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Logo: Tom Bates, Derbyshire Local Histrory writer  
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Historic Hopton Hall & Gardens

Posted Tuesday, June 12, 2007

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Hopton Hall & Gardens

The main item on the Derbyshire gardening calendar for the month of February is the annual opening of the grounds and gardens at Hopton Hall, which stands virtually on the banks of Carsington Water and is noted for it’s breathtaking display of snowdrops and aconites which carpet the five acres of woodland at this time of the year.

`The magical display is regarded as one of the finest in the country'

The magical display is regarded as one of the finest in the country and the gardens and woodland walk are open to the public from 10-30am to 4pm throughout the whole of February until Sunday 27th inclusive, providing a rare opportunity for a visit to this historic rural retreat, which during its ten years in the caring and capable hands of new owners Bill and Eddy Brogden has risen like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes of it’s former neglect and decline.

However, Hopton Hall has so much more than snowdrops and aconites to surprise and delight we humble rumagers and diggers in the good earth, namely an exciting thirty acre garden restoration and rebuilding project which is currently being passionately undertaken by the Lady of the Manor, Mrs. Eddy Brogden, aided by the expertise of Spencer, head gardener and estate manager.

The splendid Hopton Hall park with tenant farms and woodland which once stretched across three thousand seven hundred acres of prime Derbyshire countryside was reduced dramatically in size following the sale of land to Severn Trent Water Authority in 1978, and today most of the former estate lies beneath the waters of Carsington Reservoir, the county’s largest and most popular tourist attraction.

The History of Hopton Hall & the Gell Family

Hopton Hall nestles snugly on the northern fringes of the now flooded Henmore Valley, and is sheltered from the north wind by the wooded slopes of Carsington Pasture. The Hall can trace its roots back to being a twelfth century manor house and was the home of the Gell family, originally rich lead merchants from nearby Wirksworth, for almost seven hundred years.

During the course of its fascinating history it has provided a home for a succession of knights, baronets, M.P.’s, Juror’s and High Sheriff’s of Derbyshire - all supplied by the Gells. It was also famously the home of arctic explorer Sir John Franklin who became the father-in-law of Rev.John Philip Gell (1816 –1898).

Rev.Gell was sent by the legendary headmaster of Rugby School, Dr. Thomas Arnold to promote education in Tasmania, where he served as Chaplain to the Governor – Sir John Franklin. In Australia he fell in love with Eleanor Isabella Franklin, Sir John’s only child and they married in England in 1849.

The house and attached buildings are a mix of architectural styles, with almost four hundred years of additions and alterations to the original major Elizabethan reconstruction accomplished by Thomas Gell towards the end of the sixteenth century. The Gells were great builders who quarried their own stone from the surrounding landscape, and Thomas Gell’s son Anthony who was a barrister at the Inner Temple in London also built and endowed Wirksworth Grammar School in 1576.

During the Civil War, in 1644 the house was sacked by royalists and in 1650 Sir John Gell, the commander of local parliamentary forces was indicted for treason and imprisoned in the Tower of London for two years.

The Gell family had to pay heavy fines, the family fortunes nosedived and there was no money to pay for repairs or improvement to the house until Sir Philip Gell `Georgianised’ it at the end of the eighteenth century.

Sir Philip built the new road known as the `Via Gellia’ in order to transport lead to the newly constructed canal at Cromford, and with his increased wealth made extensive changes to the house and grounds.

Sir Philip filled in the spaces between the wings of the former Elizabethan manor house and added the Venetian windows and central pediment. He also built a new stable block and a number of cottages around a courtyard to the west of the main house for the staff, and altered the landscape by re-routing the road from the south to the north, whilst laying out a walled garden bounded on the north by the famous Crinkle Crankle wall, which provided shelter and additional warmth for the tender plants.

The former staff cottages and servants quarters have been very tastefully converted into a courtyard complex of four well appointed holiday cottages set in superb surroundings, and the former stables provide an office and workshop at the hub of the estate.

Sir Philip’s son William Gell (1777 –1836) was well known amongst the aristocracy, and was educated at Jesus College, Cambridge where he gained a BA in 1798 and MA in 1804.

He was elected a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and following a successful diplomatic mission to Ionia in 1803, was awarded a knighthood by King George 3rd.

William was also an artist who studied at the Royal Academy, a cartographer and writer who published a number of volumes on topography, geography and antiquities, and a close friend and Vice Chamberlain to the Princess of Wales, later Queen Caroline, who was a regular visitor to Hopton Hall.

He was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, a Fellow of the Royal Society, and was also an elected member of the Royal Academy of Berlin and the Institute of France.

Of the many legacies left by the Gells, the village school was built and endowed by Mrs. Temperance Gell in 1726, whilst the almshouses in the village were built originally as a hospital by her brother Philip in 1722.

The last of the Gells departed in 1986 and apart from a number of early twentieth century additions by Brigadier Chandos Pole Gell who built two stone pavillions on either side of the entrance, and the later addition of a single storey brick billiard room, it was basically Sir Philip Gell’s remodelled late seventeenth century Hopton Hall that was purchased by current owners Bill and Eddy Brogden for £1.2m in March 1996.

“The buildings were in good condition, says Eddy, `but the grounds and gardens were overgrown and virtually derelict, having received little or no maintenance for almost half a century”.

Undaunted, and already a keen gardener, Eddy began the most comprehensive and ambitious garden restoration project ever undertaken at Hopton, gradually clearing and restoring the woodland and its walks and in the process discovering the hidden treasure trove of snowdrops beneath the surface. The discovery inspired the Brogden’s to graciously share their bounty by opening the woodland walks to the public for the first time in 2002, and a small charge enabled the proceeds to further progress the restoration of the gardens and grounds, and benefitted the NSPCC (of which Eddy is the local chair), the local church, and the village school.

The `Snowdrop Walk’ has thus become an annual event with visitor numbers more than doubling to 17,000 in 2004 and this has enabled the Round Rose Garden to be completed, along with the Rose Walk and beds of over 1,500 mixed roses, the borders edged with 2,000 box plants.

The walled garden, bounded on the north by the famous Crinkle Crankle wall encloses a tall brick pavillion-like tower which is thought to have once been a dovecote. Steps lead down from a patio area to a lower terrace and an ornamental lattice-domed pergola surrounded by hundreds of bush and standard roses. The more formal gardens are almost completed and a small pond adds interest along the newly created walks to the south of the yew edged croquet lawns. The walk leads through the Laburnum Tunnel and the Spring Gardens to the one acre arboretum which boasts magnificent rare specimen trees like the column-shaped Purple Beech, White-barked Birch, Western Hemlock, Weeping Beech and a wonderful Cedar of Lebanon – and on to another picturesque and well-sited ornamental pond.

The recently planted Hornbeam Walk divides the Arboretum from the Pinetum and a former boggy swamp has been transformed into a flourishing wildlife lake, providing a habitat for both resident and visiting water-birds.

Up along the Badger Walk, the Old Dog Kennels have been re-invented and reborn as an Aviary which currently provides a home to four pairs of ornamental pheasants, whilst horses and ponies graze in a paddock to the south which is bounded by a haw-haw keeping the animals in the paddock without the need of a fence. Two or three ornamental gazebos and several marble statues decorate the various garden walks, which in summer are lined with drifts of cottage flowers such as delphiniums, lavender and lupins, to which the single beech hedge, yew and box hedging provide a backcloth.

Most visitors will be astonished to find normally acid-loving rhododendrons flourishing here in the lime-rich soil, but this is a special variety known as `Inkarho’, bred for such conditions and imported from nurseries in Holland to very good effect.

The whole thirty acres has been completely re-designed, beautifully created and sympathetically landscaped and restored in accordance with Eddy Brogden’s bold and adventurous vision of the twenty-first century Hopton Hall, and is well worth a visit during February when the stunning displays of snowdrops are in bloom!

Light refreshments including soup and hot and cold drinks will be available alongside a welcoming open fire in the Garden Tea Room, formerly the billiard room, which is attached to the main house.

Plants, including snowdrops will be on sale, and The Brogden family extend a warm invitation to all!


The paths are hard-surfaced, but visitors are advised to wear appropriate footwear in case of inclement weather.

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