The Gardens of Brodsworth Hall: Intensely personal, endlessly original, deeply quirky — and enormous fun

In the hands of English Heritage, the care and restoration of the striking mid-19th-century garden of Brodsworth Hall, South Yorkshire, is producing truly impressive results, writes Tiffany Daneff. Photographs by Clive Nichols.

The first thing that seizes the attention of the visitor to the 15 acres of gardens at Brodsworth Hall near Doncaster is the population of individual topiary pieces that line up along the left-hand side of the drive. Domes, pillars and mounds of a mixed selection of evergreens are clipped into an entertaining crowd of varied heights and girths against the calm dark backdrop of the seemingly endless yew boundary hedge. It is a scene you might expect to find in an Italian garden.

This impression is confirmed as one approaches the main south front of the house, an imposing white ashlar limestone building in the Italianate style of the mid 1860s. House and grounds are a perfect complement of Italianate green architecture and are linked by formal terraces with three staircases decorated by marble urns and recumbent — probably Italian — greyhounds acquired by the Italian sculptor Chevalier G. M. Casentini.

If this all feels rather unlikely in Yorkshire, that is because it reflects the taste of one man, Charles Sabine Augustus Thellusson, who came into an extraordinary inheritance in 1858 and devoted much of it to creating the hall and its gardens in his own personal style.

The grotto, or fern dell, with stepping stones in the river of gravel. Next for restoration will be removal of the ivy that blocks from the view from the path. Brodsworth Hall, South Yorkshire. ©Clive Nichols.

‘Today, he would be an oligarch,’ says Michael Klemperer, senior gardens advisor for the North and Midlands regions at English Heritage (EH), which now looks after house and gardens. ‘The money he received from the will was £700,000, which, with interest, equates to £140 million today.’ With the cash came the estate that had belonged to his great-grandfather Peter Thellusson, a Swiss financier, who had moved to London in 1760 and built up a fortune as a merchant and banker.

Recommended videos for you

Charles Thellusson was an avid traveller, sailor and photographer. ‘He was a big, robust Victorian gentleman, a patrician walrus,’ notes Dr Klemperer, who sees Brodsworth as representing a transition between Continental styles and the Victorian era. ‘It is a garden that is interesting on a number of levels,’ he adds, citing influences as varied as Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840) and Blackpool pier.

For the biggest surprises at Brodsworth are yet to come. Indeed, they are wholly hidden from the house as one looks across the square lawns, where the Brodsworth croquet team is busy roqueting its opponents just as the Thellussons and their friends would have done. Tennis nets were set up on the lawns, which, as were the rest of the grounds, were designed to be actively enjoyed. Those, watching the games from the sidelines would have been able to stretch their legs in the Fountain Garden.

The south terrace below the house, with the marble greyhounds and the summer house in the background. Brodsworth Hall, South Yorkshire. ©Clive Nichols.

Thanks to the major restoration work undertaken by EH in the 1990s, this highly formal rectangular garden is once again brimming with 24,000 bedding plants and 7,000 bulbs, although the planting is changed only twice a year these days. Head gardener Dan Hale, who joined Brodsworth in 2015, has six gardeners on the team — and 45 volunteers. That is nothing, however, to match the Victorian complement of 26 gardeners, who changed the bedding four times a year.

Since joining Brodsworth, Mr Hale has looked after the gardens as if they were his own. The beds are fed with plenty of organic matter and generously mounded, in keeping with the 1860s — the lodestone decade for the 1990s restoration — are restricted to a gentler palette of colours than Victorian tastes demanded.

When the Georgian hall was demolished in the 1860s, the old roof tiles were re-used to make the paths in the Target Garden. ©Brodsworth/English Heritage

Under Mr Hale’s guidance, the 1,000 individual examples of topiary are increasingly clipped by hand, which lends a human touch to the wide topiary beds that border three sides of this garden. The fourth side would once have matched the others, but is currently left to grass under a stand of Scots pine, as orchids and other wildflowers have naturalised themselves on the magnesian limestone ridge on which the estate stands.

This Fountain Garden with its central three-tiered marble fountain by Casentini marks the end of the formal garden and the start of the pleasure gardens, where paths entice one to explore and in their meanderings through woodlands, rocky outcrops and ferny grottos create an impression of a garden much larger than it actually is. Once again, the enthusiasms of its owner underpin the design that was overseen by Thellusson and made by his head gardener Samuel Taylor and his team. It was an extraordinary achievement and must have thrilled his guests, particularly at night when the paths were lit by gas lamps.

The Target Garden, with, at the far end, the Target House given a Swiss-chalet finish in the 1860s. Brodsworth Hall, South Yorkshire. ©Clive Nichols.

Quarrying for limestone, from which the hall was built, created a significant depression, out of which a rare terraced fernery was constructed on one side. Pteridomania, a neologism coined by Charles Kingsley, described the fern-collecting craze that was sweeping the country at the time. Naturally, Thellusson wanted his Grotto (now known as the Fern Dell) to be the biggest and best. On the other side of the path rise two mounds, the first of which is topped with a stone Summer House. Tucked out of sight behind in a wooded grove is a Pets’ Cemetery where, among those for the family dogs, is a headstone for Polly Parrot (1919–45). On the second mound is a stone Eyecatcher that forms the southern end of the 175-yard long Target Garden, once an archery range, for a sport very popular with young Victorian ladies.

Whether the quarry was sited to create the pleasure gardens or whether the depression and spoil heaps were simply a way to beautify the damage caused by quarrying is not known. The finished gardens, however, viewed from the small bridge on the raised pathway, were clearly intended to induce gasps of admiration — and still do. Surely, as Dr Klemperer suggests, visitors experience that same sense of fun today as they lean over the post and chain fence to look down at the cascade that tumbles down to the bottom of the fern grotto as would have been felt when Blackpool’s Northern Pier opened in 1863. Further spoil from the quarry was heaped up in a long ridge known as the Spine Bank, planted with conifers and pines to create more drama and, suggests Dr Klemperer, nods to the pines and rocky grottos beloved of Friedrich.

Beds of topiary shrubs, cedars and sculptures separate the formal lawns, where the Thellusons played tennis and croquet, from the pleasure grounds. Brodsworth Hall, South Yorkshire. ©Clive Nichols.

The 1990s restoration had cleared the rubble in the overgrown terraces of the Fern Dell, which was replanted with ferns, enhanced in 2000 by the gift of an important collection of ferns donated by the widow of Wing Cmdr Eric Baker. Since then, several of the mature beeches that once provided shade for the ferns have died. Mr Hale has planted new specimens, adding Judas trees and Chusan palms to act as a canopy as they grow, as well as introducing new ferns. Also planned is the clearance of the ivy that strangles the iron posts and clusters around the chains on the bridge, spoiling that key view.

Decades of unchecked growth allowed ivy to conquer much ground, but Mr Hale has it in his sights. Over the winter of 2019/20, the team tackled the steep bank below the Eye-catcher. ‘It was covered in 6ft of ivy and weeds, which we hand dug out between October and March. The bank was top-dressed too,’ he says, conveying nothing of the battle that must have taken place if the ivy elsewhere is anything to go by. The banks have been planted with native ferns (broad buckler, golden male, hart’s tongue and oak ferns), together with Iris foetidissima and lily of the valley.

The restored Eyecatcher, where 6ft of ivy was cleared from the bank below before it was replanted with ferns and evergreens. Brodsworth Hall, South Yorkshire. ©Clive Nichols.

More recently, Mr Hale and his team have turned their hands to making improvements in the Target Garden. The 1880s tapestry-style mosaic flowerbeds have been revealed and replanted and the original paths uncovered, at which point it became clear that they had been made using roof tiles salvaged from the demolished Georgian hall. Definition and light has been created by crown-lifting the trees and introducing a shrubbery in front of the open rockwork that forms the boundary wall.

At the far end of the long grass walk that served as the target range stands what at first glance appears to be a Swiss chalet. In another example of Mr Thellusson’s nod to his European origins, the original mid-18th-century stone building was given, in 1866, an overhanging roof made from bargeboards. The roof has been restored using red cedar, which was hand-carved on site and rests on new ash timbers from the estate.

Thanks to the team at Brodsworth, the restoration has been entirely sympathetic to the 1860s, a period often thought of in garden design terms as being unfashionable. Yet, somehow, that makes this intensely personal and original garden all the more appealing. Not least because by the time that Thellusson built his home and furnished his garden, he was already slightly behind the curve.

Brodsworth Hall, South Yorkshire, is open to visitors —

Pettifers: The breathtaking Oxfordshire garden born from the impeccable instincts of Gina Price

An Oxfordshire garden famous for its high summer and autumn borders sparkles with just as much interest and invention earlier

Birkhall: The home of The Prince of Wales on the Balmoral estate, Aberdeenshire

Alan Titchmarsh explores the garden of Birkhall, The Prince of Wales's Scottish home on the Balmoral estate.