Levens Hall is best known for its unique topiary garden, claiming to be the oldest in the world, dating from 1694. Less well known, but nevertheless of significant interest is the orchard containing around 100 trees, mainly apples but also including pears, crabs, medlars and quince. Head Gardener Chris Crowder describes it as a “Romantic Orchard” because of its eclectic nature, the trees being underplanted with red tulips and criss-crossed with mown grass pathways. Some trees are over 100yrs old, dating from the original planting but the majority have been replanted at varying times since, resulting in a wide range of tree ages and size. There is a wide range of traditional apple varieties, but the identity of some has been lost. All trees are on unknown but vigorous rootstocks grown as standards or half-standards on approx 12ft square spacing. The orchard is unsprayed and unpruned but despite that, most trees are in reasonable health. There is an interesting range of lichens on most trees, whilst some have climbers such as honeysuckle, clematis and rambling rose scrambling over them, though those so encumbered are suffering as a consequence. The apples are harvested for cider which is sold in the Potting Shed Shop, so the orchard pays its way. A recent initiative has been the planting of medlars and quinces to replace some old diseased trees. Chris considers the medlars have been a great success, their blossom being a particular attraction (as is the quince blossom). Unfortunately the quinces have suffered badly from quince leaf blight which causes the leaves to turn brown and fall in mid-season. This is a disease which is exacerbated by wet seasons which are “normal” in Cumbria. Annual rainfall at Levens is about 45” which must be one of the lowest in Cumbria, but since the gardens are practically at sea level, the relative humidity may be a factor. The worst affected quinces have now been grubbed out leaving only one Vranje which, being on the south side of the orchard, may get enough sunshine and airflow to reduce the disease pressure and survive.
Another relatively new feature in the garden is a “Nuttery”, which is now about fifteen years old. About 40 bushes are grown on two sides of a quadrangle layout shared with the kitchen garden. They provide catkins early before other species show any activity, followed by attractive autumn foliage. The crop is mainly taken by squirrels but the prunings make useful support in the vegatable garden.
Other fruits grown include vines trained against a wall and figs against the Hall, whilst records show that a peach was grown outdoors against a wall during an earlier warmer period. There is also a particularly wrinkly 70yr old black mulberry which is quite a specimen and looks much older yet carries a good crop of tasty fruit. Chris reckons May is the best time to visit the orchard to enjoy the apple and medlar blossom, complemented by the red tulips beneath.
Open early April–early October, 10am–5pm Sunday to Thursday. Gardens admission £8.50. Location 6 miles S of Kendal on A6 just south of A590. Postcode for Satnav: LA8 0PD