WHEN Tom Speir was a young man he would visit Northumberland from his native North Yorkshire and gaze on the county with more than a little envy. “My father’s younger brother was MP for Hexham, Sir Rupert Speir, and I used to come up quite often. I always looked at Northumberland with longing,” he muses. “The parties were bigger and better, as were the houses and the hunting.”
Memories of those early yearnings come back to Tom as he tries to decide which of the two counties he prefers today. “It has to be Northumberland now,” he declares diplomatically. “I wouldn’t dare say anything else!”
It’s ten years since Tom moved up to Langley on Tyne after marrying Belinda, daughter of the land owner and former Haydon Bridge Parish Council chairman Tommy Bates who died last year. Belinda’s family own the Langley Castle estate and she and Tom live at one of its farms, East Deanraw.
Over the past ten years the couple have completely renovated what was previously a run-down tenanted farmhouse and created a new three-acre garden from what was just bare fell.
It may have been a labour of love, but it was hard labour according to Tom. “We are 650 feet up here. It’s a hell of a place to keep a garden going and of course the winds are horrendous,” he says.
“It’s been a battlefield to be honest because it’s a very unforgiving bit of countryside to try to do this sort of thing, although now it’s established, it will be OK. My father was a very good gardener, so I rather stood back. I am passionate about design but I don’t pretend to be a very knowledgeable gardener. I love it but I am no expert. However, I know what I want to do.”
To have tamed this green oasis from such a wild, unruly landscape is a truly impressive achievement and one that Tom is quick to point out is shared with the many people who have contributed to it.
The approach to East Deanraw is striking in itself – the Speirs have built a quarter of a mile drive through buttercup strewn meadows and the entrance to the house is guarded by two terracotta turtle doves.
A grand porch to the house has been created using stately stone pillars that Belinda’s father rescued from Halton Castle. The planners had originally banned their use, saying they couldn’t have ‘a gentrified farmhouse’. “They blew a fuse but I fixed that by making it four inches smaller so it became outside of planning controls,” Tom smiles. “I think it just gives the front of the house a bit of presence“
“It’s been enormously satisfying,” he adds. “What I really love is to come off the top and you get this view down into the garden. Everything else round it is fell. It’s this green and colourful place sitting in the sunlight and it’s just very peaceful.”
Of course a gentrified house requires a gentrified garden and when they began the work, the only cultivated patch was barely the width of the present terrace – around seven feet in front of the south facing house.
Today that stone paved terrace is the vantage point to three acres of sweeping lawns.
From here a series of steps take you down to first one herbaceous border, then another, which in mid July are bursting with delphiniums, geraniums, cornflowers, irises, lupins and alliums, all fighting for attention. A series of yew hedge ‘buttresses’ have been planted at intervals to protect the borders from the harsh winds.
Belinda credits her good friend, Jayne Cook “a superb gardener and a good friend, who has the most beautiful garden in County Durham,” with the planting scheme here. “She started us off and then of course my stepmother is Jane Torday who did a little bit of tree planting early on.”
The land slopes away down to a ha ha before dropping to a second tier which is skirted at the bottom by the Langley Burn. The one thing my father always said about our garden at East Hall near Scotch Corner was that although it was lovely, it had no water. When I saw the burn, I thought, ‘I wonder if we could create a lake?’ So we built the dam and dug it all out.”
Now the ornamental lake, fed by Langley burn, is the focal point of the whole scheme and is home to a family of ducks and ducklings. “We have a mother duck comes along and gives swimming lessons for the babies. It’s actually the only bit of open water round here for a long way and they love to nest in the rushes,” Tom says.
The lake is surrounded by Scots Pines and a lone roe deer hewn by a chainsaw artist peers out across the mirrored surface. The pines were already in situ but Tom, who used to own a tree nursery up in Perthshire, has imported around a hundred specimen trees to East Deanraw.
The couple have enjoyed seeing them mature and Tom points out a towering alder that was just two thirds of the size it is now when it came. There are oaks, chestnuts and a lovely weeping ash which weighed three quarters of a ton. Bordering it are two topiary stags that, it has to be said, were looking a little bald on our visit.
“We got them from Daphne Scott-Harden who lives at Blanchland,” Tom explains. “She’s a great gardener and a lifelong friend of mine going back to my boyhood in Yorkshire. She had these in her garden covered in privet and I’m going to try to get them going again.”
Lots of interesting sculptures are dotted around the garden including two verdigris hares that stand sentinel on the terrace and a magnificent wild boar that sits in a commanding position atop a mound. They have even made a feature of their septic tank by planting lavender around a scallop shell sculpture.
In July the Speirs decided the garden was in good enough shape to welcome in the public as part of the Red Cross open gardens scheme and scores of people came to admire the work that has been done.
Visitors were encouraged to head to the top of the fell which boasts stunning views on the other side over one of the best bits of Hadrian’s Wall. Tom says that their decision to open the garden was as much to pay tribute to the people who had helped in its creation as it was to raise money for a great cause.
“Margaret Ridley who lives in a cottage here – she puts in quite a lot of hours weeding the borders and cutting them back and Rosie Hudson is a really nice lady who lives at Stublick, a real horticulturalist who comes in and has a blitz. She’s been in from the beginning and has had a major part to play. Then there’s a lovely chap who does the grass work which takes a full day, John Ballantyne. That’s my team and I’m lucky to have them all,” he says.
“It’s been enormously satisfying,” he adds. “What I really love is to come off the top (of the fell) and you get this view down into the garden. Everything else round it is fell. It’s this green and colourful place sitting in the sunlight and it’s just very peaceful.”