Would you like a map?’ says the National Trust volunteer at the entrance to Biddulph Grange.
‘No thanks,’ says Dad, ‘I used to trespass here as a kid, I think I’ll be alright.’
And so begins our extraordinary half-term wander among one of the UK’s most important Victorian gardens. Biddulph Grange is an old mansion and landscaped garden in Staffordshire, which The Independent once called ‘a horticultural Disneyland’. It was the brain child of Victorian plant collector James Bateman who mangaged to hide whole continents in his back garden.
Dad is the perfect guide, having trespassed here to fish as a kid and visited on open days with his parents when it was a hospital. Dad brought my Mum here and now finally, after all these years, me and his grand-daughter. I say finally because Dad grew up down the road and we must have driven past Biddulph Grange a zillion times when my Grandparents were still alive.
Bateman spent more than twenty years collecting plants from all over the world, sending plant collectors by ship to bring specimens back. He worked with Edward Cooke to create Egyptian, Chinese and Italian gardens, each separated by tunnels, walls and hedges. He was Darwin’s contemporary and wrestled in his heart and mind between creationism and evolution.
On one level its simply a joy to explore, especially with kids, but on a deeper level it’s like stepping into a Victorian brain and wandering the corridors – commentators have compared it’s significance to that of the Great Exhibition and called it the ‘garden of gardens’.
After leisurely stroll along tree lined paths the paths become tighter and a tunnel appears leading us into an exotic landscape of waterfalls and palm trees, through another tunnel and suddenly and inexplicably we find ourselves in China, complete with bridges, dragons, pagodas, frogs and even a miniature Great Wall.
The beauty of the Biddulph Grange experience is that each area is completely hidden from the next, it really feels like you have stumbled on a secret garden, I can’t imagine how my Dad felt as an 8yo trespasser.
Then on to what Dad tells me was my Grandmother’s least favourite part, Egypt, with its miniature tomb and comically creepy statue of the Egyptian Ape of Thoth. Egypt quickly gets instagrammed and declared a new favourite place by my Halloween loving daughter.
The Stumpery fascinates and repulses me, the upturned tres stumps and roots look like abandoned bones, jutting out and moss covered, or long forgotten antlers. It’s reminiscent of the entrance to a theme park ghost train.
The path out to the boundary of Biddulph Grange that the National Trust own takes us along a remarkably straight fir-lined path. The smell is magical, the urge to bury your nose in the tree’s green spiky skirt is irresistible, we’re all noses in trees like the children in the woods in Narnia.
At the boundary we stop and stare through the fence into what would have been the wilderness part of the garden, now a country park, and I try to imagine my Dad as a young lad darting around the fishing lake. How surreal it must have been to trespass into this garden as a child, to find yourself creeping into an Egyptian tomb or under a gold Chinese bull.
In the cafe later we have the best conversations over three generations, about children’s roaming areas, technology and communication and the madness of Victorians. Biddulph Grange is a great conversation starter.
As we sneak thorough the Cheshire Cottage and take in the best views of the house and Dahlia walk, I think of my Grandad and his price Dahlias.
Then to the shop and cafe and Dad shows us the room where Mum would sit and play the old Grand Piano – which is sadly no longer there – while she was between cancer treatments. Dad would leave her to play and take a walk and she would admire the view.
Biddulph Grange has so much meaning for all our family, and it has so much to offer all families.
‘He behaved himself,’ I tell the National Trust volunteer as we leave, ‘Dad didn’t steal any fish and he kept to the paths.’