Gordon Castle Walled Garden

On a recent visit to Gordon Castle Walled Garden, Monika, Senior Gardener told me that studying horticulture at the Biblical Garden in Forres (part of Moray College) was “like a birthday cake” and now – being employed by the Walled Garden – is “the cherry on the top!”  And as a visitor, you can see why: it is a beautiful garden that has not only been re-developed by the owners, Angus and Zara Gordon Lennox, to reflect the history of the estate but has also been re-designed to bring it into the present day with an eye on the future.

Dating back to 1900, the garden is one of the largest Walled Gardens in the country.  In the Victorian and Edwardian eras it was a bustling market garden producing an abundance of fruit, vegetables, herbs and cut flowers and providing employment in the local community.

In the 1950s it was largely turned over to raspberry canes and run as a commercial fruit farm.  However, it became uneconomical and was left to run wild as an overgrown field … mown for hay just twice a year.  Despite the seeming neglect, the 249 fruit trees that run along all four walls of the garden were tended regularly by Willie Robertson who continued to prune and care for the trees beyond his retirement – and well into his 80s.

In 2013, Angus and Zara made the decision to restore the Garden.  They began the project with clear objectives to ensure …

  • the garden would be a real asset
  • they would make use of the garden’s produce
  • it would not be ‘just a market garden’
  • they would plant it in a way that would make it both beautiful and productive
  • it would be open to the public

They chose to work with leading garden designer, Arne Maynard and the results are stunning. In 2014, the Walled Garden opened to the public for the very first time – a garden that is contemporary and looks to the future rather than its past.

During the project, Zara was given an invaluable piece of advice by a friend: people like to visit places “for the view, the brew … and the loo!”    The Walled Garden cafe building is the result. You would never know it is a completely new build. It provides a lovely view onto the restored greenhouses and gives a glimpse of the garden through big open windows: it is a fabulous, airy space.   The beautiful entrance uses old trees from the estate too.

Take a walk around the garden and you understand their ethos:

  • Plant
  • Pick
  • Plate

Everything that is grown in the garden is then used in the products sold in the shop and in the food produced in the cafe.   So whether you are buying a bottle of Castle Gordon Gin, hand lotion or a box of teabags, you know that the herbs and botanical ingredients have been grown and picked in the garden.

Provenance is key: in the cafe, all the produce served is seasonal – from salmon caught in the Spey to venison from the hills on the estate.

And if provenance is key, then their business model is fundamental to their success. Every penny spent at the shop and cafe is ploughed back into the maintenance and restoration of the garden – a ongoing project that will create one of the largest, most productive Walled Gardens in the country.

Visiting the Garden

Gordon Castle Walled Garden is not your typical visit to an historic garden.   Straight away, you know it is a working garden – but lovely with it.   The beds are planted with herbs, fruit and vegetables – and in order to maintain and improve soil stability are rotated regularly.  In among these are also colour co-ordinated flower beds – cut flowers that find their way to the shop for visitors to buy and enjoy.

Everything in the garden has been done ‘in house’ – they have made the gates, planters and stakes from wood on the estate and the greenhouses were all restored by their team of joiners, electricians, stonemasons and gardeners. The investment in people is clearly just as important as the investment in bricks, mortar and the beds! 

The garden itself is headed up by Ed Bollom. He has a team of gardeners along with volunteers who visit regularly.  This includes students on the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme – providing valuable life skills for youngsters.

The fruit trees still line the walls: the north-facing wall is taken up with the cooking apples, whilst the south facing wall has apricots and nectarines … yes, really!  The wall gets really warm in the summer and Moray is one of the driest regions in the whole of the UK.

At the moment (February), the gardening team is about to plant out cherry trees – there are bamboo canes marking the spot.  These cherry trees will provide further colour from Spring to Autumn.  Another future project is to plant soft fruit canes – it has been put on hold for 2018 but in 2019, visitors can expect to see raspberries and strawberries feature on the cafe menu … as well as flavouring for their Gins.

 

There is a separate performance space too and in the summer, you can bring your picnic and enjoy an outdoor performance.  And for children, there is a great children’s play area – once again, all constructed from wood from the estate and put together by the team.  It is a very natural area that encourages play including learning how to pump water.

The shop is well stocked with Gordon Castle Walled Garden products – including their health & beauty range, gins, teabags, estate ciders, postcards and other gifts – including Gordon Castle Tweed bags.  And if you are self-catering, they have fresh fruit and vegetables from the Garden available seasonally.

 

Growing The Future

The Garden welcomes school groups to visit – teaching things such as pollination, all about insects and where food originates.  Last year, a local primary school came and planted out two beds full of crocus and returned later to see the fruits of their work.   They’ve also participated in the RHS Schools programme where they’ve helped ‘teach the teachers‘ so that they can develop their own school gardens.

There is a great little educational room which has 3 videos running on a loop including some super footage of the estate – flying across the Castle, the grounds and the Walled Garden. It gives a birds eye view and you can see clearly the way the Walled Garden has been designed.

This was my second visit in a month. January and February are perhaps not the best months to visit for colour but it was interesting to see the difference within just a few weeks.   It is a Garden that you could visit regularly without ever getting bored.   My most recent visit (February) saw lots more activity in the Garden with beds being weeded and the Greenhouses being cleaned.   But what struck me on both visits was the serenity and happiness: people are happy in their work, welcoming visitors warmly – happy to chat about what they are up to as well as answering questions.  It is a testament to Angus and Zara’s vision.

 

Staying on the Estate

You can stay on the estate and use it as a base to explore this stunning corner of Scotland. There are four self-catering properties that can be rented on the grounds – Garden Cottage (that backs onto the Garden), Lakeside, Courtyard and another cottage that is currently being renovated.  And if you have a very special celebration and need the perfect venue, you can rent Gordon Castle on an ‘exclusive hire’ basis whether for a family gathering, a wedding or corporate event.

This historic castle dating back to 1470 and has been very sympathetically renovated by Zara and Angus – bringing it up to a very high standard.  It sleeps up to 18.

Each bedroom has been decorated with different colour wallpapers and furnishings – all either en-suite or with their own private bathroom.   There is a wonderful entrance with a welcoming fire on those cold days.  This can be used for small events and has some great WC facilties!

Downstairs – the Fishing Room together with a drying room – and there’s plenty of room for everyone’s wader.   Upstairs – there is a beautiful drawing room which really is the centre and focus of this unique home … and I use the word ‘home’ because that is what it is.  It may be a working asset for the estate but if you were to rent it, you’d feel very at home.  A fireplace, piano and plenty of seating, it is the perfect place to gather for drinks or for afternoon tea … or it could just as easily be used for a dance.

Rooms run off this central point – an elegant dining room, a billiard room and the upstairs bedrooms.  It is rented ‘catered’ although you are able to supply your own drinks.  You can either do this yourselves or the Castle recommends the very well-known Gordon MacPhail in Elgin who can supply everything you need on a sale or return basis.

Downstairs, the Castle has recently renovated the Orangerie using original mirrors.  This is a perfect meeting place leading out into the Garden or you can say ‘I do’ here as it is a wonderful venue for your wedding. If you are hosting a large number, a marquee is set up in the Garden.

 

The Events team on site will assist with everything – whether it is simply a meeting, an overnight event or a large wedding.  They have a list of local suppliers – from local beautician to team-building exercises.

Combined, the estate sleeps up to 40 people across the self-catering properties and Castle. If you are hosting a larger event, there are some very good local Bed & Breakfasts in Fochabers and further afield.

During July, August and September, the Castle is mainly rented to Fishing parties who come to fish on the Spey: 8 miles of fishing, it is one of the biggest beats in the area and can support up to 40 rods.  Day tickets are available from the estate office and they employ 6 full time ghillies.

 

Gordon Castle Highland Games and County Faire

The Gordon Castle Highland Games have become a focal point of local community engagement.  It is held on the 3rd Sunday in May and in the past few years has grown hugely.  There are over 40 stalls now with local businesses invited to come along to participate including food & drink suppliers as well as local arts and crafts folk.

Entering its eighth year, the annual family event looks to welcome 10,000 national and international visitors to the one day event in the north east of Scotland – a major tourism draw.

 

Wee Nuggets

Gordon Castle are Johnston’s of Elgin longest continuous customer with all their Tweeds produced by them.  There’s a great photo in the Castle and Cafe of ghillies from 100 years ago dressed in the Gordon Castle tartan alongside today’s ghillies in the same tartan!  And Johnston’s of Elgin stock the Gordon Castle Bathroom products.

Fochabers is home to Baxters of Speyside and it was land given to Mr Baxter by the then Duke of Gordon that helped get them started.   Last year (2017), the Walled Garden supplied them with plums which were made into a gift for Her Majesty The Queen.

Gordon Castle now employs over 80 people – full & part-time.   And it is often the case that local children start here for a Saturday job, returning to holiday jobs whilst they are at college and university.   A member of staff who started when the cafe opened 3 years ago with little experience is now the Manager – a real testament to their support for their staff.

  • In 1794 the Gordon Highlanders were formed
  • A million bricks were used to build the Garden Walls
  • The Castle employs a full time stonemason
  • The Castle has recently installed 3 x electric charging points (for Tesla only)

 

Fochabers

This small Highland village is right on the doorstep of Gordon Castle and the Walled Garden. It is an easy walk if you are staying on the Grounds.   There’s a small Co-Op and ScotMid, a post office, chemist, an antiques shop, a local family butcher.  And there is Fochabers Ice Cream Parlour too with its award-winning ice cream.  And if you enjoy the outdoors, Outrun is a running shop.

Why not pop into Fochabers Folk Museum where you can browse a collection of gigs and carriages and an eclectic array of everyday objects showing the way of life and traditions of the north east of Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries? Fochaber’s is also home to the Baxters Highland Village – a mock village celebrating the world famous Baxters food company.

 

 

Thanks for reading!

 

For other self-catering cottages in the area:

Orton Holiday Cottages, by Fochabers

Aswanley, near Huntly

Dallas Lodge, Forres

Burgie House, Forres

Chilli North Holidays, by Nairn

Ace Hideways, Logie