My father and I booked for the open day on Sunday 26th June. All tickets have to be booked in advance, both for the gardens and for the train a narrow gauge railway. We skipped the train option so I don’t know what that experience was like (lots of children, I would imagine) but the gardens were superb, and in some ways unexpected. Brief comments on practicalities for those considering July or August visits, in terms of parking, suitability for those with mobility issues etc, are at the end of this post.
The Eaton Hall Gardens are open to the public three times this year, the last Sunday in June, July and August, all in aid of three different charities. If you are intending to go, but have not yet booked a ticket, I suggest you book immediately via EventBrite, as it sells out every year. I missed the chance last year. The benefiting charities for the 2022 events are Cheshire Young Carers, Cheshire Wildlife Trust and Kidsbank.
We entered via the Belvedere gate just north of the Grosvenor Garden Centre on the old Chester to Wrexham road (the B5445). It is an ostentatiously long approach to the property. Just in front of a gigantic obelisk is a checkpoint where you show your tickets.
Young RAF Air Cadets were on hand everywhere to direct traffic and answer questions, and did an absolutely splendid job of keeping the traffic moving. Once we had followed their directions and parked in a field (but see my notes on disabled access at the end), and walked up towards the estate buildings, you pass through a gate where your tickets are checked again. Here you are handed a leaflet about the charity being supported, and another highlighting garden features that you might want to visit by head gardener Jan Lomas, with an excellent map on the back showing the locations those features, with recommended routes between them, which is absolutely necessary if you are not going to miss anything. You can download my battered copy of the map here if you want to plan your visit in advance.
We were lucky with the weather, because although it was overcast, with only short burst of occasional sunshine, it remained dry, and it was warm. You can click on any of the photos to see a bigger version.
The description of the gardens on the EventBrite website gives some idea of the treats in store:
Eaton Hall Gardens extend to 88 acres and have been developed over many years by prominent designers, most recently by Lady Arabella Lennox-Boyd. The gardens have a wide variety of planting, including four formal colour-themed rose gardens and grand colour-themed herbaceous borders. There is a newly completed hot border design and a stunning bedding scheme in the Dragon Garden which is not to be missed. Visitors can also enjoy the walled Kitchen Garden, as well as the wildflower garden and the lake walk, where you can take in fabulous views of the Hall and grounds. Finally, the Tea House is filled with roses and herbs and sits perfectly at the end of a short walk past the lake area.
We found all the gardens except the wildflower garden (up a flight of stairs out of the Dragon Garden), and we didn’t do the lake walk simply because it was getting rather late, but looks like a brilliant venue for the picnics that were being carried by more organized visitors.
The first place that we visited was the camellia walk, a long, slender glass corridor lined with camellia bushes. Although none of the camellias were in flower (they are a spring flowering species), the conservatory building itself was a thing of real beauty, and the sense that it goes on and on without visible end is wonderful.
Nearby are the sheds and the platform for the narrow gauge railway (with open-sided carriages pulled by a steam engine, which used to connect to a Chester-Shropshire railway line siding some 3 miles away). We walked along a track round the walled kitchen garden towards the courtyard entrance, which is an intriguing little walk, as there is a lovely tree-lined walk towards the kitchen garden, and a couple of quirky buildings, but no signs that it is in use for anything.
The first port of call for most people is the former stable block surrounding a courtyard. The stable courtyard is open to the public, and there is a horse-drawn carriage display in the light-filled atrium that gives access to it.
The open courtyard itself is laid out with tables and chairs, and is one of the places where refreshments are served in aid of charity (for cash only), and was very congested, but the surrounding buildings were not at all busy.
The former stables themselves, built by Alfred Waterhouse in around 1869, are open. The saddle horses and harness horses were stabled separately, and there was a harness room and a carriage house too. There is some information about the horses stabled there and a reconstruction of the stud manager’s office, as well as the family history and exhibition rooms. You can also, from the stable courtyard, access the bizarre shell grotto and the 1870 Eaton Chapel from the courtyard (stained-glass windows by Frederic James Shields). Live organ concerts were being played in the chapel, majoring on Johann Sebastian Bach, a lovely, intimate sound in that small space.
After visiting the courtyard, which is the first place that everyone seems to filter into first, the nearest of the gardens to visit is the walled kitchen garden.
Along one of the walls is a broad border filled with brightly coloured flowers, many of which grow on a massive, upwardly skyrocketing scale. Within the walls, the beds are divided into squares and rectangles by multiple pathways, many of which are provided with colourful arches. Some of the beds are defined some defined by short hedges of interlaced apples. Some of the flowers are exotic and gaudy, others are more humble and subtle, and there is a lively mix of floral displays and vegetables, with lots to see. The overall impact is one of careful husbandry with a real eye for colour, scale and shape.
From there we walked down to the Parrot House, a little round building looking rather like a Graeco-Roman temple, but designed to keep tropical birds. It was built in the 1880s by Alfred Waterhouse and was fitted with heating to create suitable conditions for such birds, but apparently never housed anything more tropical than some budgies. There were hay bales outside for visitors to sit and watch the band.
From here it was a short walk to the rose gardens, which sit in front of the Eaton Hall house, offering the first real glimpse of the house and the great clock tower of the neighbouring chapel. The Country Seat website offers the following very useful potted history of Eaton Hall (not open to the public, but an unavoidable presence).
The first notable Eaton Hall was designed by William Samwell and built in 1664 but was replaced by a vast Gothic creation by William Porden in 1803, which was then enlarged by William Burn in 1845. This was then replaced by the Victorian Gothic of Alfred Waterhouse in 1870, before the whole edifice was swept away in 1961 as the trustees of the then young Duke couldn’t imagine anyone living in such splendour again. Faced with being a Duke with no seat in his 11,500-acre estate in Cheshire, in 1971 the 5th Duke commissioned a starkly white modernist country house from John Dennys, (who also happened to be the Dukes’ brother-in-law) which was as striking as it was controversial. This was then given a vaguely ‘chateau’ style makeover in 1989 for the 6th Duke, to designs by the Percy Thomas Partnership. So of the five major houses which have been graced with the name Eaton Hall, the current one, though impressive, still doesn’t quite have the gravitas of the others. Perhaps, in time, a future Duke may decide to replace it again.
The current house is an ugly great block of a thing looking not unlike Faengslet prison. I daresay it has more going on in its favour on the inside. Next to it, rather more endearing in a uniquely Victorian way, is the Eaton Hall chapel clock tower and the chapel itself, behind which is the the stable courtyard. Although the history of the house is of interest, the visit is all about the gardens, which are excellent.
The gardens are dotted throughout a park that sits above a lake and extends to the east. Instead of being clustered around the house, as in most houses and estates of this type, the different gardens are dotted around, approached both via metalled surfaces and grass paths mowed through stretches that have been allowed to run wild.
The rose gardens are probably the highlight of the gardens at this time of year. The twin gardens flank a long rectangular ornamental pond that runs towards the house. The pond is often shown with fountains, but they were not operating when we visited. The rose gardens are the most remarkable of a set of terraces. The top terrace, not accessible to the public, is on the level of the house. The rose gardens are next down, and below this is the lioness and kudu pond, which in turn overlooks the slope down to the lake, which is fed by the River Dee.
The rose gardens and the pond are flanked by wooden arches connected with thick ropes, and both the arches and the connecting ropes support white and palest pink roses.
On each side of the pond are two square rose gardens, separated by yew hedges, cleverly offset so that one garden cannot be seen from the next, giving the impression of being the entrance to a maze. Each of these rose gardens has a central focal point, a circular path, and four beds, each with a massive obelisk in its corner. Each of the gardens is colour-themed. One, for example, is blue and yellow, whilst another is pure white. The roses are certainly the dominant flower, but they are supported by penstemons, clematis, geraniums and various other species that help to create a mass of different textures and shapes.
The Dragon Garden is named for the dragon sculpture in the centre of the garden. A formal geometric garden, planted with small species of blues, purples, lilacs and mauves, this is a delightful sight, highly structured and precise. There is a statue of a figure on each corner of the garden, possibly former family members.
After a pause to enjoy the view at the end of the terrace, and to look down over the lioness and kudu sculpture (a truly bizarre thing) we went towards the Dutch Tea House and the accompanying Tea Garden. Outside this garden, and elsewhere on the estate, several of the vast oaks are wrapped in fine mesh. I had seen this on a previous visit to the Aldford Iron Bridge on the other side of the estate, and had wondered what it was all about. A helpful sign explained that it was an experimental measure taken against acute decline disease, thought to be caused by a parasitic boring beetle. The mesh restricts the movement of the beetles and prevents them spreading. At the same time, the roots of the tree, under soil compacted over the decades, prevents water and nutrients reaching the tree, so a programme of mulching has been undertaken to help retain water and help the transfer of nutrients and water via the roots into the trees.
The Tea House is a little ornamental building, approached via a path that leads through the pet cemetery, and look out for a delectable little wooden Wendy house on the other side of a low hedge. If you have a pushchair or wheelchair / buggy, there is a side entrance to the garden that avoids the steps down from the Tea House. Giant fennel plants give a wonderful bitter-sweet scent on approach to the garden. The garden has a statue of Mercury at its centre (standing on a personification of the wind). The garden is beautiful in a less formal way than the rose gardens, with a more unaffected feel, with lovely block-paved paths and beds filled with flowers and highly aromatic herbs that deliver a gloriously chaotic range of different aromatic scents that follow you around. On a hot day I imagine that it would be even better as the aromas heat through.
From here there was a choice of walking down to the lake, or taking one of the grass paths to another little temple-like building, referred to as a loggia. We opted for the walk to the loggia, rectangular this time, which was flanked by two genuine Roman columns and housed a genuine Roman altar, the latter found to the east of Chester between the Tarvin and Huntington roundabouts, about 320 metres east of Boughton Cross, and 1.8 km due east of The Cross, Chester. Given how much Roman architecture has been lost from Chester, it was probably a kindness to remove and preserve them.
The altar is today known officially as RIB 460. On two sides it reads “Nymphis et Fontibus
leg(io) XX V(aleria) V(ictrix),” translated as “To the Nymphs and Fountains the Twentieth Legion Valeria Victrix (set this up).” It was rediscovered first in 1821.
There is a grass avenue from here back to the Parrot House via the terrace with the lioness and kudu pond. The band’s little white marquee is stationed in front of the Parrot House so you don’t really get a sense of the connection between the two buildings, but it is a nice arrangement. As you walk onto the pond terrace, you pass through a grass path flanked with two borders filled with lavender. We paused to run fingers through it and release the splendid scent. The wall that runs below the upper terrace where the rose gardens were located is covered in white hydrangea petiolaris, a form of hydrangea that climbs. The pond itself has a vast greened sculpture in the middle showing a lioness about to leap on and kill a kudu (a deer-like animal). As you walk up behind it, the change of perspective gives a strange sense that the lioness is in motion. It is absolutely not my cup of coco, and I would have it moved somewhere a lot less conspicuous, but it is certainly attention-grabbing.
From the Parrot House it was a short walk along the bottom edge of the walled garden to the field where we were parked. We found the Air Cadets who were stationed around all the entrances and exits very helpful in sorting out somewhere where I could easily pick up my father.
Later, whilst my father was masterminding a fabulous culinary extravaganza in his kitchen, I read the leaflet about the Cheshire Young Carers charity that the day’s takings were to support. It was something of an eye-opener to learn how many children care for their parents or their siblings, unsupported by any official mechanisms. I was so pleased that our tickets had gone towards helping this excellent organization, which not only helps with practical support but organizes away days for children, activities that allow them to escape their responsibilities for a short time.
The parking arrangements were very well managed with plenty of Air Cadets and other personnel at the ready to give directions and advice. The car park was a field. The field surface was dry buy very uneven. A brief conversation with one of the parking officials enabled me to drop my father off on the hardstanding that led up to the gardens, and park nearby, where some spaces had been kept free, but if you have a disability badge, there are is special parking right by the entrance to the gardens.
There is a disability stand where disability scooters and other aids can be collected, and the gardens as a whole are generally easy for those with mobility issues, as well as for wheelchair and pushchair users. The gardens are connected with the lake by metalled paths leading between gardens, and within some of the gardens and in the park between them, there are level grass surfaces and light slopes throughout, which (at least on a dry day) are suitable for wheelchairs and pushchairs. There are not many benches or seats around, and none between the gardens.
It was only moderately busy. The car parks seemed to be stuffed full of cars, but the park and gardens seemed to swallow visitors very easily. Only in the places where people tend to convene, like refreshment areas and places where there was live music, was there a sense that it might become crowded. The gardens themselves gave no sense at all of there being too many people for the space.
Full details of the event, plus booking information, are on the Eventbrite website at:
Eaton Hall Gardens Charity Open Days 2022
Eaton Hall Park and Garden
Roman Inscriptions of Britain
The Country Seat
Country houses of the 2014 Rich List – Top 10