Can’t see the woods for the trees?

John Hornyak chairman of the Lytham Hall estate and Woodland Committee
John Hornyak chairman of the Lytham Hall estate and Woodland Committee

For decades the parkland of Lytham Hall slumbered under layers of growth - each season bringing fresh surprises but hiding more of what was originally planted under a veil of bramble.

It wasn’t so much neglected as choked for the better part of a century - a truly secret garden born of the vision of long departed adventurers who returned with botanical spoils from their travels and created a very special legacy for Lytham.

Through the tangle, snowdrops emerge each season and help business bloom anew at Lytham Hall - the hardy annual of the gardening calendar for fans. But it took an expert in arboriculture to realise visitors could no longer see the woods for the trees. Now the living history of the lost parkland is being brought back to life.

In time the restoration could rival tourism honeypots such as the Lost Gardens of Heligan, near Mevagissey in Cornwall, one of the most popular botanical gardens in the land and also internationally acclaimed. Near Watford, Hertfordshire, a grade two registered rose garden designed by Thomas Mawson - who designed our own Stanley Park - has re-oepened after a £1.5m restoration project. And a Midlothian garden once one of the grandest in Scotland is to be restored to Victorian glory.

Retired horticulture and arboriculture lecturer John Hornyak, who helped create the arboretum at Myerscough College, recalls of Lytham Hall: “It was like walking into an overgrown garden in the spring and seeing brambles and nettles where magnolias and camelias and apple trees had been.

“I had taken early retirement from Myerscough College having spent 33 years involved in horticulture and arboriculture and now having moved back to St Annes- where my wife and I had lived before moving away-I decided to visit Lytham Hall. I drove up the drive in awe of the ghost of what had been magnificent parkland. I spent a few hours exploring what most people call ‘the woods’ and saw glimpses of Victorian plantings buried beneath the ‘mustard and cress’ of more than a century of neglect.

“I could not understand where certain Victorian favourites that should have been there had gone and the more I looked the more complex the beautiful parkland became.

“From within the Victorian skeleton peered even older trees, three maybe four centuries old.

“I had to learn more, I was hooked.”

John’s passion is for landscape parkland. He planted the pinetum at Myerscough College from a standing start. “I started working there in 1969 when there was nothing. If I haven’t helped plant every tree there I’ve probably climbed every tree there!”

John’s early retirement has been taken over by the restoration of the hall in general - and the gardens in particular. The team of volunteers are currently on with the south prospect garden next to the hall and the mount.

He’s also linked up with his old college to enlist students on projects.

The parkland is open to the public free Monday to Friday, with a small charge on Sundays. There’s an exhibition detailing the tree project and restoration plans within the tea room.

John, chairman of Lytham Hall Estate and Woodland Committee, is at pains to point out he’s “not a triumphalist when it comes to tree felling.”

But it comes down to a simple point. “Some trees are simply better than others. We have to save them.”

If oaks are his favourite trees hornbeam come a close second. Lytham Hall has both in abundance along with limes, sweet chestnuts and more. But some have been damaged by the proliferation of fast growing sycamores, choked by the sprawl of more 
common trees.

Fortunately there are few ash or elm there given the threats of disease to both.

But the felling of a large beech (John is pictured by the stump) upset some regular visitors. He points out: “A third of it fell down one quiet Monday evening. It was leaning at a 45 degree angle and had damaged one our most beautiful trees, a hornbeam, one of the largest in the North West.

“It was critical we acted. Sometimes you have to lose one to save another of higher merit – but it’s all subjective for the public. One oak has already been badly affected by being overcrowded for so long.”

Much the same applies to rhododendron running amok. “We would lose 4ft of path a year if we let it go,” adds John. “And it’s a fairly desolate world beneath a rhododendron from a wildlife point of view.”

Each tree has its own place in history, says John, who has an exhibition in the hall’s tea room to show the timeline of the trees, the site dating back to a 12th century Benedictine priory.

“It’s the size and combination of architectural beauty and mystery that leaves so many in awe of trees.

“But here so much has been neglected since 1906. It was historic parkland as opposed to woodland - a lot of which was planted for game cover, for shooting.

“This was definitely planted as a garden on a grand scale, with a parkland view, gardens and grounds modifying with each change of hands through the generations.

“The Georgians were the true designers. The Victorians tended to dabble. Lytham Hall had great plant collectors, adventurer botanists who came back with their discoveries. John Talbot Clifton visited Siberia, the Yukon, northern Canada, even Africa with Cecil Rhodes. We also have a collection named after Maries, the explorer.

“There’s a huge amount of history here at Lytham, with each layer, Georgian, Elizabethan, Jacobean, back to mediaeval times, there’s allied horticulture and tree planting.

“The echoes resonate to this day.” John toured the hall on his first visit - but knew where his heart lay. “I heard very interesting details of the Cliftons but could not forget those trees and wanted to know more about the history of the estate and the people that gave Lytham what today is still an echo of some very beautiful landscape creations.

“I volunteered, studied, researched and hopefully can give something back to that landscape so nearly lost. All the volunteers feel much the same. And the support from the public is heartening. You only have to look at the 
success of the various events held there this summer to see that.”