For a child growing increasingly inquisitive about the world he or she inhabits, every new doorway and uncharted space is too tempting to resist – and even more so if it is hidden and locked. From walking through wardrobes into fantasy lands of mythical beasts to zapping zombie sentinels in video-game quests, magical portals have whipped up young imaginations for generations – and those memories stay with us as adults.
Author Frances Hodgson Burnett tapped into this idea more than 100 years ago, when she published her classic children’s novel The Secret Garden. It tells the story of Mary – a spoilt, incalcitrant young orphan raised in India – who is sent to live in her uncle’s Yorkshire mansion. Thrust into a home marred by death and illness, she finds solace in a forgotten, overgrown garden where a tangle of family truths unravels from a mass of creeping vines, and where carefully cultivated friendships blossom.
A new film adaptation of the story, starring Colin Firth, Julie Walters and Dixie Egerickx, was finally released in UK cinemas this week after various Covid-related delays. Created by the team responsible for the Harry Potter series, it promises an injection of make-believe and escapism which is needed more than ever right now.
But even more enchanting than CGI-enhanced scenes blasted on to a big screen are the physical locations where the film was shot. Wandering through apple orchards and bountiful floral borders, it is easy to see why producers selected Helmsley Walled Garden as the film’s headline character. Ageing vines cling to crumbling high walls, pathways trail through rose bushes into secluded corners and a blue timber gate begs to be unlocked.
Built in 1758 as a kitchen garden for the Feversham family at nearby Duncombe Park – which serves as Mary’s new home, Misselthwaite Manor, in the film – it sits in the shadow of a 12th century castle, at the foot of the North York Moors. Following various incarnations, it was abandoned in the 1980s until local nurse Alison Ticehurst had a vision for transforming it into a place for horticultural therapy in 1994.
“There is something very safe about a walled, enclosed space,” says Tricia Harris, a former garden designer who now helps manage the place. “If you feel like the world is on top of you, you can journey through the garden, find somewhere quiet to sit and feel better.”
The power of nature is woven through the pages of Hodgson Burnett’s novel. Dickon Sowerby, “a Yorkshire angel” who befriends Mary, regularly uses natural resources to cure injured animals and claims that the spring air could make him “live forever and ever and ever”. The author herself was once quoted as saying: “As long as you have a garden, you have a future, and as long as you have a future, you are alive.”
Run as a community project using 50 volunteers, Helmsley Walled Garden reflects similar beliefs. A physic patch is planted with lovage, fennel and other herbs that medieval monks might once have used for their medicinal properties, but it is the Garden of Contemplation that provides the clearest health benefits. It’s a place to relax and readjust your rhythms by tuning in to the slow hum of bees and insects.
Costing £11,000 a month to run, the garden was threatened by closure during lockdown. But Harris admits she was heartened by an appeal to sponsor a square metre for £25. “We thought, who cares about five acres in North Yorkshire? But we raised enough funds. It showed us what the garden means to so many people.”
When the film crew came to shoot The Secret Garden in July 2018, the landscape was awash with colour: grasses glistened in every shade of green, and borders blazed with flames of searing orange and scalding reds. When I visited earlier this autumn, the palette was more muted: dogweed leaves were rusting on burgundy stems and the trunk of a Tibetan cherry tree shone like burnished copper.
Yorkshire’s bold skies, historic buildings and wild, unkempt expanses inspired Hodgson Burnett’s writing. She was born and raised in Manchester, but her father had roots in Doncaster. And even though most of The Secret Garden was written at Great Maytham Hall in Kent, where she lived as an adult and tended a walled rose garden, she ultimately switched her fictional setting to the North York Moors.
Beyond its drystone walls, the area’s landscapes are a natural playground, stimulating nostalgic, childhood dreams. Trails wind through oak and birch forests along the Cleveland Way, and steam locomotives still chug across the North York Moors National Park to the seaside town of Whitby – a journey featured in The Secret Garden and numerous Hollywood films. The market town of Helmsley is equally charismatic: independent shops and cafés huddle beneath honeyed stone buildings, so well preserved they could be mistaken for a Hornby Skaledale toy town. Close to the medieval central square and 12th-century church, The Feversham Arms Hotel & Verbena Spa was my base for the weekend; an elegant maze of cosy corridors and cosseting rooms, centred around a heated pool and its own clandestine garden.
Having explored the moors, I dedicated the following day to discovering Yorkshire’s undulating Dales, just a 50-minute drive away. The atmospheric 70-acre ruins of the Cistercian Fountains Abbey near Ripon play a starring role in the new film. The site was transformed into a vine-clad, sunken temple filled with pools, where Mary’s sickly cousin Colin discovers that life might not be quite as debilitating as he thinks.
Even without special effects and enhancements, the tumbledown building is still an epic sight. But it is the sections where nature has completely taken over that impress visitors the most: a vivid green carpet of velvet moss clings to columns and archways, bushes sprout triumphantly from conquered cracks in walls, and insatiable clusters of ivy threaten to swallow up the structure once and for all.
Although nearby Brimham Rocks is not featured in either the film or the book, this family-friendly attraction taps into the same spirit of magical discovery; it’s a place for minds (young and old) to run wild. Eroded by weather and water over 325 million years, coarse sandstone boulders have been hewn into towering blocks and swirled mounds. Early antiquarian writers believed that the stone structures had been carved by druids. Over time, there have been more scientific explanations for their origins, but there are some mysteries these rocks will never reveal.
Just like The Secret Garden, their roots are firmly planted in North Yorkshire. But once you have found the right key to unlock the imagination, there is no limit to where you can go.
Restrictions on travel around Britain and regional areas can change at short notice. Always check the local guidance before travelling (gov.uk/guidance).