There’s so much to see and do at Trentham that’s it’s a great place to visit all year round. There’s the shopping village, monkey forest and garden centre but as always, my focus is on the gardens. Overlooking the ruins of Trentham Hall are the formal Italian Gardens leading down to the lake and the annual and perennial meadows. And don’t miss the naturlistic plantings of Piet Oudolf who has designed the Rivers of Grass and Floral Labyrinth.
The award-winning gardens at Trentham are open every day of the year except Christmas Day. Tickets can be bought online.
Trentham is six minutes from Juntion 15 of the M6, just to the south of Stoke-on-Trent.
Trentham has seen much change since it first began life as an Augustinian Priory. Disbanded during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the estate was bought by James Leveson, a wool stapler in 1540. The family prospered and by the eighteenth century had been granted several titles. Born in 1721, Granville Leveson-Gower was known as Viscount Trentham, Earl Gower and in 1786, the 1st Marquess of Stafford. In 1759, Lord Gower asked ‘Capability’ Brown to develop the lake and parkland.
A contemporary wrote: ‘my old friend Brown is to be traced at every turn; he certainly was a grand planner and leveler of ground – and a judicious former of water; the lake, here is very fine’. Gower also employed Brown’s son-in-law, the architect Henry Holland, to enlarge the house.
The 2nd Marquess inherited Trentham in 1803. He married Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland, and became 1st Duke of Sutherland in 1833. He died the same year, and the estate was left to his son, George Leveson-Gower. George immediately commissioned Charles Barry to enlarge the house and lay out the gardens with help from George Fleming, Head Gardener. Fleming also attempted to divert the River Trent away from the lake but was unsuccessful.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the 3rd Duke of Sutherland reduced the upkeep of the gardens. The intricate parterres were simplified while many of Fleming’s beloved hothouses were pulled down. But another problem arose – this time insurmountable. In 1898, an article in Country Life highlighted how sewage in the River Trent had flowed from the Potteries into the Lake at Trentham. The River was ‘a foul slimy sewer, brim-full of the impurities of every dirty crowded town that hugs its banks’.
Attempts were made to solve the issue but by 1905, the Sutherlands were forced to leave the estate. Staffordshire and the Borough of Stoke-on-Trent were offered the Hall for free – but declined. And in 1910-11, having sold off all its contents and much of the interior, the Sutherlands organised the demolition of the Hall. All that remains today are the entrance facade and the stable block.
The estate fell into disrepair but remained in the Sutherland family until 1979. In 1996 Trentham was bought by St Modwen Properties. The Companies’ founder, Sir Stanley Clarke, wanted to see the regeneration of Trentham. Investing over 100M, they have done a fantastic job in restoring the gardens – and if it takes a shopping village to make the estate economically viable, then so be it.
I visited during lockdown, and visitors were encouraged to turn left after the ticket office and follow the path around the lake. Either side of the path, are the annual and perennial meadow schemes designed by Professor Nigel Dunnett as well as several modern sculptures.
At the far end is a cafe and the cascade by Brown
and the return route goes through the Stumpery.
Overlooking the lake are garden gazebos which can be hired for £35.00 per day. Lined up like a row of soldiers, they look a little incongruous in a Parkland setting but again they were popular. And that is what Trentham is all about – the visitor experience.
Next is the Terrace and the Italian Garden designed by Tom Stuart-Smith. Criss-crossed by paths, the area has over 100,000 perennials and bulbs, cypresses and fountains. Stuart-Smith wrote: ‘Trentham will retain the scale and magnificence it had in the 19th Century, but to it we’ve added diversity and the human element.’
Walking towards the Loggia which was designed by Charles Barry
is a sculpture of an embryo man sitting inside a 50 pence piece. During the Second World War, the Bankers’ Clearing House was transferred to Trentham for the duration of the Second World War. The Banks commissioned the sculpture in commemoration: ‘It symbolises the all-embracing concern of the clearing banks for the financial well-being of their customers’. Hmmmmm
In front lies the remains of the house. St Modwan had plans to develop the buildings into a hotel but the amount of restoration work needed made the project economically unviable. Let’s hope things change in the future. It’s perhaps not surprising that another of the Sutherland’s great houses was also designed by Barry – Cliveden in Buckinghamshire. And that has become an extremely successful hotel. [The Head Gardener at Cliveden was called John Fleming – was he a relation of the George Fleming at Trentham?]
Back to Trentham. From the remains of the Hall, take the main axis back towards the lake and through the Italian Gardens. On the Terrace at the far end is the statue of Perseus with the head of Medusa. c1840, it is modelled on the sculpture by Cellini in Florence.
Turn left and walk back through the arch into the Rose Garden
and the area of Trentham laid out by Piet Oudolf.
Oudolf is a leading exponent of naturalistic planting and has designed the Rivers of Grass and the Floral Labyrinth. He has also created the long borders either side of the Italian Garden.
Throughout the garden are fairies. These fairy ‘wishes’ were added in 2004, to mark the 10th anniversary of the garden’s re-opening. I can’t wait to return.