The history is easy to see at Levens Hall. For starters, it’s a medieval pele tower encased in a (slightly) later Elizabethan house – the largest in Cumbria. The original building dates from around the middle of the 13th century; the ‘new’ house from about 1580. It’s stunning to look at, with stone mullioned windows, gables, and a tower, all in the local pale limestone – and much of the interior is Elizabethan too.
The gardens are every bit as interesting as the house, and are almost certainly the oldest topiary gardens in the world. They date from the late 17th century and are mostly unchanged, at least in plan – obviously individual plants have been replaced in the meantime but the design remains the same.
We last visited the hall about twelve years ago, but went back yesterday morning having got pre-booked tickets, and very enjoyable it was too. The visit began with a coffee and a shared cheese scone sitting by a fountain in the courtyard, and then we had a pleasant wander round the grounds. The weather wasn’t wonderful, but it was quiet, soft, mild, and with enough mist to enhance the various features without hiding them. I half expected a headless coachman or a medieval monk to come floating out of the undergrowth, particularly in the less formal area of the garden near the pet cemetary.
The topiary is amazing. Some of the yew trees are huge, and carved into strange forms – some like birds (peacocks, apparently, although it’s hard to tell!), others just lumpy, bumpy hedges that seem to go on for miles. It’s a photographer’s dream, and I took simply loads of photos of the trees, the hall, the rest of the gardens, and various follies and quirky features.
There are supposed to be ghosts at the hall, including that old stalwart, a ‘grey lady’, and a small black dog. Sadly, in spite of the mist we didn’t see either. But the atmosphere was slightly spooky all the same.
And the mystery? Well, it’s the name. This is Levens Hall. The village of Levens lies a short distance away; between the two is Levens Bridge. And yet the river that bridge crosses isn’t the River Leven, but the Kent. There is a River Leven, but it’s a few miles further north, flowing out of the southern end of Windermere into a different bit of Morecambe Bay. It’s hardly the most mysterious mystery ever! But it did make us stop and scratch our heads…