Gardens behind the scenes: looking after Tyntesfield in winter
Ever wondered how we keep our gardens at their best throughout the seasons? Follow our four-part series to discover the important conservation and horticultural work that happens behind the scenes. This year, we’re shining a light on the extraordinary Victorian garden at Tyntesfield in Somerset, and meeting the experts and volunteers responsible for its care.
As winter descends on Tyntesfield, the formal structure of the garden comes into sharper view. The dark shapes of yew, tightly clipped hollies with their pin-cushion heads and evergreens in the arboretum take centre stage. On cold, wet days the working garden buildings, full of Victorian gardening paraphernalia, are a fascinating place to explore and the Orangery is a warm refuge. Throughout the house and across the garden and estate, Christmas garlands, floral displays, wreaths and decorated trees add festive cheer.
Just seven miles from the centre of Bristol, yet a world apart, Tyntesfield nestles in a tranquil landscape overlooking the Yeo valley. In 1863, William Gibbs rebuilt the house in the fashionable Gothic Revival style, employing leading craftsmen and designers to decorate and furnish its interiors. Outside, formal terraces and topiary-lined walks, an arboretum for rare trees and a rose garden were created. The extensive kitchen garden, its glasshouses and the impressive neo-classical orangery were added by William’s son, Antony.
Tyntesfield was saved for the nation in 2002 through public donations, and contributions from the Heritage Memorial Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund.
" The old cedar of Lebanon, planted in 1858, is one of my favourites. You can see it clearly when standing on the terrace."
Evergreens come into their own
Much thought went into the placing of trees in the garden and winter is the ideal time to step back and admire the conifers and other evergreens with their contrasting colours and shapes. Three formal walks, lined with neatly clipped evergreens, run across the garden and can be enjoyed just as they were by the Gibbs family and their friends 150 years ago.
A young Monkey Puzzle tree, planted in a bed below the Irish Yew Walk to replace one that was lost, creates a sculptural centrepiece and a significant collection of hollies spread throughout the garden includes some unnamed varieties. These were probably bought as seedlings from Victorian nurseries by former gardeners or members of the Gibbs family. A Wollemi Pine, added to the arboretum in 2010, continues the tradition of planting new introductions. Although only discovered in Australia in 1994, it's one of the oldest plants in the world, dating back to the time of the dinosaurs. The gardeners are watching with interest to see how it matures in our British climate.
Labelled with love
One of the most notable discoveries in the garden at Tyntesfield was a collection of 19th- and 20th-century plant labels. These were found by the gardeners in boxes in tool stores, in the main house, in situ next to plants and even buried in holes where the original specimen had long since vanished. The diversity of label type is as wide as the plants they once belonged to, providing a fascinating insight into the plant collecting interests of four generations of the Gibbs family.
Some labels reflect the family’s religious beliefs and the importance of biblical plants to them, such as the label for the cedar of Lebanon, raised from seed and brought back from Lebanon by William Gibbs’s nephew, John Lomas Gibbs, in the 1850s. Provenance like this is valuable and this cedar, still growing strong, has recently been propagated from cuttings at the National Trust's Plant Conservation Centre to retain the original gene pool. Labels have also helped in identifying trees that were inadvertently miscatalogued. What was thought to be a giant Lawson's cypress turned out to be a dwarf conifer when its original label was discovered, deeply buried at the base of its trunk.
" Around 25 labels carry the date 1892. It would be fascinating to uncover what event this might have commemorated."
Ghosts from the past
One of the most distinctive characteristics of the garden at Tyntesfield is the range of Victorian buildings which survive intact, from the impressive glasshouses to a once state-of-the-art boiler house. There are tool and machine sheds, a weighing and packing room, and an apple store and potting shed, still being used today. Inside are a treasure of Victorian objects, from a rain gauge and vine rack to wooden packing boxes and seed trays. There is a large, estate-made hoe that is still put to good use in the kitchen garden and fragments of old terracotta pots have been used to help reconstruct replica pots to the same design.
The original Head Gardener's office, complete with his desk and stool and overlooking the garden, evokes the feeling that he’s just walked out and ghosts of former gardeners resonate in their writing on the door dividing the apple store and weighing room. Some date back to 1905 and alongside their names, they recorded the weights and type of produce they were growing. Gooseberries, peas and strawberries feature heavily.
Festive foliage and flowers
Decorating the house and garden for the festive season is a huge undertaking, involving all the staff and volunteers. Bucketfuls of foliage are needed from the garden. Portugal laurel, box, yew, mixed spruces and firs, trailing ivy and silver-backed eleagnus, alongside beech, butcher’s broom and rosemary are harvested. During the summer months flowers are picked and hung in the potting shed to dry. Sprays of white German statice (Limonium tataricum), hydrangea flower heads and impressive cardoons, are all used for winter flower arranging in the house.
The fifteen yews along the main entrance drive are decorated with red ribbons made out of recycled air balloon material. Fresh Christmas trees are displayed around the estate, including a large tree in the main hall. Everything can be enjoyed until after twelfth night, when the trees are chipped and composted and the decorations are saved for next year.