Two visit Frogmorton Towers

This is a tease, really, because Frogmorton Towers is the fictional setting for my book December Roses so we couldn’t possibly have visited it. But we did the next best thing, which was to go to the garden which was the main inspiration for the book – Biddulph Grange in Staffordshire.

The gardens at Biddulph Grange were designed by James Bateman in Victorian times as a place to show off his collection of ‘exotic’ plants gathered from around the globe. Where they differ from other similar gardens is that he included whole areas that represented countries or geographical areas, all held together by a maze of paths – and a distinctly mischievous, even twisted, sense of humour.

The garden isn’t huge, but the paths form such a labyrinth that it makes it seem much larger than it really is. Nothing is quite what it seems; nothing leads quite where you expect it to. And dotted around are a series of features that seem to have no other purpose than to make visitors to the garden jump.

For instance, there’s a quaint black and white Cheshire cottage off the Wellingtonia Avenue, which you enter only to find you’re on the first floor. There’s no obvious way down to the lower floor… until you discover the Egyptian court, walk through a dark tunnel under a yew pyramid, turn a corner past a scary statue of the Ape of Thoth, and emerge into the ground floor of the cottage perched above.

The star of the garden is the area known as China, hidden away cleverly behind high stone ‘cliffs’ and walls (some of which represent the Great Wall of China). The main entrance is via a charming brick folly at the end of the Dahlia Walk, but only after a sharp right turn and a climb up through a ‘stumpery’ – a Victorian concept that involved re-planting dead tree stumps the wrong way up and surrounding them with ferns and other leafy stuff. And the red-painted pagoda-style pavilion in the middle of China isn’t a summerhouse, as you might at first think, but part corridor, part bridge, to take you out through yet another tunnel to the rockery garden beyond.

Quite simply, the garden is enchanting, with a magical, mysterious atmosphere that I fell in love with decades ago and that has stayed with me ever since. When I first saw it the National Trust were quite literally digging it out of metres of mud and acres of brambles as it had been neglected for years. Now, they’ve mostly completed that work and the result is a twisting, fascinating journey into the unexpected with new delights (a golden buffalo, the weird stone frog I keep banging on about) at every turn.

We visited on a mild day that began cloudy and then cleared into brilliant sunshine, which was ideal for photography in different conditions at different times of the day. I went a bit mad and took over 50 photos: here are a few of the best. As with Frogmorton Towers, the garden is now owned by the National Trust and open to visitors on a regular basis. If you like gardening, or garden history, or walking round unusual places, or just want to see where December Roses was set, then I can thoroughly recommend a visit. I hope you fall in love with it every bit as much as I did!

The Chinese pagoda

One of the ‘love bells’ in December Roses

The frog!

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