The Hepworth Wakefield garden

In the past few years, the north of England has gained a number of exciting horticultural offerings. We now boast the new RHS Garden Bridgewater, the Grey to Green scheme in Sheffield city centre where I now work, and major developments at Chatsworth. The latest addition to the list is the new garden at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, designed by Tom Stuart-Smith.
Ascending Form (Gloria) (1958), by Barbara Hepworth, in a sea of Pennisetum ‘Fairy Tails’

Katy Merrington is the Cultural Gardener there. I headed over the border from South Yorkshire into West Yorkshire, to meet Katy in the garden for a coffee on a bright Saturday morning in late September.

The garden provided opportunities for play and expression, with all sorts of play objects and materials that inspire imaginative use. Katy and I painted with water on the concrete paths.

The garden sits between the gallery, made of huge minimalist concrete trapezoid blocks, and the Victorian red brick Rutland Mill building, now being regenerated after 20 years of dereliction. The old gatehouse to the mill, where workers would check in and out of shifts, is now the garden cafe.

Huge pin oaks surround the garden (Quercus palustris), while characterful multi stem Rhus typhina are dotted within the space. Rudbeckia maxima seed heads in the foreground, Rutland Mill in the background.

Having navigated busy industrial estates and highways to reach the garden, we were hit by a sense of sanctuary and safety when we arrived. The garden treads a line between wild abundance and plush formality. The structural layout of the garden was inspired by the modernist sculptures of Barbara Hepworth, and within that the planting feels wild and free.  Crab apple trees were dangling their fruit among rich velvet asters, swathes of grasses and seedheads caught the morning light, while beautifully clipped hedges and fine lawns provide perfect contrast to the naturalistic planting.

Wafting at head height, yellow Coreopsis tripteris, with purple Vernonia arkansana ‘Mammuth’, and blue Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Kelmscott’ in the background.
Anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’ with Geranium wallichianum Havana Blues

Katy gardens the space with the highest level of care and strict attention to detail. She orchestrates a small army of volunteers, knitting the garden into the community it was created for. Unusual for a garden of this standard in a city centre location, the space is completely open to the public, free of charge, 24 hours a day. It’ll be exciting to see the ripple effect of this brave public project, as the regeneration of post-industrial urban areas continues throughout the north of England. 

The gallery sits at the end of a roaring weir, on a heavily industrialised stretch of the River Calder.

The garden is much loved by the diverse range of people that use it. The area of South and West Yorkshire that Katy and I live in, is not rich in large stately homes, private estates, or well-funded public gardens. Some visitors to the garden have never seen a garden like this before. The striking seasonal change that herbaceous perennials provide, was so dramatic that some people thought Katy was swapping the plants out for new ones every few weeks. 

There is an interesting contrast between the semi-wild urban nature around the gallery, and the impressionist form of nature within the garden. Shingle bars in the river are home to rushes and flood-tolerant wildflowers, while pampas grass and willows grow in the rotting timber of a shipwrecked canal boat.

While in the area, if you’re looking to embrace the stereotype of Yorkshire folk being tight with money, there are two local establishments you can be sure to find some bargains. Not far from the Hepworth, is the legendary Hampsons Plant World. A seemingly endless chaotic maze of a garden centre, complete with an extensive cafe, ice cream parlour, florist, tropical fish, pie shop, deli, and bicycle repair. Almost all plants are permanently 50% off the marked price. It’s not for the faint hearted. The other recommendation is the Yorkshire Flowerpots Factory Shop, in the grounds of the factory, where the seconds are sold off at a fraction of the RRP.

Pitchfork (Yellow) (2013), by Michael Craig-Martin, above the black seed heads of Echinacea pallida, with Euphorbia palustris and fine leaves of Amsonia hubrichtii.
Photography by Owen Hayman. Thanks to Katy Merrington for showing me around.

First published October 2022