Azalea Water Gardens
A short walk from Stody Lodge, this exceptional four-acre garden is believed to be the largest single planting of vividly-coloured azalea mollis (over 2,000 plants) in the country.
Covering an area the size of three football pitches, the unique beauty and layout of the Azalea Water Gardens have been maintained for over 90 years. The Azalea Water Gardens are approached from Stody Lodge via a short walk through a Scots Pine wood. As you emerge from the gloom, the sight of a sea of azaleas stretching out in front of you is truly breathtaking. Descending into this tranquil haven, you meander through paths and over wooden bridges, via islands and lily ponds, until you reach the lake.
The stunning reflections of orange, coral, russet red and yellow azaleas in the lake’s peaty water are proudly overseen by a magnificent Cedar of Lebanon - at least 150 years old. The open grass area surrounding the Cedar is backed by rhododendrons (Mrs A T de la Mare, Fageters Favourite and Earl of Donoughmore) which will one day grow up to form a colourful wall. There are many common rhododendron around the outside of the gardens to create a solid backdrop and also to complete the shelter of the wood. The large trees surrounding the azaleas give great variety of colour in the spring and autumn, assisted by various mountain ash and Japanese maples.
The turf is effectively a heathland with gravel subsoil that can absorb the heaviest thunderstorm in two or three hours. There are no springs or running water so it is entirely dependent on water draining in from the surrounding areas.
The Water Gardens were created over the course of 25 years by Mr Ernest Horsfall who lived in the original Stody Lodge from 1895 to 1926. His vision turned what he described in 1920 as a 'dark gloomy pond of black peaty water surrounded by common rhododendrons and choked with silver birch trees, a rushy swamp of about two acres covered with patches of brambles and bracken and smothered with seedling birches and a few small pools with masses of sphagnum moss' into the stunning Azalea Water Gardens as you see them today.
'Many visitors come on Sundays to visit the gardens of Stody Lodge, and particularly the famous azalea garden, which is a little way from the house, hidden in a wood near the front drive. Going down a grass path, through a rather dark wood, you suddenly come upon this perfectly lovely garden – nothing but thousands of delicately-perfumed azalea blooms to be seen on little islands, joined by bridges over lily ponds.' - Homes & Garden, April 1952
Ernest Horsfall started by clearing a small corner of the swamp and digging out a wide channel in which water soon collected. He used the boggy soil that had been removed to create one small island. A few azalea mollis were planted and thrived. Within two years numerous small seedlings were observed beneath them. These were carefully removed to nursery beds and the foundation stock of the present garden was created. As the stock increased and grew, more channels and islands were created in succeeding years. Several hybrid rhododendrons and other azaleas from English and Dutch nurseries were added from time to time and other different plants were tried with more or less success. The high numbers of hares and rabbits in the area meant the ultimate collection was largely restricted to rhododendrons, daffodils and azaleas.
Wilfred Chinnock, Lord Rothermere’s butler at Stody Lodge, noted in his memoirs that it was ‘a most beautiful azalea garden with little oriental wooden bridges criss-crossing tiny waterways, with an occasional magnolia tree on tiny islands. It was a veritable picture and was surrounded by tall pine trees. It was a basin of colour and perfume to the visitor – a sight to be remembered.’
The present Azalea Water Gardens have been carefully maintained so that the original concept and layout has been adhered to as much as possible. Almost all of the planting for this garden is from self-seeded or layered plants and it is estimated that there are now in excess of 2,000 azalea and rhododendrons. Like the gardens surrounding Stody Lodge, the Azalea Water Gardens suffered extensively from snow damage in 2009 and 2010 but new opportunities were created and the woodland has been taken back in order to allow the rhododendrons to regenerate and grow.
The Rhododendron Drive
The walk back to the main Stody Lodge Gardens is flanked by Rhododendron Cynthia and two large Wellingtonia (Sequoiadendron Giganteum Wellingtonia). These rhododendrons were heavily pruned in 2008 exposing some wonderful trees behind. A similar exercise was taken in 1992 and in both instances the increased light has produced an abundance of flowers and growth. In October 2014 this was repeated at the front drive to the current Stody Lodge where some of the rhododendrons had grown to over 30 ft tall.