Rose Castle was the residence of the bishops of Carlisle for almost 800 years. During this period, the castle evolved to its present form and the surrounding garden and grounds evolved along with it.
Historical records concerning the castle’s garden in its early period are scarce. There is little documentation about garden layout, crops cultivated or plants grown for ornamental use. Even more elusive is information on the many gardeners who tended this ecclesiastical site for hundreds of years.
One of the earliest records of the garden comes from 1400 when it was noted that Bishop William Strickland maintained a small area known as ‘Le Herber’ which was set aside for growing vegetables. In 1480, during the episcopate of Bishop Richard Bell, it was recorded that ‘apples, pears and plums grow in the orchard and around the castle’. Fruit is mentioned again in 1621 when the wife of Bishop Richard Milbourne sends apples from Rose Castle to Naworth Castle, also located in Cumbria.
In a Commonwealth Survey of Rose Castle in 1649, it was stated ‘…the fish ponds about the castle are grown up with weeds…an orchard without the south and east quarter of the castle contains about three roods of ground…there are fine walks of oak and ash…the trees growing near and about the aforesaid castle being in number 120…there is in the midst of the square of the aforesaid castle a very useful fountain which runneth continually…’.
In 1703, Bishop William Nicolson recorded a consignment of plants that were sent to Rose Castle from the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. He also kept detailed lists in a notebook of wild flowers that he found growing locally.
Changes to the garden are recorded in 1800 when Bishop Edward Vernon notes that borders were ‘raised in some parts by many cart loads of soil brought from the wood’ and shrubs from Scotland and Keswick were then planted.
Bishop Samuel Goodenough, resident at Rose Castle between 1808 and 1827, was the first treasurer of the Linnean Society of London. He was a botanist and enthusiastic gardener who was held many events in the gardens. Upon his arrival at Rose Castle, however, he made a comment about levels of local horticultural knowledge when he wrote, ‘No one here knows the difference between a thistle and a sunflower’.
It is thought that Sir Joseph Paxton may have been commissioned by Bishop Hugh Percy, perhaps between 1850 and 1855, to design and set out terraces and rose gardens. Sadly, no documentation or plans have been found to verify this claim. Sir Joseph Paxton was perhaps also commissioned at the same time by the bishop to design the Dutch garden, an area of intricate parterres and gravel paths situated on the site of the present-day orchard, but again no verifying documents have been found.
In 1887, Mrs Gertrude Ring Prescott visited Rose Castle during her honeymoon and wrote, ‘…there are velvety lawns, terraces of flowers, grand old trees, vast greenhouses of peaches, nectarines, apricots, pineapples, melons and grapes, the melons hanging in bags. It must take an army of gardeners to keep it so perfect…’.
During the episcopate of Bishop John Diggle, between 1905 and 1920, many improvements were made to the garden: overgrown laurel hedges were cut down, the old fish pond was cleared out and an island and bridge constructed, yew and beech hedges were planted. At this time, on the site of the present-day bog garden, the moat area on the west side was excavated and filled with water. It was noted ‘In all matters of horticulture the Bishop and Mrs Diggle have had the skilled advice of Mr Mutch, who is in every respect a worthy successor of John Twentyman, the gardener of Bishop Rainbow…’.
In 1942, during the Second World War, Rose Castle was requisitioned by the Ministry of Aircraft Production, and by the time Bishop Thomas Bloomer returned to the castle in 1955, the gardens were noticeably overgrown. He ‘drags the garden back from wilderness status’ and restores the main lawn.
Garden improvements continued throughout the 20th century. Mrs Halsey, wife of Bishop David Halsey, fondly remembers the garden between 1972 and 1988. She recalls, ‘Rose had a typical northern garden, mainly lawn and a few flower beds. The lawns were useful for garden parties. Japonicas grew by the entrance gate from which we made jelly.’
Today, following tradition, scented roses thrive in borders and against ancient walls. Other features include lawns, mixed borders, a white herbaceous border, productive orchard, ornamental vegetable garden, soft fruit area, woodland walks, meadows, bog garden, stew pond, a moat area filled with wispy grasses through which paths are cut, a woodland moat area, and a recently planted woodland to the west of the castle. The castle drive is maintained as part of the garden, and there is also an apothecary’s garden in which Bishop Ian Harland’s roses (Rosa gallica var.officinalis) still provide a cross-shaped show of pink blossom to remind us of his episcopate here.
At the present time, the most important function of the garden is to provide a welcoming haven of peace and tranquillity, further enhancing the spiritual nature and history of Rose Castle. This is achieved by the creation of a gentle blend of cultivated, productive and naturalised areas, enticing visitors to meander, linger or contemplate while enveloped by this garden’s serenity and quietude.