Tucked away behind tall stone walls on the A591 between Ambleside and Grasmere is Rydal Hall. Describing itself as ‘The Christian Centre at the heart of the English Lake District’, this beautiful house and its surrounding gardens, woodland and water courses is one of the most serene and lovely places imaginable. It’s somewhere I like to go on my own from time to time when I feel the need to recharge my batteries and just relax. I have never been inside the house, but I’ve spent many hours doing nothing much in the Hall’s outdoor spaces. The main reason why, for me, Rydal Hall is such a sanctuary is because it is so quiet. Even at the height of summer it is sometimes possible to sit undisturbed in one of several gardens, savouring the stillness and peace. Outside of the Christian communities who use the venue for conferences and retreats, Rydal Hall is one of the Lake District’s ‘best kept secrets’. The Diocese of Carlisle very kindly opens the garden gates to all. A perfect place for weary limbs and a tired mind, this green space soothes, inspires, excites and invigorates.
Relax for a short while and walk with me in a one of my favourite places…………..
First stop, the formal gardens. Symmetrical, sculptured and taking inspiration from Italianate architecture, the formal garden is a grand design. Situated in front of the house, it was created in 1911 by the celebrated landscape architect, Thomas Hayton Mawson. The garden was designed with the main focus being the views from inside the Hall, in particular from the grand staircase in the home of the Edwardian generation of the Le Fleming family whose ancient forebears first occupied the land. Beautifully kept and with some interesting nooks, crannies and novelty features, the formal garden in its elevated position is also a great spot from which to look out over the surrounding countryside. Nab Scar in the distance provides a wonderful contrast against the formal lawns and the concrete pillars. I like to spend some time appreciating the beauty and the fragrance of the magnolia as it climbs the pagoda.
Let’s move on now, making our way through the iron gate and down the steps, crossing the path into the wild and wonderful quiet garden.
In parts overgrown, this place celebrates nature. In complete contrast to the precision of the formal gardens, here there is a feeling of being in a little wilderness; a real secret garden. Grasses have been left to grow undisturbed; giant ferns line the pathways and wild flowers adorn untouched corners to the delight of grateful feasting bees. That this part of Rydal estate is as carefully contrived as the rest does not diminish from the delightful illusion.
Our senses are engaged here. The colour palette of Mother Nature dazzles our eyes, as does the stunning art work which takes us by surprise as we turn around every corner. Animal representations painted on wood hang from branches like talismans, reminders of a natural habitat shared with other lives. Sculptures stand like sentinels, obscured behind giant plants. We can hear the beck gently trickle nearby, though beyond is the sound of a waterfall. Let’s go there………
Crossing the little beck, it seems as though we have come to the end of the path. Lambs in a neighbouring field catch sight of us through a space between the trees and view us with slight suspicion but seem to decide we’re no threat and carry on grazing. We can definitely here the tumbling water not too far away. Suddenly, there is a fork in the pathway which can’t be seen until you’re almost upon it. This leads to a tunnel which brings us out at the side of the beck. The water is crystal clear as it flows over the stony river bed; very tempting on a hot day to have a paddle. Here there is an interesting wooden building, ‘the grot’ dating back to the 18th century when it was added to this carefully selected spot to enable the family and their visitors to enjoy the view of the impressive cascade.
Numerous artists, including John Constable, have committed the scene to canvas. I feel lucky to be here savouring this location. Looking up above the majestic spray I can see the stone bridge and am reminded that the tea room is there. Shall we go up?
Back the way we came and exiting through another wrought iron gate, we find ourselves at the former school room which has been transformed into a pretty little café. We can’t buy a meal here but there are some delicious cakes and beverages and a cosy corner next to the wood burner. Looking through the window I smile at the colourful animal sculptures outside and next my attention is drawn to the purple felt butterfly with its sparkly wings encrusted with tiny pieces of mirror. The woodland lies ahead.
The path into the woods leads us up a gentle slope, firm under foot today, but quite slippery when the autumn leaves have fallen and turned to mulch. One of the things I like best about this part of the grounds is that I never quite know what to expect. Serving as an outdoor art gallery, Rydal Hall wood plays host to various artists at different times, who use the space innovatively to show off their creations, mostly sculpture and fun installations. I’m fascinated by the textiles I see woven between the branches and wrapped around the tree trunks. The place looks magical. Batik, crochet work, woven fibres adorn nature. Here, colours and textures are vibrant and invite touch.
A little way further on and we find ourselves alongside the upper beck. We can sit for a while and listen to the flow of the water over the stones before we return to our lives, all the better for having spent time in Rydal gardens.