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Cool Gardens: York Museum Gardens

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Millstone bed
Millstone bed

History-packed oasis in the centre of York

In another of my Cool Gardens series, I pay a visit to the York Museum Gardens, bursting with history, fine planting – and squirrels. Pictures by Vanessa Sundin

Tear yourself away from the Minster or The Shambles and make a beeline for the Museum’s Gardens. Not just the grounds of the museum, the gardens are steeped in history and well worth a visit in their own right.

The 10-acre garden is set in the medieval ruins of St Mary’s Abbey and was established in the 1830s by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, which was granted the land on condition that botanical gardens would be created. These were created by Sir John Murray Naysmith and originally contained a conservatory, a pond, and a menagerie. Since 2002, the gardens have been managed by the York Museums Trust.

The Multangular Tower, St Mary’s Abbey, and Hospitalium

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This early 3rd-century tower is the best example of standing Roman remains in York. The tower stood at the west corner of the legionary fortress, one of the two corner-towers of the huge stone wall that looked down onto the river.

The small stones in the lower half are Roman whereas the upper half was reconstructed in the medieval period.

The Benedictine abbey of St Mary’s was first built in 1088 by William the Conqueror to reinforce his hold on the north after the Norman Conquest. King Henry VIII pensioned off the monks in 1540 and the buildings were converted into a palace for the King. They fell into ruins before being excavated by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society in the 1820s.

You can see the remains of the walls of the nave and crossing of the church, and the cloister. The outer walls were built in the 1260s and are the most complete set in the country.

The Hospitium was built as part of the abbey in the medieval period, used for housing guests. The stone ground floor dates to the 1300s with the watergate arch added around 1500. Now, it’s a popular wedding and entertainment venue.

The planting

York Museum Gardens won the Gold Award of Yorkshire in Bloom for three successive years. The collection is spread across themed borders.

Prairie Border: One of the newest borders, you can see plants from the North American prairies that are popular gardens plants today. Autumn is a great time to visit – watch out for Rudbeckia and grasses.

Fern Garden: Also an update, but you wouldn’t believe it. Stones from the abbey church have been used to create beds of native and non-native ferns. Trees include Gingko Biloba and the Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis). There’s also a nod to the Victorian stumpery with an upside-down tree! Spot the 300-million-year-old fossils of plants from the museum.

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Observatory Border: Plants with starry flowers and contrasts of light and shade.

Rock Garden: Built in tribute to the Victorian plant hunters the Backhouse family, the area was created in the 1980s by Askham Bryan College students using alpines and dwarf conifers among blocks of limestone.

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Butterfly Border: A mix of trees, shrubs, and perennials to provide nectar for pollinators.

Oriental Border: Elements of Chinese and Japanese garden culture. Plants, rocks, and water are chosen and positioned to have a symbolic meaning.

Storytelling: Planted with herbs, shrubs and cottage plants, this sheltered spot is a tranquil meeting space for schools, families, and children. You can sit on the Roman column and tell your children a story.

Garden wildlife

The garden is awash with grey squirrels, quite unafraid of visitors and far too busy gathering nuts to bury for the winter! Hedgehogs and foxes can be found, as well as more than 40 species of birds, including treecreepers, coal tits and sparrowhawks.

Numerous species of moths and butterflies are found here, including the White Spotted Black micro-moth.

The endangered bright green Tansy Beetle also can be found, which live only in a 30km stretch of the banks of the River Ouse.

In 2012, 30 beetles were introduced to specially planted beds, to increase the range of the beetle.

Opening times, tours, accessibility

  • Address: York Museum Gardens, Marygate, York, North Yorkshire YO30 7DR.
  • Garden opening: October 1-March 24, 2018: 7.30am-6pm. Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve: 7.30am-4pm.
  • Accessibility: The gardens have a series of wheelchair-friendly paths.
  • Free garden tours: Every Sunday, 1-2pm. Meet inside the Museum Street gates, no need to book.

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