Lowther Castle and Gardens

Posted 31st May 2012 by Admin & Contributed by: Andrew Mercer, Project Director
Newsletter Vol: 98, November 2011

Gardens

To my considerable delight the majority of the earth moving works to the south lawns are now complete and we can now enjoy a clear view back to the castle along the full length of the lawns. I suspect this view has been obstructed for some 70 years or so, and it is testament to our Landscape Designer Dominic Cole’s vision that the complex patterns of levels, paths, borders and lawns are starting to make sense. The sheer scale of the borders had me scurrying back to the budget cost plan to see what we had allowed for plants, and a quick calculation at £10 to £15 per square metre confirmed that we have enough in the kitty to make a proper job of the plantings. The arrival of a fleet of lorries signalled the start of the stoning up of the paths and each tipped load is spread with great speed although covers an alarmingly small area. The metal lawn edging looks a sound investment and will make the task of presenting crisp edges to the path easier to achieve. Setting it out is quite another issue and with over a mile to lay our contractors have some creaking backs ahead of them.

The first fine lawn is greening up briskly and looks a real treat when the sun deigns to shine. We shall have to wait and see how it survives the winter, but we can always over seed to fill in any gaps when we are sowing the other three lawns. They will lie fallow over winter and we will try to germinate and kill as many of the latent weed seeds as possible to give the fine grasses a fighting chance in the Spring. The soil forming the wild flower lawn looks thin and unwelcoming but I am told this is perfect to keep the grasses and vigorous weeds at bay whist the wild flowers establish. Learned advice suggests we should cover the area with a layer of sand to impoverish the seed bed even further but we will let the area settle before considering such action.

The recruitment of our Head Gardener is cracking on with a great deal of interest shown from some very high quality candidates. He/she will have much to do with drafting planting schedules, establishing a garden base with buildings, machinery, and glasshouses, and recruiting a team of staff and volunteers all on the early “to do” list. We hope to make our appointment by the end of November with a start date early in the New Year.

Trees ancient and rare were under scrutiny earlier this month with the arrival of two officials with tape measures and laser devices to assess the girth and height of some of our fine specimens. I was pleased to learn that most of the measured trees are happy and healthy with many increasing in girth by 2cm or so each year; but received warnings about the impact of many visitors’ feet around the base of the trees. It appears many of our precious trees are shallow rooted and will not take kindly to even mild compaction, so we will be protecting the sensitive varieties with a healthy carpet of wood chippings. Yet another two new specimens (to me) were identified in the Pinetum, a rather anonymous (to my ignorant eyes) Wallich’s pine and an attractive Weymouth pine identified by five pine needles per bundle and banana shaped cones. We have now started to improve access to the Pinetum by clearing undergrowth and debris and re-establishing paths through to the south lawns.

Our programme of winter works include the removal of large areas of commercially planted softwood trees. I have been musing about the timing of this but logic suggests it is sensible to make a big muddle early in the programme of work rather than run the risk of damage to new paths and recently planted areas by heavy machinery needed to extract large volumes of timber.

Castle

This month has seen a great deal of excellent work in the castle ruins, with the masons working flat out before the arrival of winter proper. Such has been the progress that we are now starting to drop scaffolding on completed elevations and our architect Miriam Kelly and I were recently savouring the craftsmanship in warm Autumn sunshine, the result of a great deal of skilled work and careful selection of mortars and infill stone. Each evening signals appearance of damp sacking and shiny thermal blankets to protect the lime mortar in the new workings, and we are starting to hunker down and concentrate works within the main central tower where we hope sheeted scaffolding, radiant heaters, thermal blankets and a large dose of good fortune and gentle weather will allow the great team of masons on site to work through the winter months.

Stable Courtyard

The roofers have worked steadily past the coach house and are now refurbishing the sculpture gallery roof. The sense of urgency to make the entire complex watertight and weatherproof is tangible and the appearance of the first two refurbished windows back in the courtyard signalled a small but very welcome milestone.

The new floor slab to the coach house/café is nearly completed and we are busy with contractors to finalise the detailed fit out of the kitchen and café areas. The kitchen is a little way away from a Hygiene Certificate (with no roof at present) but it is exciting to see the drawings for ovens, fridges and servery counters. Detailed planning of menus will soon follow.

The Lowther Gallery is also taking shape, and our Curator Robin Emmerson has drafted a super plan of how we can use the extensive archives, beautiful silverware, porcelain, furniture and fine art to tell the story of the castle and the many characters in the long history of the Lowthers. Our gallery will cover some 8 or 9 separate rooms on the ground floor of the courtyard and allow access through three fine stone arches to the castle ruins.

Wildlife

The peregrine falcons have made a welcome return to the castle in recent weeks, although their appearance is bad news if you are a pigeon or jackdaw. The absence of jackdaws cackling around the ruins is a sure sign that the peregrines are about – just listen for the high pitched screech followed by an earthy chirrup!

Thankfully we have had no further cases of the dreaded squirrel pox and the red squirrels appear healthy and in good numbers.