time it had been used as a major filming location, but it proved to be well worth the journey for the crew.

‘We fell in love with Bodnant for its idyllic valley and running stream surrounded by flowers,’ explained producer Rosie Alison. ‘There was nothing else equal to it.’

Adapting Bodnant Garden for filming

The stream was used for a scene where the children go swimming, so the garden team built a temporary dam to make the water deeper.

‘We also had to prune a few branches and remove some herbaceous planting, but nothing major or permanent,’ said senior gardener Merlin Townsend. ‘Looking after the garden was our main priority, and the filmmakers were very respectful of that.’

The crew were also able to capture shots of Bodnant’s famous 55-metre-long Laburnum Arch, which bursts into a cascade of yellow blooms for about two weeks during late May. ‘We were all on “laburnum watch” so we could let them know as soon as it started to flower,’ added Merlin.

Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire

Fountains Abbey has old ties with The Secret Garden, having also been used as a location for the 1993 film adaptation. In that version, it was used as the exterior of Misselthwaite Manor, while a small, gated doorway just opposite became the hidden entrance into the garden.

This time it was the ancient abbey ruins that were used, having been transformed into a sunken temple complete with vine-covered walls.

The crew constructed temporary pools which allowed them to cover the ground with water for the children to splash around in, while still protecting the historic site.

Osterley Park, London

While the garden is the focus of the story, Misselthwaite Manor also looms large in the lives of Mary and all those around her.

The filmmakers had a clear vision for their interpretation of Misselthwaite, and in the end many of the interiors had to be built from scratch to achieve the right look.

Osterley Park’s kitchens however managed to fit the bill, and only needed a bit of set dressing to make them the perfect fit for Archibald Craven’s manor.

Character of Colin sits in a wheelchair looking at the garden, with character of Dickon and Fountains Abbey ruins behind him, for the film The Secret Garden
Colin and Dickon in the ruins at Fountains Abbey for The Secret Garden (2020) | © 2020 StudioCanal SAS, all rights reserved

Calke Abbey, Derbyshire

Although Calke Abbey wasn’t used for the filming, the interiors of the house became a key inspiration for the crew after they paid a visit during their search for locations.

‘Calke is known as “the house that time forgot” and it’s full of hoarded furniture and objects,’ said producer Rosie Alison. ’There’s a real sense of lost generations, and we wanted to re-create that atmosphere for Misselthwaite.’

The healing power of nature

For the actors, working on location was a key part of the filming experience. ‘Being surrounded by nature is far more sensory than being in a studio,’ said actor Dixie Egerickx (Mary Lennox).

‘When you can hear the birdsong, and smell the flowers and feel the grass, it's much easier to believe that you’re actually in the story you’re telling.’

Connecting to the natural surroundings

This sense of connection to nature is central to The Secret Garden – represented by the garden’s power to heal and regenerate the characters who encounter it.

Whether it’s the stillness, the scents or the colours, spending time in the natural world is certainly restorative and wonderfully peaceful – a reminder of how dependent we are on nature, and vice versa.

- Colin Firth, Actor

Caring for green spaces

Like Mary who needed ‘a bit of earth’, it’s important to have a space to see things grow, breathe the air, and feel rejuvenated.

Thanks to location fees from films like The Secret Garden, the Trust can continue to care for green spaces, and keep them open for everyone, for ever, to experience the benefits that nature can provide.

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