Earlier in the summer I made a long overdue visit to the Royal Horticultural Society’s most recently established garden site at Worsley, Greater Manchester. RHS Bridgewater opened in July 2021, delayed by the pandemic. Admission has from the start been through online booking only and, unsurprisingly, the weeks and months after the grand opening were very busy. With the colder months not being the best time to see the gardens at their finest, I decided to wait until this summer.
Bridgewater is the fifth of the RHS’ ‘gardens. It was developed on the site of Worsley New Hall, a Victorian manor house built in the 1840s for the 1st Earl of Ellesmere and demolished only a hundred years later. The magnificent formal gardens were landscaped over a 50-year period by William Andrews Nesfield, one of the most sought-after landscape designers of the period. The154 acre site included gravel pathways, formal gardens, fountains, croquet lawn and tennis court, formal gardens, an impressive 11-acres of walled kitchen gardens and a woodland; all of these elements have been included within the new project, some restored as faithfully as possible and others reimagined for the modern era.
Worsley New Hall became a British Red Cross hospital during the First World War, after which time both the hall and the gardens fell into decline. In the Second World War parts of the hall were requisitioned for military use, the gardens used as training grounds by the Lancashire Fusiliers.
During the early 20th century the hall fell further into disrepair until in 1943, this once-grand building was finally demolished by a scrap merchant, who had bought it for just £2,500. In subsequent years parts of the grounds were used as a garden centre amongst other things. It seems incredible that a property costing over £6,000,000 to build in today’s money should endure for such a very short time.
Admission is through the welcome centre, a spacious, elegant but simple ‘Scandi’-style building, including a shop, cafe and small garden centre which offers some of the more prolific plants in use in the gardens; helpful signage reminds customers of where they will have seen each plant, useful for anybody who might wish to recreate a similar garden at home.
The day of our visit was dull and started with light rain which, thankfully, cleared up by midday. It being August, some of the spring and early summer flowers had already ‘gone over’ and a few areas looked a little bare. We were surprised that some plants which will flower into autumn if regularly ‘dead-headed’ seemed to have been left to go to seed. On a site of such proportions, attention to detail will obviously be very time-consuming, yet it seemed a shame that a potentially longer flowering season might be lost.
Designed by landscape architect Tom Stuart-Smith, the Worlsey Welcome Garden includes some interesting structural elements, both flowering and edible, including apple trees and artichokes. Apparently, this garden ‘resembles an abstract mosaic and gives the impression of a giraffe’s markings or mathematical Voronoi diagram when viewed from above’, though I’m not sure who would be viewing from that angle except possibly via Google-Earth or a hot air balloon. I enjoyed this area, cleverly structured and informally unruly at the same time. I think it would have looked even better earlier in the summer.
We stopped off for cake and a cup of tea at the cafe/restaurant converted from the former stables. Service and food were excellent and the courtyard cafe a relaxing spot to peruse the site map and plan our next destination.
Even under a cloudy grey sky, the paradise garden looked beautiful. Also designed by Tom Stuart-Smith, the Bridgewater version differs from the classic Islamic paradise garden design in that the water feature – in this case, the lily pool – is surrounded by three distinct planting zones, not the traditional four. Planting within the three zones is from different parts of the globe – another variation on the classic style- to achieve a more multi-cultural feel. This was our favourite spot and we spent a couple of hours in total, just relaxing. Taking photos was a challenge, hence the limited selection here; the place was very busy, especially later ion the day.
RHS Bridgewater is a centre for horticultural learning and is undertaking trials involving various species of hydrangeas planted out in the old frame yard area.
Winding paths lead to one of the most beautiful areas of the site, the Chinese streamside garden which is on several levels though fully accessible (as is the entire site). The weather had become close by this time and the water fall and pool looked deliciously inviting.
The site includes acres of woodland and paths for further exploration and I was pleasantly surprised to find that far from this just being a show garden, it was a place where one could easily spend the whole day. For the first year of opening, locals were allowed free admission on Tuesdays, by way of a thank you for the disruption created during the site development. Lucky them!
Ellesmere lake is at the furthest end of the gardens developed to date and borders on the wooded areas where a lot of trekkers were headed. As we were there for a chill out rather than a work out, we retreated to follow another pathway through the wildest part of the site, the meadowlands.
For non RHS members, admission is £12, no doubt to encourage membership of this charitable organisation, thereby supporting its work. It’s not cheap but well worth an occasional visit to see the site at different times of the year. There is much more to see than is included in this short blog and hopefully there will be more to come as further development is planned. I’m looking forward to going back in spring, hopefully to enjoy an entirely new scenery.
It’s nice to see your take on this place especially as I was there myself just over a week ago. It was the first time I’d visited and I was very impressed with most of it though a few spots did seem to be a little unkempt. I wasn’t impressed with the cafe prices though – £4 just for a cupcake is ridiculous so I didn’t bother. Heaven knows what price an actual meal is! I got loads of blogworthy photos though and I’ll certainly go back another time.
I agree that the cafe was a bit pricey, but for us it was part of the experience and in fitting with the venue. Our hot drinks were priced comparably to well-known high street chains, but superior in quality and served in beautiful glazed earthenware teapots with matching cups and saucers, so much more pleasurable than a plain white mug or even a paper cup. Similarly, the little cobbled courtyard was spotless, really pretty and the staff were friendly and attentive. We felt it was worth paying that bit extra for a little luxury, especially as RHS is a charitable organisation and profits go towards maintaining the gardens.