Many thousands of visitors to the Lake District will have admired the work of Thomas Mawson, the most prolific garden, park and landscape maker of Edwardian times. He designed, among many others, the magnificent gardens at Holehird, the headquarters of the Lakeland Horticultural Society; the splendid grounds of Holker Hall; and the geometrically-precise formal gardens at Rydal Hall.
But this green-fingered landscape architect who designed parks and gardens for royal families in Europe, and lectured on garden design in the USA and Canada, was also responsible for the foundations of a small, hidden-away garden in the heart of Bowness. And now the owner of an elegant and discreet hotel and his head gardener are working to create something exceptional for the 21st century, while perhaps restoring a little of what was lost from the past.
The Burn How Garden House Hotel is a secret gem in this busy, buzzing tourist mecca on the shores of Windermere. It’s just one block back from the lake, and two minutes’ walk from the lively centre with its many bars and restaurants, but it’s another world away, quietly hidden away among glorious mature trees.
Here gardener John Cartmell is undaunted by any historic heritage: “I’m a plantsman, not a landscaper. I know about topiary and roses and lawns, and my work is about making this garden beautiful, as well as safe and accessible.” But then he pauses to wonder about the origins and original layout of this lovely garden, the vision of the landscaper who planted the astonishing Parrotia persica, the Persian ironwood, for example. What’s this doing here? It’s native to Iran's Caspian region and Azerbaijan.
The hotel’s proprietor, Michael Robinson, has long been secretly proud of the Mawson connection but says that the previous owners were responsible for removing a great deal of the original planting. They had ideas for chalets in the garden but, says Michael, “they abandoned the plan, wrecked the garden and left it as a building site when they sold it to us. So we created the quirky and cosy garden chalets and cottages where most of the hotel’s accommodation is based, and we’ve been working ever since to create a garden that’s in the spirit of Mawson.” John Cartmell is more pragmatic: “Most of the shrubs and smaller trees wouldn’t have lived that much longer anyway.”
But then he considers the giants of the garden, the glorious liriodendron, or tulip tree, and the dwarf hemlock, a member of the sequoia (redwood) family, with a trunk that’s two metres wide, and it’s clear that the past has a very strong influence in the present garden here.
Together Michael and John have been winning prizes from Windermere in Bloom, culminating in the Overall Winners trophy (2022). They’re working among the conifers, a rather lovely ash tree, smaller shrubs, different kinds of hydrangeas, and Deutzias which is a genus of about 60 species of flowering plants in the hydrangea family, native to eastern and central Asia, and Central America as well as Europe.
It’s a bit of detective work: the splendid cherry tree, and the lovely acers outside the restaurant window are of an age which could be from Mawson’s time, says John, though they lost an old weeping willow in Storm Arwen at the end of 2021. All year round, the colours are stunning. “Maybe in the autumn the colours are at their most spectacular,” says Michael. Though in summer the cotinus are beautiful, large, hardy, summer-flowering, deciduous shrubs with attractive, rounded green, purple or gold leaves and feathery flower plumes that really do resemble clouds of soft smoke.
Thomas Mawson was responsible for a number of gardens in this area, says Michael. Windermere was home territory, where he established his horticultural business and nursery, supplying plants to the gardens of the big houses owned by Manchester cotton traders and others who started the trend for a weekend retreat in the Lakes, suddenly and easily accessible by the building of the new railway.
Mawson was a Lancashire lad by birth, from Scorton near Lancaster, who moved to London with his mother when his father died, and started working there as a gardener before moving back north to Windermere. His Lakeland Nurseries business was very successful, and eventually he was able to leave the running of that to his brothers while he concentrated on garden design.
In 1901, he published the two-volume Art and Craft of Garden Making which is now regarded as the foundation of modern landscape architecture. The books were reprinted five times by 1926, and provided inspiration for the work achieved later by Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jeykll. Mawson’s reputation grew with many commissions throughout Britain, although he still found time for local work. He designed the ‘Palace of Peace’ gardens at The Hague in 1908 after winning a competition and was involved in the development of the Smokey Mountains National Park in America.
“We’re so proud that this prolific and talented man is connected to us here today in Bowness,” says Michael. “This year we are starting a series of special-interest holiday breaks for people who want to visit some of the Mawson gardens and learn more about his work. And they can start right here, outside our window.”
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