The Paradise Gardens 2 © RHS Neil Hepworth
The Paradise Gardens 2 © RHS Neil Hepworth

RHS Bridgewater Is Officially Open!

We are delighted to see that RHS Garden Bridgewater has finally opened to the public – fantastic and long-awaited news after the coronavirus pandemic delayed its opening plans by almost a year.

Prior to the pandemic, we spoke to Dr Tim Upson, Director of Horticulture for the RHS, about this ambitious project and we want to share the interview with you as a 'sneak preview' of what to expect when you visit as part of our new RHS Garden Bridgewater & Gardens of the North West holiday.

The Paradise Garden - 4 © RHS Neil Hepworth

The Paradise Garden - 4 © RHS Neil Hepworth

What’s the process like for creating a brand new garden, from conception to realisation?

Exciting, fulfilling, exhausting, joyous, painstaking, and amazing.... all the superlatives in equal measure – with a lot of planning and encouraging great teamwork from staff and volunteers alike. On a recent visit, the other Garden Curators just said, “wow.” If I say that the creation of RHS Garden Bridgewater is the biggest gardening project in Europe, then that gives you an idea of the sheer size and scale of it. As well as having the overall concepts, garden designs, planting schemes, and so on to oversee, you also have to create the best arrival experience – such as ensuring access from the local area, parking, toilets, a welcoming coffee... the works! I can’t wait until we open the gates and can start sharing the beauty of what we have created.

What was the brief for RHS Bridgewater?

RHS Garden Bridgewater is the fifth RHS garden in the country. As a charity that has at its heart the aim of sharing the best in gardening, we have always been keen to find a garden in the North West of England, as it gives us a much greater geographical spread. At 154 acres, RHS Garden Bridgwater will bring a sizeable patch of world-class horticulture to within an hour’s drive of 8.2 million people in the region, bringing significant benefits to both people and the environment. Themes such as inclusion and wellbeing, and making the garden accessible to local communities have been at the core of the garden’s concept and are intrinsic to what we do as a charity – they will form a key part of any visit.

Set in the grounds of the former Worsley New Hall, once the residence of the First Earl of Ellesmere, the garden is named after the historic Bridgewater Canal, which runs along the southern end of the site. Although the mansion no longer exists, echoes of the original garden ­­– including the historic walled garden, ice house, lake, and formal terraces remain – so, whilst taking inspiration from the past, we are creating a new garden around the bones of this historic landscape.

The overall vision for the garden – the master plan was created by leading landscape architect Tom Stuart Smith – was to incorporate these historic aspects, but also to create new gardens and push the boundaries of what can be grown in the region, trialling new horticultural ideas. We want to capture the spirit of the original garden, while at the same time creating an important, forward-looking source of knowledge and inspiration for gardeners across the North West.

Highlights will include the restored 11-acre Weston Walled Garden, one of the largest walled gardens in the country. This will encompass several large gardens within it, including a Wellbeing Garden, Orchard Garden and a Bee and Butterfly Garden. There is also a Paradise Garden at its centre, inspired by the original gardens from the Middle East – an enclosed space with water and fruit that forms an oasis away from the challenges and tribulations of everyday life.

Various garden designers have been brought on board to create the individual aspects. RHS Chelsea Flower Show award-winning designers Charlotte Harris and Hugo Bugg have created a stunning Kitchen Garden, the Learning Garden has been designed by students from Manchester Metropolitan University, and the Chinese Streamside Garden has been created in partnership with the local Chinese community. This will feature various zones and themes, including a Chinese inspired meadow, various bridges, stepping stones, and a ‘barefoot route’, from which people can explore the garden from a totally different perspective.

The Paradise Garden - 2 © RHS Mark Waugh

The Paradise Garden - 2 © RHS Mark Waugh

How closely have the gardeners been able to follow the brief, and what were the challenges faced?

With something of this size and scale, there will always be challenges. A garden is a space that will grow and evolve over time, so you have to incorporate some flexibility into your planning. Sometimes, the most challenging scenarios have unexpectedly simple solutions.  Bringing formerly derelict land up to the conditions we need for planting the various gardens was a huge job in itself. But, by using a small herd of rare breed Berkshire pigs, who are remarkably efficient at turning the soil, we lightened this load in an environmentally friendly manner. It was a real win-win... and the pigs proved very popular!

The Victorian practice of using arsenic to kill pests also meant we had to dig out and move soil around the Weston Walled Garden. It doesn’t affect plant growth, but the levels are too high to be able to eat any of the edible crops. The team are really keen to manage the Walled Garden organically in the future. Our construction company AE Yates then built over 3km of pathways, 1.5km of drainage and irrigation, and a 70m2 water feature there, as well as hundreds of planting beds. In all, we moved a monumental 35,000 cubic metres of soil, sub-soil and spoil around the Weston Walled Garden, and we are planting nearly 100,000 plants plus 500 trees! This is gardening on a massive scale, with all the rewards and challenges that brings.

What plants and trees were selected for RHS Bridgewater, and what’s the significance of the plantings there?

Each area has its own story behind the planting themes, which are significant in different ways. The Kitchen Garden, which is a key element of the master plan, is a good example. The design concept and navigation of the garden is inspired by the local underground network of waterways servicing the former coal mines that powered the city’s Industrial Revolution, and the layout is influenced by the historic field network of the surrounding countryside. The horticulture of this garden will combine beautiful planting with practical ideas to inspire visitors to grow their own at home.

Within the garden, three interdependent spaces are being created – the Permaculture Garden, the Classic Fruit and Vegetable Garden, and also the Ornamental Productive Garden. These spaces will be unified by the restored Victorian walls, against which a wide-ranging collection of fruit trees and climbing plants will be trained, celebrating the craft of the master-pruner.

Critically, every plant in the garden is chosen not just for the way it looks, but for wider considerations, such as functionality, habitat diversity and wildlife. For example, the orchard will include 37 varieties of heritage apple trees, becoming the first ‘mother orchard’ for the North West. The Garden Cottage will be surrounded by bee and butterfly borders, inspired by the RHS Plants for Pollinators scheme, providing year-round interest for pollinators. And the Learning Garden builds on the idea of plants as machines, so it will feature plants that will help to teach all ages about the nature of plants and how they work.

Greenhouse in The Paradise Garden © RHS Mark Waugh

Greenhouse in The Paradise Garden © RHS Mark Waugh

On the website, it mentions that the project should help maximise benefits for local communities. How will this work?

Working with, supporting and providing facilities for the local community are aims that have been at the core of the RHS Bridgewater vision from the outset. The project will create over 140 jobs in the garden and a further 180 in the local economy by 2029. There are also apprenticeships, partnerships with schools and local colleges, and community gardening projects across the region that will all benefit. Estimates have put the initial direct investment of £30m into the local economy by 2023, adding £13.8m pa to the local economy by 2029.

A key focus of RHS Bridgewater will be health and wellbeing. The Wellbeing Garden, which will feature circular paths and reflective spaces suitable for activities such as yoga, nature watching and meditation, is a key space for this activity. But across the garden as a whole, this vision is being brought to fruition through partnerships with local universities, GPs, hospitals, and social services to research and share the health and wellbeing benefits of gardening. RHS Bridgewater is already the focus of an innovative social prescribing programme. With Innovation Funding from Salford Primary Care, around 75 individuals are having the chance to improve their health by volunteering and gardening at Bridgewater, many of them playing a role in the garden’s creation. Social prescribing has already started and while the main garden is still under construction, it was inspiring to see a wonderful small garden had already been created behind our volunteer hub – a quiet and relaxing space away from all the diggers and machinery.    

The Paradise Garden - 1 © RHS Neil Hepworth

The Paradise Garden - 1 © RHS Neil Hepworth

Can you tell us a bit about the heritage orchard?

The Orchard Garden has been designed as a collaboration between curator Marcus Chilton-Jones and local landscape architect firm Gillespie’s, working with local apple enthusiasts. It will be the largest of the 11 gardens within the majestic eleven-acre Weston Walled Garden, created on the site of original orchard which existed at Worsley New Hall in the 1840s. With more of a naturalistic feel than the adjoining gardens, it will come as a contrast, offering a more traditional, relaxing space that helps to connect horticulture with the surrounding countryside.

Planting-wise, it will feature a mix of apple, plum, pear, cherry, and damson trees, as well as soft fruits, echoing traditional orchards with trees grouped naturalistically around the garden rather than in regimented rows. The mixed planting will encourage wildlife biodiversity and a highlight will be the unusual varieties of heritage apple and pear trees, keeping rare cultivars alive. As well as casting a light on Victorian tastes, many have gone out of fashion as although they might taste delicious, they have shorter shelf-lives - it will also fulfil a vital role, propagating and protecting endangered species for future generations. We propagated some of the few remaining pears on site, so these new young and vigorous trees will conserve a link to the garden’s heritage. The focal point of the garden will be the Garden Cottage, the distinctive Gothic-style cottage built for Worsley New Hall’s gardener back in 1834.

What has been the hardest thing so far about creating the garden, and the most rewarding?

The two things are closely linked. As a charity, we have to rely on fundraising for all that we do. RHS Garden Bridgewater is no exception. We have these amazing plans that reflect the wide-ranging work the RHS now undertakes and a fantastic vision for the garden, and we know just how much it will benefit so many people on so many different levels. This includes the local community in terms of jobs, regeneration, making gardens and gardening more accessible, and the joys of the beautiful Wellbeing Garden; also environmentally – with the protection of rare species and encouragement of pollinators, but also for garden lovers coming to visit from around the country, and even around the world. But, none of this is possible without the generous contributions from our supporters and members. We’re on a final drive to raise the £4.8 million to ensure everything is on track at the garden, so any support is most gratefully received!

 

The Paradise Garden - 5 © RHS Neil Hepworth

The Paradise Garden - 5 © RHS Neil Hepworth

The Chinese Streamside Garden © RHS Mark Waugh

The Chinese Streamside Garden © RHS Mark Waugh


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RHS Bridgewater Is Officially Open! was published on 14 May 2021

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