Published: 00:00, 24 April 2014
| Updated: 13:20, 24 April 2014
Children are skipping on the grass, rolling down slopes and jumping over box hedges in what amounts to a £100 million designer garden adjoining a shopping village.
Anywhere else, in an Italianate garden and parkland overlooking a lake, visitors might be quietly examining the delicious planting but here, in Stoke-on-Trent, families are out in full force, pushing buggies into a floral labyrinth of paths and picnicking on the grass.
Shoes and socks are off for the barefoot walk and the mounds of molinia grass, which look like comic mopheads, will soon transform into rivers of tall, swaying grasses where children can play hide-and-seek.
In 2000, Trentham Estate was in rack and ruin. The Dukes of Sutherland had long departed, their vast wealth gone to the wind.
Trentham Hall was demolished a century ago and the land went through various guises; a coal mine; a stage of the RAC Lombard Rally; a caravan park, a fairground of sorts and a dance hall which once hosted the Beatles.
It was little more than a dumping ground when regeneration specialists St Modwen Properties PLC acquired the 725 acres and, critically, brought in consultants to study the site - including Elizabeth Banks, who became RHS president 2010-2013.
With expert guidance, the firm decided to restore the gardens with a contemporary edge.
RHS Gold designers Tom Stuart-Smith and Piet Oudolf were signed up and one of the country’s finest head gardeners, Michael Walker, arrived from Waddesdon Manor, in Buckinghamshire, to oversee the transformation.
They were just the latest in a who’s who of garden designers to make their mark on the gardens which were laid out in the 16th Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown landscaping as well as Sir Charles Barry’s 19th century Italianate gardens.
Sir Charles, it seems, influenced by a grand tour of Europe, helped to spend the Sutherlands’ cash by the wheelbarrow-load and his extravagance ran into creating the imposing, and now restored, stone balustrade next to the lake.
Piet Oudolf, whose projects include New York’s High Line and the Millennium Park in Chicago says Trentham is one of the best perennial landscapes he has created.
The palette looks deceivingly simple with repetitive swathes of astillibe, astrantia, grasses and persecaria. He said: “It’s an ultimate example of what perennial gardens can do to a public space. It connects people to plants and makes them aware of the seasons.”
The Italian Garden has been recast by Stuart-Smith with a modern twist, based on a naturalistic style with wide paths, borders and fountains that lead to the lake. He has achieved a signature elegance in the scheme which contains 80,000 perennials with 400different varieties in 70 beds and is the largest of its kind in Europe featuring, as an example, euphorbia, eremurus, aquilegia, peony, Echinacea and micscanthus.
More than three million people visit the estate every year and almost half a million come to view the gardens, making it one of the most-visited in the UK.
But 10 years on and work is nowhere near finished. Michael Walker is now charged with taking Trentham into its second stage. He said: “This was one of the saddest gardens I hadever seen when I arrived but it now stands with dignity as one of the finest gardens in the country.
“It was always a trendsetter and will continue to be so with our strapline ‘please stay on the grass’. We have fun and push the boundaries - but financially we have to work as a business.”
“We have been in discussions with Nigel Dunnett, designer of the Olympic Gold Meadows at London’s Olympic Park in 2012, so he may work with us.
Michael said: “We will be developing the lakeside walk with some continuity from Piet’s scheme but it would be superb if Nigel would drive this along.
“We have also been removing what were impenetrable rhododendrons and conifers on a large island as we want to reveal the Brownian serpentine lake and his landscaping. Some of the oaks he planted have been completely hidden.
“We are also moving into higher level stewardship with Natural England so there are plans to develop the wetlands and heaths which will be grazed by rare breed cattle.”
Michael has just been invited to be chair of the National Trust’s gardens and parks panel later this year and the charity will no doubt be interested in how the run-down estate has been transformed into a premier tourist and leisure destination of national significance.
Trentham may be the first large-scale designer garden in the UK with an adjoining shopping village but it is unlikely to be the last. Visitors were grabbing a treat from the deli, stopping for lunch in one of the eateries, trying on designer shoes and on the way back to the free car park stopping off in the garden centre.
A grand day out - for all the family - with a touch of back-to-the-future genius.
• For Kent visitors who might want to make a weekend of it, there’s an adjoining Premier Inn. Alton Towers is nearby and, of course, the Wedgwood museum and several other potteries. More details at visitstoke.co.uk
• The Trentham Estate, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, is open every day except December 25. Adult £9.25. Family ticket £32 or £105 for a family season ticket. Visit trentham.co.uk
To book a group tour call 01782 645215, or email firstname.lastname@example.org