Garden at Richmond Castle

The imposing castle in the small North Yorkshire market town of Richmond, which has dominated the skyline for over 900 years, is a fertile source of artistic inspiration. Painters were stirred by its romantic ruins and its position high over the River Swale.

In the late 18th century the renowned painter J.M.W. Turner came north and recreated its ruined towers and battlements by sunrise in luminous watercolours, a painting now housed at Tate Britain in London. Each year thousands of visitors come and walk up the town's cobbled streets to explore what's acknowledged to be one of the finest and most complete Norman fortresses in Europe.

Path alongside castle walls

Path to the Gold Hole Tower at the top of the Contemporary Heritage Garden
© Neil Swanson, Landscape Projects

Norman origins

The castle was originally built so the ruling Normans could quell the resistant, troublesome northerners, and with its dramatic hilltop position the centuries have done nothing to dim its grandeur. The buildings, all but one of them dating back to medieval times, cluster around a large central grassed area with magnificent views over the river a hundred feet below.

Although there's no direct evidence of a garden on this site it's assumed that because the castle housed a ruling elite and their families, there would have been a place within the grounds for recreation and leisure with some sort of garden. Certainly in the 19th century there was a kitchen garden here with some glasshouses and an old variety of cooking apple, Malus domestica 'Catshead' which is still there, but by the time the modern  garden was planned there was nothing left but a scrubby space.

The Garden today

The current garden, known as the 'cockpit', is outside the castle walls and like a similar Contemporary Heritage Garden, at the Bishops' Palace in Lincoln, you approach it through a thick stone wall to airy views beyond. It's best seen from above, from a stone terrace near the great Scolland's Hall with a bench set upon a raised platform. Its formality, with clipped evergreens, gives way to a spectacular view over the thickly wooded countryside beyond.

The current garden was created in 2000 by the landscape architect Neil Swanson. He was quite clear that he wanted not only a garden which reflected the castle's often turbulent history, but a place where people could stop and think.  "I wanted visitors to walk around the garden, seeing the topiary terrace, experiencing the gradual softening of the castle landscape, until they return, passing once again the same terrace, but perhaps seeing it differently, and sensing something of the unseen, human struggle which took place there."

Artist's impression of the garden

Plan of the Contemporary Heritage Garden
© Neil Swanson, Landscape Projects

Richmond Castle Sixteen

The garden, which is just over an acre, is linked by a cobbled path all the way round. The first thing you notice on the upper terrace, or parterre, are sixteen topiary pieces made up of green and golden yews. These are a reference to the 16 conscientious objectors - enlisted men who refused to fight or take part in any military activities - who were imprisoned with Richmond Castle during the First World War.

This decision hasn't been without controversy. A public meeting in 2002 took place in the garden itself where local people made arguments for and against marking the 'Richmond 16' in the garden. But finally the case was made for the sixteen yews to stay. As Neil Swanson himself said "It was striking to be present as issues of duty, personal courage and principle, and the relationship between individual and state were openly debated."

Richmond Castle gardens

Contemporary Heritage Garden herbaceous border
© Neil Swanson, Landscape Projects

Wild and Cultivated Flowers

The main part of the cockpit garden is a grassy amphitheatre for people to meet, lay on the grass, have parties, picnics and enjoy the surroundings and it echoes the turfed area within the castle, a hub for activity. The stone walls are fretted with self-seeding wild flowers like valerian, making a porous boundary between the garden and the surrounding countryside.

At the lower end of the garden along one of the walls is a herbaceous border planted in a self-consciously modern style with a combination of tough perennials such as Achillea, Echinacea and Helianthus, and bold grasses to give interest all year round. Also the flaring colours of the flowers in orange, red, and yellow recall the tapestries and furnishings of the castle's interior in medieval times. Simple poppies echo the castle's history during the First World War and later in the year the seed heads of the tall grasses look like the hay meadows in the nearby Yorkshire dales.

On the final walk back up to the yew terrace there are benches set against the thick walls backed with scented climbers such as honeysuckle and rose. From here you have views right over the garden and beyond.

It is a garden that can be enjoyed at any time of the year framed by the unsurpassed Yorkshire countryside, a place to sit and reflect upon the centuries of human history for which the castle has been the austere setting.

Wild and cultivated flowers

Contemporary Heritage Garden herbaceous border with the Gold Hole Tower beyond
© Neil Swanson, Landscape Projects

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