‘Can we go to Alton Towers? Please?’ Is there any request that strikes more gloom into the heart of a parent during the half-term holiday than that? The idea of spending an expensive day queuing for terrifying rides, in an environment of tacky, non-sustainable and old-fashioned consumerism, ensured that I steadfastly deprived my children of this ‘fun day out’ throughout their childhood.
‘Can we go to Alton Towers? Please?’ Is there any request that strikes more gloom into the heart of a parent during the half-term holiday than that? The idea of spending an expensive day queuing for terrifying rides, in an environment of tacky, non-sustainable and old-fashioned consumerism, ensured that I steadfastly deprived my children of this ‘fun day out’ throughout their childhood. I don’t regret it, except in one particular: Alton Towers in Staffordshire is a massive, neomedieval country house by Pugin, with a garden that still boasts broad lawns, lakes, mature ornamental trees and garden buildings of considerable splendour.
The house is now a shell, but much of the garden remains, far removed in space and time from the white-knuckle rides, the burger cafés and the candyfloss stands, and as peaceful as you could wish. The garden and grounds were laid out by Thomas Allason, the architect who designed Connaught Square; indeed, it retains its early Victorian ‘gardenesque’ style.
I spent a perfectly pleasant couple of hours in autumn in the Valley, which is densely planted with mature maples, conifers and rhododendrons, and boasts a fascinating, brilliantly painted Victorian Chinese pagoda rising from the lake at the bottom. To one side of the Valley is a run of magnificent, ornate if rather desolate conservatories of about 1820, designed by Robert Abraham.
On the day I visited, the topiary nearby was well clipped, the herbaceous borders colourful, and the annuals in containers as bright as jockeys’ silks, but the gardens still lacked allure. It was little surprise that they were empty, save for a few courting couples and the occasional parent, who had escaped from watching their children screaming and hanging upside-down on the Rita or Th13teen. All that most people ever see of the Valley, I imagine, are glimpses from the SkyRide cable car, which crosses over it 20 or 30 feet in the air.
Alton Towers has been a tourist attraction ever since the house was built in the 1830s. That is also true of Chatsworth in Derbyshire, incidentally, which is far from tacky, but certainly has elements of fun, developed (at least partly) to please garden visitors. Notable at Chatsworth are ‘the willow tree fountain’ that sprays unsuspecting passers-by with water, the shrubs clipped to look like bedroom furniture and the large and intricate yew maze.
In recent years, several other public gardens have actively sought to please children. The Enchanted Forest at Groombridge Place in Kent, for example, which was designed by Ivan Hicks, is a child’s idea of a fantastical paradise, full of monsters made out of wood or stone. At Burghley House in Lincolnshire, there is a very jolly Garden of Surprises, consisting of a series of enclosures from which it is impossible to emerge without being liberally splashed from ground jets or curtains of water.
The Alnwick Garden in Northumberland offers water on a much greater scale, with its three-tiered Grand Cascade, as well as William Pye’s astonishingly clever and beautiful, if rather crammed-together, group of eight aluminium water sculptures. Small children sit on green and yellow tractors, and scoop up water at the bottom of the Cascade. Thanks to the water, as well as to the Tree House and Walkway, Bamboo Labyrinth, Poison Garden and ‘Roots and Shoots’ education programme, the Alnwick Garden has proved a strong magnet for children in the north-east of England, as well as for the public and charitable money that tend to follow any garden project with an obvious educative element to it.
The problem with children-friendly gardens is that they can do a great job of putting off their elders, who visit them only if they have young who need to be entertained — and, in the case of Alton Towers and me, not even then. However, at Groombridge Place adults can avoid the Enchanted Forest completely, and while away a very enjoyable afternoon in the Formal Gardens, where much of The Draughtsman’s Contract was filmed. At Burghley, there is the Elizabethan house to visit, as well as the Capability Brown park, in which to enjoy a decent walk and dry off after the Garden of Surprises.
At Alnwick, at the top of the hill above the Grand Cascade, is a large, formally laid-out walled Ornamental Garden. I don’t believe you will find a higher standard of horticulture practised anywhere in the country, thanks to Trevor Jones, the head gardener, and his team, which includes three highly motivated horticultural students. Enormous care is taken with staking, pruning and training, and all the other intriguing jobs that gardeners love to see done properly. So, although there are features of the child-wooing playground about the Alnwick Garden, there is a fair bit of top-rate gardening for us grown-ups as well. Sadly, I should be surprised if Alton Towers ever followed suit.