A Staffordshire Tour of the World

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Joss House from the Chinese Temple
Ever toured Italy, China, Egypt and the Himalayas all in one afternoon? You can in Staffordshire
Liss and I did so at Biddulph Grange Garden recently. It was a gorgeous day, ideal for touring an amazing garden.

Immediate Delight

The visual treat begins as soon as arrive on the terrace behind the house as the garden is presented below you. Ahead of you is the lake, on the day amazingly calm and still and chock full of huge Koi Carp that appear at the foot of the steps leading into the water. To the left is an avenue of Lime trees with its gently curving path and lawn border. To the right is the Dahlia Walk, small individual flower beds boxed between neatly trimmed hedges. The walk is planted with thousands of bulbs that will bloom in the Spring, but alas they were bare in the middle of winter. But when viewed from terrace even the geometric patterns and angles of the hedgerows leading to the Shelter House are impressive. When the bulbs do flower it will be brilliant spectacle and time to visit again. Although the garden and the house is very spectacular from the terrace area the main secret part of the garden is hidden from your view.

We started our tour by stepping down to the Italian Garden and it is no surprise that is typically Italian, being situated to be seen from the house above; it’s enclosed, ordered, filled with plants in ceramic pots, and surrounded by neat stone walls. From there we passed the by the lake and onto the Auracaria Parterrre, a formal garden area with Monkey Puzzle trees at the centre of four beds. We walked up the Dalia walk towards the Shelter House passing what looked like flying buttresses of privet that support the main hedge wall with the flower beds in between. The Shelter House is a two story folly with windows set in a natural stone wall in the upper level and an open doorway in the greenery coated ground floor wall. We went in, turned right and then entered a magical kingdom.

Steps Back & Forth In Time

But this magical kingdom may originally be from a post High Victorian and pre-Capability Brown period, but it has only recently been returned its original glory. After years of neglect and deliberate re-landscaping when the hall was used for various hospital and nursing facilities the garden lost almost its entire original spectacle. The Dahlia walk was filled in and levelled in order to create a lawn area for the patients; the Cherry Orchard was cut down ward buildings built upon it; the glass houses demolished; the house was used as nursing home and the vandals and thieves ruined what was left.

There had been a house a Biddulph Grange since the 1400s, when the land was used for farming. James Bateman, a plant hunter, RHS committee member and son of a coal and steel business owner originally designed the garden. Together with his friend Edward William Cooke, who’s father-in-law was rather fortunately for them, owner of one of the largest plant nurseries at the time, they transformed the farm land into an amazing garden. The process started in 1840 but by 1861 the garden had cost Bateman all his money and he was forced to sell. The new owner Robert Heath and his family lived at the Grange for a further 30 years despite the house burning down, destroying a large section of the original house. The middle section of the house was rebuilt to the grand design that’s still exists today. In 1922 the Heath family sold the house to first of a succession of hospital trusts and societies, which led to more and more neglect. Fortunately by the mid 1970s there was a ground swell of campaigners who were determined to save the garden. In 1991 the hospital closed, the garden purchased by the National Trust and opened to the public in May that year. The hard work to restore the garden to how it looked the way Bateman left it in 1861 then began in earnest.

A Hidden World Revealed

Once through The Shelter House you enter a different world. It looks like something from Jurassic Park, (minus the dinosaurs). It’s a world of mouldy dragons teeth, snarling at you as ascend the path. What it actually is, is a Stumpery, a type of rockery made from branches, roots and of course stumps from dead trees, overgrown with moss and lichens and interplanted with ferns. At the top of the stumpery is tunnel of metal hoops and roofed in ivy.
Once through the tunnel you’re in China. Ahead is the Joss house, a tribute to the Great Wall of China. Joss House is a small temple set high upon a mini Great Wall, where inside is a seat for two made for viewing the vista of the Chinese garden. If this garden does seem somewhat familiar, it may be because the design is based on the Willow Pattern of china plates. There is a little wooden hump backed bridge and a larger temple, surrounded by water. Walking over the bridge you meet a shrine ; flanked by a guard of honour of two red dragons is a Golden Bull with a disc between its horns. Once onto the temple and looking back across the Lake past a displaced Easter Island statue in the foreground, you see the bridge and up the path and through the trees in the distance the Joss House.
After ringing the bells at the roof edge of the temple canopy you disappear though a doorway at the end and enter a mini cave system. The cave exit brings you out in the Glen, a tribute to the Scottish Highlands, with mini Caledonian Forest and a small turret of a castle. There is a little detour up some steps, like a mini Ben Nevis and back round and down again.

From there is a choice from here; return back around the lake with its perfect reflections of the house or through another tunnel and follow the woodland walk. But that’s for another day …
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