gardens

Howick Hall – Beautiful Blooms and Earl Grey’s Famous Tea

Whatever the time of year, Howick Hall Gardens and Arboretum provides a different experience with changing colours, blooms and flowers. Throughout the seasons, it’s an unmissable attraction for gardeners and horticulture lovers.

Howick is a special because there’s always discover something new to discover in its vast grounds. But there’s much more to Howick than its extensive gardens which extend right down to the Northumberland coast.

It was once the home of the 2nd Earl Grey, best known for his statue which sits on top of The Monument in Newcastle city centre. He’s also famous for his tea which is the 5th most popular brew in the world.

Although I’ve lived in North East England for 30 years, I’ve never been to Howick Hall and Gardens until now. I can’t believe what I’ve been missing. It’s a brilliant day out with more than a few surprises to keep you coming back for more…

The Home of Earl Grey Tea

It’s official – Howick Hall is the home of Earl Grey Tea. The tea is said to have been made specially for Charles, the 2nd Earl Grey, by a Chinese mandarin in the 1830s.

The tale is that Earl Grey was gifted the blend by the mandarin to thank him for saving his son from drowning. Sadly, the facts have been lost in the mists of time but it’s still a mighty good yarn.

“Grey reputedly received a gift, probably a diplomatic present, of tea that was flavoured with bergamot oil.
It became so popular that he asked British tea merchants to recreate it.”

Earl Grey biography – UK Government – History of MPs

Apparently, the tea was made to suit the spring water at Howick and was flavoured with bergamot to mask the taste of lime.

British tea makers, Twining, soon came on board as the original blenders of the tea. They were involved in marketing the tea and making it drinkable when brewed with London water which was also rich in lime. The rest is history!

I was surprised to discover that the Grey family failed to register the trade mark and never received any payments in royalties from the tea named after them.

Today, you can enjoy a cuppa in the authentic setting of Howick Hall’s Earl Grey Tea House, housed in the former ballroom. The cafe’s cakes are outstandingly good so don’t miss trying the tea with a giant slice of Victoria Sponge.

Spring Sensations

Howick is famous for its colourful Spring displays of daffodils, crocuses and snowdrops as well as its early flowering woodland species.

The drama begins in February with the early arrival of thousands of snowdrops, planted in large drifts throughout the gardens. This is followed by the blooming camellias and early rhododendrons with their striking red, white and pink blooms in late March.

The visual feast continues into March and April when a sensational show of golden daffodils spring up. They were planted in huge numbers by the 5th Lady Grey, a huge bulb enthusiast, between the First and Second World Wars.

Top Tip: Take the ‘Snowdrop Walks’ in February and March when the early bulbs start to appear as winter moves into early spring . The daffodil displays are at their height in early April across the main gardens and along ‘Daffodil Bank”. Map c/o Howick Hall and Gardens.

Photo – Daffodils, a flowering magnolia, the ‘Bathing House’ by the coast and spring primroses.

From Howick to the Himalayas

A walk around the Arboretum at Howick is like cramming a journey around several continents into a single day trip. There are about 11,000 trees and shrubs planted in six geographical groups, all with tags to identify what they are.

Howick Hall Arboretum is incredibly impressive when you realise that it has been grown largely from seed collected in the wild from 1985 onwards.

The Hall’s gardeners has developed close links with Kew Gardens and other horticultural centres which has helped to boost the range of new plants in the gardens. It’s great fun to play ‘spot the plant’ as you take the arboretum trail.

Howick Hall and Gardens Northumberland
Take a detour to the Pond

Some of the trees at Howick have much earlier origins, of course. The estate’s earliest trees were originally planted in the 1600s including yew trees in the hall’s grounds and close to the Back Drive.

During Victorian times, Queen Victoria planted the Algerian Oak when she spent a night at Howick. It was said to have been grown from Algerian acorns given to Prince Albert.

Howick’s horticultural experts doubt its provenance and think that the tree may actually originate from southern France. It can be seen at the east end of the main path. Sadly, I managed to miss it because I was looking for red squirrels which are often spotted in the grounds!

Top Tip: Don’t forget to pick up your free leaflet and map which contains the estate walking routes. There are numbered marker posts to help you find your way around. The East Arboretum has three recommended routes – a short, medium and long walk, each marked by coloured arrows.

A Hidden Wartime History

The Victorian church of St Michael and All Angels stands within the grounds of Howick Hall on the site of two previous old churches.

The current church, which was built in 1849, contains several memorials to Grey family members including the 2nd Earl Grey whose tomb is located on the south wall (opposite the pulpit.) It was once more ornate with a Gothic marble canopy, but the 5th Earl disliked it so much that he grabbed a hammer and smashed it to pieces!

There’s a fascinating display and photographs inside the church about Lady Sybil Grey who helped to set up and run the First World War Hospital at Howick Hall. 

Lady Sybil also travelled to Russia to establish a British Hospital, and was wounded at the front. She also witnessed the 1917 Russian Revolution – and was active in nursing work in France during WW1.

The old churchyard is definitely worth a look around and also boasts some intriguing monuments.

Look out for a red brick memorial dedicated to the sailors on the French trawler, The Tadorne which sank off the Howick coast in 1913.

The boat had been making its way from Boulogne to Iceland with a crew of 30 men on a fishing trip. Thick fog descended, making navigation almost impossible, and the ship ran aground at Howick in stormy seas. The Boulmer lifeboat, the Arthur R. Dawes, was launched and managed to rescue 25 of the French crew.

Five French sailors perished. They were buried in the church graveyard at Howick where a poignant memorial commemorates their lives. The Grey family and local people helped the survivors, taking them in and comforting them.

Top Tip: Look for the small stone gargoyles on the church’s exterior (on the north wall) which were carved by Maria, the 3rd Countess Grey.

A Walk to the Sea

One of my favourite things at Howick is to take the “Long Walk'” which runs from the edge of the house gardens down to the sea where you’ll discover a gleaming, golden beach.

This brilliant walking route takes you through several continents on a journey from Howick to the Himalayas via China, Japan, Chile, and North America.

The route of the walk follows Howick Burn for about 1½ miles, along a narrow valley and traverses part of the new arboretum. There are a variety of walkways where you can loop around the main path for a short diversion.

The walk is wilder than I’d imagined which was a pleasant surprise. On a quiet day you can loose yourself in this wonderful landscape, far from the madding crowd. I also managed to spot two wild deer prancing around in a wooded glade.

The Greys wanted to create an informal, natural style of garden – and this is what makes Howick so special. It doesn’t feel over-manicured in the way that some gardens try to over-impose a sense of order and rigidity.

Since my last visit, there has been quite a bit of tree damage following the winter storms with several large upended trees lying prostrate on the ground. But many trees have survived unscathed and are a joy to behold.

Top Tips – There’s a lovely diversion halfway along the Long Walk to the large Pond where you’ll find a selection of wild birds including herons, tufted ducks and mute swans.

Be aware that the exit gate from the Long Walk to the beach is ‘one way’ only . You can’t return via the same route to the house. Once you leave through these gates, you’ll soon reach the coast and a pretty beach, ideal for a picnic.

Enjoy the sea views before taking the footpath to your left along St Oswald’s Way. Walk for approx 500 metres until you reach Seahouses Farm. Take the farm path on the left for 200 metres until it joins the main road. Follow the main road downhill for another 300 metres back to the entrance of Howick Hall.

Coming up Roses

Summer is a great time to capture the scent of roses at Howick when the flowers are in full bloom and their scent fills the air.

I love the heady perfume of these popular flowering plants which always make me feel uplifted with their intense smell and multi-layered, petalled flowers.

Top Tip: To see the roses at their best, head to the walled garden and also look out for the special display of climbing roses around a sculptural feature.

A Very British Prime Minister

Howick was the home of the Grey family from 1319 until the death of the 5th Earl Grey in 1963.  The estate then passed to his eldest daughter, Lady Mary Howick, and finally to her son, the present Lord Howick of Glendale.

Charles 2nd Earl Grey is perhaps the most distinguished member of the clan. He was originally an MP for Northumberland before becoming Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834. He was the most important man in Britain.

Earl Charles Grey also had a London home where he and his wife entertained ‘the great and the good’. His wife was Mary Elizabeth Ponsonby with whom he had a huge family of 15 children.

Earl Grey was a Whig politician and oversaw four years of political reform which had a huge impact on British democracy.

His most famous achievement was the Reform Act of 1832, which set in motion the process of electoral change and sowed the seeds of the modern democratic system.

His other reforming measures included restrictions on the employment of children, and the abolition of slavery.

Top Tip: It’s worth visiting the exhibition about the 2nd Earl Grey and his political career in the main Hall.
The entrance hall has an excellent display about the family’s creation of the garden’s treasures.

Regency Revival

Howick Hall was built in 1782 in a Regency style and was designed as an elegant home for the Grey family.

Tragically, it was gutted by a catastrophic fire in 1926 resulting in the loss of the interior which was later completely rebuilt. Today the downstairs rooms have been restored and they provide a good idea of what the original house would have looked like.

Just beyond the entrance area, there’s a circular rotunda in a Georgian style which provides a lovely, airy feel to the house. Look up and you’ll see the light streaming in through the domed glass roof.

One of the living rooms has a stunningly beautiful Chinese wallpaper, originally painted in Beijing in the 1920s.

Top Tip: Don’t forget to go inside Howick Hall where the ground floor has been restored to its former glory. The Visitor Centre features an exhibition about Earl Grey’s political career, and a display about the history of the gardens and its plants.

A Riot of Colour

Spring and Summer are the best times to experience the riot of colour at Howick whether in the main gardens or across the wider landscape beyond the hall.

I’d recommend the Woodland Garden – nicknamed ‘Silverwood’ – with its blazing display of rhododendrons, camellias and magnolias, my favourite colourful plants. The famous ‘magnolia campbellii’, a native of the Himalayas, can be seen resplendent with its dramatic large, pink flowers in the Spring.

Close to the main house, the formal gardens are at their best from June onwards whilst the intriguing Bog Garden is a ‘must’ for horticulture specialists.

The Hydrangea Garden is the perfect home for this ‘picky’ plant which loves the soil here which allows the blue form of hydrangeas to retain their colour and not turn pink. It’s located a short walk from the house terrace.

Top Tip: Guided tours of the gardens provide a fascinating insight into Howick’s horticultural treasures. Tours take place between April and October every Friday, starting at 14:00 from the Visitor Centre.

Beautiful Borders

Howick is famous for its flower borders which put my feeble attempts at home to shame, but it did give me a few ideas for my own humble garden.

The Clock Border outside the Earl Grey Tea House includes an impressive display of large, tall aliums with their purple ‘pom pom’ blooms. This is another plant that I’ve never managed to grow successfully because it’s too windy where I live. This formal garden is also a good place to look for red squirrels on the bird feeders.

Top Tip: The herbaceous borders to the south side of the house come into their own from June until early September. Look out for the magnificent agapanthus display with their gorgeous blue blooms.

Autumn Colour

Autumn is a time to see Howick in a different light with a profusion of seasonal colours – fiery reds, burnished oranges, and citrus yellows.

The trees start changing colour whilst apples, cherries, maples, beeches and birches provide a rich palette of autumn tones in contrast to the ‘blousier’ blooms of the summer.

There’s no better place to enjoy the season of “mellow fruitfulness” and abundant, rich fall colours.

A Hidden Hill Fort?

One of the surprise finds close to Howick is a hilltop ‘fort’ or settlement which can be reached from the Long Walk.

It’s easy to identify the earthworks and remains of a circular camp with a diameter of around 80 metres.

There are very faint traces of what many archaeologists think was an outer ditch. But little is known about the fort’s history or whether it was simply a small village. There may also have been a Roman connection.

This mysterious grassy mound is most likely to have been Iron Age settlement – and would have benefited from being near the coast and the waters of Howick Burn.

Top Tips: As you leave the gate at the end of the Long Walk, turn immediate left and follow the marked pathway to the ‘hill fort’. After 200 metres walking along the edge of a farmer’s field, you’ll reach the top of the fort.

Practical Stuff

Location

Howick Hall and Gardens are located near Longhoughton in Northumberland, England. Take the A1 exit until you reach the B1340 signs to Denwick. Head towards Longhoughton, continue through the village and follow the signs for Howick Hall Gardens.

The Arriva Bus Company operates a bus service from Newcastle to Alnwick/Alnwick to Newcastle hourly. Travelsure runs bus service X18 from Alnwick which can drop off visitors at the entrance to Howick Hall Gardens.

Admission

Admission prices apply (£8.80 for adults) – and annual passes are a good value option, if you’re planning return trips.
No dogs are allowed except guide dogs. There is plentiful car parking.

The gardens are open daily 10:00-16:00 (later in summer) except in late November, December and January when the gardens are shut.

Eating

I’d strongly recommend Howick Hall’s cafe/restaurant which offers an excellent selection of hot meals, sandwiches, cakes and (of course) Earl Grey Tea. Nearby Boulmer and Beadnell are good stops for lunch or dinner after your visit.

Access for All

The Sensory Garden has been created especially for people with autism and their carers. It’s also a great space for children and adults to enjoy the colours and scents of the plants in an attractive environment.

Some garden paths are suitable for wheelchairs although the East Arboretum isn’t because of its bumpy terrain.

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