There is something almost obscene about a rhododendron in full flower. With their massive blooms and brash, bright colours, they come on like some brassy, bosomy madam – only too eager to share their fulsome wares with anyone who’s around. It took a while for me to love them, as a gardener with a preference for the softer, more muted members of the garden family: but I do love them now. They are so…unabashed. So frankly loud. So gorgeously vulgar.
My walk this week, with two singing friends, Mary and Eileen, was in the grounds of Temple Newsam in East Leeds, a fantastic 1500 acre estate in East Leeds, which was first owned in 1520 by Lord Darcy, but is now in the gift of Leeds City Council. Power to the people – even if it took 400 years! There is everything to enchant here, really, with the elegant Tudor buildings, a little farm for the children, walled gardens, a lake, and beyond that, miles and miles of rambling woodland. Also, most importantly, there is a tea room.
Since ‘walking back home’ is all about gaining strength and good humour, in recovery from a debilitating anaemia, I am not very interested in long hikes: at least, not yet. I still struggle with muscle aches – and the recent agonising addition of a Frozen Shoulder – which are all legacy of last year’s illness – and so short bursts of fresh air suit me better than the demanding rigours of “proper walking”.
Consequently we didn’t go far. We ambled. We took our time. Much like the cattle, and new calves, who came forward to meet us and say a lazy hello, after lifting their heads from their grazing, on the broad sweeping uplands in front of the main house. The newborn of spring – birds, lambs, calves – are everywhere right now. And they bring a lift to the heart: all shiny, new and guileless. An absolute poem to the new and the hopeful in life.
Anyway, the undisputed stars today were certainly in evidence, by the walled garden, through towards the woods, and down by the lake. Rhododendrons. In all their gaudy glory. Shocking pink, sherbet orange, deep vermilion, thick, painterly white – with huge blossoms, and fat, gnarled branches and trunks, showing the strength and tenacity that supports all that technicolour showing off. (The picture I’ve included is of one of the quieter specimens, for sure.) All rhododendrons love the acid soil of Leeds, and are popping up in gardens – and in wilder spaces like Temple Newsam, Meanwood, the Hollies – with absolute gay abandon now. Go see them, if you are anywhere near. And take your sunglasses. You’ll need protection.
Here’s a longer feature from me on Temple Newsam, written a few years back – exploring the wilder edges of the estate:
P.S. Apparently the rhododendron is the national flower of Nepal. Given the horror of their recent earthquakes, how much those people are in need of flowers: and of huge amounts of aid, and of healing. I dedicate this little post to them.