A garden visit: Whinfell Quarry Garden

Whinfell Quarry Garden is Sheffield’s own secret garden.  Despite being on a main road a few miles from Sheffield city centre and next to some popular footpaths, I never see more than a handful of people there. It’s a magical place and well worth a visit.

A potted history.

The garden dates from the turn of the 19th century when Samuel Doncaster, one of Sheffield’s steel barons, commissioned a house (Whinfell House) with a garden to be built in the disused quarry below.  The first planting took place in 1898, and presumably included the magnificent redwoods, which are the stars of the garden today.  In 1933, Whinfell was bought by Frederick Neill (of another Sheffield steel family) who replanted the garden during the 1960s.   The garden was passed to Sheffield City Council in 1968 as a public park, and since 2001 has been looked after by the Friends of Whinfell Quarry Garden.  Sadly, the house was destroyed by fire in 1971 and demolished.  Flats were built on the site in 1980 but the planting is so thick and the quarry so steep that these aren’t really visible from the garden. 

The garden lies in the abandoned flagstone quarry, criss-crossed with steep paths, tunnels of rhododendrons, flights of stone steps and unexpected viewpoints.  Because it’s so steep you are often level with the tops of the trees growing below and the quarry sides and woodland mean the climate is sheltered and humid.  It reminds me of Cragside (Northumberland) in miniature with redwoods, gunnera, acers, lots of rhododendrons and ferns.

The quarry sides and tall trees seem to hold mists inside the garden, and the light pours through in shafts giving it a lush almost tropical feel.  It would make an amazing place to hold an outdoor theatre or promenade performance.   

Views back across the gardens from a viewpoint high up on the quarry edge.

The ‘ground’ floor plays with your sense of scale, with a pond surrounded by enormous redwoods reaching to the skies, and gunnera and skunk cabbage with supersized leaves. You almost expect a dinosaur to appear round the corner. Ascend the quarry side via stone steps to galleried paths through rhododendrons, azaleas and acers – its definitely worth visiting in May when the rhododendrons are in flower.

The mid section has a rock garden with alpines growing from the cliff faces, and himalayan blue poppies, globe flowers and candelabra primulas enjoying the dappled shade below. I re-homed some of my spare meconopsis here last year but the timing wasn’t right to see them in flower on this visit. Keep ascending the twisting paths until you reach the top edge of the quarry, with views back across the garden through the trees. Whats magical about this is that you feel high up in the canopy and get to truly appreciate the the trees. I loved this weeping beech with its curtain of branches.

Although small, the garden is packed with interesting plants, geology and views. Its also a great place to take children as you have to truly explore the garden rather than it all being laid out in front of you, plus as a public park its completely free to visit. 

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