York Gate Garden – Small is Beautiful

Neither my eyes nor my feet could believe that I had just walked around a one acre garden. Just one acre, that is less than one and a half football fields. My legs believed they had visited somewhere much larger and my mind was busy shuffling different vistas. 

For a horticultural fix I usually visit RHS Harlow Carr at Harrogate. I am ashamed to say that I’d believed that a small garden such as York Gate would pale into insignificance in comparison with such a nationally regarded institution. As in many other areas of life, the current pandemic has encouraged me to live more locally. So despite having lived in Leeds for over twenty years, I visited York Gate Garden for the first time this autumn.

The garden was created by the Spencer family between 1951 and 1994, built around three sides of a Victorian farmhouse, with inspiration from the Arts and Crafts movement. The movement’s love of physical labour, artisan workmanship and decoration are clear in the garden’s detail. A potting shed is brought to life by shell covered walls, pathways are laid out in geometric designs and found containers and masonry have been re-utilised. The Spencers adopted salvage before recycling ever become fashionable.

The garden is divided into themed rooms, usually defined by yew and beech hedges. At one point it feels as though you are literally entering a room when you pass through a door from a loggia seating area to find yourself following a corridor path surrounded by planting. You discover elements usually present in many much larger gardens: herbaceous borders, a kitchen garden, a rill garden, loggia, dells and follies. 

The layout is ingenious. You get glimpses of what is to come but each area is clearly defined. Paths weave in and out and there are often alternatives in any given area so that you can avoid steps if these are an issue for you. Staff make it clear that you are welcome to walk around a second time if you want to take paths you missed on your first tour, enabling you to see every little cranny. 

The sense of space is created through the room system, but also by good use of planting at various levels. Your eyes dart from skyline to border then footpath as you attempt to take in every plant. Despite visiting late in the season there was still lots of colour to be seen, evident in late flowering annuals and perennials but also in a wonderful array of foliage plants. Yet, it was the variety of texture that made the most impact on me. Soft flowing grasses sat beside small and large spiked or glossy leaves. 

The garden is now run by the charity Perennial, having been bequeathed on the death of Sybil Spencer. Perennial operates as a support service for people in the horticulture trade as well as managing a small number of gardens. Its members are committed to maintaining British horticulture and bring a wealth of knowledge and good practice to the garden.

To give you time to appreciate the views, there are benches throughout. No two benches seemed to be the same and many were handcrafted. In such a small space you might imagine that social distancing would be difficult. With so much to see and pleasant corners to wait in, it never seemed crowded, despite being fully booked at the time of our visit. You currently  need to book an arrival time in advance and pay as you enter reception. Admission is a very reasonable £6 and there is free entry for children under sixteen.  

At the end of the garden the old house now contains a gift shop and café. Our luck was in and the weather was warm enough to sit outside, but the interior also looked light and welcoming. The café is located in what was once the dining and living room of York Gate House. I enjoyed my generous slice of ginger and lemon cake but my companion’s cream tea looked equally enticing. The garden is continuing to develop, with a new sunken Mediterranean garden recently added. This provides a pleasing outlook as you sit sipping your tea or coffee.

Unfortunately by the time I had finished my refreshments, the plant nursery had closed. I will be back in the spring to see their new season planting and perhaps to take  a specimen home with me next time.

York Gate Garden is open from 11am to 4.30pm Wednesday to Sunday from April to November. Be sure to book in advance and remember your payment card. There’s more information here.

Photographs by Debbie Rolls.

Leeds Living