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  • Writer's pictureDebi Holland


Brantwood, home to artist, critic, writer, plant scientist and social thinker John Ruskin. Noted as one of the most remarkable figures of the victorian era; his home and gardens are as intriguing as his life.

Ruskin was a pioneer and expert in many fields from geology to botany, from Gothic architecture to literature. An avid conservationist, he studied climate change and the impact of pollution on the natural environment, discovering the 'green-house effect' one hundred years before it became commonplace.

He was a social reformer advocating free schools and libraries, green belts and smokeless zones, his influence helped found the National Trust and Arts & Crafts Movement; he inspired William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones to become artists, he also championed the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood and Turner and was even admired by the likes of Ghandi and french novelist Proust. His influence was far-reaching and he was idolised by many.

Ruskin's forward thinking is still completely relevant today. He wanted people to see the beauty in the natural landscape; to not be suppressed by poverty but to relish the free pleasures of life such as sunsets and scenery, shells on the beach, the colour of feathers and leaves, the intricate crystals in rock, the small details of the natural world that can so easily be missed. He is noted as being a visionary in bringing these ideas to the foreground.

'A stone when examined is a mountain in miniature.' John Ruskin.

A stone when examined is a mountain in miniature

He believed in the power of art to change lives. Although his private life was infamously doomed he was enthralled with the romance of the idea of being in love. The Pre-Raphaelite ideal.

Raindrops on the contrasting leaves of rodgersia & hosta

Perched on the fell-side overlooking Coniston lake and across to The Old Man, Brantwood commands attention. 'Brant' is the norse word for 'steep' and Norse invaders were the first to discover the steep woodland in the ninth century.

The house interior boasts beautifully restored rooms which transport you straight back to Ruskin times. Each window is impossible to walk passed without pausing to admire the vista across the lake. Even on a murky rainy day the view was breathtaking and you can see why an artist set up home here. A natural source of inspiration and a garden that was to become his 'living laboratory.'

Upon arrival you are immediately confronted with the largest Rhododendron's I've ever seen. 130 year old Rhododendron 'Broughtonii' trees accompany equally statuesque Japanese Acer palmatum on Maple Walk. Deep red leaves contrast the vibrant green above a bed of tansy, persicaria and azalea.

I bumped into Brantwood gardener David Charles whilst he was working in the Lower Garden and he gave me an insight into the garden restoration and enormity of managing 250 acres of woodland garden and farmland. A small team doing great things.

Gardener David Charles
Brantwood gardener David Charles

Brantwood is split into eight unique gardens; living experiments continuing Ruskin's ideology.

'The importance of the garden as an educational tool.' John Ruskin.

Over the years various gardeners have breathed life back into the magical oasis, much of which had been reclaimed by weeds.

Wilderness tamed. Ferns & paths saved from smothering weeds
Wilderness tamed. Ferns & paths weave through the woodland garden

Firstly John Ruskin himself had great vision during his time at Brantwood from 1872 to his death in 1900 and wanted to embrace the wild natural environment of the steep woodland and fells and continue where his predecessor, William James Linton, left off.

A tremendous contributor was his first cousin and châtelaine Joan Severn who lived at Brantwood and nursed Ruskin until his death; a kindness saving him from the possible fate of a mental asylum.

Her ideas were contrary to Ruskin's but he made allowances and condoned greenhouses to be built at the second kitchen garden (today the site of the car park). He disapproved of them as he did not believe in contrived gardening; Ruskin believed 'all machine made objects were "dishonest" and that craftsmanship and handmade work were dignified labour.'

Pride at the Zig-Zaggy garden restored by Sally Beamish

Then in 1988, bringing her holistic gardening approach, Head Gardener and Estate Manager Sally Beamish brought Brantwood back-to-life. Her visionary garden restoration revealed what had been lost. Her energy and enthusiasm transformed Brantwood back to glory and following in Ruskin's footsteps she used the garden as an educational tool to pass knowledge to others.

Embracing organic and biodynamic gardening methods and land management she strived for Brantwood to be self-sustaining. Every element from soil, plants and human intervention to cooperatively work together. An ideology I wholeheartedly support myself.

Artist's Glade. Originally built as a tennis court for youthful scholars but became a peaceful place to ponder nature & draw

It is with tremendous sadness I learn that she lost her fight with cancer in June 2018. Her legacy will certainly live on at Brantwood.

Originally working at RHS Wisley and Cumbria County Council she spent thirty years at Brantwood reclaiming it from neglect; her life's work. She researched Ruskin's ideals in long-lost victorian archives to ensure the gardens were authentic, using traditional rural trades and then moving forward redesigned many areas, trailblazing horticultural experimental projects and promoting organic and biodiverse gardening practises. In 2017 she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement award by Cumbria Life. I dearly wish I had had the opportunity to meet her.

The dappled shade of Maple Walk


Upon arrival you are drawn to a gateway in the car park, luring you in to explore the fascinating switchback paths showcasing inventive planting combinations. This is an enlightening representation of the seven deadly sins. The visitor makes their journey through pride, envy, sloth, wrath, gluttony, avarice and lust to atone their sins and cleanse their soul.

Visitors work their way up through Acanthus spinosus bear's breeches and Phormium 'Sunset' (pride) to Eryngium varifolium sea holly (envy) to Crocosmia masonarum Montbretia and Armena maritima sea thrift (sloth) to impressive Stipa gigantica giant feather grass and another favourite of mine, Hakonechloa macra "Aureola" whose vibrant green leaves radiant around this section (wrath) and draw your eye, onward to Pyrus communis 'Jargonelle' and 'Black Worcester' pear (gluttony), Alchemilla erythropoda red-stemmed lady's mantle (avarice) and finally reaching the grand finale lust with a collection of quirky slate planters and seductive lips cradling Sempervivum houseleeks.

Ruskin designed the garden to introduction terracing to England, he had been inspired during his Italian travels with mountain farming. Zig-Zaggy is an interpretation of Dante's 'Purgatorial Mount.'

I was particularly inspired by the use of mulch in this area. Pride is covered in a sea of charcoal. Fleece carpets the blushes of lust and embodies sempervivums and blood grasses and slate embalms envy and wrath.

Hortus Inclusus

Latin for enclosed garden, Hortus Inclusus, landscaped in the shape of a medieval manuscript, hosts over 180 UK native herbs and is broken down into raised beds grouping medicinal properties, structure and form.

The beds are an absolute delight and provide plenty of inspiration. Grouping plants with their uses adds another dimension, the visitor can see the importance of these plants practically rather they purely aesthetic.

Original cottage gardens developed from exactly this need to have plants that provided purpose and when a doctor was nowhere in the vicinity then having a well stocked herb garden could be a life saver. Yarrow to stem bleeding, peppermint to aid digestion, fennel to prevent obesity, foxglove to regulate heartbeats so many plants have very important uses and great to see them brought together here.

The hay field next to Hortus Inclusus leading down to the lake has been developed, with careful land management, into a wildflower meadow. A lot of care has been taken to increase the diversity of grasses and wildflowers and in turn the wildlife; a natural haven for all manor of insects, butterflies and bees.

Meadow grasses include Fescue rubra red fescue, Poa pratensis smooth meadow grass, Dactylis glomerata cock's foot and Agrostis tenuis common bent. Wildflowers include Trifolium pratense red clover, Plantago lanceolata ribwort plantain, Centauea nigra common knapweed and Dactylorhiza maculate heath spotted orchid. Rhinanthus minor yellow rattle and Euphrasia officinalis eyebright are also planted to control dominate grasses.

Trellis Walk

An explosion of colour and form, the trellis garden brims with exquisite perennial and annual favourites such as cosmos and sweet peas.

Formerly a continuation of the kitchen garden, it was re-designed in 1988 by Sally Beamish to communicate Ruskin's botany research 'challenging the accepted.' Showcasing artistic inspiration this garden was divided into nine and referenced Medieval Physic garden, Georgian New World, Victorian, Arts & Crafts Movement and Art Nouveau.

Harbour Walk

Created by Joan Severn this direct path from the harbour to the house flourishes with herbaceous perennials and evergreens. Earlier in the year it is singing with azaleas.

Sandwiched between Harbour and Trellis Walk is an orchard which hosts many old apple varieties including Egremont Russet, Ribston Pippin and Beauty of Bath.

Fern Garden

Brantwood's collection hosts over 200 different varieties of British ferns including royal, soft shield 'Shuttlecock,' lemon-scented, bracken, lady, oak, beech, scaly male, hard, hart's tongue, common polypody and maidenhair spleenwort. All can found across the gardens and are fundamental to the estates' character and charm.

Professor's Garden

Surrounded by ferns, trees and a waterfall the Professor's garden feels mysterious; crossing the wooden bridge you feel you are discovering a secret garden for the first time. You are struck by the silence.

This was apparently Ruskin's favourite garden and he filled it with 'plants which were good for body and soul.' There was a great mixture of herbs, espalier apples and ornamentals.

A stone 'den' hidden beneath a beautiful old rambling rose 'The Garland' was known as Ruskin's penthouse. This was a little stone refuge where he kept also proved very useful when sheltering from the rain.

Like the Lost Gardens of Heligan this area was abandoned. After Ruskin became ill in 1888 nature gradually reclaimed it and the 'secret' garden was to remain this way until Sally Beamish breathed life back into the feral land in 1990. Thoughtfully restored the garden now oozes charm and magic.

High Walk

Leaving the Professor's Garden a fern lined path carries you to a sudden unexpected open plane, The Artist's Glade. This was originally designated as a tennis court for the young scholars at Brantwood but it became an ideal peaceful location for artists to sit, admire the lake, nature and scenery and paint.

The path leads steeply up through dense fern lined banks, the sea of green is quite a sight particularly more so as I was visiting when the rest of the country were experiencing a relentless drought and I had grown accustomed to everything looking brown and scorched.

Upon descending through the woods we discovered a beautiful pond, completely surrounded by ferns. We were excited to find this oasis was home to frogs and numerous water-loving wildlife.

Below the pond you will find steps up to a long narrow strip of lawn which visitors cannot walk on; lined with borders of herbaceous perennials we imagine the spectacular walk in Victorian times and scenic mountainous views across the lake.

Moorland Garden

Moorland and farmland spreads over the fells, cattle graze and nature is allowed to roam free. There is such a connection between nature and the landscape. Wildflowers and woodland contrast and compliment the tighter constraints of its neighbouring Hortus Inclusus.

Rhododendron 'Broughtonii' trees
Rhododendron 'Broughtonii' trees

Brantwood has bewitched me. I have fallen in love with the history, the landscape, the diversity of planting, the thought provoking garden rooms contrasting with the roaming wild moorland and fells.

It has reiterated to me something I hold very dear - take time to observe the detail.

The smallest flower, leaf, petal or seed can hold such delight. Learn from nature and garden harmoniously with it not against it.

Brantwood's magic has not only been restored, it has been moved forward and allowed to shine. Like all gardens we are simply custodians of the land for our short time on earth whereas the gardens will live on for the next generation and beyond. I look forward to seeing it thrive and cannot wait to return.

Incredibly detailed book by David Ingram of the history & planting of Brantwood. Highly recommend.

If you wish to find out more about the Brantwood estate then I can highly recommend 'The Gardens at Brantwood. Evolution of John Ruskin's Lakeland Paradise' by Professor David Ingram, former keeper of Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh. It provides a comprehensive history of house and garden developments.

All photos taken by Debi Holland ©


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