There are a few properties within an hour of home that I have been saving for a specific time of year and Sheffield Park Garden is one of these as it is renowned for its autumn colour. Arriving late in the morning on an October Friday, however, I quickly realised that a lot of other people had had the same idea. Taking one of the last remaining spaces in the packed car park, I was a little worried that the visit would be marred by hordes of visitors blocking every view, but unlike some of the other gardens managed by the Trust, Sheffield Park is big enough to disperse a fairly large number of visitors and it never felt too busy.
It is certainly worth braving the busy time of year too as the autumn colour was exactly as promised… i.e. spectacular. Some of the maples were such bright reds and oranges that if someone had painted them that way you might have thought they’d overdone the pigment. Even the newly planted little maples, still surrounded by mesh to keep away small pests, seemed to be crying out ‘look at me’, with their bright colours. Sheffield Park also benefits in a big way from its water as every spectacular scene is doubled up in the lakes’ reflections. For those wanting to get a perfect photo, there are inevitably times when you might have to wait for other visitors to vacate your shot, but it’s usually worth standing a few extra minutes to get some pictures – believe me, you’ll want to take these views home to look at again. It really is a beautiful place for an autumn walk.
Now, while I expected the autumn displays to be fairly stunning, there was one thing I truly wasn’t expecting about Sheffield Park and this was the house, which is a frankly gobsmacking Gothic building that sits at the top of the chain of lakes, overlooking its domain. Only it is no longer its domain; unfortunately, the house is separated into privately-owned apartments and has never been part of the NT estate at Sheffield Park. I simply can’t express how much I wish this were otherwise. A visit that combined the gardens with a Gothic house preserved from the Georgian era could well have been one of the best visits of my entire challenge, but sadly it is not to be. Instead, I had to content myself with some photos of the beautiful house so tragically separated from its garden.
The history of the garden is obviously interlinked with the story of the house so the guide book gives some background on the various owners of Sheffield Park and particularly those who most influenced the development of its grounds. Records of ‘Sheffield Place’ actually date back to the 13th century and in Tudor times, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, entertained Henry VIII there. However, as the Tudor house is long gone, the current house isn’t part of the official visit and the gardens didn’t really exist in their present form at the time, I can’t really include this on my list of regal visits.
The real history of the garden starts with the 1st Earl of Sheffield who bought the estate in 1769. As well as employing James Wyatt (whose architectural feats fill a rather large entry on Wikipedia) to remodel the house in the Gothic style that we see today, he also hired first ‘Capability’ Brown and then Humphry Repton to work on the gardens. Unfortunately, details of their precise efforts have not survived.
One of the interesting nuggets of information from the first Earl’s time, though, is the fact that growth of trees at this site is so vigorous that it seems the Earl might actually have regretted not planting a commercial plantation instead of an ornamental garden. Current visitors have no such regrets!
Another little fact about the 1st Earl is that he was good friends with the historian Edward Gibbon who apparently wrote a few chapters of his ‘The Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire’ in the library of Sheffield Place (as the house was then called). He is also buried in the Sheffield family mausoleum in nearby Fletching church.
The 3rd Earl of Sheffield was the next big influence, making adjustments to the lakes and adding the Pulham Falls cascade (which incidentally is only turned on between 12pm and 1pm on Tuesdays and Fridays as it uses a huge amount of water) as well as laying out the planting in its current structure. He was also well known for his support of English cricket and the pitch to the east of the gardens played an important role in the early history of England v Australia rivalry, with touring Australian teams taking on Lord Sheffield’s XI between 1884 and 1896, with WG Grace featuring in the last of these matches as the Sheffield captain. You can visit the cricket pitch where there is an information board about its history.
The last major player in Sheffield Park’s history was Arthur Soames, a wealthy brewer who purchased the estate from the 3rd Earl’s executors in 1910. His deep pockets certainly helped to transform the garden and we can largely thank Soames for many of the stunning spring and autumn displays as he planted the rhododendrons, nyssa and maples that provide much of the garden’s colour.
Although the autumnal trees and springtime rhododendrons are perhaps the biggest draws to visitors, Sheffield Park offers year-round interest in its many evergreens, including giants such as the Wellingtonia sequoia as well as many other unusual conifers, while the water-lilies are likely to be a sight to behold in the late summer. There is even a slightly incongruous avenue of small palm trees tucked away to the north. I would imagine that most visitors will find something new and unusual that catches their interest. My pick was the Athrotaxis laxifolia, more commonly known as summit cedar, although it is not actually that common at all as it is endemic to Tasmania in the wild. It is the rarest of the three Athrotaxis tree species but the most commonly chosen as an ornamental plant. It stood out for me due to its really unusual seed cones, which start green and then turn orange, delivering a surprising splash of autumn colour from an unexpected source.
And to conclude with a little piece of visitor info, I would warn you that the café is outside the gardens themselves and a short walk through part of the car park so refreshment breaks will need to be planned before or after your visit to the grounds (although there is a little coffee cart within the gardens if you can pin it down – it was at the end of Conifer Walk on the path from the Ten Foot Pond bridge during our visit, but it’s a mobile cart so who knows where it might be today or tomorrow?!) We visited the café twice – before and after viewing the gardens – and I found the food was actually a bit hit and miss. I wasn’t too keen on my iced banana cake (bit dry and too much icing) or my chicken casserole lunch (more like a soup and very salty) but my Dad said the three-bean chilli was very nice and we both thought the plum and forest fruit crumble with ice cream was delicious. I would also add that the catering staff were extremely helpful and friendly despite being under considerable pressure on a very busy day.
Highlights: The autumnal maples; the Gothic house
Refreshments: Tea and iced banana cake; chicken casserole with new potatoes and cabbage; plum and forest fruit crumble with ice cream