Downham Hall Gardens

 

Trust members were welcomed by Olivia and the Honourable Ralph Assheton. It had to be a Ralph, as the family heir has been called Ralph for five generations.

 

Downham Hall

Recently Lord Clitheroe handed over the running of the Hall and its garden to his son Ralph, who has focused on refreshing the garden while preserving its ancient bones and beautiful outlook.The family are one of the oldest aristocratic families in Lancashire, a cadet branch of the Asshetons of Ashton-under-Lyne establishing their presence at Downham in the 1550’s.

They have been major local landowners here since then and have lived at Downham since the mid-17th Century. 
It is possible that Downham was a very early inhabited site; the eminence behind the Hall would have been a useful watchtower location for the Normans, as they gained control of the North and Northern routes. A section of the Roman road is documented here but this route would probably have continued in use for many centuries after Roman times. It would have been the key route through the Pennines to Skipton and its castle, founded in 1090. About the same date, the earliest Norman fortifications were built at Clitheroe and at Lancaster – in the latter case on the site of the original Roman fort.
 
Two earlier Lords of the Honour of Clitheroe were Henry de Lacy and John of Gaunt; their coats of arms surmount the entrance. The branch of the Assheton family was ennobled in the 20th Century, but were baronets before then and have links to both the Hotham (Lord Hotham) and Cockayne (Viscount Cullen) families. Recent male family members have been educated at Eton and Cambridge, though the first Baron wisely chose Oxford! 
The Grade II* listed Hall was rebuilt by George Webster from 1835; the stable block dating from the 1850’s. It was designed in a relatively simple two-storey classical style that harmoniously reflects the proportions of local vernacular buildings in the village. The windows have a late Georgian format and the main Porch has Roman Doric columns, with similar square columns around the south facing door. The stonework of the front southwest corner appears to predate the stonework of the rest of the building, the join concealed by a Webster pilaster. The Webster stonework has typical early Victorian stress relieving arches over the moulded window lintels. At the front of the house, some of the trees planted by previous family occupants have had to be removed but this provides a lovely open aspect, across the ha-ha, to the rounded Worsaw Hillandthe more severe ridge of Pendle Hill beyond; large trees frame the view on either side, one being the ‘Trafalgar Beech’. The land then falls away to the Downham beck and to the East below the Church is the Kitchen Garden.
 
Family records of the garden work remain undiscovered, so it is impossible to be very specific on how the garden developed. Great Grandmother was a keen gardener, and the Grandparents kept a Chauffeur/Gardener. However as Grandmother liked to drive and used the Gardener to direct traffic to clear her path, she may well have taken a similarly decisive approach to gardening. It appears that there had been shrubberies (popular in Victorian times), a tennis court (de rigueur in Edwardian ones) and flower beds – a typical complex early 20th century garden. The kitchen garden had supplied vegetables to the London home. How long all this survived is unclear.
 
Ralph Assheton’s parents had to simplify the garden to make it manageable. They had a trained gardener, a focus on special plants and maintained a smaller kitchen garden. On taking over the Hall, the current family occupants have followed a similar pragmatic approach with a full time gardener supporting their own efforts. Lupins, roses and peonies disappeared from the main garden, some taking up residence in the expanded kitchen garden. However, they are now focusing on three areas:
protection/maintenance of the old established trees;
redevelopment of the kitchen garden – using it for growing flowers, but primarily increasing the amount of fruit and vegetables produced;
development of the natural rockery on the slope leading down to the brook, connected to the upper garden with an attractive varied border.
The slope down to the brook is a perfect setting for a rockery with its old winding stone paths. Protected by the fall of the land and the walls of an Old Hall, it provides a sheltered, gentler, more intimate setting than the parkland around the house; Ralph is working on improving plantings and it is clearly his special project.

 

The kitchen garden has rows of lavenders; hops against the walls; and Morello cherries. Cavolo nero and various types of kale are being planted. It will be well worth a return visit on the Open Day on 23/24 July. It is pleasing that something productive can clearly look so attractive. Paths have been renewed in gravel and the beds retained in wooden frames, with an expected 10 year life.
 
It is well sheltered to the north by a high wall making sure that the excellent source of soil conditioner in the graveyard is actually retained there until fully broken down, whereupon it can gently leach into the kitchen garden soil, thanks to around 60 inches of rain a year. The Church was rebuilt in 1910 in an unostentatious late Victorian style.
 
With the wonderful weather and our hosts’ warm welcome and informative approach, the visit was quite special. The excellent views, the parkland setting of the house, the more romantic streamside rockery, and the renascent kitchen garden offered all the best of English country house traditions – a garden and gardeners with capabilities.
 
Jeremy Rycroft

 

“A Great Find”

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The Lancashire Gardens Trust
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