A visit to Penicuik House and its abandoned walled garden

A few weeks ago David was asked to help out with a bat walk at Penicuik house estate, we went early so he could show me the abandoned garden he had seen on a previous visit. However, before this we went to Roslyn Glen to check some bat boxes. Around the car park large swathes of wild flowers have been planted, and although we were seeing them in October, there was still plenty colour and lots of seed heads. Roslyn Glen is a great place to walk, there are several paths to follow below the Chapel, following the river North Esk in either direction. It is ideal for family walks, cycling or a gentle meander to walk the dog. We didn't spend much time here as we had to get to Penicuik house, but I got some great shots of some of the plants. 

Daucus carota

I especially liked Daucus carota, wild carrot and have grown it easily from seed myself. It is an umble carrying flat heads of white flowers in summer, usually biennial and growing up to 3ft. Once it has flowered and the seeds are forming, the whole flower starts to turn in on itself forming a dense cluster as you can see in the photograph above and below. It prefers hedgerows, roadsides and grass land. Like the cultivated carrot, the  young root can be eaten, but becomes woody quickly and not so palatable. Be careful when picking Daucus as its leaves can be very similar to poison Hemlock, make sure you have the right plant! The flowers if used in dying give a creamy white colour.

Daucus carota in Mono
Daucus carota

Also growing was Echium vulgare, Vipers Bugloss. Another biennial that grows from 2 to 3 feet.Sending out tall flower stalks with the vivid blue flowers coming out in summer. It can be grown as an oil seed crop because of the fatty acid composition of the seeds.

Echium vulgare
Teasels in mono

In amongst these were teasels, Dipsacus fullonum, standing tall and proud with their cone-like seed heads. These grow really easily from seed and once you have them, will seed every year, meaning you should never have to buy seed again. They are great for flower arranging, looking at when covered in frost in winter and birds love sitting on the seed heads feeding off the rich seeds in winter, they are a particular favourite of gold finches. Plants are often found growing on waste ground, grassland and railway bankings. 

From Roslyn it was just a five minute drive to Penicuik House estate. We parked in the public car park just off the A766. The path leaves the car park and goes down through the field to the old abandoned walled garden. This is now in part being used again, with lots of plans for the future, more of that later. I love old abandoned gardens, though sad, they have mystery and an other worldliness to them. They are also good for photography.

The main entrance to  Penicuik House
walled garden.

The main gate stands half open, rusty, with its coat of arms above lying slightly askew, like it might give up at any moment. Inside, the paths are all overgrown and the eye is drawn upwards towards a huge stone staircase and the back of the garden where the large range of glasshouses once stood. What immediately grabbed me as being odd was the stands of conifers to either side in the lower level. I've seen self seeded trees growing in abandoned gardens, but never commercial forestry.

Detail on the gate

Not far into the garden is a circular pond. Its stone covered in moss with weeds growing in the joints and half full of water and weeds. You could almost hear the ghostly sound of water falling from a long gone fountain. Walking on from here was the first retaining wall, because the garden is built into a hill,  it is terraced. The walls have certainly seen better days, with the facing brick peeling off in large pieces. 

Looking up the gardens, can you spot the deer?

The retaining walls

Once up the large stone staircase you get a great view back down to the main gate. It must have been an impressive place in its time, and I can easily imagine it at its peak. A huge team of gardeners would have worked hard, day after day supplying vegetables, fruit and flowers for the big house. This walled garden was built in the 1870's by Sir George Douglas Clerk, 8th Baronet, but it wasn't the first walled garden to be built on the estate. In the 1760's a semi circular garden was built further down the hill near the river. Unfortunately due to its low elevation and susceptibility to frost settling in the river valley and making the greenhouses very difficult to heat, it was decided to build a new garden further up the hill.

The view back down from the middle terrace

I could ramble on about the history of the gardens and its decline into abandonment, but the Penicuik Development Trust who now run the garden have a very informative website here, that is full of old plans, history and photos. It's well worth a read, especially if you plan to visit. 

We made our way up the next terrace which leads to the where the glasshouse used to stand and where the trust are growing and working on renovating the gardens. See what they are doing here. The glasshouses are completely gone, but its easy to see their shadow on the remaining walls, along with the remains of beds, paths and metal work as you walk amongst the trust's beds where they are growing veg, fruit and flowers. We made our way through one of the doors, into the series of buildings that ran right along the length of the wall. These would have been store rooms, potting sheds, a gardeners cottage and mess room. The roofs are all fallen in, rotted wooden window frames hang precariously and the rooms are full of rubble and rubbish.

The derelict range of sheds and stores along the back of the greenhouses

Window on a world long gone

The trust certainly have a long road in front of them to renovate and bring this place back to life. I really hope they manage to certainly stop any more deterioration in the structures in the short term. They have been growing vegetables to sell, especially potatoes and are getting great yields. The soil, has been rested for many decades which will certainly have helped reduce any pests and diseases that were issues in the later days of the gardens back in the 1940's. Having built fruit cages to protect their plants from rabbits and the deer we saw, the trust have filled the upper level where the glasshouses used to be with an beautiful selection of annuals, perennials, fruit and vegetables. There are containers planted up and sitting on glasshouse walls and steps.

Growing plants comes back to the walled garden

One of the side gates in the boundary wall
By now it was starting to get dark, so we made our way back to the car park to meet with Graeme from The Wildlife Information Centre, the estate ranger  and members of the public signed up for the walk. It was a chilly night and I was glad I had brought plenty layers. The walk took us down the estate drive across Knights Law Bridge and towards the ruins of Penicuik House. The ruins have been restored up to a point. The walls have been stabilised but the rooms remain open to the skies. They have only recently been opened to the public. The house burnt down in 1899, many fine and rare features were lost for ever and the ruin left to its own devises for nearly a century. The Clerk family since then have lived in the converted stable block nearby. There is more information and history on their website here. We saw a few bats, but because it was too chilly, there weren't as many as we hoped.

The stable block

The sun setting behind the house in the fading light

We hope to go back for a walk with Bracken the dog in the daylight and explore more of the estate soon. There are ponds, walks along the river and the original walled garden still to find. Its well worth a visit if you are ever in the area. I will do another garden blog after our daylight visit about what we find, hopefully the original semi circle garden and other garden features.

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