After a deal of shuffling and juggling we have finally set the open date for the glorious stable courtyard as Saturday 5th May 2012. A myriad of last minute challenges including the installation of two giant sewerage treatment plants, upgrading electrical supplies and securing the right sort of stone for gullies have tested our patience but we can now see a clear route to the end of the majority of the building works and the opening of the new visitor centre. The courtyard will provide a super café, elegant lavatories, an exhibition of traditional crafts used in the restoration, and a display of some of the many personal stories of the castle and gardens from the archives. Our opening day will coincide with a specialist plant fair – I would love to claim brilliant planning but must confess to pure good fortune in agreeing the date some months ago with Judy Popley of Flower Power Fairs, the dynamic organiser.
In one fell swoop we have tripled our horticultural firepower with the recruitment of Richard Gough and Martin Ogle to our garden team. At long last our Head Gardener, Steve Lannin, has been able to extricate himself from the dreaded laptop and was last seen happily crown lifting yews in the gardens. We have been delighted to receive kind offers of help and have decided to use each Thursday as “Volunteer Work Day” in the gardens. The grand plan is to email the task of the week to those willing to help us and then focus all our energies on that area for the day. The clearance of the Japanese garden, removal of shrubs from the escarpment and planting of new avenues of yew are all on the “to do” list.
Three weeks of unexpectedly kind weather allowed us to seed all the lawns, including the new lawns on the rose garden until recently covered by unattractive Sitka spruce. I even found myself wishing for rain, almost unheard of in the Lake District, and a few recent showers have raised our anticipation of a flush of bright green to clothe some 14 acres of new lawns. The dry weather has really helped start the recovery of areas where we had to dig out enormous tree stumps. Perhaps worst affected was the Countess garden where we will re-establish the orchards shown on 17th Century plans. We have been kindly offered assistance from the South Lakeland Orchard Group to research the original varieties and help source, graft and plant the new trees.
The first flush of weeds in 2.5 acres of new borders to the side of the south lawns has prompted a re-think about our planting plans, and we are exploring options to deal with the bank of weed seed before committing to long term planting. The flush of daffodils really lit up the gardens just in time for the two Daffodil weekends in March. I must confess to harbouring concerns about how visitors would view the dramatic changes in the gardens, but was mighty relieved to receive unanimous compliments for our work. Whilst the presentation of the gardens has changed, the magical atmosphere remains as strong as ever.
The unattractive but essential plastic sheeting on the scaffolding will be removed in the next two weeks to allow a frost inspection to check the lime mortars survived the winter unscathed. This will enable large areas of scaffold to be dismantled, and mark a major landmark in the ruin works as elevations can be signed off as finally completed. We are planning to allow access to the first part of the ruins later this year. Standing inside the ruins looking through the enormous window openings really makes sense of the scale of the gardens and gives a real understanding of how the castle sits within the wider landscape. The sheer size of the ruins is astonishing, and we need to hatch a cunning plan to secure additional funds to form a lift or stairs to the top of the staircase tower to access the outstanding views.
Whilst there is an epic amount of work to be completed in time for the opening, there is now a real sense that the building is finally starting to show her beauty and class. The full height windows and doors to the coach house café are a triumph, and look far better than they ever did on plan. Servery counters, tables, chairs, a modern kitchen, and a hideously expensive super-duper coffee machine are being installed, and we are making good progress in recruiting our catering team. We will have to gird our loins to cope with the many tasting sessions of food and drink that lie ahead. The shops and Lowther gallery will open later this year, and specialist designers are working furiously with our museum curator to provide a fitting setting for the return to the Castle of the treasures of generations of Lowther and Lonsdale.
The first stage of the restoration of Jack Croft pond started with the clearance of the east path, followed by teams from the Probation Service getting to grips with the horrid task of clearing the rampant yellow flag iris. Their rhizomes are embedded into the banks and form large floating mats that can only be tackled by a brave soul in waders with a billhook. I am told a rope under the arms provided the simple but effective rescue mechanism in case of deeper than expected water. We have commissioned a nesting bird survey to give us a baseline to monitor the impact of garden works and increase in garden visitors. It will be fascinating to see how the diversity and population sizes of individual species respond to the development of the gardens in years to come.