“The topography gives it its mystery: you climb up through it and every corner you turn is different,” says Richard Galloway, Director of the Rivington Heritage Trust, of the 45-acre gardens. “They’ve always been magic - I’ve been going since the ‘70s and used to take the kids when they were small because it was like an adventure playground.
“It’s an amazing place,” he adds. “Very special.”
Located above Rivington village near Chorley, the gardens were conceived of and built between 1905 and 1925 by landowner William Lever and landscape architect Thomas Mawson. Lever, known as Lord Leverhulme, was the founder of Lever Brothers - now Unilever and the eighth-largest UK company by revenue in 2020 - and he certainly had a vision for the gardens.
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From the Pigeon Tower (built by Lever as a birthday present to his wife Elizabeth) and the Italian Lake (inspired by Rome’s Villa d’ Este and where Lever would swim each morning) to the remnants of Roynton Cottage (burned down by militant suffragette Edith Rigby in 1913 after she checked nobody was home), the gardens are history incarnate.
But, after Lever’s death in 1925, the property was sold and fell into disrepair. It’s now owned by United Utilities, with the Rivington Heritage Trust - which in 2016 secured £3.4m in funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund as part of a three-year £4.2m restoration project - working diligently to revive the gardens so that generations to come can once again enjoy their beauty.
“The motivation to revitilise the gardens had been around for a while, but the trigger was the foundation of the trust and then getting the grant, which enabled us to stop the rot,” explains Richard, 75, who’s been involved with the trust since 2014. “It’s a place to be explored, which is why we want it to be known to more people.
“Restoration work has gone very well . Even those of us who think we know the gardens uncover things which had been lost or which we didn’t know about,” adds Richard, who lives nearby. “It’s like a treasure hunt; a gift that keeps on giving. Lord Leverhulme and Mawson were visionaries and we’re enjoying the benefits 100 years later.
“That’s why we want to share it and put it on the map because the more people who can enjoy it, the better.”
A menagerie of wondrous features including 11 Grade II-listed buildings, the gardens are usually open year-round, but have been closed for large swathes of the past year due to the pandemic. And, with their upkeep costing £100,000 per year, the trust’s finances have been badly hit by Covid-19.
“Most of the restoration work has been completed apart from a few smaller jobs but, when Covid kicked in, everything was put on hold and income streams disappeared overnight,” explains Richard. “We’re like many charities: we rely on what we can generate ourselves through events, sponsorship, and donations. But all that is based on people’s ability to enjoy the gardens, and they haven’t been able to do that.”
With events for the summer of 2020 and the foreseeable future cancelled, the trust launched a new fundraising initiative before Christmas called Squarea, which sees members of the public donating just £20 for the upkeep of their own 10m by 10m patch of the gardens for the next five years. And it’s gone very well indeed.
“The Squarea campaign exceeded our expectations,” says Richard. “People bought patches for loved ones for Christmas, which demonstrated the emotional attachment they have with the gardens.
“I got involved with the trust because I’m passionate about the gardens and we all saw the potential for them to be popular,” he adds. “It was not only a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but a once-in-a-lifetime responsibility.”