Discover The Secret Garden film locations
Since it was published in 1910, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel The Secret Garden has bewitched generations of children and adults alike. In October 2020, Sky brought the tale to life once again with a star-studded film adaptation.
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 follows recently orphaned Mary Lennox, who is sent from colonial India to live with her uncle Archibald Craven at his isolated house, Misselthwaite Manor, on the Yorkshire moors. Unloved and prickly, Mary struggles to settle into her new life – until one day 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.
Creating the Secret Garden
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 sub-tropical dell and formal gardens strewn with Italianate follies. Adding to the magic were two of the gardens in our care: Bodnant Garden and Fountains Abbey.
Tucked away in the foothills of Snowdonia, Bodnant’s relatively remote setting meant this was the first time it had been used as a film 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.’
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 every May. ‘We were all on “laburnum watch” so we could let them know as soon as it started to flower,’ said 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 Fountains Hall 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’s the ancient abbey ruins that are the star of the show, 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.
" Filming in magical environments like these is wonderfully peaceful – a reminder of how dependent we are on nature, and vice versa."
Osterley Park, London
While the garden is the main focus of the story, the forbidding 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 in order to achieve the right look. However Osterley’s kitchens managed to fit the bill, and only needed a bit of set dressing to make them the perfect fit for Mr Craven’s manor.
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 horded furniture and objects,’ said Rosie. “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 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.’
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. It’s a truth that still resonates with us today, as Colin Firth (Archibald Craven) explains: ‘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.’
Much like Mary, we all need ‘a bit of earth’ – a space where we can see things growing, breathe the air, and feel rejuvenated. Thanks to location fees from films like The Secret Garden we can continue to care for these green spaces, and keep them open for everyone to experience the benefits that nature can provide.
This article was adapted from a feature in the National Trust Magazine Spring 2020 issue.