New £30m garden for the North with big ambitions

Tom Stuart-Smith's masterplan
Tom Stuart-Smith's masterplan

Just over an hour away from Sheffield, the biggest gardening project in Europe is getting under way.

RHS Bridgewater, at Worsley New Hall in Salford, is to be the Royal Horticultural Society’s first new garden in 17 years, joining four other locations including Harlow Carr near Harrogate.

Opening in 2020, the ambitious £30 million project – named after the canal which runs close by – will revive the hall’s lost historic grounds, transforming 156 acres of derelict land into a major attraction filled with carefully-chosen flowers, trees and plants.

The work includes the restoration of an 11-acre walled kitchen garden, one of the largest in the UK. There will also be a learning centre for schools, a ‘plant centre’ and two lakes. Landscape architect Tom Stuart-Smith has been appointed to create the overall masterplan. The scheme overcame its final planning hurdle last summer. Proposals had to go before the secretary of state because of the site’s green belt status – however, the Government opted not to ‘call in’ the plans.

A team of RHS staff has now moved into an office at Worsley, in order to fully acquaint themselves with the garden. Existing trees and plants will be catalogued and invasive weeds identified; the woodland alone is home to 30 acres of overgrown rhododendrons.

Once visited by Queen Victoria and King Edward VII, Worsley New Hall survived a fire and two World Wars before it was demolished in the 1940s. Built for the first Earl of Ellesmere between 1840 and 1845, the Gothic-style mansion was designed by architect Edward Blore and stood in formal landscaped gardens that took 50 years to create.

Victoria was a guest twice, in 1851 and 1857 – for her first visit, the Bridgewater Canal was dyed blue in her honour. The hall became a British Red Cross hospital during the First World War but afterwards, with the departure of the Egerton family from the Worsley estate, the hall and the gardens fell into decline.

In the Second World War parts of the hall were requisitioned by the War Office and the gardens were taken over as training grounds by the Lancashire Fusiliers. Weakened by dry rot and following a fire in 1943, the building was knocked down by a scrap merchant, who had bought it for just £2,500. Parts of the grounds were later used as a garden centre, a Scout camp and a rifle range.

The RHS project will create more than 140 jobs, supporting another 180 locally, bringing a £13.8m economic boost to the area each year. Numerous community gardening projects will be organised.

Work is happening in two phases. The walled garden restoration and a new welcome building featuring a café and shop are among the first developments, while an ‘architecturally stunning glasshouse’ and Northern College of Horticulture are planned to open from 2024 onwards. Much of the scheme is still subject to funding, and the society has been keen to emphasise the potential benefits to the region.

Programme director Anna da Silva said: “We are 100 per cent focused on maximising the benefits for local communities – including jobs and apprenticeships, partnerships with schools and colleges, and community gardening projects.”

She added: “It’s the first time in more than 100 years that the RHS has taken on a garden project of this size. It will be an amazing resource for generations to come.”

Sue Biggs, the RHS’s director general, said Bridgewater will be ‘truly unique’ and unlike any other RHS garden. “It boasts a range of habitats from woods and lakes to streams and meadows.”

n See www.rhs.org.uk/gardens/bridgewater for updates.